Monday, March 14, 2011

Puzzles, You're Doing it Wrong

Every GM occasionally designs an encounter that falls flat. This was the case for me last week. Last Friday, I posted about an encounter with a T-Rex that I worked into my Night at the Elven Museum adventure. Well, while the encouter with Rex was entertaining for my players, the lead up to it was not so much.

In a nutshell, I committed the GM sin of violating the fundamental rule that the PCs' actions should matter. Here's what happened. The group was tasked with opening a stasis field in the museum's hall of animals in order to retrieve a tuft of fur. The control panel for the many stasis chambers around the hall was placed along one wall of the chamber, and consisted of an array of crystals. Some crystals glowed, some did not, and some flickered sporadically. Unfortunately, the labels on the controls had worn off in the 10,000 years the panel had been sitting unused. To the average player, this set up clearly says, "LOGIC PUZZLE! I need to determine which crystal opens the correct chamber so that I can get the fur, but not release the T-Rex or other nasty creatures in the other chambers."

By good player logic (Successful Choice = desired item. Failed Choice = monster fight)

Well, the problem was, I had made a bad design decision for what I thought was a good reason. I REALLY thought the T-Rex fight would be novel and entertaining, and when it came down to it, it was. HOWEVER, in trying to ensure that combat would happen, I built a twist into the aging control panel. Simply put, removing any crystal would cause the panel to overload and blow all the other crystals across the room, opening all the cages.

By this poor GM logic (Successful Choice = control panel overloads, all animals released. Failed Choice = control panel overloads, all animals released) This is poor design because the players' choices no longer effect the outcome!

I just wanted that T-Rex fight so bad that I would do anything to make it happen! I ignored the fact that, for my players, the possibility of releasing killer dinosaurs made for just as exciting an encounter as actually releasing them -if not moreso.

I think another aspect of the problem was that I created something that looked like a logic puzzle, but that was intended to function more like a trap. I thought the logic was too simple to be a puzzle, that they'd solve it too quickly, I needed to add the challenge of combat. In my mind, I saw the party's rogue approach the control panel to check for traps, notice that it appears to be malfunctioning, and warn the group that the device was unstable and to expect the unexpected. This violated the old GM adage that no planned encounter ever survives its exposure to the PCs... and it still divorced the players' actions from the consequences of what could have been a very satisfying puzzle encounter.


  1. Yeah, we spent probably 45 minutes of the night trying to solve that puzzle & when the panel just exploded anyways, it gave me a big SAD :-( Live & learn, I guess!

  2. See, and I had originally intended that whole encounter to take about 45 min. to an hour. Instead, by forcing the fight, I made it take all night.


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