Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

How to Design Puzzles for Role-Playing Games

Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 23, 2013

grimrock1I love puzzles in my RPGs – except when I hate them. I have a low threshold of tolerance for the kind of frustration they can yield, but I enjoy great satisfaction in solving them. It’s like having a sweet tooth and an allergy to sugar.

When Legend of Grimrock was released, I was ecstatic.  I loved the old puzzle-heavy RPGs that LoG was styled after. I found LoG to be even more puzzle-heavy than I expected.  It was fine for a few levels. But I’ve yet to finish the game, because at a certain point I just got tired of them – even when I had the option to hunt down a solution if I found myself “stumped.” But I wasn’t so much stumped as tired of memorizing patterns through trial and error. It was really fun up until the point where it wasn’t. Those represent what I’d call the “action puzzles.” These are the puzzles that require you to learn and then execute complicated sequences of actions.

I have always felt the same about platform-game levels… which is probably why I don’t really get into them very much. And why I haven’t been quite as excited about that particular trend in indie games. For people who were practically born with a Nintendo controller in their hand, it’s an awesome time, and I appreciate their fascination, though I don’t quite share it. Yeah, I got through more levels of Super Meat Boy than I thought I ever would, but it’s not something I truly embrace. But then there are times when they are just spectacularly well done, as in the Portal games.  If only all “action puzzles” were as brilliantly well-done as Portal!

Then there’s the adventure-game style puzzles… which generally fall into the category of “inventory puzzles”, although ‘inventory’ may mean much more than physical items in your TARDIS-sized pockets. Basically, you acquire something – knowledge, physical items, attributes, whatever – in one location that you can use or combine somehow with something else to gain access to something new – often new locations and new inventory items (which can then be used to solve more puzzles).

Now, these adventure-game puzzles are the kind of puzzles I can really sink my teeth into. I love them – right up to the point where I hate them. In the past, the problem might simply be because I was stumped. My least favorite puzzle of all time – which Tim Schaffer FINALLY admitted to being unfair – was the Monkey Island 2 puzzle where you are supposed to use JoJo the Monkey as a wrench – get it? Monkey Wrench? – to fix a pump. I quit the game for a year because of that one. There was always the supposition that somewhere I’d missed some item, its pixels hidden away in some scene that I’d failed to recognize.

Even with a solution a quick Internet search away, these kinds of things – in excess, or when poorly designed and not providing enough clues to the player – take me out of the game and can ruin my enjoyment. Still, sometimes I still enjoy a good adventure game (or even a bad one), and I like the occasional adventure-game style puzzle in my RPGs. For many years, they were a staple of the genre. Then – perhaps with the advent of Diablo – they became relatively scarce, replaced with more straight-up combat, other puzzle types, and of course “quests” that explicitly stated the items you needed to acquire to move forward. Recently, possibly because of the indie movement, they’ve been making a little bit of a comeback in RPGs.

u7puzzleThen there’s the “true puzzle.” These are obstacles that literally block progress until you solve some kind of puzzle or brain-teaser. You cannot take the battle to the evil overlord until you’ve solved this crossword puzzle! Or solved the Towers of Hanoi yet again! Unlike the action-game “platform puzzle” elements, these depend on more on logic (and sometimes outside knowledge) than trial-and-error, memorization and timing / execution.

Yes, these get irritating. And yes, I had a couple of those in Frayed Knights.  Used sparingly, I don’t have a problem with them, and I think they can help add pleasing variation to the gameplay of an RPG. But they can also get very frustrating, particularly when the end-user doesn’t “get it.” It’s very difficult to gauge the difficulty of the puzzle. While a “medium” difficulty Soduku puzzle (not that I’d ever recommend one in an RPG!) would be a piece of cake for an experienced Sodoku player in the middle of a game, a player who has never played anything like that before might find it completely impenetrable and unplayable. It will effectively shut down the game for him, probably forever. That’s not “adding variety” to the gameplay – it’s ruining the game.

That’s a very fine line to walk…

A fourth type of puzzle – and possibly the best of this list – is what I might term a “tactical puzzle.” This is a standard combat that provides some additional rules / exceptions that requires some logical problem solving to resolve. If the player doesn’t re-think their usual tactics, they’ll face a very difficult encounter.

