Current topic on my mind: riddles, puzzles, and other related mental challenges in LARPs. It’s a topic I’m fond of — given a newspaper, I often turn first to the crossword puzzle, the Sudoku, the Cryptoquote, the ken-ken square. (Not saying I always solve them, of course, but I do like to try.)
This is probably one of the most common ways to entertain players without (or with minimal) GM, NPC or staff presence in a boffer LARP, and it pops up in theater LARPs as well. Some theater LARPs use them as a mechanic to abstract a soft skill. (Soft skills being the sort of skills that a player need not have in order for a character to use it; by contrast, hard skills are skills that the player must actually use in order for a character to perform an action in game.) To give an example of a soft skill represented with a puzzle, a witch might want to figure out how to brew a potion, and so a GM give the player a logic puzzle to solve. When the puzzle is solved, a GM hands the witch a potion prop. This sort of thing isn’t uncommon, though it does seem to be slowly falling out of favor in the local theater community.
Alternatively, often in theater, and very commonly in boffer, the puzzle might be something diagetic that the characters need to solve. It might be a coded message or the journal of a secretive madman that the players need to decode. It might be a treasure map that a pirate created for his own amusement (Olivier Levasseur, aka La Buse, a historical pirate and character in Devil to Pay, supposedly threw a map to the crowd gathered to see him hang.) It might be a test from some demon of riddles, or part of the traps meant to protect a tomb a la Indiana Jones. Sometimes they’re torn up letters or broken artifacts that need to be put back together, jigsaw style. Or machines that need their circuitry put back together in the correct order.
The puzzles guarding the tomb in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade are a favorite example of mine. It’s a well worn trope (the LARP-like 5 W!ts had similar traps in its Egyptian pyramid adventure) and can come off a bit ham-fisted, but what I like about it is that there’s a consistent in-world logic to the traps. The only people the protectors of the Holy Grail want getting through are those who have done some amount of Biblical study and demonstrate proper piety. The solutions are a form of shibboleth — a behavior or linguistic peculiaty that acts as a test of belonging to a particular group. And this is easily adaptable to reflect a LARP’s in-game culture, especially if some culture in game only wants the clever to pass.
These sorts of things vary a lot in success, I find. Sometimes they’re immersion breaking because they’re a bit ham-fisted, or frustrating as hell, but generally, I think it’s a really great way to entertain players. Based on my experience (primarily as a player trying to solve the riddles and puzzles), I have some thoughts on including them in a LARP.
Playtest puzzles and riddles with multiple people prior to using them in a LARP. This one kind of seems like a given, but I think the most common pitfall I see when riddles and puzzles fail in a LARP is that they turn out to be a lot easier or a lot harder than the GMs/staff intended (or downright impossible.) And I realize that time to prep LARP is limited, and LARP staffs are often already stretched thin, and it seems like time spent playtesting mental challenges is better spent creating more content. But if there are non-staff and non-players willing to help out, playtesting can really help. Making mental challenges unintentionally easy generally isn’t a huge problem. Typically, the worst effect this has is leave players with a bit more downtime than you intended. In rare cases, if you’re using them to distract and delay players while staff sets up a room and NPCs get ready, there’s a risk that something you expected to buy you ten minutes only buys you ten seconds.
This kind of issue is particularly relevant if you use types of puzzles commonly found in newspapers (such as Crypt-o-quotes, which are actually just simple substitution ciphers, Sudoku, or ken-kens.) With popular puzzles, there’s a decent chance some of your players are very familiar with them, and others not at all. They all involve a learning curve, so with popular puzzle types, some of your players will be much faster than others.
Making puzzles too hard, or essentially impossible, is often more troublesome than making them too easy– players get frustrated, NPCs who are waiting for them to get past the puzzle get bored, lots of content that was meant to take place after the puzzle gets solved might get wasted. If the situation was set up to create tension with danger, characters might actually die.
These are similar guidelines for physical challenges — sometimes even the best lock picker just can’t steady their hand enough to pick a simple lock, so putting the key to the exit in a locked box could essentially be tantamount to trapping a player permanently. And it’s important to remember that even if you playtest them, there may be unexpected differences in conditions that could render a challenge that seemed easy when playtested but impossible when placed in players hands. (For example, a challenge with visual components that seems easy in bright sunlight might be impossible on a cloudy day. Or a challenge that goes quickly for one person may take exponentially more time the more people are included (which happens when plot hooks can’t say no to letting just one or two more PCs joined.)
Riddles are notorious offenders in these situations. First of all, no matter how easy or obvious the answer may seem, there’s always a decent chance that the solution simply never occurs to the players. Or sometimes, a different solution may occur to the players that didn’t occur to the staff when the riddle was written/chosen. Which might be fine if they have to deliver the answer to an NPC who can accept different answers on the fly. It’s more problematic if, say, players are solving a password, and are confused as to why the password they typed isn’t working.
A few ways to mitigate these kinds of problems include, as mentioned above, allowing multiple solutions. Another good way to decrease the odds of riddles bringing things to a halt is to provide multiple riddles, and asking players to solve some subset of the riddles. That way, players can feel successful by solving, say, three out of five, and it won’t matter if the answer to one or two simply don’t occur to them.
