Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Puzzles and RPGs

Posted by Rampant Coyote on March 11, 2011

It felt somewhat serendipitous that I found this excellent interview with Dave Gilbert of Wadjet Eye Games – maker of commercial indie graphic adventure games – while I was in the middle of adding some more adventure-game-esque puzzles to Frayed Knights.  It provided extra fodder for thought on things I’ve been a-pondering lately, including puzzles in RPGs.

Dave talks about how he stumbled into becoming an indie, and from there stumbled into becoming something of an indie publisher. And he talks about the adventure game genre – with some really choice quotes about them. Including what sucks. Like getting stuck in puzzles. And it’s very true. There are a number of adventure games (and RPGs, for that matter) that I simply quit after banging my head against the wall on a puzzle a few times.

But I also think back on some of my favorite moments of these games, and they often involve solving said puzzles. They are a blessing and a curse. I love beating them, I hate being beaten by them. Dave’s sentiments echo those of Jeff Vogel, recently, when he discussed RPG difficulty. No matter what happens, somebody’s going to get stuck on whatever challenge you throw at them in the game, and they’ll probably not be too happy about it.

I know this has been done before by many other people, but I’ll try detailing the different types of “puzzles” that I find myself  working with in my RPG…

The Self-Contained Puzzle: This is a classic puzzle or logic game that requires no external tools to resolve.  Worst-case, these may often be resolved by brute force. Some players hate these. Some players think they are kind of fun.  Sometimes they take the form of a mini-game.  Examples that I’m dredging up from past games might include the riddle-protected chests in Betrayal at Krondor, or a mastermind-style puzzle in Wizardry 7. Or a twisty maze of little passages, all different.

The Sequence Puzzle: Sort of a variation on The Self-Contained Puzzle above, this is a puzzle that requires the player to take actions (often, simply moving) in a specific sequence.  Failure may result in having to start over. The key to making these puzzles not suck is twofold: Making sure that there are clues to the correct sequence so that it’s not a pure trial-and-error experience; and making sure that failure is not too punitive. If each stage of an 8-stage sequence takes a full minute to complete, it’s going to piss off players.

The Inventory (“Lock and Key”) Puzzle: This is a challenge where you need to use a specific inventory item on an object to acquire… well, whatever is needed. You can abstract this down as Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw (of Zero Punctuation fame)  did to the idea of an inventory item being a key by any other name to be used on a lock. This is pretty standard adventure game fare, but can also among the more boring (and potentially frustrating) puzzles.

The Flexible Solution: This is a puzzle that has a fixed solution, but isn’t quite so specific on how the solution is resolved. I’m thinking of things like the pressure-plate puzzles in the Eye of the Beholder games, where you had to find something to weigh down pressure plates to hold the right doors open. What you used to weigh down the the pressure plates was up to you – discarded weapons, skulls, stones, whatever you felt you could part with.

The Multiple-Choice Problem: This is a problem wherein the player is given a number of fixed options (usually two or three) to resolve it (or bypass it). You can fight the dragon, or sneak past the dragon, or solve an adventure-gamey puzzle to convince it to move to the right spot so you can drop a loosened ceiling block on its head.

The Open-Ended Solution: If the game has a complex enough system to support these kinds of puzzles, they are my favorite. This is a puzzle that is more of a problem-solving exercise, which may have a preferred approach to solving the problem without barring alternative approaches.  Games with a physics system often have puzzles like these, where an out-of-reach item can be acquired by any number of weird approaches.

Just Using The Right Tool for the Job: Another favorite of mine is really not considered a puzzle – it’s more frequently dubbed something like “tactics.” These are simply situations that normally occur in the game mechanics or mini-games (like combat… and in Frayed Knights, traps) which may have tricks or preferred approaches that make it far easier. This can be as simple as finding Armbands of Fire Resistance for the party before taking on the fire-breathing dragon.

I don’t think puzzles are anything that should be avoided in an RPG. Going back and replaying the first few levels of Eye of the Beholder reminded me how much fun and entertainment puzzles and puzzle-like challenges can add to a game. If they don’t piss the player off.

How can they avoid pissing off a player? As Dave says in the interview, “If the player has to Google it, you are doing it wrong.”

