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I'm designing an adventure, in which at one point the party meets a giant who will only let them pass if they solve some puzzles. However, the problem is that the riddles are a test for the player, not for the character- a very bright person playing a character with average intelligence would probably solve the riddles, while his character may not. I've considered having the players roll a DC 10 Intelligence check after solving the riddles, but that doesn't seem fair.

So my question is, how can I make puzzles a challenge for the character, instead of the player?

I don't want advice tied too deeply into a particular game's mechanics - this is a common problem found in most of the trad games I've played. It tends to reduce to "player figures it out" or "player makes some roll to solve it without needing to think about it," both of which have their problems.

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@mxyzplk - Nice edit to make this actually work as a system-agnostic question. –  Bobson Jul 29 '14 at 3:44
    
IMO, it's more fun when the puzzles are a challenge for the player as well. I'd love to find a solution where the players are challenged to solve the puzzle, AND where the characters are somehow challenged to "come up with" the right solution. –  PurpleVermont May 2 at 20:18

5 Answers 5

up vote 16 down vote accepted

The reason the rolls seems unfair is a problem called Goblin Dice.
When talking about combat, d20 decide if a goblin lives or dies - but we all know sooner or later he will kick the bucket.
When we use d20 to determine the success of one-of-a-kind events (like making a bluff check, a diplomacy check or a riddle-solving check), the high variability of the dice makes it for the bad results you named in your comment: "a really smart character rolls a terrible number and unfairly loses the challenge".

This can be solved by rolling several d20, akin to how D&D 4e manages Skill Challenges.
Asking for several intelligence checks and having the puzzle solved when at least N rolls are successful introduces a bell curve in the results, making each single roll less important and less able to influence the results. Smarter characters get less chances to botch all the rolls; dumber characters get less chances to win by pure luck.
The exact number of total rolls and needed successes determines the probability of having the smart character fail or the uneducated character go "Eureka!".

One way to have players work for their result despite only working on the character's skill is turning the series of rolls into a tactical exercise (like "you can choose to have this roll count as a loss and get a +2 to all following rolls").


A second method involves having players consider their character's intelligence. This is obviously prone to metagaming and harder for the not-so-smart-guy-playing-a-wizard.
Seriously? Don't.


Included for completeness, some ideas that involve player and character skill in different ratios:

  • Give out hints based on character's intelligence score, then let players solve the riddle.
  • As above, but give out hints based on the result of a single intelligence check (maybe the worst choice)
  • As the first, but give out hints based on the number of intelligence checks successfully passed.

Note: Goblin Dice as a name was born on Magician's blog

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I really like this idea. Each stage of the puzzle that the players figure out can be a dice roll for the characters. –  GMNoob Jul 26 '14 at 18:54
    
Not necessarily every check should be Int-based, see the last part of @NotVonKaiser's answer. –  Zachiel Jul 27 '14 at 14:10
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Regarding slow-player/smart-character working to roleplay correctly, consider having the smart-player/slow-character (or even all of the players) help him OOC. This can let the smart character be RPed as being smart, despite the difference in intelligence levels. (Another alternative is to have the GM feed clues to the player with the smart character but not everyone else.) –  Brian S Jul 28 '14 at 13:56
    
@BrianS the clue feeding technique is already in my answer, the OOC help didn't come to my mind while answering and NotVonKaiser already has it. I might include it in my answer too, because it's good advice, but it feels like stealing :( –  Zachiel Jul 28 '14 at 18:29
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I wonder why one would feel that a high-Int character getting stumped a riddle would be an undesirable result? It seems to be true to the nature of many riddles. They aren't fair and are more about whether you happen to think the same way as the riddler at the moment, or not. So arbitrary failure makes sense to me. If it doesn't to the GM, the GM can just arbitrarily decide, rather than roll, since that seems to be what they want, anyway. But interesting to look at why one gets upset... –  Dronz Oct 8 '14 at 0:22

I'm not the hugest fan of introducing puzzles like this into games but I think the best way to do this is to solve them out of character and then, if necessary, roleplay the solution in character. So long as everyone knows that you're going to do this (announcing it beforehand might be a good tactic), it eliminates or at least reduces many of the issues at play here: the player playing the barbarian can "suggest" the solution to the wizard without nerfing the barbarian (by refusing to allow him to partipate beyond a certain low level) or overpowering the wizard (by allowing him to roll a lot against his INT or knowledge skills for hints), by allowing this bit of out of character-ness you don't penalize players for not choosing a character which is a milieu-specific version of them, and so on.

