Preference is Puzzling

After teaching all sorts of writing at levels ranging from kindergarten to Masters-level, one thing I try to get across to my students is the importance of audience—or more specifically, recognizing your audience and working to write toward their expectations while exceeding their expectations.  Audience dictates content, tone, diction, length, and countless other considerations for the writer to grapple with.

For many types of writing, the audience is a well-known quantity.  In school you write for the teachers. In technical writing your audience is the end user.  Novelists of fantasy or horror or police procedurals or mystery have a fairly detailed outline of what the audience wants, and they can keep one foot in the boat while dipping their toes into the lake of experimentation.  While a range of preferences exists even with the genres, tropes are there for guidance.

Writing adventures for RPGs is in some ways similar. It is not terribly hard to write a typical dungeon-delve adventure with 3 encounters, a skill challenge, and the PCs rushing in at the last moment to stop the ritual before the evil creature of great power is unleashed.  Many DMs and players are happy with that.  Thank goodness!

However, not every DM or player is happy with the standard fare.  There are many reasons for this, of course.  Some are not happy with that because for them the game is about telling a story, and they have already heard that story umpteen dozen times.  They want to know more about the background, more about the characters of the story, and mostly importantly, they want to know how their own characters fit into the story.  Others are not happy because to them the game is a game, and unless each iteration of the game in some way different or challenging, it turns into a game of tic-tac-toe where every action just demands a rote response, ultimately leading nowhere productive or entertaining.  For others still, both aspects have to be unique and engaging.

Mike Mearls Killed Joy and Hope

Just a brief tangent now: The amusing thing about writing a column is that once you get a topic in mind, you start seeing people everywhere talking about what you are writing about, either directly or tangentially. I had planned for a couple of weeks this article to deal with the problem of players vs. PCs, and how the distance between the players and their characters can be a challenge for DMs and adventure writers.  Then, almost on cue, Mike Mearls’ Legends & Lore column deals with one aspect of that.

Let me say this.  I feel sorry for Mike Mearls—or as sorry as I can feel for a guy who gets to think about D&D for a living.  Mike’s rise in the RPG world is amazing and inspiring.  When he was doing his work for the Iron Heroes line, the RPG forums were heralding him as the second-coming.  Now that he has arrived, he is being vilified like some not-as-pleasant nephew of Ming the Merciless.  Yet in the face of the inevitable nerd-rage, he is publicizing his thought process about D&D in his column, matter-of-factly discussing various RPG design questions and concepts with the world at large.  I applaud him for doing it, but in a way this is akin to saying, “I really think green is a good color. What do y’all think?”

In his last column, for example, he talked about one of those big design questions in the RPG world that I was going to touch upon: player vs. character. If you haven’t read it yet, go do so now.  Go ahead, I’ll wait. Back already?  Wow, you are fast readers! OK, so as anyone with a fully developed frontal lobe understands, in the end these turn into matters of preference. But inevitably, you saw that the comments ranged from the truly thoughtful and insightful to “4e sucks so I am going to play [insert whatever random game springs to mind].”

I never had a problem with either ends of the character vs. player spectrum, and with the right DM both can be fun.  And with the wrong DM both can be as enjoyable as doing the lambada with a spined devil.  I’m sure we have all had to deal with the DMs that neglected to mention the huge yawning chasm in the floor and then insisted your character fell in because “you didn’t ask if there was a chasm there.”  Upon finding a trap, we’ve all had the kind of DMs who insist we tell them EXACTLY how we disable the trap, even though we have no idea what the trap looks like.  On the other hand, we’ve all had DMs who just tell us to roll a Diplomacy check when we have been waiting for several session to give our long, dramatic speech to the king.  Writing or DMing, know your audience!

A Puzzling Dilemma

Nothing, however, epitomizes the character vs. player divide—and polarizes players more quickly—than the conundrum presented by puzzles in RPGs.  Back in the wild and wooly days of D&D 3.5, I was fortunate enough to get selected to administer a WotC organized-play campaign called Xen’drik Expeditions, set in the wild and uncharted continent of Xen’drik in the Eberron setting. As it was explained to me, there would be four factions in the campaign, and one administrator would be in charge of each. The first faction’s PCs would be the standard heroic faction of do-gooders doing heroic things. I could work with that, especially in the unique setting of Xen’drik. It would be hard to be goody-goody there!

