Riddle Me This, Puzzle Me That

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by Tom Verreault

Riddles are an uncommon staple in role playing games. The idea of including a riddle in a RPG adventure is popular, though the actual implementation probably uncommon. I remember thinking once that I should include some riddles in a fantasy game but I could only think of the riddles famously used in “The Hobbit”. Unfortunately, all of the players in my game had read that book as well so I abandoned the idea for that adventure. Puzzles, like riddles, show up as challenges in a RPG adventure and can be boring or challenging depending on if they’ve been previously seen or not. Again the implementation is probably less common than the desire to use them.

Martin Ralya in his gaming blog, Treasure Tables, defined what a puzzle is in the RPG arena as well as giving four guidelines for what makes a good puzzle. His definition of a puzzle (and this can apply to riddles too) is any game/world activity that is played out and solved primarily (or entirely) by your players in the real world. It is not a puzzle if the solution is handed out by a series of die rolls.

Guidelines For A Good Puzzle

“It can be solved in 15 minutes or less. A puzzle shouldn’t take your players more than 15 minutes to solve. If it does there is the risk of the average group getting frustrated — and of that puzzle derailing the evening’s session.”

On one occasion a referee sprung a series of logic puzzles on myself and the other players and smirked over the course of two sessions, thinking it funny that we could not solve them. This experience was more frustrating then fun and constituted a huge delay of game.

“It includes a mechanism for providing hints.”

If the players are stumped allow for character skills to generate a hint. In the above example I felt the referee was laughing in his sleeve and I had to suppress the urge to throw a hard cover rule book at him.

“It involves the whole group. Not every player enjoys puzzles, and chances are your group includes at least one person who isn’t overly fond of them. Any puzzle you include needs to take that player into account. If you know why that player doesn’t usually enjoy puzzles (perhaps because you asked them about it before the session), try to design or choose your puzzles accordingly.

You can also employ the time-honored GMing technique of simply asking them what their character is doing while the party tries to solve the puzzle. Sometimes it’s easier to engage players who don’t like puzzles on an in-game level than a real-world level — they’d like to contribute, but they’d rather base their contributions on their character.”

This is good advice and to it I would add that great props draw people in. If you’re going to hand out a puzzle on a photocopied sheet, make enough for all the players and not just one. With only one copy of the puzzle, it limits the number of players who can actively work on it leaving some to tap their toes and wonder when the game will get going again.

Actually making the puzzle prop for the real world can heighten interest as it provides a focus for the players in the middle of the gaming table. When I was starting a new campaign I concocted a situation where the players found a dead body with a map and a letter. The letter was written by the dead man and detailed 3 locations where he had hidden treasure.  The map was a board with nine circular 1 inch depressions set close together in a 3X3 pattern. There were matching 1 inch circular tiles that went into these depressions and on the tiles were bits of the map. It was a literal puzzle in that they had to figure out the puzzle map but the challenge came in to play as the puzzle pieces, being circles, gave no clue has to how they might go together. I made the board from clay and the tiles from 1 inch wood disks.

For several sessions in a row the players agonized over whether they had deciphered the clues on the disk to get the map right, until they found a cartographer selling maps and were able to buy a local map and proof their tile map. The fact that I set out a real prop engaged everyone and became the focus of 15 minutes of time while they discussed options for where to travel to look for treasure. I also put into the dice pouch that the tiles came in one extra blank tile as a curve ball but also put X’s on the backs of the tiles where the three treasure locations where. The beauty of it was that the puzzle was used for several sessions and is completely recyclable in the future with new map tiles. The only downside to doing this is that you have to be a little bit creative and take the time to build such a prop.

“It doesn’t have to be solved. There has to be a way for the PCs to progress even if they can’t solve the puzzle. There are lots of options when it comes to building this element into your puzzles — here are two suggestions.

The first is to make the puzzle part of a side quest or sub-plot — a section of the adventure that, by definition, can be skipped without negatively impacting the main event. The second is to include an escape hatch: an ambush that occurs at the 15-minute mark, a hint that will automatically be revealed after a certain amount of time or a change in circumstances that allows the party to bypass the puzzle entirely.”

This is very important. A puzzle should never derail the adventure or halt the game. As the referee, you should also be watching for signs of frustration in the players and provide hints to move the game past the puzzle.

Using Riddles

The guidelines for puzzles are equally important for riddles. A good riddle should not delay the game, have a mechanism for hints, and the adventure should be able to progress with or without solving the riddle.

Example: An eccentric yazirian built a vault with an unusual key. He left clues concerning the key in the form of a series of riddles. The key hole is equally mystifying as it is an unusual pattern of five holes.

The first riddle in the eccentric yazirian example is, “A city with no people,” and the answer is “electricity” but if the players don’t solve it then the referee can call for a LOG check and tell the player that his character doesn’t think it’s a real city but perhaps a word with city in it.

The second riddle is, “As I walked along the path I saw something with four fingers and one thumb, but it was not flesh, fish, bone, or fowl” and the answer is “glove.” The two riddles give you electricity and glove which should spur the average Star Frontiers player to think of shock gloves from the equipment list (though the referee could have primed the players to think of shock gloves by having them encounter a character using them before they discover the riddles).

The players will be able to enter the vault by wearing a shock glove and poking the fingers and thumb into the series of five holes or if they’re totally stumped they can blow the vault with explosive as well. However, using explosive should have consequences like damaging some of the vault’s contents or drawing unwanted attention.

