Puzzles vs Toys


A few days ago I had a tweet go "viral". Well, I mean, I got triple digit likes, and there was a decent amount of discussion and retweets.

Twitter, of course, is a horrible place to actually have a conversation, and a blog post is a better place to break down what I think this means. The quote comes from Bryce Lynch's Ten Foot Pole blog. He was reviewing a module written by a BRAND NEW adventure writer, who had tossed in an entry to the Wavestone Keep contest. This example in fact, is not even from the adventure itself. It's similar to what appears in the adventure, but because the writer is self admittedly new, Bryce was being semi-oblique but still trying to make his point, imo.

And what was that point?

I'm going to be gauche and pull the example from the text of the adventure because I think it's a very good example and something that's worthy of being discussed. I want to be clear that I'm not doing this to pick on the author in any way shape or form, and I think it's a good start for a first written adventure. I bring it up and think it's so important because it meshes well with something I went on about in an interview I did recently with Jeff Jones (on YouTube).

  1. Problem 1: All humans are alone inside their head.
    1. When we play an RPG, what we're ultimately trying to accomplish is have multiple people imagine the same fantasy world. Because of problem 1, this is inherently impossible
    2. Despite this impossibility we still try, and there are moments where everyone around the table can seem to "mesh" for a time when interacting with the game world, and those moments are down right magical.
  2. Problem 2: We hold many assumptions inside our head. 
    1. For the purposes of this post, when someone writes down an adventure idea they've got to be super concious of this fact, and do everything they can to communicate those assumptions to the DM. Often, not including those assumed things can become a direct obstacle to getting the DM and all players "meshing".
  3. Problem 3: We often don't even realize we have these assumptions. 
    1. Even if we're aware of some and focused on them, there can still be more in there that don't make it out of the head and onto the paper. (This is why playtesting and/or having other people read your work is so important. Other intelligences quickly say "wtf?" and then you must scramble and say "Oh yeah, that's because....") 

The Example:

This stone door’s face is covered with an array of ancient runes. The runes pulse with faint blue light. The door itself doesn’t budge when you put force against it.

This ancient vault was long ago locked through magical warding and cannot be opened through conventional means. The magic wards waver in strength and can be dispelled by any spellcaster who can solve its purpose. For a spellcaster to open the vault, they must succeed at an appropriate knowledge or aptitude test (low).

Going purely by this text, what does the DM actually have to work with?

  • The door is stone
  • The door is covered in ancient runes
  • The runes pulse with blue light
  • The door can only be opened by a spell caster
  • The spell caster must succeed an appropriate test/check

It is quite possible (and I would even guess likely) that the writer may have additional assumptions about this door that didn't make it onto the paper. And because it's a first attempt, that's totally ok. But: The door is a puzzle, (puzzle being defined as, there is only one correct solution), and that solution is a skill check. The immediate problem with this is, what happens if the spellcaster fails? Is that it? One of the nice things about this is that the vault behind the door is technically optional. Sure it's full of stuff the PCs would like to have, but if they fail the check they can still progress through the adventure.

It would have been much better if the door could have been a toy instead. Toys are best when they're optional (as this door is), and don't block a party from progressing through the adventure. For something to be a toy it needs to have multiple ways it can be played with, or in RPG terms, it needs multiple elements that can be interacted with. I think this is why Bryce turned it into a magic circle for his example because their toy options are more obvious. If a circle is made of salt that salt can be disrupted, if it's candles, those candles can be blown out. For this door, the runes could be chiseled or destroyed, but that's not addressed for the DM. The runes pulse and when they dim they're weaker, which is good, but there's no additional info for the DM on how/what players could do with that. 

The toy version of the door door could have an obvious "key slot" or a location where something should clearly be applied in order to get it open. This tells players that they could/should go look for the missing piece, while also encouraging clever players to say "no, let's hack the magic directly." It also gives them another option if the hacking fails, or no one in the party has dispel magic. The door could be cracked or weak in some way. Again, another method of entrance is hinted at. But breaking open a cracked stone door has obvious potential downsides (mainly, alerting everyone else in the dungeon with the noise). But it's still a clearly communicated option. It could have a talking doorknob, Alice in Wonderland style. It could have a guard. Or it could have a caretaker on the inside, who could be seen/cajoled/intimidated/etc. The runes could be a hint, or a puzzle (this would be best when combined with other things so it's not a singular solution to the whole door as a toy object). It could be linked to a button or lever in another room.

TL:DR version: Instead of putting single solution puzzles in a dungeon, try to put interactive toys in instead. Run it by other people, because you may think it's an interactive toy, but a stranger reading the text you wrote to communicate that toy may be missing all kinds of info and options you take for granted.


  1. Solid advice. The above example is not even an outrageous one. Necessary clues and items gated behind mandatory perception tests are what really irk me.


Post a Comment