The second faction would be full of morally and ethically challenged—if not outright evil—PCs.  Awesome! Creating a storyline and an organization where evil PCs would have to work together would certainly be challenging, but what an opportunity!  How much fun would it be to challenge and tempt players to do all these great evil things—but then sometimes punish them for giving in to those urges?!

The third faction would be a shadowy, paramilitary organization. This would have been great to run—you get to both highlight the machinations and cool NPCs within the organizations. And at the same time, the PCs get to be the Seal Team Six of the Eberron world. So many excellent adventures could be run with that black ops feel!

Now I would have been stoked to run any of those factions, and as they were described to me my mind was racing with possibilities.  Then came the description of the last faction. I grimaced a bit. The last faction would be the one for the players that like puzzles and tricks. I heard the word “puzzles,” and my mind went blank.  I really didn’t even listen past that point, as the little uncontrollable voice in my brain just kept saying over and over, “Please not the puzzle one.  Please not the puzzle one.  Please not the puzzle one.”

I got the puzzle one.

In hindsight, it was a great experience.  The faction was called the Crimson Codex, and the backstory turned out to be one I could really dig.  So once I got over my puzzle mental roadblock (and learned to ignore all of the “crimson kotex” jokes)—I threw myself fully into the job.  Still, puzzles are puzzling. They stretch that thin line between what is happening in the game and the meta-game.

This is where we get back into the problem of player vs. character issues. Even as far back as 1979 and the much-loved White Plume Mountain adventure, I heard the argument of “my character has an 18 INT and I don’t, so why do I have to solve this puzzle when my character should be able to easily.” Personally, I was happy to have problems and puzzles that I had to solve instead of my character.  It’s a game.  I am a player in it.  If puzzles are part of the game, and I want to play the game, I deal with the puzzles.  Happily.  Joyfully.

I was running a Living Greyhawk adventure back in the day, and there was a number-sequence puzzle that needed to be solved to get through a secret door.  In this case, the number that continued the sequence was more based on a pattern within the sequence than any arithmetic progression between the numbers.  So I read the sequence of numbers slowly, and the players began writing them down.  As I read the last number, the player who was running the low-wisdom, low-intelligence half-orc barbarian just blurted out the answer without even thinking about it.  The rest of the players and I just sat for a moment in stunned silence, looking at the player.  He was a great player (we miss you, Charlie!), and he sort of picked it up in character with a Rainman-esque explanation of how he knew the answer because it was a pattern.

There is a Right Answer (and a Write Answer)

My point (wait, I do have a point, right?) is that this moment could have turned into a diatribe against how annoying it is that player knowledge trumped character knowledge and broke the “reality of the fantasy.” Instead, it became a funny and challenging roleplaying moment as the player got to figure out how his character knew what he knew.  And surely the problem is more noticeable when it is the opposite: when genius PCs get stumped by puzzles they should know.  Still, these situations can still lead fine roleplaying chances (“Sorry guys, I missed that day at the Wizard’s Academy because I was in the infirmary with the clap”).

Of course, as game designers and adventure writers, we can understand the differences in our audience’s preference and design our puzzles in two different directions.  For the players who like to solve problems out of character, the puzzles can be presented straight up.  For those who like to remain in character, let the dice do the work via a skill challenge.

I have found a hybrid approach can also work, when applicable.  Let the players work on the puzzle, but allow various skill checks by the characters to provide hints.  However, each hint leads to a slightly less beneficial outcome once the problem is solved.  This can encourage people to attempt things themselves, but gives both the players and their characters an out if the puzzles seem too hard.

And I would really love to talk more about making good riddle/puzzle encounters.  I’ve certainly had my experiences with them.  But that is another article at another time.  Maybe.


