Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Puzzles: The one part of old-school gaming I could do without

Last night's Dark Ages game with Chgowiz featured some problem-solving as we tried to deal with an enchanted wizard's tower that refused to let us go in a straight line and kept buffeting us with wind whenever we tried to walk down the hall toward our destination. We eventually triumphed, but only after a ton of dice rolling and frustration.

The episode highlights a part of old-school gaming (and new-school gaming, I guess, but it's emphasized much more in old-school play) that doesn't appeal to me at all: puzzle solving.

For a style of play that focuses so much on real-life concerns—ration tracking, paying hirelings and taxes, orienteering in the wilderness—there's just nothing real-life about granular puzzle solving. It seems out of place in an otherwise coherent fantasy medieval setting.

Perhaps it was because last night's puzzling situation didn't yield much by way of a payoff. I guess I'd be fine if the puzzle led directly to a treasure room or a magic sword or something. But in last night's case, we "beat" the puzzle by rolling fistfuls of dice, then blundered into another room where two players died and the rest of us got our clothes burned off.

8 comments:

Current Version said...

I'm rather fond of puzzle solving in games, but then again, I think that there's always the issue of how much of the player shows through in such instances as opposed to the character (e.g. the high school dropout playing a wizard with crazy intelligence or the particle physicist playing a barbarian with intelligence as a dump stat).

Mouse said...

I usually like puzzles too however I like the sort where there is a definite solution instead of requiring lucky die rolls. For instance what if the answer to the mis-direction trap was to simply walk through with your eyes closed? Once the answer is discovered it would be easy to move on.

I would argue that relying on Player discovery rather than on a percentile check is way more 'old school' and just plain fun!

Chgowiz said...

OK, I give. You're right.

Mouse said...

In retrospect I really liked the Fire Glyph trap. The voice on entering the room set up the trap so well I didn't even suspect that the runes would be a trap. I was eager and ready to solve a puzzle of some sort... right before I got blown to smithereens!

PatrickWR said...

Ah, it's just a taste thing. I'm not crazy about puzzles the same way other folks aren't crazy about skill lists or rolling to search vs. looking under piles of stuff.

j_king said...

I like puzzles, but doing them right as a GM is hard!

Puzzles that require lucky dice rolls are right out and plain boring: no sense of achievement and progression!

Riddles are the worst; but that's because I'm terrible with them. Just hope someone at your table can answer them or else everyone will just be sitting there humming and hawing.

Puzzles that rely on a trick or some twist of words can be fun, but have to be really, really well played by the DM. Some sort of cue or clever literary device needs to be in play to help the players get the trick. Just throwing them in the soup and hoping they hit upon that one clever thing you spent all that time thinking of is playing Russian roulette with fun.

The best puzzles in RPGs that I've been a part of are the straight-forward linear ones. Find the 4 jewel fragments in the dungeon to unlock the door to the next level. Freeze the gelatinous monster and push him on the pressure plate to open the portcullis. That sort of thing. Something where the players need to interact with the environment to move ahead.

Word-plays and clever tricks are fun for some groups, but you have to know your group. I find they're not for most people.

A Paladin In Citadel said...

I like puzzles. But they should not stop the game in it's tracks. SO if there is a puzzle, there should be other avenues to explore, and when the players finally figure the puzzle out, they can come back and follow that avenue of exploration. It's no fun for the DM or the players, to be staring each other down, to see who will be the first to blink.

Michael said...

I had a very successful run of my play group just last week that involved a dungeon area that was in itself a gaint puzzle. It didn't require any excessive dice rolling. Some trial and error plus a healthy amount of notes were required to find a path through the rooms and unlock their changing connectivity to one another. The whole group of players really enjoyed the challenge and puzzles.

But, I think that the fun came from that they could out think the puzzles or find logic to them and the way the rooms shifted. If they shifted in the right order the traps were not armed. If they shifted out of order the traps were armed. And each room had its own little puzzle that lead to a fight with smaller clay golems, a physical trap, or an obstacle to activating that room's control lever.

A puzzle and traps should always make some sort of sense. They should never be too much about rolling dice. But, more about role playing and the role of the puzzle in the dungeon. In this case they had to locate the exit door in the shifting rooms and acquire a key from another room in the shifting matrix. Once that was done. The first room and the exit would line up and unlock the final door for more progress. There were 8 puzzle rooms. They only interacted with 5 of them, left 2 untouched, and never found the 8th.

It took them hours of exploring these rooms to beat the puzzle but they really really enjoyed the session. I think because the puzzle was about the characters solving it through their characters with their wits (with a few rolls to detect warnings), the character who had read the little player's guide to the campaign got to use lore that he loves so much to solve a puzzle, and lastly it made sense and could be beaten in numerous ways.