Game mastering advice tends to lavish attention on what players enjoy. Things like playing a role, enjoying a sense of power, plotting strategies, and so on.
Another pleasure of role-playing games ranks just as high, even though the folks who offer game mastering advice rarely mention it.
Players love to figure things out. The process makes them feel smart and capable. It reveals hidden order in the (game) world. Humans love finding order in a jumble. The impulse drives scientists, detectives, and conspiracy theorists.
In Dungeons & Dragons, this joy of figuring things out can come from various sources: mysteries, puzzles, and objects with unknown functions—call them traps and toys.
The joy of figuring things out led to a type of adventure that didn’t exist during the first years of role playing. Investigation adventures now rank as one of the most popular styles. Much of the fun of an investigation or mystery comes from connecting the dots between clues. The challenges come along the way.
For example, players investigating missing magical reagents might start with the guild alchemist. He stole the reagents to help a secret lover out of a jam. Under pressure, the alchemist explains that his lover hasn’t been seen since getting the reagents, but that the couple used to meet at an particular inn. This leads to the innkeeper, who saw someone with the lover’s description meeting with someone wearing a flower that only grows at the royal arboretum. One clue leads to the next. Investigations ask player to make connections and figure things out.
Before investigations, player still found pleasure in figuring things out. Tomb of Horrors is packed with things to figure out. Taunting clues, secret doors, false endings, and so on. This abundance leads to some of the Tomb’s lasting appeal. But the tomb also set a terrible example.
In the Tomb, players figure things out to advance or to survive. Too often, D&D adventures have forced players to figure out puzzles to continue. For example, countless adventures include a magic portal that requires just the right activation to open. If players fail to figure out the key, they reach a dead end. Or in the case of the Tomb, they’re dead, the end. About everything in the Tomb works that way.
This sort of design gave puzzles—D&D’s original thing to figure out—a bad rap. No one likes to feel stuck or frustrated or stupid.
To avoid such bad feelings, fourth edition’s designers emphasized character skill over player skill. They aimed for a D&D game where no player felt forced to figure anything out. Accidentally, they nearly lost a source of fun.
Nonetheless, adventures that force players to solve a puzzle risk a bad D&D session. But players still love to figure things out, and the best adventures give them lots of chances to indulge—if the players like.
When you create adventures, rather than forcing players to puzzle out something that blocks their way, add more toys to figure out. For instance, imagine a magic fountain that the players can ignore. Scattered coins lie under its clear water. A bag of coins hangs from a hook. Tossing in a coin causes the waters to cloud and show a room somewhere. At the far end stands a statue of a king. The vision fades. Dropping a second coin reveals the same room from a different angle. This time a statue of a queen faces the viewer. Players can move on, but interacting with the puzzle reveals something interesting to figure out.
Fun adventures come sprinkled with things to figure out.
The best traps challenge players to figure something out. Puzzle traps hint at their presence. The fun comes from either deciphering clues to locate the trap or from working out a method to evade the trap, or both. Players rarely disable a puzzle trap with a quick check, rather they figure out the game-world steps required to avoid the threat.
I used to think that the fun of figuring things out came from the thrill of beating a difficult puzzle. The harder the challenge, the greater the thrill of victory. I was wrong. Part of the fun of figuring things out comes from feeling smart and successful. When players stall on a confounding problem, they just feel thwarted. The best puzzles serve just enough challenge so players suppose that they succeeded where others might fail.
Examining the coins reveals the faces of kings and queens. When the players toss in the queen’s coin, they see the king’s statue, and vice versa. Any party could figure out the fountain’s operation, especially if tossing another coin reveals a familiar place. Casting a coin temporarily reveals a view from a royal statue depicting the figure on the coin. Still, figuring out the fountain will bring fun.
Once players figure things out, they appreciate rewards that validate their success. Sometimes insight leads to treasure or an easier encounter. At first, the alchemist pretends to know nothing of the missing reagents, but if the players find a hidden love letter and make the connection, he cracks. That fountain could reveal some secrets in the adventure ahead.
In investigations, figuring advances the plot, but the same joy can come from spotting and making connections that don’t affect an outcome. Movie Easter eggs bring this pleasure.
The chance to figure things out provides a painless way to deliver backstory to the players—if they care. Start with the story and add ways to reveal it to the players. Avoid using journal entries. Think of subtler clues that reveal history in bite-size chunks. In Tomb of Annihilation, the Garden of Nangalore reveals its story in clues scattered throughout the site. Success here even leads to a reward: At the end, players who figure out the story can fare better when they meet the queen.
The next time you dream up an adventure, add things for your group’s actors and tacticians, but also add something to figure out.
I’m calling it. Elsewhere in the dungeon there is some coin treasure. In those coins there are a few with the face of the prince on it. If you notice and toss one of THOSE in the fountain, you get a third view that reveals a big clue.
I’m confused about what, exactly, in the core 4e books (a mechanic or piece of advice) emphasizes character skill over player skill that isn’t already present in third edition or earlier. Near as I can tell Finch’s Quick Primer to Old School Gaming—which discusses the issue of player vs character skill—came out in 2008, about when 4e did, but he would have been reacting to third edition more than 4th (and explicitly calls out 2000 as a turning point).
