I think me and my players are quite fond of puzzles in our TTRPGs, me designing them and they solving them. Last session I presented them with a puzzle that was unsolvable “at the moment”. I thought that they had sufficient foreshadowing about that condition, and at the moment decided not to “backseat play” their game and let them to their devices. Which was very frustrating for both parties, and now I see I should’ve let them know clearly and directly that what they needed wasn’t available right then, we could have kept on playing instead of banging our heads against the wall.
This bad decision aside, I’ll explain the puzzle and their situation:
They had contracted a sketchy Skyship captain to fly them to another continent, but he asked as part of their payment that they completed a task for him. Middway through the ocean there was a temple to Nemesis (we use greek gods in our campaign), that was one of the clues in a treasure map. They had to get through it and get a treasure that was on the other side.
This is the second temple to Nemesis that they had found, but in the first they never encountered the puzzles that opened the inner chamber (Instead one of the PCs stole everything that wasn’t bolted and angered the Goddess).
In this second temple, they found several traps that summoned Driders if triggered. They quickly found the way through it to the other side, but this time they also found the puzzles to the inner chamber.
The first door had a brazier with an engraving that read: “Blood of the petitioner”
They know, thanks to previous encounters with the goddess' avatar, that she is a very easy to anger goddess, but also very personal and intimate, and just in her decisions. Whoever started this puzzle would be the one needed to finish it, this I directly told them.
The party decided that “the petitioner” should be the character that had angered her, because “best case scenario” Nemesis forgave her, "worst case scenario" the goddess was already angry so nothing changed.
The Character poured a few drops of blood on the brazier, the door opened and they proceeded, killing a few Driders that disappeared and left no trace whatsoever when killed (they were summoned magical constructs).
They found a second brazier, that read “Blood of their friends”. There was also a mural that depicted Nemesis sacrificing her best friend while everyone watched. They tried to use the Captain’s blood, and it didn’t work. She suffered some backlash damage (10 points, just to discourage trying to fit anything in the brazier without thinking), and I told her that as far as she knew Nemesis, she had allies and grudges, but only very few Friends and Enemies, as those words were reserved to personal, intimate people. Then they tried with the blood of one of the other players, which are friends, and it worked.
I thought I had established here that “random friendly person” and “random unfriendly creature” would not qualify.
They found the third brazier, that read “Blood of their enemies” with a partner painting of Nemesis killing Hades (which in our world is her enemy, and they know that since it's kinda centric in the story).
Now, the Character that had been doing this has a personal enemy, someone that stole all her things and sold her to slavery.
I thought they would understand that they needed to find THAT enemy.
Instead they activated some Drider traps on purpose to have their blood. When they killed them I explained again how they didn’t leave anything behind when killed, so then they tried to kill one while it was standing on the brazier… wich they accomplished somehow with very lucky dice. It didn’t work either.
Then they started throwing things at random, several trophies of previous hunts, vials of acid collected from monsters… everything. They resorted to heal her so they could try more things.
In the end they left frustrated. I think, justly so, because I should have stopped and said: It’s not working, think it better. Or “go on with your lifes and come back later”
After much prodding on their part I decided to tell them how to solve the puzzle (now that they are away, and accomplished their main mission), and they felt like it was impossible for them to get to that conclusion and the puzzle itself was unfair.
Let’s take out of the equation the fact that I should have interrupted them when they started thrashing at random.
How could I have presented this in a better way?