Some thoughts:

  • RPGs should provide in-game hints. Sometimes it’s just the right keyword that an NPC might suggest that will help the player figure out the solution.
  • RPGs should make more challenging puzzles optional. They should either relegated to optional side-quests, or be capable of being bypassed entirely (made “multiple choice”).
  • RPGs should use a variety of different puzzle types from the above list. Just to make sure things don’t get stale.
  • RPGs should recognize that brute force is not a sin. If the player can’t figure out what the designer thinks of as a “simple” sequence to get through an array of pits, he shouldn’t be forced to go back to the beginning of the sequence each time. Let the player power through the traps and get to the end.
  • If it’s not an action game, RPGs should not have a mandatory action sequence / timed puzzle.  If you want chocobo races on the side, fine. But a more “cerebrally paced” game shouldn’t suddenly require a high-speed rat chase through a maze. Fortunately, I don’t recall seeing those much anymore (probably because there aren’t many “cerebrally paced” mainstream RPGs being made anymore).
  • The designers should assume that while 25% of their customers will love getting to use their brain more in the game, another 25% will hate and resent these puzzles and will want to get back to moving along the story or beating the crap out of monsters as quickly as possible. The games should always find ways to please one group without pissing off the latter.

These are the kinds of ideas that help me enjoy puzzle-solving in RPGs, instead of being filled with anger and resentment. Fortunately, I don’t recall too many RPGs that have really failed in this respect.

And by the way, you should check out the demo for  Gemini Rue, published by Wadjet Eye. I need to do a write-up on it. I was pretty dang impressed. It really did make me feel like I was playing a new Sierra adventure game in 1992. Only – in some ways – better.


Filed Under: Adventure Games, Design - Comments: 9 Comments to Read



  • Andy_Panthro said,

    Most modern RPG puzzles are rather easier than older games’ puzzles as far as I can recall, possibly because they don’t want to piss people off too much.

    I do remember playing the first Eye of the Beholder, and got stumped by several of the puzzles. Mind you, I was only young when I played it. Perhaps I would have better luck as an adult…

    One of the best series for balancing puzzles for me was the Quest for Glory series (I’ll concede that it might not fit many people’s idea of an RPG though). You often had the choice of three ways to approach any given task (one for each character class).

  • Menigal said,

    I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with puzzles. I enjoy them when they’re well thought out and fit into the game world. There’s a reason for me to go find the 4 penguin statues and put fedoras on them to open the Gate of Qixlebozzle, or whatever. This can be as simple as the game saying “Hi, I’m a puzzle game.”

    I hate when they’re just shoehorned in. Some lazy designer felt this map needed some punching up, so he plunked down a talking door that asks some programming exercise math question or a riddle he found online by googling “puzzle”. This is particularly annoying when it comes up in more or less standard RPGs. You’ve spent the last half hour fighting zombie turnips in what’s been a standard dungeon crawl, and now you’ve found a locked door. Oh, wait, there’s some poles and discs here. Now you have to remember how the hell to solve the Towers of Hanoi AGAIN.

    If there’s going to be a puzzle, I want some kind of effort put into it. I want enough clues presented to me that I can, at least in theory, solve it with a few minutes of careful thought. If it’s only there to pad the game out or requires me to remember math I’ve not done in 15 years, I’d rather it just be left out.

  • McTeddy said,

    I used to be all for puzzles until one lecture from Dave Arneson. He actually opened my eyes to alot of different things that I’d never have considered

    When someone is playing a shooter, they are looking for action. When they are playing a racing game… they are looking to drive. What do you think they’d say if we suddenly forced them to stop and complete a sodoku board to continue?

    RPG players do tend to be more of thinking players… but that doesn’t mean they want to stop exploring, fighting and hearing the story to play some random puzzle.

    Dave never said to avoid putting puzzles into games. He said NEVER block a player from proceeding because of one.

    If you want a puzzle either make it optional for fantastic rewards… or make it something that you can bypass in another way. Whether it’s kicking the door down, fighting powerful guards, or purchasing the answer off some shady guy in the corner… never block the players progress on something that doesn’t directly relate to the game they wanted.

    If they put the controller down to think, we’ve given them a perfect reason not to pick it back up. If we put all this work into a game… why would we want to prevent someone from seeing it?

  • Al3xand3r said,

    Puzzles are good if they’re well made and make sense. If my character is exploring some ancient tomb then it makes sense to have some puzzle in the form of traps that I have to somehow bypass to get to where I want for example (even that where I want is the exit rather than a completely optional treasure).

