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I'm working on a modern rural fantasy game, in which a house will be a dungeon. With the typical checkered linoleum pattern, the kitchen seems like a good place chess puzzle. I am leaning towards something simple with only a few pieces like this with the idea being the challenge is more to recognize the puzzle for what it is rather than actually being good at chess.

But how can I communicate to the players that it's a chess puzzle in a way that's neither impossible to figure out nor blindingly obvious.

The best idea I've been able to come up with so far is to have the pieces be the petrified former inhabitants and have clues in each person's room as to which piece they are, but that just shifts the problem. I'd still need to subtly convey which piece a person was in a way that's neither obvious nor esoteric.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ As far as I like puzzles and chess... I cannot really fit a checkered linoleum kitchen pavement in a fantasy game :( Maybe a checkered stone pavement in a villa or manor of some kind... but in the entrance hall or some important room, not in the kitchen. \$\endgroup\$ – Frazz Oct 8 '14 at 6:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ Whatever you do, make sure all your players speak the language your hints are using. For example, in Germany, Knight and Bishop are called "Springer" (Jumper) and "Läufer" (Runner). Any references to knighthood or the church would surely be lost on Germans. \$\endgroup\$ – nvoigt Oct 8 '14 at 9:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Frazz Sorry I was unclear. By urban fantasy I mean modern fantasy, but rather than your typical urban fantasy in a city, it's set in the rural Deep South of the United States. \$\endgroup\$ – Barret Oct 8 '14 at 13:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ Not a duplicate but still relevant: "How can I deal with players who don't consider the narrative?" \$\endgroup\$ – Philipp Oct 8 '14 at 14:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ Give the chess board some levels in Rogue, then have it take the Hide In Plain Sight feat? (Sorry, I had to.) \$\endgroup\$ – Aza Oct 8 '14 at 17:10
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This falls under the principle of include three clues for everything. It also is well suited to the approach of using environment-based storytelling.

Use Environment-Based Storytelling

Introduce the puzzle setting first and let the players be confused over the weird specificity. I like the petrified inhabitants part; maybe have the husband-farmer and wife-farmer wearing crowns, placed upon them by whatever mischevious fiend set up this puzzle. The players probably won't understand what's going on, but you can include enough detail that they will find it weird. Including a visible goal will help: a chest in the corner that's sealed with mystical force or an unopenable cellar door with the symbol of an inverted crown on it.

Once the players' curiosity is piqued, they will probably resume exploring. Here is where you can include your clues: a mocking poem in the children's room about farmers becoming kings and queens and a horse becoming a knight, a chess set out on the table in the parents' room with only three or four pieces on it, and so on.

Provide Many Clues

Even if you include what feels like too many clues, your players won't notice. They'll find just enough clues to figure out the solution, and then they'll stop looking. Even if you include an extra clue, they'll feel clever and excited that they already know how to interpret that. In the worst case, if they figure it out immediately, just leave out any remaining clues as if you expected them to get it quickly.

As far as worrying about being too obvious: your players have a lot on their plates. They're visualizing a world you're describing, balancing resources, and keeping in mind their larger goals in the world. Picking up on even obvious clues is enough of a challenge. Recognizing that the "king" and "bishop" in a message refer to chess pieces seems obvious in planning, but it's an impressive leap for a player who's already juggling a bunch of other knowledge.

Conclusion

As long as you don't have them find a note that says "THIS IS A CHESS PUZZLE AND HERE IS THE SOLUTION," you're probably not being too obvious.

As for being too esoteric: have a backup clue that stops just short of the obvious note above, and if it seems like they're moving on without solving the puzzle, place it in the next place they look.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Now I've got a craving for some old school King's Quest, well done! \$\endgroup\$ – MetaGuru Oct 8 '14 at 19:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ This whole answer is great, but the real gem is: "Including a visible goal will help". If the players don't have any reason to investigate the linoleum floor, how will them ever solve it? \$\endgroup\$ – mbocek Mar 8 '17 at 23:33
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The key to an epic adventure is not to plan a perfect puzzle, but to plan the story of a perfect puzzle. Players shouldn't find clues where you left them; players should find clues where you let them. Keep a good balance between "too easy" and "too hard", and your players will boast of your brilliance for ages to come.

