Tuesday, April 12, 2011

"Hands Free" Puzzles

One of the things I've tried to integrate into my game more often is the use of "Hands Free" Puzzles. When I refer to "Hands Free", what I really mean is a puzzle that doesn't require a marshal to loom over the shoulder of a player and tell them when they're correct and watch over what they're doing.

I've recently become more focused on removing OOG aspects from modules. As mentioned before, I myself am a gamist. In this part of the country, many of the LARPs run heavy gamism or narrativism, and immersion often takes a back seat. We'd much rather have marshals sitting around answering questions than to make players feel like they're actually in the game at all times.

Developing "Hands Free" puzzles can be a very difficult prospect. Part of this is from the fact that it often requires trust in the players. Another part comes from the fact that it requires more preparation than asking a simple riddle. And finally, most plot people love to watch their puzzles get solved.

So here are some basic tips that you can use to help develop puzzles that require less marshaling.

Written Cues
When you can give the rules for a puzzle in written form, do so. Even better, if you can give the rules for a puzzle in an IG written form, it's even better. Put some time into making these instructions look good.

Avoid Basic Riddles
We all love riddles. But if you're going to do a riddle puzzle, try and be a bit more creative about it. Instead of having a marshal tell a person if they're correct or not, have some sort of mechanical device that responds to the answer. Combination locks are spectacular for this.

Line up three riddles, and indicate to the players (through visuals, not through talking) that they must convert the third letter of each answer to a number in order to get the combination. You've just put riddles on a module that no longer require marshaling.

Put the Prize in the Process
Many times we'll use puzzles where a person has to perform some action in order to get the reward. If you're worried about players fudging the process, build the prize into the process. For example, if the players are trying get an item, you can hide it in something like a box of packing peanuts. They literally have to dig through the box to get the prize, so there's no chance for a player cheating to get the item.

Avoid Mystery Effects
If you're aiming for a "Hands Free" puzzle, try and avoid mystery failure effects. These are almost always going to require a marshal, drawing for a deck, or rolling dice. None of these are IG, and depending on how complicated it might be, might take a while to resolve.

If you need to have negatives, build them into the IG instructions, and make them simple enough. And if you have to specify that damage OOG, do so before the module and not during.

When All Else Fails, make your Marshal an NPC
Occasionally, you are going to need to have a marshal that explains the mechanics of puzzles. But when those occasions come up, make up a non-combative NPC that is traveling with the group - be it an archeologist, doctor, or sage. They could explain to the PCs in IG terms what they need to do, either by reading from a book or by memory. It's definitely more immersive.

So next time you write a module with puzzles in it, ask how much your puzzle is going to break immersion. If you think it is, see if you can implement any of these strategies to make your puzzle more immersive.

Got any tips for writing immersive puzzles? Drop them in the comments!


  1. Great ideas Bill! I will definitely be using some of these in our games this year. I'm tired of running such a Gamist game that requires a marshal present (especially with such a small staff) when that's not the style I like to play.

  2. I am, shockingly I know, a big fan of this sort of thing and consider it a requirement for encounters I run. Either the puzzle is self-explanatory, figuring out the point of it is part of the challenge, the explanation is written down, or some NPC is explaining it. As a matter of course, if I design an encounter and find myself thinking that I have to explain something OOG... I redesign the encounter.

    So yeah, good stuff.

    As a last resort, by the way, and a bit of a cheap cop out but still better than going out of game, is to simply make your marshal into a spirit of magic, a guardian spirit of the location, whatever.

  3. Wow good stuff! And even more surprisingly, it came from Bill! :)

  4. I love playing the confederate - a character like Shaggy from Scooby-Doo which you have to bring to the dangerous place. Through role play, a confederate can inject a lot of detail that you'd otherwise have to narrate. "Ugh, it smells like rotten meat in here.." by acting out the reaction to it, you help the players experience it in a way that's more tangible than a narrator saying "the dungeon smells bad".

    I ran a module where the players had to escape from the Plane of Reason before this storm came, and to travel through the plane they had to solve all the puzzles. As the confederate, I was reminding them of the time limit by saying stuff like "Did you feel that? I think it's starting to rain." And if they were stumped on a puzzle, I could offer a clue or explain the task without breaking game.

    Even the game set-up stuff can be handled by a confederate. "Oh look, the ground is marshy here, but it looks safe if you step on those stones.. Hmm .. This is fellmarsh, I've heard that if you step in it, it'll taint your blood. Oh, do you see that over there? That's an earthlilly -- they're really rare! I bet if you smell it for three seconds, it will cleanse the taint of the fell marsh."

  5. Followup: that particular NPC (Archwizard and Archninny Johan Tandrake), being a scholar, was also an in-game point of access for craftsman-lore questions. Rather than asking a marshal "Craftsman Undead Lore, what do I know?", you'd confer with Johan, who would remind you about some things you've read.

    "Johan, I've studied ancient history, do you think my research is useful here?"

    "Hmm, you see that chest over there? Doesn't it look like the kind of thing you'd see in a Brisbanian noble's house?"

    Putting those marshal interactions in-game circumvents the immersion-shattering OOG Q&A session that tends to happen at the beginning of some modules.