More to the point, is page 81-84 of the 4e DM’s Guide.
Yeah, well, the skill challenge on page 84 doesn’t help.
People always seem to think their issue with 4e is with mechanics, but its really a matter of presentation. That is, it isn’t what the mechanics required, its what the designers emphasized that causes the problem.
So there’s a multi-page section on making puzzles. At the end they mention that skills are a way to either give hints for too-difficult puzzles. This somehow kills puzzles?
I get that a lot of the system and layout of many of the adventures focuses on combat. When I ran my 4e Dark Sun campaign, I felt like I was mostly prepping 3-4 combat encounters and weaving mystery and puzzle into them.
If the argument is that 4e focused on tactical combat encounters to the extent that we were losing out on other aspects of the game, I guess can see it. Doesn’t quite seem the same as “almost killed puzzles in D&D” though
Its not the DMG that is the problem so much as nearly every published adventure, which mainly consist of chains of forced set-piece combats punctuated by awkward skill challenges. That was how people really learned the 4e system.
It was bad enough that new players learned from these adventures, but experienced players seemed to act like that was the only way to play the game using the 4e rules. Like wandering monsters or hexcrawls or out-of-combat encounters that were not skill challenges were somehow illegal. People think they have a problem with the rules when in fact they have a problem with the promoted playstyle.
Thanks again for another great article, David. I recommend your page all the time to friends who DM, both experienced and novice, and your advice has helped me a great deal in the way I structure my RPG sessions. One thing that also deserves mention is whether or not the GM is having fun and enjoying the session as well. For many years I sort of “retired” from GMing just because it was so much work and I felt stressed so much of the time–even during the session (ESPECIALLY) during the session–that I was turned away from it. But approaches and organization skills that I’ve learned in large part from your articles have really helped me relax into it, and lately I’ve been having a great time getting back to world-building and GMing sessions for me son. Keep up the good work, friend.
Playing Call of Cthulhu showed me this. Not everyone loves it, but even the dimmer lights enjoy making Idea rolls and getting clues. To some people, just reading the plot synopsis and getting all the spoilers without the detective work is just as fun.
The clue is to know who and when and how. You really only need some cliffnotes with locations and clues, and emphasise them well enough (but not too hard). Heck, give the players something if they’re that slow on the uptake, like a coin that glows until they have the Quest Item (TM) to continue.
But with a team of proper Investigators worth their salt? Heck, even DND/PF becomes a ripe soil to put some exciting mysteries in!
If you want a more complex mystery, I heard there’s Sherlock Holmes boardgames that offer mysteries for inspiration and stealing.
Good thoughts. I like to think of puzzles more like doorways to secret levels, side-quests, and Easter eggs. You can get through the adventure without having to solve the puzzles but you miss out on the best treasure, the best experience, the “truth” and so on. The worst puzzles are the ones where the adventure fails if you fail to solve the puzzle. Which means that the mandatory puzzle must be fairly easy to solve so that everyone has a good chance of finishing the adventure because some people are really good at solving puzzles (e.g. my wife) and others are terrible at it (me).
With regards to player v. character skills, the debate goes back to the original versions of D&D. I was having that argument with my players in 1977. In terms of rule codification, just look at 2nd Ed. AD&D with it’s optional (but strongly recommended) skill system. This didn’t start in 4th edition.
The whole player versus character challenge is worthy of multiple blog posts, and many “Old school” players embrace player challenge over character challenge. But what about the poor guy who wants to play a wizard who’s much more intelligent than he is, or a fighter who’s much stronger than he is, or a thief … you get the idea. I don’t know of any game that has resolved this natural tension precisely because it is a natural tension. Again, highly worthy of multiple blog posts.
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While this post seemed to focus on puzzles, their role and how to ensure they don’t become “show stoppers”, I think you also touched on something that seems to be missed by many of the “DM advice” blogs, videos, etc. Everywhere you look, you get told how D&D (or any RPG, really) is about “collaborative storytelling” and how you should make sure the PC’s don’t face frustration, get overbalanced against stronger opponents – or in this case get stumped by a puzzle. You, rightfully, point out that what is often missed is “this joy of figuring things out”. Honestly? THAT is why I play RPG’s. Heck, it’s what I do when reading a book, or watching a movie. I *try to figure out* what the character SHOULD do (before they do it), or, just as often, what *I* would do in that situation, with those limitations or skill sets. Hmmmm. Sounds like an RPG. Note, I am not trying to WRITE the story/movie/puzzle, I am trying to FIGURE OUT, how to best navigate what the DM/GM has set before me. And while I have also read blogs eschewing “playing yourself” and recommending branching out with different personalities/races/classes/etc. (and I do), but that is only to throw another “twist” into “constraints and assets” within which the “solution” (or best solution out of many) is to be FIGURED OUT.
So, I’d be interested in hearing your take on the “collaborative storytelling” where the DM should let the characters direct the story, versus the “present a challenging situation” for them to “figure out” and move on in the story/plotline/world the DM has created/planned.
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