With that in mind, write down a a large number of clues, and where they are hidden. Seriously, make a huge list. Some that involve physical action, like pushing a 'chess piece'; some that involve searching rooms; some that involve whatever mystical powers your players possess. As your players begin looking for clues, they will quickly find those that are, as you mentioned, blindingly obvious... so throw those out. Mark them off the list without every mentioning to the players that the clue existed at all. Eventually, allow the group to find the first clue. Make sure not to wait too long, until someone is frustrated, but don't reveal it too soon, either. Watch your players, and reveal clues when the story would best benefit from it. Once a clue is found, cross out the other versions of the same clue; suddenly finding fifteen clues that all point to the same thing makes a fun puzzle embarrassingly easy. You know your players better than anyone here, so pick clues you think they would enjoy; try to pick out specific skills that they (the players, not the characters) have.

As far as the players will know, you planned a perfect adventure, where every event happened at exactly the right moment; they need never know that you threw away half the clues just to keep them on their toes.

And, bonus, some actual clues:

  • A list of chess moves (see this image), possibly hidden in something else, like a ledger
  • Pieces that move when pushed, but only to legal positions
  • Tiny pictures on each piece, showing which piece is which
  • A mirror, where all the pieces can be seen reflected; scratches on the glass add hats to each piece
  • A letter full of chess terms - "The King of Spain invited Bishop Bartholomew, escorted by his knights, to view his new rookery."
  • Straight-up riddles, scratched in the wall of each person's bedroom, with the answers being the type of piece they are
  • Each piece is holding or wearing something that shows what they are - the king has a coin (a gold crown), the queen has a stirring spoon shaped like a scepter, the knight is wearing a pot on his head, the bishop is wearing a tall paper hat, etc.
  • An actual chessboard is hidden somewhere, and the only pieces to be found are the same as the ones in the kitchen
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  • \$\begingroup\$ These are some great, concrete suggestions. Would give you more than a +1 if I could. :) \$\endgroup\$ – TML Oct 8 '14 at 8:40
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Tuck the clues into the descriptions of the rooms. Each person has one defining object in their room, but it might not be immediately obvious if you're not in the right frame of mind, especially if you make the descriptions robust enough that it doesn't stick out.

Of course, alter these to fit your setting, but here are some ideas:

  • A picture of a castle (rook)
  • A stuffed horse on the bed (knight)
  • A bible and rosary on the bedside table (bishop)
  • A beauty queen tiara on the vanity (queen)
  • A military officer's uniform or medals (king)

Depending on your players and your GM style, how you describe the room could be tricky. If your players aren't used to detailed descriptions from you, then trying to hide the clue among a lot of other information is going to seem suspicious to them. In which case, you can give sparse descriptions unless they specifically examine something. (Like mentioning there are pictures on the wall, but not saying of what unless someone actually says they're looking at them.)

On the other hand, if they're used to long descriptions, then go nuts:

Jim Bob's room is set out with almost military precision, with everything lined up at careful right angles. The bed is impeccably made, down to the crisp corners. The clothes in the closet are carefully hung, and four pairs of shoes sit lined up on the floor. Every surface is meticulously free of clutter, save for a well-loved stuffed bird on the corner of the dresser. The walls are slate grey, and completely bare except for a collection of photographs above the desk, and even those seem to have been laid out with a straight-edge. Each picture shows Jim Bob standing in front of a different castle, apparently during a grand tour of Europe.

Now you've worked in an entire description full of clues. Besides the actual castles, there's the grey walls (like a castle), everything at right angles (rooks only move left-right or up-down). the crisp corners (rooks start in the corners of the board), and the stuffed bird -- a rook, of course.

In isolation, a single room description might not key the players in, but if all the rooms are similarly laid out, savvy players will notice the pattern emerging.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ That would be too obscure unless players are strongly hinted that they need items to replace chess. However, if all items are statues that are clearly out of place where they rest - then you may go without hinting at chess. \$\endgroup\$ – Barafu Albino Oct 8 '14 at 6:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ @BarafuAlbino I agree that's a possibility. The level of subtlety depends on the campaign, of course. If it's a random puzzle in an otherwise hack-and-slash game, you may need to be more heavy-handed. But if the players are expecting puzzles to be solved, they'll be more aware of smaller clues. \$\endgroup\$ – Roger Oct 8 '14 at 13:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ @GregoryAvery-Weir I've added in an example that may help. \$\endgroup\$ – Roger Oct 8 '14 at 14:14

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