The biggest drawback to this to me is that bit of OOC stuff, though. I'm already not the biggest fans of puzzles in games, to be honest: as a player, I tend to attempt in-character creative solutions to issues as opposed to attempting to ferret out the "right" one, and as a GM, well, too often these things come down to "have you read this puzzle somewhere before?" rather than "here is an INTERESTING conundrum to test your wits!!!". I understand that a lot of people who like RPGs also like these kinds of games (and admittedly I do too, although my time of enjoyment is primarily when I am on an airplane, not hanging out with my friends) but I'd personally caution against using them too often.

What I do instead is that I come up with a big problem that the characters have to figure out how to resolve on their own. Let's say they need a certain amulet but that amulet is locked up deep in a castle. Some parties might choose to storm the place, others might try to bluff their way past the guards, still others might try to infiltrate it sneakily. If I'm concerned that the players will get locked into one particular course of action (if you're playing DnD, isn't violence always the first, second, and third options?), I might spend a bit of extra time on the situation detailing the kinds of things that might happen if they go that route (in this example, maybe there's a local village whose leader is being held hostage; a frontal assault that alerts the guards will cause this man to be killed... or perhaps the bad guys are just too powerful, granted that IME DnD players tend to be particularly unable to comprehend what constitutes "an unfair fight", so tread carefully). Otherwise I design the major players in the situation and do what I can do to not devise a single railroaded option.

That method requires a great deal of improvisation, I realize - there's only so much prep you can do for "I will allow the characters to do whatever they want here" - but to each his own.

Another tack you can take is to greatly immerse whatever "puzzles" your giant friend is giving deeply in the game world. "If the Duke of Castille is poisoned to death, who is next in line for his throne?" That question may require a couple of successful rolls against local politics and the like to even grok the nature of the puzzle itself. That, at least, is a way to encourage players to keep spending points on non-combat skills.

Still another thing you can do, which, depending on the game system might require a small bit of re-envisioning, is to not take INT scores or their equivalent as the be-all and end-all of intelligence. A barbarian with a 7 INT might not actually be stupid, but instead ignorant and, by and large, completely uninterested in anything that doesn't involve bashing something in the head. Likewise, you can explain away a high-INT character being played by a less than quick-witted player by saying that they're logical and methodical and so might just not be all that great at quickly solving puzzles like this. I think this method still has the issue of encouraging people to RP copies of themselves but if the campaign is otherwise going well and you just need a handy explanation for why the barbarian keeps coming up with the answers, this can work.

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Solving riddles is half part previous knowledge and half part intuition (Int and Wis could both be used) –  Zachiel Jul 27 '14 at 14:09

As I understand it, the characters are going to solve the puzzle anyway. because your story depends on them solving the puzzle. So I say, why bother if they will solve it? They do it. Eventually.

In my opinion, the real challenge the characters face should be what it costs them to solve those puzzles. Time? Money? Health? Favors? Some other resource?

The characters rarely have infinite amounts of those, and they are under pressure to preserve them. Make this the challenge.

Puzzle door? They will eventually figure it out, but if an horde of orcs is chasing them, then it becomes a matter of if they can figure it out before the orcs catch up with them. If they roll well, then they make it through in time. If they don't, then they have a tough fight to survive first.

Enigmatic NPC giving them a hard time? They will eventually get his help, but oh the favors he asks for. They will be easy if he's facing a kindred spirit with a knack for riddles, or quite convoluted if the party is a pack of brutes with single-verb communication skills.

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Overview


I've wrestled with this same problem a great deal over the years. I've tried many different strategies for solving it but most of my attempts have left much to be desired. Focusing solely on the dice rolling helps keep the game moving and prevents the puzzle from becoming boring and tedious, but at the same time you lose most of the novelty of the puzzle. If the PCs are simply rolling dice until they inevitably succeed then there is little point to having the puzzle in the first place. Likewise, forcing the players themselves to solve the puzzle requires that they have the skills to solve it but that that it isn't effortless. It should strike the appropriate balance between being challenging but not frustrating.

