Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Puzzles in Solo RPGs: An Untested Method

I noticed the other night, as well as in previous sessions, that PCs in The Ever Expanding Dungeon have never really had challenges of the "puzzle" variety.

As I understand it, one criticism of puzzles in games is that they rely on player skill, not character skill. For people used to modern rule sets, that's a valid concern as the nature of role playing assumed is of the school of thought that says "my character is solving the puzzle and my character is smarter/dumber than I am." Older games tend to see challenging the player's ability to solve the puzzle as just another accepted aspect of the game, with no allowance made for character ability.

The other criticism I have seen is that either the GM creates a puzzle that is reduced to rolling various skill checks to solve, in which case the effort seems wasted, or the puzzle is either too easy or too hard for the players themselves to solve, producing either boredom or frustration.

For social games,I tend to buy into the dilemma of the second paragraph and that eliminates my desire to create puzzles in that case.

Solo games are a different animal though.

For one, I know what kinds of puzzles I like, and know at what difficulty I have a reasonable chance of solving them. I also don't mind if my personal ability is challenged. Still, I do want to make some allowance that my characters have abilities that I do not.

Here's what I' thinking - just a brainstorm, and fully untested:

I know I like sudoku. I also know that even when I'm in a groove, it can take me several minutes to solve even the easiest of them. So, I'll use sudoku as my out of game representation of the puzzle.

To account for in-game player advantages/disadvantages:

  • If a PC has an intelligence of 13 or higher, then if I roll under that number, I can add 1 minute (or some other amount of time) to the time I have to solve the puzzle.
  • If the PC has an INT of less than 9, and I roll under, I don't take a penalty, but if I roll over, then I take a 1 minute (or some other amount of time) penalty.
  • For those with average scores 9-12 - over yields a penalty and under yields a bonus.

I suppose an alternative would be to account for the difference between the rolled score and the INT score at 10 seconds per point.

Or perhaps just use the INT below 9 as a minus and INT above 12 as a bonus, but that method means that there's never a chance for luck(good or bad), a random spark of genius, or having a brain fart.

Hopefully, in the next session I'll have a chance to put one of these methods to the test.


  1. Personally when I've GM'd I've occasionally used puzzles in my games . . . and they are for the Players to solve, not dice rolls . . . and they've always been well received.

    I recall one game that I ran at a Con that revolved around a logic puzzle that was finally solved by the players . . . and after the game, a number of players came up to thank me, one saying "I've always heard about games like this but I never thought I'd get to play in one".

    There was some combat in the game, but most of it was solving in-gaming problems of one sort or another . . . including teaching a baby dragon how to fly (because the dragon knew he was too heavy to do so).

    Anyway I've generally found that players like to be challenged with the occasional puzzle.

    I don't have the "read languages" spell in my world . . . and I often give them (transliterated) documents in different alphabets (Coptic is one of my favorites) for them to decipher or not . . .

    So I DO use puzzles in social games. Not all the time, but often enough to challenge people and provide a change-of-pace from combat.

    -- Jeff

    1. I really like the language puzzle idea.

      I may have to try that in the next social game I run. I think something like that would have just the right kind of "cool" factor that my player(s) will actually enjoy the challenge out of play.

      I'll just make sure it's not crucial to resolving some key point - I would hate to bottleneck everything around a clue that can't resolve.


  2. Here's my take on puzzles in tabletop rpgs and how, over the years, I've reconciled the inherent oddness of them:

    SOCIAL: To keep players in-character with a challenge that is clearly solved out-of-character, puzzles I create always have TWO components to them - the first one that players as themselves can freely try to figure out (because it's fun), and a second one that can only be resolved by a character's skill or ability roll (because it's a roleplaying game). So, players may be able to sort out that the giant stones must be arranged in the shape of a god's symbol to open the passageway, but do the characters have the strength or engineering expertise to move the stones?

    SOLO: Back in the early 00's, I tried a number of ideas for puzzle play in solo rpgs not unlike your sudoku idea, above. They all felt wrong and took me out of the flow of the game. Ultimately, anything puzzle-y that I've since conceived of is left a bit ambiguous and is simply a skill or ability roll. No personal player stuff. As far as I'm concerned, playing a solo rpg is puzzle enough!

    Still, I encourage your line of inquiry...there's a lot of cleverness in it, and you may discover something along the way!

    1. The interruption of the flow of the game does concern me and an ability check does have definite advantages there.

      I'm not sure if there's any advantage to doing this or not. Right now, obviously, I am thinking it's worthwhile, but I'm not wholly convinced that the experience will bring anything substantially better than rolling an ability check will.

      I have to see how jarring I find it before I decide - hopefully the next time I get to venture into The Ever Expanding Dungeon.


  3. Interesting. I recently purchased some puzzle rings to throw at my players in place of trying to pick a lock or disarm a trap. I like the idea of using a skill check, so I might give the players a +2 or +4 on a disarm trap roll if they solve a ring. We'll see how it goes on Saturday.

    I've never tried a puzzle in my solo games, but I did set a Sudoku puzzle as a task in a LARP, which was a way to stop a flesh golum from rising.

    Puzzles do have a big place in RPG's for me, and I'm thinking that something like the "Battle Chess" scene from Harry Potter could be interesting: a game puzzle within a game.