Tricks, Traps, and Puzzles in RPG’s and Stories.

I used to Gamemaster a lot for … well, not necessarily AD&D, but my own system based on that game. It was lots of fun. I especially enjoyed designing clever tricks, traps, and puzzles. This has carried over into my writing, as well. Many of my books and stories have some kind of puzzle in them. In RPG games (like AD&D) puzzles are an integral part of the game. I mean, after a while, even the most bloodthirsty person will tire from the endless hack and slash of your basic dungeon crawl. Tricks and traps add a special degree of unexpected flair to your basic gaming session. They force the players to think—and usually require them to put the thief in the party to work; though the best ones require input from the whole group. There are loads of pretty standard tricks and traps to choose from: poisoned needles, trap doors, poison gas, etc…. The best, though, are the ones you design yourself to really challenge the players. Probably the most difficult to pull off in a gaming session are riddles. This is because it’s all too easy to write a poor riddle (I know … I’ve done it). Basically, you write something that seems crystal clear to you at the time of writing, but when it comes time to spring it on the players, either they come up with two or more equally valid answers which you didn’t think of, or the riddle is too opaque and vague, and they just can’t solve it. In the case of riddles and RPG games, it’s usually best to go with actually published riddles, something some company somewhere wrote down, researched, and developed, supposedly with the help of experts, or something. The above is true of other puzzles you might feel inclined to include in your game. Some puzzles, like riddles, may just be too difficult for the players to figure out. That happened to me once, with one of my favorite puzzles of all time: an invisible maze. I won’t go into the details of the puzzle—I believe I have elsewhere—but I will just hold it up for the lesson it taught me. A puzzle/riddle in an RPG is useless if it is unsolvable.

This is NOT true in writing. No, when you are writing a story, you, the author, are the one who determines what the purpose of the puzzle is in the context of the story. You can use your basic tricks and traps from the RPG setting—the poisoned needle or the trap door, or what-have-you—or you can design your own. In such a case, almost anything goes because, generally speaking, the puzzle will be solved by the characters in the story because you are the writer and you are in complete control. There is no risk of, say, a riddle being unsolved because it’s too opaque, because you know what the answer is and you can just write it in—unless, of course, you want the riddle to remain unsolved, but that I would probably counsel against lest you irritate your readers. Regardless, you should still make the effort to design good riddles (and avoid the published ones for copyright reasons) but that is because they are a reflection of your skill as an author and not because you may inadvertently stump the characters. Puzzles in writing serve a similar purpose to what they serve in an RPG—they provide a break from action and just give the reader something to wrestle with. There is one more point to make about puzzles in writing: distance. Generally speaking, the puzzle shouldn’t be solved the sentence after it is presented to the reader; otherwise, they won’t have a chance to think about it and be impressed with its cleverness. The presentation of the riddle must be separated by a certain amount of distance from its solution in the story. The characters must struggle with it for a certain length of time, otherwise, the reader will not struggle with it—and what’s the fun of that? Give it a few pages, at least, so that the reader has a chance to ruminate about it for a while.

Anyway, those are some of my thoughts on tricks, traps, and puzzles in both RPG settings and writing. Enjoy!

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