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When creating dungeons, I want to create a dungeon that allows the players to come up with their own solutions to an obstacle/puzzle, etc. However, I seem to be stuck on the "one/two solution" obstacles, i.e., video game style, linear obstacles like "put out all the torches to open the door," that generally only the GM knows. It doesn't allow for the creativity of solutions in the games I run. It seems like the mark of a great GM that creates these sorts of modular obstacles, rather than linear obstacles.

How can I design or get in the correct mindset to design these sorts of obstacles/puzzles/traps?

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Make "no-solution" obstacles. Not because you know there's no solution, but because you didn't try to think of any. If the party wants to get through, it's their job to think of the way through. –  Joe May 9 at 21:27
I rolled a scenario once where the center of the building was a circular room that rotated (similar to an elevator, there where two floors, but 4 different possible exits on each floor) All I described was 'the door shuts and the ground beneath your feet begins to tremble and shake, shortly after the door opens to reveal a different passage way' letting the players figure out the pattern on their own. Is this along the lines of what you ment by one/two solution? –  DanceSC May 9 at 22:46

7 Answers 7

It's not your job to come up with solutions, or even methods of solving. It's just your job to provide conflict. Here's an example.

The party wants to obtain the ancient golden scepter of Kobora from the Frothy Crypt. The entrance to the scepter's chamber is locked, and the only key is held by Angry Kurt, the one-eyed grave digger who hates all humans and attempts at bribery, but regularly sleeps on the job. The platform the scepter rests upon conceals a pressure plate that once released, will cause the Frothy Crypt to begin violently frothing. The crypt is guarded by clockwork soldiers, who must be activated by turning their keys, which are held by...

and so on. At no point are any solutions presented here, but the conflict is apparent. At this point, it is up to the players to find a way to solve their problem, and even this small example yields more possibilities than you could likely account for. They might fail an attempt to bribe Kurt and subsequently smash their way through everything, or they might steal his key, sneak past the clockworks, carefully disable the pressure plate, and escape with the scepter without a drop of blood spilled. Either way, the players made meaningful choices and accomplished their goals.

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"The Frothy Crypt", if you know what I mean. Also, dramatic questions and all that. –  Williham Totland May 9 at 22:16

You should try and envision as many possible ways to bypass the obstacle as you can think of, yourself, and use this as a measure whether the obstacle is too "one solution". I personally envision MacGyver in the traps I think of and think of all the ways he'd get off the sticky situation. Usually, a single solution can be expanded with these:

Don't forget the "brute force" solution. Let them just smash the door with brute force if they're so inclined, or try jumping over the pit of snakes without finding the switch for the retractable bridge. These solutions are completely fine, and I like them because their simplicity makes the game seem more real - but they are seldom the optimal solution (smashing a door takes strength, makes noise and can cause injury, and a too short jump over the snake pit means getting nasty bites).

Tie in NPCs/enemies. If the party can't find the hidden switch on their own, let them beat the information about the hidden switch from a passing patrol, or stalk them in shadows and see how they activate the retractable bridge. This is already much craftier and exciting for the party.

Remember the party's skills, abilities and equipment, and use them. If the party has ropes, they can build a makeshift bridge over the chasm of doom. If an NPC witholds information, let the priest who always carries some communion wine loosen their tongue with a sip or two. Let the party use their skills and stuff to the fullest!

Ultimately, though...

It's the party's job to come up with the solutions to the obstacles you create. As a GM, your job is to adapt to their ideas, allow them to part from the obvious solutions and encourage them to come up with clever ideas of their own. So in a nutshell: when a party member suggests a solution, no matter how out-of-the-box it seems to you... if it makes the slightest amount of sense, let them try it!

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The short answer is to think in terms of problems and not in terms of solutions. This means that you should think about how to present a problem and not about how one should solve it.

The longer answer is about utilizing the tools of the improve theater in order to make the problems that you've set solvable.

"Yes, and"

Probably the most important tool that you have is this simple phrase. It means that you agree with what your players give you, give them the option to try to do what they want, often-times letting them solve their problems in whatever way they come with, but you add something of your own when doing so. It doesn't necessarily mean that you give them anything that they want, or that you can't create some challenges, but just that you don't say no ahead of time. You'll be surprised from the kinds of stories that it can create for you.

Originality is everything

The problems that you should present to them should be diverse, but more than that, they should be original, they should feel unique, they should feel different from each other. This originality should serve a greater purpose; it should give them something to think about. Most of the challenge here is spent in their heads. This is the dirty trick of improve-GMing, the entire challenge is in the players' heads. The way to do that is by giving them things to think about. Let them plan how to solve those problems, and let their solution succeed at the end.

But don't spend too much time thinking

The game, the story, they should flow. This means that you should go according to the first things that come, that pop to your minds. Those complications that you add in order to make them think that there is a challenge here, those complications are the first things that pop to your mind. Some improvisers call it their "obvious", and it is not such a bad name for it. You'll be surprised by how much your "obvious" seems original to anyone else.


A few things that may help you and just didn't fit elsewhere.

Firstly is a little "game" that a great GM once taught me. He GMed for a group and was stuck with no ideas for what to do for the reminder of the session as he was way ahead of schedule. He came with a little "game" or challenge that he called "100 doors". The idea was quite simple- There is a maze or something with 100 doors, one after the other, and each one of them numbered. Each door should be opened, in order to get to the next one. The important thing, though, is that each one should be opened in a new and original way. It doesn't matter which way, just that it wasn't used before. This is a tool that I used ever since to get my players into the improvisational spirit.

