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Puzzles and Mysteries

by Paul Mitchener
Apr 19,2005


Methods of Campaign and Adventure Design 9

By Paul Mitchener

Puzzles and Mysteries

Puzzles and mysteries can be tricky to implement within an RPG. In my opinion, the main dilemma is that both require considerable thought on the part of the players rather than the characters to solve, and that the abilities of a player and a character may well be very different. At the same time, it seems fairly unsatisfying to hand players with highly intelligent characters answers completely at the price of a nice dice roll.

Actual Puzzles

For the reasons I mentioned above, I find that it does not quite work to have actual obvious puzzles for the players to solve. For example, in one game, I had a door which could only be opened by naming the next number in the sequence:

3, 17, 55, 129,

One of my players virtually died of excitement at that point.

Anyway, facetiousness aside, my point is that such puzzles might work if the players really like the idea. At the tiniest hint of frustration, it is probably best to allow some sort of skill or Intelligence check (being generous, and probably allowing retries, but perhaps making the process to take a long time for the characters). The situation is not really very different to that of making skill checks when searching a room or picking a lock.

Almost Puzzles

In the fantasy Victorian (essentially Castle Falkenstein) campaign that I mentioned in my second column, the main supernatural beings are Faeries of various types. Faeries sometimes have considerable magical power, but are limited by an aversion to iron, and an inability to break their word. That it not to say the Fey cannot lie- merely that they will cease to exist if an actual deliberate oath is broken.

Anyway, at one time, the characters in this campaign encountered an area where forces of the Fey had battled each-other every night for centuries. When searching through various documents on another mission in the area, the characters discovered a two legal contracts, both made between the Papacy and different Faerie leaders.

The first document gave the Fey permission to settle to the west of a certain named location (actually the road north of Rome), provided they battled other hostile Faerie forces. Hostile Faerie forces were defined elsewhere in the document as those who settled in the area, but not west of the named location.

The second document was identical to the first document, apart from the fact that the word "west" was replaced by "east". For the game where the documents were found, I made a hand-out of each document.

My reason for mentioning this example is that, despite what I said above, I deliberately set a puzzle for the players to solve. Admittedly quite an easy puzzle, but one that took time to solve (or at least read) that could arguably have been better spent. However, I did not (and still do not) think that the impact would have been so great on the players if I had simply told them what they had found and explained the disparity. Basically, I made the players solve an easy puzzle as a form of cheap special effect. And I don't regret it, unlike the puzzle I mentioned in the previous section.

Gathering Evidence

Unlike puzzles, mysteries work quite well for me in an RPG context. The difference between a puzzle and a mystery is that a mystery requires more information and evidence to be gathered, whereas all the evidence needed is already present when trying to solve a puzzle. Therefore, mysteries need more time to solve that puzzles, but can be (at least on a theoretical level) easy yet satisfying.

So a mystery in an RPG could well involve travelling to different locations, searching for documents, and talking to people who have information. The situation at a particular location could be dangerous, or the characters involved in a mystery could be followed by dangerous antagonists.

Basically, each piece of a mystery can be as simple or complicated as desired, and can either lead to one or more other possible pieces of a mystery, or else to its solution. In order to make a more complicated mystery solvable, it may be a good idea to have more than one route to the final solution.

Big Secrets

Big secrets are mysteries that have consequences far beyond that of a single adventure. A big secret is likely to determine the course of a campaign for some time. For example, in my previous column and my third column, several of the plot ideas mentioned could be viewed as big secrets. Many of the ideas in Charles Dunwoody's fifth column are also big secrets.

To give a big secret the necessary impact, it needs to be unravelled over a number of adventures. Clues concerning the big secret could be found in other adventures, and possibly wait until the characters decide to follow up the clue themselves when other business is resolved. Big secrets also benefit greatly from foreshadowing, well before they become important.

The Idea Roll

Sometimes, the characters could be completely stuck in a mystery or puzzle. In this case, there are several alternatives. The first of these alternatives is a mechanic taken from Call of Cthulhu- the idea roll. Basically, in utterly desperate circumstances, an Intelligence check can be made in order to force the GM to give some sort of clue.

I do not like this solution, at least as far as mysteries are concerned, but it does work better than causing a game session or campaign to crash because the GM made things too difficult at one stage. It could take away feelings of player accomplishment, and even free choice if handled badly.

Failure and Second Chances

When designing mysteries, it can be a good idea to allow more than one possible way of finding a solution. Players will probably want to investigate avenues the GM has not thought of. In this case, it is only fair of the GM to allow such avenues to (sometimes) bear fruit, possibly by moving one of the pieces of a mystery to somewhere or someone the characters do investigate, rather than completely overlook.

On the other hand, it is entirely possible that the players fail to solve the mystery, and have no idea how to proceed further. One way around this problem is to use idea rolls, as mentioned above. Another solution, which might be preferable, is just to let the characters fail to solve the mystery. Maybe unused pieces can be discovered in a later adventure. On the other hand, occasionally failure can be fun in a campaign, both for the GM, and (in the long run) for the players. That is of course a topic for another column, however.

Wrapping Up

For once I managed to talk about what I promised in the previous column. We shall see if this trend continues next month, when I want to talk about world-hopping campaigns. As usual, feedback and suggestions for columns are very welcome.

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