These are very common in action games. In RPGs, they are either relatively rare or so “baked” into the system (as they should be, IMO)  that they aren’t quite so noticeable.  The nice thing about this is that in an RPG, there’s often an automatic “bypass” to the puzzle if the player can’t figure it out… they can usually just gain a few levels and buy a few magic items and brute force their way through the challenge if they can’t out-think it. It may even be a stretch to call these sorts of challenges a “puzzle,” but it’s one way of thinking about it.

The big problem here is that when players can customize (or optimize) their characters a particular way, there’s a chance that a boss or other encounter that changes the rules may invalidate that specialization, and result in a combat far more difficult than intended. Once again, this has the potential to be a game-wrecker.

So in the end – I love ‘em and I hate ‘em. I want my adventure games to use them sparingly – sprinkled about to add variety, the spice to the meat. While there are a very few games (like Grimrock) that perhaps overdo it for my personal tastes, there are far more role-playing games that could benefit from a healthy injection of more puzzle elements. So how does a designer walk that fine line between adding variety to the gameplay and ruining the role-playing game?

I suggest the following:

1. Err on the side of easy. The point is to provide an interesting additional activity for the players, not to stump them with a challenge. If a player finds it too easy, then it may be a useless or forgettable element. But if it’s too hard, it’s a game wrecker. It’s an RPG, not a puzzle game, so avoid the latter.

2. Make them optional or bypassable (is that even a word). Allow an alternative solution to the problem that doesn’t require solving the puzzle. Or – as in the case of “tactical puzzles” – don’t completely prohibit the “brute force” option.

3. Use tiered rewards with a puzzle that can be solved at different challenge levels. So an “easy” solution removed the obstacle, but if the player chooses greater challenge, they get that plus additional bonuses. This might help the more puzzle-oriented players keep up with the more action-oriented players in an action-RPG, for example – giving the puzzle-solvers an advantage.

4. Provide in-game hints. This way the player won’t feel quite as motivated to exit the game to look up solutions online. Whenever a player exits my game, I want them to leave happy or wanting more, not frustrated.

5. Don’t require too much trial-and-error to solve a challenge. And if you do, don’t penalize the “error” too heavily (if at all). Otherwise, it’s not a puzzle, it’s simply an exercise in frustration. Dumping the party into a pit of diseased monsters every time they choose imperfectly in a game of “mastermind” is really a bad idea.

No doubt there are plenty of additional puzzle types and suggestions for better implementation (feel free to add your own in the comments). And there are some people who may HATE any semblance of puzzle elements in their RPGs. I’m not one of them. I like ‘em, I just want ‘em done right.


Filed Under: Design - Comments: 10 Comments to Read



  • McTeddy said,

    Dave Arneson actually gave a lecture on “Stopping Points” such as puzzles, powerful bosses, and minigames. This is whenever you reach a point in a game that you just can’t beat… get frustrated and quit.

    He was a firm believer in a tiered hint system. The concept was that each hint you take will reduce the points/gold that you’d get for solving the puzzle.

    But he also believed that their should be a “Solve this” button if you run out of hints. Solving puzzles this way would give you ONLY the required items. You’d get no gold or extra items… but you’d get enough to continue playing.

    “You’ve put alot of work into that game,” he said, “You want players to see it all even if they aren’t good at playing.”

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    I actually didn’t get stuck on the “monkey wrench” puzzle, but only because I figured the monkey would be stronger/more dexterous than Guybrush and so would be able to operate the valve. I didn’t actually think of the joke until he pulled the monkey out of his jacket pocket.

    Still one of my favourite adventure games of all time though.

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    Oh and the best use of puzzles in RPGs that I’ve come across would have to be Ultima Underworld. The game was full of them, some that you had to figure out and others optional (the harder ones were usually optional).

    Having to actually think and act in a 3D space was amazingly novel at the time, and it certainly doesn’t get enough credit.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Totally agree on the Ultima Underworld thing. I still look at that as puzzles “done right.” Maybe I should have made that a point in the post – that the best puzzles don’t usually feel like puzzles, but instead feel like “problem solving.” You need to get across the chasm, but the bridge is out… how do you do it?

