Gamedesign: Rattled by riddles

Riddels in a game – they are implemented quite often and quite a large amount of gamers like riddles if you ask them directly. I am one of them, if you ask me directly, I love riddles in the game, but once I start thinking about my past experiences with them, I am very likely to reconsider this and will probably change the subject quickly (to avoid showing that I was answering faster than I thought about it *smile*) – j/k… Why? Because riddles are something your players will have to solve on their own with no or little regard on their characters abilities, who actually are confronted with them.

Voiceless it cries,
Wingless flutters,
Toothless bites,
Mouthless mutters.
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

An example: It’s not long ago that one of our Dungeon Masters introduced us a portal which was keyed by a mathematical riddle. Just for your information, we’re currently playing in Rashemen (a country of barbarians – and well other not-so-intelligent creatures) and we figured after a while of thinking and a lot of trial and error that the solution was 16.384. (You probably now know that this riddle was offered by one of the IT-plagued Dungeon Masters of our group – but then again, most are…) Besides the discussion that followed that 16.384 is quite a large number and most of our characters wouldn’t even have the slightest idea how to count that far, we’ve solved it. When I say we - I refer to the players – and I think that’s ok. No, honestly – I think riddles are great ot keep your players busy at a short point in the game, but they have two often underestimated downsides – the first one was already mentioned, but the later and bigger one is – riddles are morale- and / or gamebreakers if you tie them to an important key point of your game. What are you to do if you’re offering a riddle at a central aspect of your game and none of your players solves it – ? Besides the “you can’t be that stupid” mentality, which I develop as a dungeon master, if I select an easy one and no one manages to focus that much to get some information out of it, you’re most likely to help them and have the backup of npc help or magical divinations. (ok, I’m not really thinking other players are stupid, but I tried to put FRUSTRATION into different words, don’t get me wrong here)

You force the solution upon them and what you get is, either frustration because you waited too long or frustration because you spoiled it too fast. So, by now you eventually agree with me that riddles are not easy to implement into the game, right? What is the solution to this? In my opinion – the solution is easy – don’t tie them to vital parts of your adventure. In the example above the portal is a quite important mean of travel to a far eastern place and back. I think we would have found a different way to travel and our Dungeon Master is very likely to have found something different for us to do, therefore it was quite important but luckily no game-breaker (and we figured it out after all…) – a implementation that worked, though can be improved.

If you still insist on using them for the main-stream of the plot and risk all the above mentioned – I know there can be several reasons to do this and I understand them completely – get yourself prepared to get your players prepared to get their characters prepared. Again, let’s take the above mentioned scenario – we’ve a portal and a math-riddle to open and close it. There would have been a few approaches for workarounds and preparation. We fought against intimidating human warriors with a strange symbol of dancing/mating/fighting dragons on their cape a little while before we actually travelled through the portal. It would have been a great preparation step to have them either carry a key for the portal or a note with the solution (they weren’t smart after all…) or give the players an obvious hint by using some treasures which could have been placed. We used the word 16.384  in draconic language, they could have had a book or note with draconic letters on them (honestly we figured the number out by trial of around 10 languages the various characters are able to speak) – give them some special mathematical thesis or some scholar background (ok, granted two stupid humans are not the epidome of scholarship, but the encounter would have to look a little different, a cleric, mage or noblesman of some sort would suffice easily). Even with another encounter with these secretive guildmembers it’s easy to get some association with mathematics into it. (the use of a special password for the meeting,…) –

Just keep in mind, the harder your riddle, the better prepared you should be for helping out a little bit. Best way to figure out how hard a riddle really is – share it with fellow bloggers, friends or family.
My personal suggestion with riddles is – make them openers for side-plots, give your players and their characters a helping hand with background information or prepare some kind of theme – so they get into the right thinking and use the riddles to get some special things to your characters, reward them fore solve the riddles. In our case the portal gets us halfway through a country – which can be pretty useful. Perhaps the most valueable possession of a long-dead king is protected by a riddle and grants access to some artifact of old times. Use it as an additional way to bring some extras to your players, don’t blame someone who does hardly  participate in the solving process, skills are different and after all you’re usually rewarding a player for out-game thinking which should not be too obvious at that point.

Still, if you haven’t used riddles in your game – try a few easy ones – even the children’s book The Hobbit has some tough enough riddles which you can easily copy for your game. (Besides a quick search on “netbook + riddles” opens up countless possiblities). Hard ones are only good for side-quests with special rewards to earn :). Don’t overuse – use them with caution and they will improve your gaming experience – and of course the experience of your players as well!

2 thoughts on “Gamedesign: Rattled by riddles

  1. A favourite tactic is to spread a riddle out over several encounters. I’ll give one line of a riddle out per encounter, and not necessarily in order. This makes even simple riddles fun as the players not only need to solve the riddle, but they must put the pieces together first to figure out the question.

    Johnn Fours last blog post.. – Reconstructing the Campaign Mastery Blog

  2. Hey Johnn,
    would you mind giving me an example on this? I have to admit I’m far from an expert with riddles and would love to get a bit more input on this matter – (I do like them but I – have *s* – room for improvement) 😉

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