Riddles Can Function As Location or Time Clues.

Many riddles have answers like water, mountain, shore, library, and etc. Use these riddles to direct the players to the location they need to travel to. Researching the internet will turn up a variety of riddles that can be used in this way and I’ve included a sampling below.

The building with the most stories. - “the library” (Used in a city the players may first go looking for the tallest building)

When does a boat show affection? - “When it hugs the shore.” (Could be used to describe a location where a ship is beached on a shore or where several boats are anchored close to shore)

What can run but never walks, has a mouth but never talks, has a head but never weeps, has a bed but never sleeps? - “River” (This is a straight forward location and easily used as a clue.)

How far can a dralasite walk into the woods? - “Halfway then he’s walking out.” (Could be used to describe a general location in the woods or within a similar terrain feature.)

What crosses the river but doesn't move? - “Bridge” (A very specific location clue.)

What runs smoother than any rhyme, and loves to fall but cannot climb! - “Water” (Could be used to describe a local water feature, perhaps a water fall.)

What is made of wood but has never been cut? - “A tree” (A very general feature but if there is a unique tree in the local environment this is a good clue.)

What is so bright in the day and very far away? - “the Sun” (Included since Star Frontiers involves adventure in space.)

They come at night without being called. They’re lost during the day without being stolen.     - “stars” (This clue is less about place than it is about time and could be telling the players when an action must occur.)

Building and Using a Puzzle for Star Frontiers

The tile puzzle map that I described above will, with a little reworking, work as a great puzzle for a Star Frontiers campaign. The following is a puzzle map designed specifically for the Star Frontiers RPG that will be the significant focus of a campaign. It could represent an archaeological artifact found on Laco and connected to the Tetrarch ruins or be a space pirate’s map showing locations of cached treasure and hideouts. In either case the campaign would involve obtaining all the map pieces, figuring them out, and traveling to various star systems to complete the campaign.

Obtain two pieces of wood or hard board 10.5 inches wide by 8.5 inches long and about ¼ inch thick. On one, lightly draw out a ¼ inch grid horizontally and vertically like graph paper. This will give you a grid that conforms to the size and dimensions of the Frontier map from the Alpha Dawn rules. Now choose about 8 of the inhabited stars and four of the unexplored stars from that map and mark them on the grid. After they are marked drill them with a 5/32 drill bit (basically 1/32 bigger than a ¼ inch to accommodate the puzzle pieces) and sand smooth all edges. Next glue the two pieces of wood together with wood glue and pressure (clamps or heavy weights on top) being sure to wipe away excess glue from inside the holes. Once dry, spray paint black and you now have a map board showing star systems in space that were significant, for some reason, to the map maker.

Next obtain ¼ inch wooden disk from an arts and crafts store or cut some from ¼ inch dowel. These coins should fit into the holes of the map board without getting stuck. Paint each disk a different color with an eye to making each look like a different kind of stone and on a handful paint cryptic symbols. Decide which disks go into which holes and document this.

Now you’re ready to introduce the map to the players. Describe the board as black obsidian and the disks as stone coins. The coins seem to be no two alike. In the archaeological campaign, the player characters will first observe the coins being sold by a scruffy looking artifact smuggler to another buyer as “tetrarch money.” Later when they discover the board and a few coins they realize they might just need the rest of the coins. This leads to a varied quest for the artifact smuggler and his buyers. In addition one “coin” has found its way into a museum and could be very difficult to obtain or gain access to.

Once they have the map, the clue to where each coin goes lies in the fact that each is made of stone. Analyzing the stones or even just close examination of them should reveal that they are all different and from different sources. Any environmentalist, geologist, or competent scientist should be able to tell which is sandstone, marble, granite, or crystal. Further investigation will reveal that each comes from a specific planet; the crystal “coin” is Volturnian Quartz, while the sandstone “coin” is from Clarion, one of the granite “coins” matches granite from Minotaur and etc. Some of the stones will not turn up in any database as they are from unexplored worlds. Even if the players fail to realize the nature of the stone “coins” they can still progress with the puzzle if they simply realize that it matches the map of the Frontier.

The campaign then transitions to visiting locations shown by coins with cryptic symbols on them and should take on an “Indiana Jones” flavor of adventure. Ultimately, the full map used with other tetrarch artifacts could be a navigational device. If the board is placed into the helm of a derelict tetrarch ship and one stone is placed into its proper place, the ship calculates the void jump to that star system and transports the whole ship there within minutes saving the players the time and effort to calculate a void jump and accelerate to 1% of light speed.

If the map is a pirate’s map then the campaign will be a fairly straight forward treasure hunt but with competing pirates, Star Law marshals, treasure hunters and insurance agents for complications.

Just running down and obtaining all the pieces can take several sessions while the players are still figuring out details of the map. At some point a “Rosetta Stone” could be found that will let the player’s decipher the cryptic symbols on the coins as well.

Note, a rectangular map should be readily recognizable as the Frontier map but a circular or even triangular design may be more mysterious and could include star systems not on the Alpha Dawn map. A large circular map could represent the Tetrarch’s view of the local galactic sector. The basic idea for this map can also work as just a system map showing the star and planets with the catch that the planets must be in relative locations shown on the map because something important will happen or be revealed when the planets are in this exact alignment.