    Why should my character be able to go through that situation with say, taking some damage instead of figuring it all out? That will just make the challenge much less intense and potentially ruin the mood of an area that is supposed to be super dangerous yet because the developer feared of making me think more than usual it’s now an area like any other.

    That I’m playing an RPG doesn’t mean I only want the bare minimum elements out of it. RPGs tend to tell a story that takes characters into all sorts of situations, and these situations should be appropriately developed.

    The same goes for action games really. If it makes sense to have a puzzle, then go ahead and have a puzzle. It will only help intensify the action parts if there’s some downtime inbetween.

    If RPGs can blend with action games (and vice versa) and that’s apparently fine as long as they keep the core elements that define their labels, why is it bad for puzzles to blend with these genres also? Especially when such puzzles tend to have little in common with Sudoku despite this broad description?

    Where’s the sense in that, other than aiming for the lowest common denominator of course, people who will quit if they haven’t gone back to those basic elements within 5 minutes, in order for the game to be the highest success it can be by sacrificing some or many of the designer’s ideas like this Dave’s opinion seems to stem from.

    I mean, what if you have an RPG about a detective or something? Shouldn’t that character and through him the player have to use his brain to solve cases like puzzles, and shouldn’t being unable to do so mean that a case, main or side, goes unsolved? Or should that be relegated to a dice roll to keep the game an RPG through and through, making the setting is pretty much inconsequential to the gameplay, and therefor far less chargming?

  • Felix Pleșoianu said,

    If the game is about a detective, then yes, puzzles are par for the course. But if it’s an old school dungeon crawl, some people will play it strictly for the fighting. And remember that no matter how easy a puzzle is, some people just won’t manage to solve it. Block someone from finishing the game just because you thought that puzzle should be there, and they’ll be really angry.

    Expectations matter. Thematic unity matters too. And there is no single answer.

  • Al3xand3r said,

    Well the title was about RPGs and puzzles in general, not about a certain dungeon crawl we’re looking forward to. Although that too can have situations where puzzles are appropriate. The detective RPG was just an example. It could be a quest/quest line in an RPG that has a different main theme. Variety is good.

    Some people, somewhere, may find combat too hard as well, does that mean the game shouldn’t pose any challenge whatsoever to make sure the vast majority of even slightly interested potential buyers can finish it? Challenges are good for most. They can exist in more ways than just combat, and still be good for most.

  • trudodyr said,

    Gemini Rue really is a good game. I’m not usually one for adventures, but was intrigued by the retro aesthetics, and not disappointed at all. Instead, I was practically glued to my monitor and finished the game in one session (I do think it’s a little on the short side).

    On-topic: The puzzles were rather easy in the sense that I never got stuck for longer than a couple of minutes. I didn’t feel belittled, though, but rather always had a distinct idea on what to do next – I hate it when in adventure games you’re just walking around picking everything up without any concrete task or sense of direction, this never happened with Gemini Rue.

    The best thing for me was the story, though. This is a little surprising to me, because normally I skip most cutscenes and hate drawn-out conversations (don’t even get me started on JRPGs). But the interesting setting (film noir meet science fiction) was really to my liking, the way events unfold and how the parallel storylines are handled is just fantastic. Best adventure I played since Grim Fandango!

  • Xenovore said,

    Quote: “If you want a puzzle either make it optional for fantastic rewards or make it something that you can bypass in another way . . . never block the player’s progress on something that doesn’t directly relate to the game they wanted.

    If they put the controller down to think, we’ve given them a perfect reason not to pick it back up. If we put all this work into a game… why would we want to prevent someone from seeing it?”

    Spot on, McTeddy.

  • WCG said,

    At least we’ve got Google these days. Years ago, I remember getting stuck on puzzles and just quitting in disgust. True, I always felt good when I solved a puzzle (except inventory puzzles, which never seemed much fun).

    Re. changing gameplay, normally I hate it (as someone who’s hopeless at “real-time” games, I don’t want action sequences anywhere). But I might point out Space Rangers 2. There were a lot of different mini-games in that one, which kept the game from getting stale. When you got bored, you could play something different for awhile.

    Best of all, they were optional. If you saved the game before making a request, you could reload when you didn’t get what you wanted. So if you really disliked one of the mini-games, you never had to play it.

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