  1. John du Bois says:

    Wow. The story at the end with the numbered puzzle door and the player’s effort to explain why the PC knew the answer could have been the whole post, and I’d be retweeting it to the masses. A fine example of how roleplaying is a choice and can make the difference between a dissonant experience and an assonant one.

  2. Jay Babcock says:


    John, stop making up words…

  3. Roleplaying choices are really what’s important in puzzles. The only right answer is what works for your group, and you might have mutliple “right” answers even at your table.

    Also, even in nonpuzzler situations, I acknowledge the gestalt of player knowledge and intuition at the table as representing the most competent character in the room on that particular subject. For example, if a barbarian’s player blurts out the answer, it’s acceptable to say the wizard character came up with the answer in the game world. Examples of this gestalt in nonpuzzler (or different puzzler) situations include the synergistic tactics allowed by looking over a tactical map, plans made by a combination of players (including the half-orc), and so on.

    This play style is so usual that most players fail to consider its meta state. It is far from metagaming (the bad word) in my book, or rather it’s the sort of metagaming that makes the game better. Or, at least, it is what the game is. 😉

  4. I’ve found that I try to use things about my characters to elicit ideas (hints) from the DM, rather than necessarily rolling checks. So “we’ve established that my character grew up in a thieves’ guild; so would I happen to know anything about the local dialect?” The DM may call for a check if it seems reasonable, but it gives me a way to say why my character might know something (rather than just “I’m trained in Streetwise”).

    I think for me (my preference) is to gain character-driven benefits from a manner more similar to Aspects than to Trained Skills. I’m a battle-hardened mercenary so I know a few things, rather than I trained in History so I know a few things.

  5. Interesting article…

    I’ve been running 4e for a while, and I found that many adventures of the WOTC ilk left me unimpressed. Combat after combat is not my preference… I also tend to run things kind of old school.

    Looking further abroad I found the Freeport trilogy which I converted to 4e. (For anyone who doesn’t know… its a mystery.) This gave me a huge breadth of old school role playing. Has anyone ever mentioned how much fun 3D fighting in city streets is in 4e? Awesome.

    In any case.. my players actually followed the story line, but never solved a single thing. They had a blast with the role playing, and ‘trying’ to solve the mystery. (The adventures are designed to ‘self propel’ when all else fails.)

    These were easily the best sessions I ran with my players, complete with old school shenanigans, over the top action sequences, and begging for mercy while they got dumped in a rock grinder.

    Freeport Trilogy;

    Anyone thinking of running a mystery should read the “Three Clues Rule”;

  6. There’s a related problem of GMs who aren’t as smart as (or are a lot smarter than) their players. Makes designing puzzles tricky. Yet it defeats the purpose of including a puzzle to just turn it into a skill check. Personally I’m not a massive fan of puzzles because of these problems.

    /off topic

  7. I love your hybrid puzzle approach that balances the gamey out-of-character player approach to puzzles with the character’s actual capacity to solve the puzzle. Very elegant balance, nicely done.

    I love puzzles and riddles in D&D. Not everyone does, and some players and DMs like only a certain level of complexity to them, or certain presentations of them.

    For example, a short visual puzzle that involves moving an matching a few shapes or symbols is fun and quick. One that includes several sheets of “unlocked” campaign history, plus several props, sheets, and multiple steps or a series of solutions? That might be a bit much for most people, as cool as it could be.

    Complex puzzles and riddles are often time consuming and hard to pull off in a way that doesn’t lose people, just like you see in the movies. Simple, but not simplistic, is better. Especially in 4e, where combat encounters alone eat up more session time than ever.

  8. Yeah, the hybrid idea is exactly what I find to work.

    I also think we need to remember as DMs that if a player gets out of solving the puzzle through unexpected means, we don’t have to be annoyed. That usually reveals that at least some of the group just wasn’t into the puzzle. I had it happen to me once at 2:30 am when I presented a sudoku-style hieroglyphic puzzle to open the exit door of a cavernous temple. The players all groaned and slapped their foreheads. After about ten minutes of trying to work it out, one used a fireball to melt the hinges and bypass the puzzle. I guess I could have said, “no, you can’t do that, it’s got magic hinges,” but instead I resigned to the fact that puzzles can be solved in different ways.