Secondly is a nice introductory book called "Play Unsafe". It is a really nice book, which can serve as a nice introduction to the improvisational world. After finishing it, or if you wanna jump to the real thing, go for Impro or for "The Improv Handbook", both of them will prove priceless.

Thirdly, reading and watching genre works will give you the inspiration you need in order to improve your "obvious". More than that, it will help you to determine when you should say no, when it doesn't fit the genre and the tone of the game.

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Love this 100 doors idea! I'll be putting it to use very soon. –  SuicideClyde Jul 21 at 16:30

There's a useful perspective shift I find that works for me. I think of hazards, not puzzles. Take your dungeon, for example - it's falling apart. The problems you get from a hazard are things like "a hole in the floor", "A collapsed wall", "A broken bridge" etc. Hazards are great because they also don't lead to "one solution only" thinking on the part of the players like a puzzle or trap does.

Once you've got a hazard, consider putting a few things in the area that can be used to deal with it, while recognizing the players may find other valid ways you never thought of as well.

"Oh, the players knocked over the old statue and used it as a bridge across the chasm. I guess they can hold on to the grappling hook for something else, instead."

"Oh, the wizard used Mage Hand and pushed the button at the end of the hole instead of using the special rod. Ok, that works."

The other part of this is that you have to realize hazards also can be turned into advantages by the players in the middle of fights. Let the players do so!

Also recognize that some hazards might be things the players decide not to deal with at all, or cannot figure out (even if they've got 5 means of doing so sitting in their backpack...).

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Don't design multiple solutions to the problem, but design multiple methods of finding the one right solution.

If you are having trouble coming up with multiple solutions to a problem, or have designed a problem that rightfully should only have one solution, a good alternative is to incorporate multiple methods of finding that solution.

Opening a locked door with multiple solutions:

Being a simple door, I am sure you can think of a myriad of ways to get through it.

  • Use a key (that is, if you have obtained one).
  • Pick the lock.
  • Try a way around it.
  • Break down the door.

Opening a locked door with a single solution, multiple paths:

The only way to open the locked door is with a key. You can't break it down, because it's magically reinforced. You can't dispel it because it was reinforced by a high level archmage. Basically, the key is your only option.

Besides finding where the key is first, obviously, you will have several methods of obtaining the key:

  • Find the key-bearer, and persuade him diplomatically.
  • Find the key-bearer, and pickpocket him.
  • Find the key-bearer, slay him, take the key.
  • Find the key-bearer, drag him to the door, ask / force him to open it for you.

Your obstacle would effectively have only one solution: a key that unlocks the door. But you'd be able to take multiple paths to obtaining this key.

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Say "Yes"

The most important step to getting around single-solution obstacles is to say yes to your players when they ask if they can try something. They're going to propose their own solutions to their problems, and your job as GM isn't to decide what the right solution is - it's to determine how challenging the players' choice of solution is.

Appeal to your players' play styles and motivations

Don't design for a general audience unless you're writing a module for publication. You're designing for a very specific audience - your players.

If you've been playing with this group for a while, you probably know what sort of challenges they enjoy as a player and what they enjoy about the system you're playing. This means you can hand-craft dungeons to fulfill their specific needs as a player.

Richard Bartle breaks down player motivation by four simplistic categories, and players' motivations are usually a mix of the 4 with one of them being dominant. If it helps you judge what is important to your players, you can ask them to take Bartle's test and send you the results.

Here are the four motivations Bartle identified, and how to appeal to them.

  • Achievers: Achievers like to be the best - give them situations that their character is uniquely built to handle.
  • Explorers: Explorers will usually find unexpected solutions to your encounters. Let them attempt whatever they want and set an appropriate level of challenge based on how likely the action is to succeed.
  • Socializers: Socializers prefer social encounters and tend to be role-players. Give them challenges that could be overcome through diplomacy, intimidation, or by having the right allies.
  • Killers: Killers prefer combat encounters and tend to be power-gamers. Give them something big to kill.

Make use of your players' bag of tricks

Regardless of what system you're playing, each of your players' characters brings something different to the party, and knowing their bag of tricks allows you to craft challenges specifically to allow their characters to show off their skills and powers.

If a player just earned a new skill or power within the last couple of sessions, find a way to incorporate its use into the dungeon so they can feel that they made a good choice in the way they advanced their character.

  • Did they just acquire a new item? Create a situation where the item might be useful.
  • Do you have a sneaky character in the party? Create situations where stealth is useful.
  • Do you have a holy character in the party? Give them chances to use their holy powers.
  • Do you have a role player in the party? Give them chances to reveal aspects of their character or back-story.

Remember that you're designing for your players, and not for a general audience. Know your players' strengths and weaknesses and craft situations for them to exploit their strengths.

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Consider looking at it as a series of approaches instead of a series of solutions. Sit down and think, "What do I do if they try to solve this intellectually? Violently? Sneakily? Diplomatically? Ignoring it until it goes away?" Write out pros and cons for that sort of solution as well as some quick ideas as to how they might approach it. That gives you a framework so that, when the player comes up with something you entirely were not expecting, you can default to an approach and have an idea of how well it might succeed.

Bit of advice I've gleaned from my own experience, never penalize an approach because it was not how you wanted the puzzle solved. Instead, think in terms of consequences. If you intend for the secret passage to be found by noticing that the villain's portrait has his hand on a particular book, don't apply an ad-hoc penalty if the characters instead decide to start smashing the walls, or to use a lodestone to search for mechanisms inside the walls. Instead, consider the side effects of smashing up the door (obvious they got in, can't close it behind them) or using the lodestone (only works with metallic components and that only lets them find where the connections are, not necessarily how to operate it).

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