I really don’t like riddles or puzzles when I run. They never work out as I plan, they never seem to get solved (unless I make them pathetically easy), and parties don’t like them.
Yet, stupidly, I keep putting them in. Half the time, I’m not even aware I’ve gone and created one, until I’ve got a party standing around, scratching their collective heads.
Which I wouldn’t mind, except that ‘finding a solution’ steadily degrades into the ‘try anything’ approach.
For example. Let’s say that the party is wandering through a dungeon, and on level one they find an attractive, engraved sword with an ornate handle. On level two they find a statue, the hand of which is open, as though it should have a sword in it.
As the DM, you’re thinking, “Put the sword in the hand and it will point at the wall where there is a secret door.” This doesn’t seem very complicated. However, the party is thinking, “Put the sword in the hand and some mechanism will be put into motion.”
You’ve never said a word about a mechanism, but the certainty of its presence will now proceed to waste an hour and a half of running time. Observe:
- I put the sword in the hand. What happens? Nothing happens.
- I move the sword around. Does anything click? No.
- I take the sword out and put my mace there instead. Anything? No.
- The thief looks for any secret catches or possible catches in the statue. (rolls dice). Nothing.
- What is the statue made of? Marble.
- We should try a non-metal weapon. The mage tries his staff. Does that work? No, nothing happens.
- I closely examine the statue’s face. Is it anyone we recognize? No.
- How long ago was it carved? You’re not sure; perhaps two or three hundred years ago.
- I examine the sword. Are there any catches or buttons? No, it’s a sword.
- I turn the sword around so that the blade is in the statue’s handle. How about now? Nothing happens.
- How tall is the statue? It’s life-sized.
- Is it taller than a typical human? No.
- How much taller is the ceiling above the statue? About three feet.
- I climb up on the statue and check the ceiling above it. Okay.
- While the thief does that, I look at the base of the statue and all around. What do I see? You see the floor. There’s nothing special about the ceiling.
- How far is the statue from the door? Ten feet
- How many sword lengths is the statue from the door? (stupefied expression on my part). Two and a half.
- I’ve got it! How heavy is the statue? About 2,600 lbs.
- Hm. Jake has a ten-foot pole; I take my pick axe and I start to make a hole at the base of the statue so that Jake can get his pole underneath it. My backpack is full of gold – if we use it for a fulcrum, will we be able to use the ten-foot pole as a lever to turn the statue over? I don’t think the pole would be strong enough.
- What if we lashed the sword to the 10’ pole? I have three hundred feet of twine.
- I have an ‘adhere’ cantrip.
- Would that work? Uh, maybe. If it makes a saving throw against ... say, crushing blow.
- (Looking around at agreeable compatriots) Worth a try, huh? (All agree). Good, we start to move the statue.
And at this point the DM pounds head on desk, saying, “Guys. Have you considered ...”
This is how it always seems to go for me. In the effort to do something, three quarters of the time the party doesn’t just fail to guess the puzzle, they actively go about destroying any future chance of solving the puzzle.
I have played with a lot of different people over the last thirty years, and it always the same. It is good that D&D players are generally social misfits, living an underground fandom existence. I fear that any of these people should ever be put in charge of something that truly matters.