I have personally developed a simple puzzle system loosely based on D&D 5e which I have play-tested and feel like it balances these concerns as much as possible. This method does not require that you be using D&D 5e (or any version of D&D really), only that you employ a d20 and have some kind of character ability score analogous to Intelligence or Wisdom. If using a system like World of Darkness or Shadowrun where initial PC attributes are in the low single digits, use half the attribute itself (rounded down) as if it were the PC's Intelligence or Wisdom bonus. I also borrow the concept of advantage/disadvantage from D&D 5e:

Advantage reflects the positive circumstances surrounding a d20 roll, while disadvantage reflects the opposite. When you have either advantage or disadvantage, you roll a second d20 when you make the roll. Use the higher of the two rolls if you have advantage, and use the lower roll if you have disadvantage. For example, if you have disadvantage and roll a 17 and a 5, you use the 5. If you instead have advantage and roll those numbers, you use the 17.

In all cases, I do not require the players to actually solve the puzzle themselves (though I do encourage them to try); instead, I require the characters to solve the puzzle. Each time they make a successful d20 check against a fixed DC of 20, I provide them with the next correct move or step in the sequence to solve the puzzle. If they don't beat the DC of 20 but they do beat a DC of 10, then I will give them a partial hint instead of the next complete step. I also give them clues (different clues for each puzzle) located within the environment scattered around the dungeon/area to solve the puzzles which can be found in any order. The clues could enable the players to solve the puzzle themselves, but I also translate them into abstract bonuses to the d20 checks that characters can make to iteratively solve the puzzle. Generally there are three clues: finding the first one gives all characters with knowledge of it an additional +1 bonus to any d20 check relevant to solving the puzzle. The second clue gives them a non-cumulative +3 bonus (meaning the +3 bonus replaces the +1 bonus from before). Finding the third and final clue grants the characters advantage on the d20 checks and stacks with the previous +3 bonus. Both of these bonuses combine to an average static bonus of +8 (+3 static bonus, and +5 on average from advantage). This allows them to mix and match so that they can complete the parts of the puzzle that they can solve themselves first and then if they get stuck or if they just have no clue how to solve the puzzle in real life they can still continue to make progress. If they take the time to locate all the clues, even relatively stupid characters can successfully make the check given time which represents them operating via simple process of elimination. To provide some consequences for failure so PC's aren't just tediously rolling dice until they inevitably succeed, I make bad things happen in the puzzle room (maybe throw some monsters or a trap of some kind at them) when they do something wrong depending on the specific puzzle.

Assuming a d20 modifier of zero and no clues have been discovered, then PCs will need to roll 20 on their checks to be guaranteed to make progress or roll 10 on their checks for hints that may or may not allow them to progress. If however the PCs locate all of the clues, then they only need to roll 12 or 2 on average respectively. A PC with a natural d20 bonus will have an even easier time solving the puzzles.

Given that you have a default 1/20 probability on landing on any individual face of a d20, then you have the following resulting probabilities on average:

  • 20: 01/20, solution chance low (default)
  • 12: 08/20, solution chance moderate (all clues)
  • 10: 10/20, hint chance moderate (default)
  • 02: 18/20, hint chance very high (all clues)

The reason I have designed this process to be iterative (requiring more than one d20 roll to solve a single puzzle) is because of the variability of the dice that you mention in your question and that Zachiel mentions in his excellent answer. Shadowrun has a similar concept called extended tests which also helped inspire my own solution where you have a certain amount if in-game time (like an hour or a day) to roll a certain number of successes to accomplish a given task.


Examples


Here are some examples of puzzles I have given my player's recently using the rules laid out above.

  1. A zombie chess puzzle where the players had to make moves using the zombies in white to secure a draw/stalemate against the zombies in black via the Réti Maneuver. For this puzzle I gave the following clues: A leather bound book of famous chess sequences which briefly described the appropriate strategy, a talking statue that magically bestowed upon every creature within 40 feet a basic knowledge of chess and its rules (which is how the Necromancer enabled the zombies to serve as chess pieces; they had to be able to recognize chess move notation to follow his commands and they would ordinarily have too low an intelligence to do so), and lastly a magical crystal which allowed the holder to see a prophetic vision of the final board configuration with the puzzle solved for a moment. Each incorrect move caused a group of three skeletons to be released into the room that the players needed to defeat before the zombie's positions reset and the puzzle began again.