  9. @John: I agree. Roleplaying is a choice, and even the most unexpected or seemingly incongruous events in the metagame can be brought into the game itself, usually with delightful results. It just takes a DM and players willing to make it happen.

    @Chris: Great points, and similar to what John says. What happens in the metagame isn’t forced to be a one-to-one relationship with the player only affecting his own character. While it can sometimes be fun to restrict or alter things in the metagame based on what is happening in the game, to insist on a strict adherence to that all the time can take away from what the game could be.

    @highbulp: Character background and “pre-campaign” experiences should certain inform the passing of information between the DM and the players. I have seen DMs go to far in the other direction, and penalize characters who might have heard of something but did not experience it. You would think that a 20 INT wizard trained in Arcana and Nature would know that fire elementals resist fire damage, but I have seen DMs say, “Well, if you have never faced an elemental before, you wouldn’t know that.” I know players who have kept details lists of not just creatures that they faced, but also each of the powers/abilities/resistances that they have witnessed each monster use–just so they could prove that character knowledge to the DM. I give them an A+ for effort, but it seems a little too bookkeeping-intensive for a game.

  10. Great piece. I’ve struggled with this a lot recently, as it’s come up in my design work for Dungeon A Day, which is of course purely old-school (ish) dungeon content.

    I’ve put a lot of puzzly things in the encounters I’ve written, but as I read your piece I realized I’ve put in no pure puzzles (other than one or two riddles, which I guess actually are pure puzzles). What I’ve been doing instead is creating encounters that have a puzzle element to overall encounter–how the PCs negotiate the terrain or learn about the elements of the encounter. Or I’ve relied on moral conundrums; situations where the players need to make difficult choices, but for which there is no single correct answer.

    I think these dilute the divide between player and character, because they don’t rely on an entirely intellectual solution. A character who has a low Int could reasonably be the one who works through a terrain issue based on experience. A moral issue can be more easily played through the filter of a PC’s personality than a purely intellectual one.

    I guess what I’m getting at is that while I, personally, enjoy these “gamist” elements of play, they don’t have to take the form of pure intellectual puzzles that draw a clear line between player and character intellect and knowledge. In fact, they’re better if they don’t.

  11. Great post Shawn. I seem to recall playing in a Xendrik session you ran (of an adventure you wrote) at GenCon the last year of the Xendrik campaign and it was a blast (including the riddle to get inside a ziggurat or temple of some sort). Now I just hope I have the right author. :p

    As to puzzles, I too love to use them in games I run, but I agree that they can be a tricky issue for all the reasons mentioned. In particular, I’m not sure that I am all that great at creating puzzles. I do agree though with the assertion that many puzzles have multiple solutions. I remember in the first campaign I ran, I had a riddle for the party. I was sure that I had the perfect riddle with the perfect solution and of course, almost immediately, one of the players blurted out a different answer. An answer that absolutely fit the riddle at hand. Fortunately, the riddle was being posed by a gargoyle who was able to use its intelligence to determine that the player’s answer did indeed fit the riddle (or rather, I realized my riddle wasn’t as airtight as I thought and caught it in time to not punish the players for being clever).

  12. This reminds me of Gandalf puzzling over the riddle, “Speak, Friend, and Enter” for a good long while before Frodo figures it out. That’s another good example of why the 18+ Intelligence character might not be good at puzzles. . .too much lore inside his head to think about it in simple terms.

  13. Great article, but, yeah, I miss Charles too. Players like that make everything better. He gave me some great advice on parenting… great guy.

    On the puzzle side, I would love to hear about your approach. It is an area where I have problems getting creative, choosing a method/type, and knowing how it will play out. I’m glad to share my most recent (home campaign) attempt if it will help your article (as a “what not to do”)…

  14. Philo Pharynx says:

    Amen to the centrist route! Let each group find it’s own fun. And remember that this is not an either/or choice. You can take both character and player into consideration.

