Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Let's Put Regis Philbin in Your Next RPG Puzzle

I’ve really been living up to my moniker lately as I’ve been stealing from everywhere.

Namely podcasts – my recent rules tweaks have been inspired/ripped from the wonderful 4e podcast, The Power Source.

However, despite my promise to continue on with that series today, this blog post is borrowing heavily from the 3.5 Private Sanctuary. The most recent podcast was, ostensibly, about defining roleplaying – but there was a large tangent that essentially broke down into the following claim about RPGs or, at the very least, D&D:

When it comes to roleplaying Strength, Dex, and Con we rely on the rolls. If you have an 18 Strength you can lift the boulder – it doesn’t matter if you are a sickly 4’1 pre-teen girl with a broken arm. The stats back you up . . . however, when we roleplay the Int, Wis, Cha attributes we often ask more of the players than the characters. For example, even though your bard has an +18 bluff, it is not inconceivable that if the player is saying outrageous things or stumbling over his words he may suffer a penalty. Or, perhaps as a better example and the one they focus on in the podcast, when a group interacts with a riddle or a puzzle, the wizard with 20 intelligence does not automatically solve it. Instead the group must piece things together as players, and thus they often rely on the wit of the player as opposed to the character.


A couple quick caveats: Is this a big problem? No, probably not.

Is the above example universal? No. Lots of GMs allow the roll of the die to supersede the roleplaying of the character. If you have a 21 intelligence, then maybe the GM allows you to roll your way to a solution regardless whether or not you can tie your own shoe laces.


The fun of a puzzle is diminished, I’d argue, when you can just blast it away with a roll of a die. The same goes with NPC interaction. If we just relied on the die roll, there’d be no need to ever speak a line of dialogue. You could just say, “I bluff him. I rolled a 32.”

One prevalent solution to this is allowing slight buffs to the roll depending on how well things are played by the player. The player who weaves an interesting and believable lie gains a +X to his Bluff check. The player who raises his voice and pounds the table gains a similar bonus to intimidate and so on. Perhaps, someone does such a commendable job roleplaying, the DM allows for an automatic success. I tend to think these solutions are both widespread and satisfactory.

But I do not feel the same situation deals with puzzles.

The game loses a bit of luster when the riddle is solved by a check. The elaborate runes carved into the doorway are deciphered with a skill roll or two. Often times puzzles are meant to challenge the players – and thus leaning to heavily on character options can bypass that ‘fun’ (if these challenges do not engage your players then this point is moot. Let them roll and move on.)

At the same time, as much time as you, the DM, invested in writing up an engaging puzzle, your player’s invested much more making an attachment to a character they’ve created. Thus, I’d argue it is poor DMing to block the options wholly from the field of play.

So what to do? Rely on Regis of course . . . introduce lifelines (Copyright Who Wants to be a Millionaire of course)

Instead of granting outright success for a high mental attribute, give unique bonuses. Now, in all honesty, I’m not even finished with the podcast yet – these ideas hit me and I wanted to get them down. They are rough to be sure. However, that is where you come in. What other ideas do you have? How does your game table broach this subject? Let me know.

LIFELINE #1 “Eliminate Some Wrong Answers”

Sometimes during puzzles players jump to the immediately wrong conclusion with fervor and conviction. Only then does the DM realize how is puzzle’s answer could be misconstrued in such a way. One use of a lifeline is to eliminate these wrong answers when a player makes an appropriate mental check. “Dergar the Red, you realize you’ve been thinking about it all wrong. The answer to the riddle can’t be the moon, these derro ruins are underground, and the derro never leave for the surface. Their comprehension of moon, of any light source must be something native to the Underdark.”

It’s best if in your elimination of a wrong answer you also drop subtle clues to the real answer.

LIFELINE #2 “Phone a Friend”

The player who succeeds on an appropriate mental check has access to a computer or a book for 20 seconds. This is obviously a lifeline that will only help with certain puzzles . . . riddles, word games, or just general reference to history. Also, it assists people when they know what they are thinking of but can’t quite get the word out.

The fun here is the time limit. The player is still participating in a game of sorts, instead of just being spoon fed the answer.

LIFELINE #3 “Ask the Crowd (DM)”

The player who succeeds on an appropriate mental check may ask the DM a yes or no question. Any question? So it could even be: Is the answer turning the dial to the right, then pull the lever with the blue gem?”

In a way this one works like a save point, it allows the player to venture an answer without it counting against the limit or time, or being wrong in general. Crafty players are going to ask very good questions, thus making this a potentially powerful use of a lifeline.

Ok, that’s what I got right now. Hope you guys like and I hope you guys contribute a few more ideas to this.


  1. I like the lifeline idea to handle certain non-combat encounters. It feels like a nice balance between rolling through it and challenging the players. It also helps get out of puzzles or encounters that strand a stumped party.

    Thanks for the mention! Hope you enjoyed the rest of the episode.

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