  2. A binary arithmetic puzzle where the players had to interpret two sets of 4 torches lined up in sequence as two 4-bit binary numbers (which they could see but not reach across a 30 foot chasm) and perform the addition operation. They were to input the answer using 4 unlit torches located within the puzzle room that they could physically reach and a lever to pull when they wanted to check their solution. They needed to light the torches so that they represented the correct 4-bit sequence before pulling the lever. A lit torch was a 1 or true state, while an unlit torch represented a 0 or false state. The clues for this puzzle were a leather bound copy of a text entitled "Fundamentals of Logic Design" written in some ancient dead language with a section detailing binary addition which was extensively annotated in Common/English, a table engraved on one of the walls of the room showing all of the possible 4-bit numbers in binary next to their decimal equivalents, and a fellow adventurer's corpse that had apparently been crushed by a hidden trap mechanism that seems to have originated from the ceiling. The players got one free chance to supply an answer with the lever. After that, each time they pulled the lever with an incorrect solution I rolled a d4 (because in my case there were 3 PCs). Landing on 1-3 meant that one of the PCs would get hit by the crushing ceiling trap mechanism while landing on a 4 meant that no one was hit. The mechanism did 2d6 bludgeoning damage. There was a bonus scenario here where if they demonstrated the commutative property of addition by changing the input torches across the chasm via magic so that the positions of the two given 4-bit numbers are swapped around then a treasure chest would have been released by the ceiling mechanism containing a magic item.

  3. A 4-disk variation of Towers of Hanoi. The minimum number of moves required to solve the Towers of Hanoi are given by 2^n - 1 where 'n' is the number of disks. So the 4-disk version required a minimum of 15 moves. The first clue was a pop culture reference painted on one of the puzzle room walls: a two-panel picture depicted an ape in the left panel beginning to attempt the puzzle while in the right panel was an image of The First Doctor standing in front of the completed puzzle. The second clue was a mysterious piece of fine hemp paper lying on the floor of the room with the formula for the minimum number of moves scrawled on it in human blood. Finally, the last clue was in the possession of an NPC in a nearby brigand camp that had also been trying to solve the puzzle. He was keeping a written journal detailing his many failed attempts. This was also where the players had a chance to pre-emptively learn of the risk involved with the puzzle: each minion the NPC forced to attempt the puzzle was killed by a magical orb which would appear long enough to blast the poor sod with a fire/lightning spell once the number of moves had exceeded the minimum + 5. Since 4-disks required 15 moves, any creature attempting to solve it was incinerated after 20 moves. If there was more than one creature in the puzzle room when the trap was triggered (as there would be if a group of PCs were to all go into the puzzle room together and fail) then I would roll a die to see who was the unfortunate victim of the magical orb. This also caused the puzzle to reset to its initial configuration.

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Love the puzzle examples! –  PurpleVermont May 3 at 1:00

Leave solving the riddles to the players and create other challenges for the characters.

Some examples for D&D 3.5 (using the giant example but it might work for any riddles or puzzles):

  • Hints related to character knowledge - a riddle may contain a reference to a legend, local event etc. If the character makes a successful knowledge check (history, arcana, local) give them a hint, but make a riddle solvable without it anyway.
  • Let the characters convince the giant to give up some hints (Diplomacy, Perform etc.) in a conversation.
  • Intelligence (or Knowledge) check only influences time in which the riddles are solved in-game. The better the result, the quicker the characters solve the riddles (no matter how long it takes the players). This way they enter the scary forest during daytime. Or not.
  • Make other challenges before riddles - "if you can tell me what kind tree is that, the riddle will be easy, if not, difficult" (Knowledge nature).
  • Let the characters skip the puzzles altogether - let them make a Bluff check to convince the giant that a wrong answer is actually right, change the contest to a song contest (Diplomacy and Perform) and so on.

Otherwise, I use the same method as suggested by Zachiel - series of rolls indicating some measurable level of success.

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Makes you wonder why this was downvoted. It's a perfectly good answer. +1 –  edgerunner May 2 at 20:23

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