    The best games offer multiple solutions — you could build up your jump skill so you can cross it in a well-timed leap. You could use a potion of levitation. You could re-build the bridge, or fake it by knocking a tree over across it. You could climb the chasm wall down your side and up the other side. If the player feels like he came up with his own solution, it’s 10x more satisfying than guessing what was on the designer’s mind.

    Ultima Underworld did this. Their later game, Thief, did this even more. Brilliant stuff.

  • Michael A. said,

    Good article. Most important lesson I learnt from Pirates and Traders, was that you can never anticipate _how_ people are going to enjoy your game. I’m a firm believer in not placing obstacles in the way of people’s enjoyment (i.e., always make it possible to bypass puzzles).

  • Galenloke said,

    I’ve been playing Grimrock too, and I’m curious if any particular puzzles were the culprit. I really enjoy grimrock, but I absolutely agree with it feeling overdone after awhile. For me the biggest culprits were the walkabout (the only one I had to look up) and one which felt out of place. It was a way to get one of the secret treasures, but it required the pulling of a lever, navigating a field of trapdoors, and pushing a button. This button was located above a trap door so once pushed, you immediately had to navigate more trapdoors and push another button. Then you navigate more trapdoors to push a button, which rewarded you with another round of navigation to the final button which revealed the treasure. Failure to execute it perfectly timed (mis-stepping or turning the wrong direction even once) or fall into a pit and have to climb up and start over.

    This is interesting though, because I don’t remember what the treasure was. But I simply had to have it in case it was wonderous. I think that’s an important lesson for game developers, particularly in indie rpgs (where the audience tends to be more completionist than say, CoD). If a puzzle is meant to be hard, that’s fine but alerting the player to the prize is important, it lets them gauge the cost in time and effort vs the reward. If they decide they do want the such and such, then great! They can feel pride in their effort and enjoy their new artifact all the more. But if they don’t want it, they can move on to the part of the game that they consider worth playing.

    Of course, there’s still something to be said for mystery, but perhaps it is over used?

  • Galenloke said,

    To your most recent comment, you remind me of Trine. While not really a puzzle game like Grimrock, it made sure there were multiple solutions to the puzzle. In many cases the thief could use the grappling hook, or the mage could make a ladder of crates and planks.

    I also think of D&D and other tabletop games, where if you couldn’t jump the wall, you might be able to climb it. Or bribe a guard. Or levitate. Or buy and remodel the nearby inn. Or go to the nearby forest and cut down some trees to erect a giant catapult. Of course these sorts of other paths require a lot of extra effort for the game developers to include.

    The problem is transporting the multiple solution concept to a an rpg, particularly one in which you don’t have precise controls over your character (like jumping). Bioware uses one method, which is to let a highly persuasive character use a unique dialogue option. Unfortunately this only is rewarding at first, since it is usually the same as skipping the content but with the reward in hand.

    I’ve ended up saying a lot more than I meant to, but as another rpg lover and designer, it’s a question I’d love answered.

  • alanm said,

    I ragequit grimrock pretty quickly. I have no interest in it’s flavour of puzzles. Their placement in the world makes no sense (e.g. levers scattered randomly around controlling a door somewhere else) and they usually no more efficient solution than a brute force search of the problem space (e.g run around the level trying every combination of up/down levers until the door opens). That’s just boring and irritating.

  • Maklak said,

    I agree that the most difficult puzzles should be optional. One of my most memorable moments in Dungeon Siege 2 was an Euler way puzzle. That was totally optional, but I was fresh after a graph theory course, so it was fun.

    One trope I dislike with puzzles is when every switch should be flipped to benefit the player. It is more interesting when some of them are correct, some aren’t and there are clues on how this works.

  • Xenovore said,

    . . . the best puzzles don’t usually feel like puzzles, but instead feel like “problem solving.”

    Totally. The simplest (and often the best) “puzzle” is to just show the player an apparently inaccessible location (e.g. a treasure chest at the top of a cliff) and then let them search for a way to access it.

    And I did the same with Grimrock: quit because I was tired of wasting my time with the puzzles. Most were contrived and arbitrary, i.e. they had no logical reason to exist. (I get that it was supposed to be something of an homage to classic games like Dungeon Master or Eye of the Beholder, but we are should be way past that sort of game-play these days.)

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