Puzzling Solutions

posted by on 24th June 2021, at 1:49am

Before reading on, I want to challenge you: imagine you are tasked with designing a puzzle that players need to solve to get through a locked door. This can be in the context of RuneScape, another appropriate game, or even a D&D campaign. Take a few minutes to come up with an interesting idea, think about how you would present it to the player, etc. I’ll wait… this article isn’t going anywhere.

Unless you are some kind of puzzle design prodigy (or you decided to skip the exercise and decided to continue reading right away), you probably didn’t find that too easy. Designing good puzzles is hard, and something even experienced designers will struggle with. Therefore, I was all the more impressed with the puzzles in City of Senntisten, because I really liked them. So let’s take a look at the puzzles, and what we can learn from them. Don’t worry, we’ll get back to your very own puzzle design in a few paragraphs (it’s not too late to close this tab and try your hand at designing a puzzle!). Of course, the methods to solve the puzzles will be spoiled, but there are no major lore spoilers in this article.

We will focus on the two biggest puzzles in the quest: the drawers puzzle and the blood puzzle. Let’s start with the drawers puzzle. To progress in the quest, we need to do something with a set of drawers, each labelled with either one or two letters. In the same room, we find a book, and a non-ambiguous hint that we need to use the names in the book to proceed. If we start with all the drawers closed, and for each letter in each of the names open a drawer if it’s closed, or close it if it’s opened, we end up building a shape that opens the way. The puzzle is really quite simple, as everything you need is presented in a single room. There are the drawers, there is the book, and there’s a reset button.

The second big puzzle in the quest is the blood puzzle. Depending on who you ask, they will either love or hate it. This puzzle is a bit more involved, as the player is tasked with combining information from multiple sources to come to the solution. The door is locked and will only open with specific amounts of different types of blood, but you don’t know the combination. Luckily, you find a note that somebody opened the vault, so by checking the discrepancies in the stock between one day and the next, you can figure out what’s missing, and that must be the vault combination. This puzzle was more complex to solve, because it required cross-checking information from different sources, but once you got it, it wasn’t too hard.

That last sentence there is really key: “once you get it, it isn’t too hard”. It sounds pretty obvious, that if you know the solution, a puzzle is really easy. It is very important for a puzzle designer to be aware of this fact. Inexperienced puzzle designers often make two mistakes when designing a puzzle:

  1. The actions to complete the puzzle are too specific.
  2. There are not enough ways to find out how to solve the puzzle.

Let’s start with the first one, as it may be the most surprising. Shouldn’t puzzles just have one solution? That surely seems to be the expectation, but that doesn’t necessarily have to be true. The very first puzzle I designed for a D&D campaign required the players to use some magic on a lever, and then turn it. It sounded fine: any magic would work, the lever was pretty much the only thing in the room, what could go wrong? It took the players forty minutes to figure out. They’d tried turning the lever, but that didn’t work. At some point they’d used magic on it, but then didn’t think to turn the lever again. All in all, it was frustrating for everyone involved.

In D&D, DMs have a lot of freedom. We can just decide that whatever the players have come up with is the right solution to the puzzle, even if it isn’t what we originally thought of. In fact, these days I often don’t really design solutions to my puzzle. Anything that sounds cool and reasonable is a solution, and to the players it will always seem like they found THE solution.

In games, this is a lot harder, though I think there is room for it. The blood puzzle, for example, had a bunch of extra information that I think made it a bit ambiguous. Was the stock taken at the start of the day, or the end? Depending on how you interpreted that, you might get different numbers. It is very possible you found the right solution, but used the wrong day for deposits and withdrawals, and now you’re stuck. If I had to make one change to this puzzle, I would have made sure the numbers added up the same no matter which of the days you used. Sure, maybe the player was slightly wrong, but making the player feel cool is often more important than our own sense of what’s canon.

So, if puzzles in video games only have one solution, they need to do really well on the second point: give the players multiple ways of getting to the solution. When we have designed a puzzle, and we know the solution, it’s easy to be afraid to give the solution away. That usually leads to designers sticking to vague hints, often only given once. Difficulty through obscurity. This is frustrating for everyone involved. City of Senntisten solved this problem neatly. The drawers puzzle explicitly called out to use the names, and then Light and Shadow gave some additional hints to point the player in the right direction. The voices in our mind were also quick to point out the discrepancies in the ledger, even though from the note we found before we already knew to expect those discrepancies. Different people think differently. Presenting information in more than one way makes sure it actually arrives. What helps as well is to ground your puzzle in real life knowledge. Most people know how ledgers work, so the jump to the solution of the puzzle wasn’t an unintuitive or big one.

How did you do on your puzzle? Looking back at it, do you think it is actually solvable by somebody who doesn’t know the solution? What kind of signals could you give to make it solvable? Let me take you through an example out of my own D&D campaign. The players found a door with four coloured panels on it, each with a symbol representing one of the four classic elements. To open the door, each of the symbols needed to be touched by something related to that element. Here I had the option of being very flexible. Just blow on the wind symbol? Fine. Using a complex fire spell on the fire symbol, also fine. The symbols weren’t the most obvious though, so I decided to give the players yet another bit of information to solve the puzzle. During a combat encounter in the room, the ice sorcerer in the party missed. I made their ice bolt hit the panel on the door instead, and the water panel started glowing. An immediate hint to show how to progress. I could have put hints in the note the dead adventurer in the room was carrying, but it wasn’t necessary any more. The players figured out the rest, and they felt awesome for it, because they thought they had really cracked it themselves. That is how you design a puzzle: the solution must feel smart and sensible afterwards.

The puzzles in City of Senntisten struck the right balance, and this is harder than it may seem. This article explains the traps that puzzle designers deal with all the time, so hopefully you can appreciate the puzzles just a bit more now. If you designed a puzzle on your own, don’t hesitate to ping me in the official RSBANDB Discord server!

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