Magical Mondays: A Game Of Riddles   Leave a comment


A lot of my friends think that I’m obsessed with puzzles, I feel sort of guilty about the fact that I’ve gotten them to think that.  Unfortunately, it’s hard to get them to think that I’m not when the truth is that I genuinely do think that puzzles and riddles are fun little diversions.  The thing is, I don’t enjoy them nearly as much as they believe that I do.

What I’m genuinely obsessed with, though?  Puzzles that act as the focal point that changes an entire story.  Those are awesome things.  I didn’t like, say, Perplex City because of its huge number of puzzles; I liked Perplex City because of the characters and stories.  The characters were shown to be highly intelligent and very capable where puzzles were concerned, but they were faced with a mystery that they couldn’t solve… and their only hope for solving that mystery involved seeking out aid from the people of Earth, people who didn’t think in terms of puzzles the way that they did.  Can the world of non-puzzlers solve the mystery that the puzzle experts couldn’t crack?  Now that question intrigues me, and the story propels my interest all the way from the relatively simple Ishihara and Gravity puzzles all the way to the seemingly unbeatable Riemann and Billion To One puzzles.  (By the way, check that link out.  Have you seen Satoshi?  We would very much like to meet him.  And if you haven’t met him, please ask your friends.  But I digress.)

It’s also worth watching the first appearance of The Riddler in Batman: The Animated Series.  The Riddler in that story wasn’t just leaving riddles for the sake of leaving them, he was leaving riddles as a legitimate delaying tactic.  Even better, the riddles were working for that.  As Batman became more lost in the (literal) maze of puzzles and traps, Batman had to cut the proverbial knot and cheat his way out.  And even when Batman seemingly saved the day, The Riddler manages to walk away with something approaching a victory.  Batman might not have lost, but neither did The Riddler… the first enemy of the series to pull off that trick.  I didn’t remember The Riddler because he was spouting puzzles and brain teasers, I remembered The Riddler because he challenged the world’s greatest detective to a battle of wits and walked away unscathed.

Now, as gamers we’re in the business of telling stories.  And as we can see from the above examples, puzzles can form the basis of AWESOME stories, especially in the fantastic worlds of sci-fi and fantasy games.  The magic of a game’s universe can make a puzzle a compelling moment for a story… but it can also make it a dull moment when nearly every player loses interest and maybe one or two get interested.  If you’re not familiar with the game The 7th Guest, I recommend going to read this TV Tropes article on the concept of Soup Can Puzzles.  The last thing that you want to do is introduce a goblin who laughs maniacally before announcing that your players must defeat him in a game of chess before they can cross a bridge.

Having said all that, heroes who can think their way through deadly challenges of the mind are a staple of literature, and you should give your players such challenges every once in a while.  If you have a villain (or architect, at least) who might legitimately Pick Up The Riddlemaster Ball, here are a few ways that you can integrate the magic of riddles into your games.

Enigma Machine Interior

Riddles are, perhaps, the most romanticized of all story-appropriate brain teasers.  However, they aren’t the easiest to work with.  If you find a riddle on the Internet or in a book, there’s a chance (a good chance in some groups) that the person asked in the game will know the answer before you’re halfway through.  As the game designer, you naturally want your players to solve it eventually, but you also want to make it through the first line.  There have been MANY attempts to create a rules-based spell effect related to asking riddles, but all of them feel like a stretch to me.  I’m going to include a feat meant for NPCs that you can feel free to use in your games, but know that I think that this feat, while better than some options I’ve seen, still isn’t that great.

Game of Riddles
Your understanding of ancient lore and modern mysteries fuses with your own knowledge of the mind.  You may engage a willing opponent in a riddle contest, one that promises knowledge to the victor.
Prerequisite: Intelligence 15, Caster Level 5th, Capable of casting an Enchantment spell
Benefit: You may challenge an opponent to a game of Riddles, or other similar battle of wits.  If the opponent accepts, then you and your opponent will make opposed Intelligence checks once per round as a standard action.  The first person involved to lose a number of times equal to his or her Intelligence modifier instantly falls into a deep sleep (or is otherwise rendered unconscious if the figure is immune to sleep effects) for a number of minutes equal to your caster level.  When initiating this game of Riddles, you must sacrifice a spell slot with an enchantment spell, as if you had cast it.  The winner of the game of riddles gains the ability to cast this spell once, as if the winner had gained a temporary spell slot through a pearl of power (even if the figure had no ability to cast spells previously.)  If the spell slot is not used before the next time the winner goes to sleep, the spell slot vanishes and may not be used again.

Now, what makes this feat different from the goblin with the chess board? Not much, not much.  However, it does give a few interesting options.  First of all, the NPC with this spell is likely a mysterious and powerful spellcaster.  If the NPC happens to be a hero, a GM might use this feat at a crucial moment to have one of the NPC’s mentors deliver a socratic series of questions, choosing to fail intentionally.  The mentor will then sacrifice some of his own power (and his ability to stay awake, which can be dramatic if the player doesn’t know what’s happening) to impart some knowledge… including a spell slot… to the mind of a pupil.

In a more adversarial fashion, this spell would make for a fun skill challenge for a party’s wizard, or another suitably brainy party member.  If you do this, I recommend running several similar challenges, each testing a different attribute of a given party member.  A riddle game for the wizard, a parkour match for the rogue, an arm wrestling match for the fighter (perhaps even drinking a massive stein of ale in one go as a constitution check for the party barbarian.)  Your goal in using the feat in this fashion is to give each player something to do to overcome their archetypal challenge.

ZGI Brog Chess Game

Another use of riddles… and possibly an unfair one that, if used, would certainly cause players to feel cheated… would be as a way to mislead.  Imagine, if you will, that you’ve found a talking door at the end of the dungeon, and the door says “What walks on four legs in the morning, two in the afternoon, and three at night?”  Naturally, you’ll answer “A person!” since everyone’s familiar with the Riddle of the Sphinx.  Unfortunately, the door laughs and breathes fire at you.  You manage to clear out everything in the dungeon, but there’s still the problem of that stupid door…

Later, you befriend another adventurer who goes to the same dungeon, armed with a notebook allegedly written by the person who first created that dungeon.  This new adventurer approaches the door, hears the riddle, and answers “A cat!”  The door smiles and swings open.

You splutter a bit and ask how that could possibly be correct.  Your new friend says “It’s not, really.  It’s more of a password prompt than a riddle if this journal is to be believed.  Let’s find out what the rest of this dungeon looks like, right?”

In this situation, the riddle means nothing.  The door just has a magic password, and it only asks the riddle to make people waste time trying to devise a proper answer.  If you pull this trick on your players… first of all, shame on you, you’re violating a basic trust that players should have for their GMs… and second of all, only do this in places where it probably doesn’t impact the plot at the moment.  If the players go into the dungeon with a specific goal, I’d only introduce the fake riddle door after they’ve accomplished that goal so that they have an incentive to leave the dungeon.  If you need more adventures to happen in that particular place later, though, you now have an old challenge that they can face again, plus a very obvious reason for why they didn’t see the whole dungeon the first time.

That’s all for this week’s Magical Mondays.  See you next time!


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