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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

3 Answers 3

up vote 12 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
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
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

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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