    As for puzzles, here’s my experiences (from both sides of the fence): Half the time, the GM works his tail off to craft a really hard puzzle and one of the players has either run across it before or just simply hits the right mental leap to answer it as soon as it’s put out. Half the time the GM puts out an easy puzzle with lots of hints and the players just can’t see the solution that the GM thinks is absolutely obvious.

  15. I think puzzles, riddles, word games etc. are a great idea. They break things up a bit. I’ve seen so many posts on forums decrying the over use of combat and ‘fetch side-quests’ in RPGs. Things like puzzles help break up those patterns and can really challenge the players.

    I like to make players sweat it out a bit and really work to solve the puzzles rather than giving a lot of hints. There’s no point in providing a challenge and then making it easy on purpose. The main thing is to make the puzzle matter. It needs to stand between the heroes and the goal of their quest. When you do that right, and the players can see that it matters that they solve the puzzle in order to get the gold, rescue the girl, get the most XP etc., they try harder and tend to work together more to solve it.

    I try to avoid letting players use character skills as cheats as that detracts from the challenge of the game. Letting a player roll a Wisdom check to try to solve the puzzle without having to actually think about it themselves would be like letting a player buff up an ability that lets them turn any D20 roll into a ‘natural crit’ in combat.

    Sometimes, my players grumble a bit and get frustrated, but when they solve the puzzle and get the reward for doing so, it is so much more satisfying for them than a simple roll of the dice would have been.

    Challenge that is actually challenging with a meaningful reward for success and dire consequences for failure is a prime ingredient for a great game. Think of video games. Which ones have stood the test of time and have become beloved classics? The hard ones. Easy fluff games that anyone can beat without really paying attention are soon forgotten and usually get terrible reviews. It’s the tough games like Defender, Donkey Kong, Ms. Pac Man (more popular than Pac Man precisely because it was harder), Mega Man etc. that last. So, make your RPGs that you DM legendary and make them a real challenge.

  16. My group’s going on a three-week hiatus, so I gave them a digital copy of a coded map to solve throughout the next three weeks. It went off splendidly. This is possibly the best use of riddles or puzzles I’ve employed in a campaign – something to keep them busy and invested while we’re on a break. It could even be done over the course of several play sessions, with action going on while the players continue to pursue other objectives, all the time thinking and returning to the puzzle that eventually needs to be solved.

  17. @DarkplaneDm:
    That’s a great idea! I think one of the best things to keep a gaming party together and running is to keep it involved somehow while not at the table for the days/weeks in between sessions. Sometimes journaling works well for some players (those who like to keep track of the story and plot(s) and character advancement). But this is a grand idea for the thinkers and movers of the party. Thanks!

    To the rest of the topic – I like the idea of the hybrid approach which can be applied differently to each party, or even better, player. Some players get success by describing actions/approaches based on their character as they enjoy the player-side of the mental game, while others can still enjoy success by rolling without needing to be on their A-game or if they prefer the character-side of the mental game. Flexibility is the key to a happy and satisfied party.

  18. Puzzles are one of the most diffcult aspects of the game, and not just because of the player vs. PC issue. They are hard to design, and the target audience varies a lot beyond the five or so playstyles. Even people who love puzzles have variant skill and talent in solving puzzles (even more so in an international crowd since for example many riddles work with language and as a result can be much harder to solve if English is not your primary language), let alone designing them.

    My personal pet peeve with them though is that more often than not they make no sense from a story perspective. It is like a bank robber finding a number puzzle on the vault door that provides the code to open the door. It makes sense in a game, but not in a story. Sure, there could be the mad wizard, but that gets old quick as well 😉

    @Shawn: The funniest thing I have come across was a DM who accused me of meta-gaming when I acted upon monster knowledge based on my PC’s experience in a previous adventure (being LG) since he did not had the required knowledge checks 😉 His whole group had nearly died once due to dancing vrocks, he sure as hells was not going to ignore them in favor of the hezrou (or whatever demon it was) in front of him 😉


  1. […] Preference is Puzzling: a great post suggest ways to incorporate puzzles into D&D and suggestions on how to deal with player vs. character ability and knowledge. […]