(By the way, if you’re ever stumped on a riddle in a fantasy setting, always try death, time, fire, and darkness. Those are pretty common subjects for riddles.)
Similar to only requiring a subset of solutions as a win condition, allowing for gradients of success, or partial successes, helps prevent frustration at being unable to complete a task. For example, instead of offering players 100 gold pieces for solving ten puzzles, offer them ten gold for each of ten puzzles solved. Earning 90 gold coins for solving nine puzzles is a lot more satisfying than earning none for being unable to solve the tenth.
In general, it’s a good idea to incorporate puzzles into LARPs in such a way that solving them isn’t completely necessary to move forward. Solving puzzles might result in larger treasures in the end, or make it somewhat easier to fight monsters, or allow players to progress faster by revealing shortcuts, but ideally, they won’t kill characters if players can’t solve them.
But if you really do want the puzzle or riddle to be necessary for players to advance in the LARP, players should ultimately be able to brute force it (e.g. by trying all of the possible combinations on a combination lock with three digits.) Alternatively, the more time players spend on it, the more hints they receive, or the easier the puzzle gets. That way, there is a guaranteed maximum amount of time the players can spend on it. And this is probably going to be more satisfying for players than having an NPC show up and just hand over the solution if you don’t want the characters to fail.
For any puzzle or challenges that requires multiple physical props, make sure to have redundant pieces available, or at least have an NPC around who is familiar with the puzzle to fill in anything that’s missing (or at least inform the players if the task has become impossible.) Alternatively, if possible, make all the necessary pieces permanently attached to the table/wall/set dressing or too large to steal. Small props get lost all the time. (I remember a lovely electronic prop that required magnets to turn it on… and one of the magnets went missing right before the LARP started.) And of course, there’s always the chance that one mischievous player thinks it’s funny to snag a piece and hide it before the puzzle is attempted.
Lots of puzzles come with clear instructions, but for others, figuring out the end goal is part of the challenge. I find that deliberately leaving out instructions, or making the purpose of the puzzle vague, can often make the puzzle feel less ham-fisted, less cliche, but this tends to significantly increase the risk that even the most intelligent players won’t know where to begin. A Rubik’s cube, for example, is a popular enough toy that players will probably know what to do with it, even if you don’t include instructions telling them to twist it until the colors all match on each side. (And even if your players haven’t heard of a Rubik’s cube, there’s still a decent chance they’d be able guess what the “win condition” is.) But if your players have never heard of Sudoku, just handing them a 9×9 grid with a few numbers filled in and not explaining what the rules are can easily result in frustrated players and an unsolved challenge. I’ve heard people say “I never tried Sudoku because I dislike math.” Sudoku doesn’t require any math, just logic, bu the goal of a Sudoku grid and the process of solving it is not readily apparent without instructions.
On the other hand, if you describe the win condition but give no hints or directions for methods of solving it, given unlimited time, some challenges, like Sudoku, have a decent chance of getting solved. The logic behind it is pretty basic. But players can spend an eternity with a Rubik’s cube and never figure out the algorithms needed to solve it.
(As a side note, at a past LARP event, we had a Rubik’s cube stand in for an ancient artifact, but the challenge wasn’t to solve it, just to figure out what order the runes on it were. I was only able to solve one side a a time, and so the scholar PCs just copied the runes down one side at a time. We got what we were after without needing to actually solve the entire cube.)
It’s also worth noting that not giving instructions may result in players figuring out the goal, but also incorrectly assuming additional goals, thus making a challenge harder than a staff intended. For example, in one LARP the PCs were given an image of a structure to recreate with lego-like pieces. The PCs incorrectly assumed that both the structure and the color must be identical and delayed finishing the puzzle because the correct colors weren’t available. The issue was somewhat compounded by the fact that the PCs were uncovering the lego-like pieces one at a time, so they never realized that not all of the colors would be available.
Speaking of Rubik’s cubes and Sudoku, I really love it when a puzzle is well integrated into the setting of the LARP, either with the flavor of the content, or by decorating it to fit in with the setting. For example, the fox, goose, and bag of beans riddle is a fun, historical brain teaser, and is easily modified to fit your setting, depending on what sort of creatures, forms of transport, and geological structures your setting has.
A fun example of creating a cool prop out of a puzzle — in Lost Eidolons, a steampunk LARP, some PCs had to fix some sort of mechanical board by placing 81 pieces on it in the correct order on a grid of 9×9 squares. The pieces were a variety of mechanical looking bits (including a few glow sticks to light it up), of nine types, nine of each. We gamely tried to solve the Sudoku board (and taping the pieces was a lot more fun than writing numbers down) but solving it proved a lot slower than it would have in its standard format. We actually ended up converting the symbols to numbers, drawing out and filling our own Sudoku grid, then converting the numbers back into the pieces and completing the prop.
By the way, if you’re interested in logic puzzles and riddles, or maybe looking for some interesting spins on the truth-teller and liar forms of riddles to include in your LARP, one of my favorite books in high school was Raymond Smullyan’s Satan, Cantor, and Infinity.