I have something of a complicated relationship with puzzles and riddles. On the one hand, I enjoy a good riddle, and the challenge of trying to figure it out. On the other hand, my hate for them when they appear in RPGs may know no bounds. This is because, quite often, the puzzles don’t come with an in-game solution mechanic – they are testing the players, rather than the characters. This bugs the hell out of me, but I realize that this is a matter of taste, one that provides us with a pretty clear line between roleplayers and game players.
For the game player, puzzles are great. It’s a chance to pit your wits against those of the game designer, which is a worldview shared by a lot of game players (sometimes to the point of seeing the relationship as adversarial). Game players draw validation, in most cases, from their own achievements, as opposed to those of their characters. They want the game to challenge their creativity, and they want to win. This line of thinking can be weird to roleplayers, who may have narrative concepts of victory but little to no concept of it in terms of the game overall, but it’s a fundamentally sound reason to play. Game players are quite often the ones who will keep the game moving when the role players want to pause to have a long in-character digression about the meaning of life.
Roleplayers, for their part, are ironically looking for the in-game mechanical solution to puzzles, which points to a gap in a lot of roleplaying games: mechanics for social and mental challenges. Combats will have extended tests of skill and daring, with half a dozen optional modifiers to make the challenge more difficult or easier. That puzzle, on the other hand? Probably a single die roll. Even as I sympathize with the roleplayers (What I can figure out and what my character can figure out are rarely the same thing), I also understand that the underwhelming mechanics of non-combat challenges in a lot of games can make the experience wholly unsatisfying for the game player.
Most of the more popular games in existence have struggled with this challenge. Games as wildly different as Pathfinder and the Old World of Darkness games have one thing in common: a chapter dedicated to combat, and a chapter dedicated to just about everything else you’d roll dice for. Older RPG players have come to expect that mental and social challenges are to be handled via roleplaying, which, when you think about it, is a little silly. If I can make a master swordsman when I commonly drop my fork at dinner, why can’t I make a world-class diplomat even if, in person, I am needlessly rude and blunt to people?
A great many games have begun to say that you can, so long as you’re only dealing with NPCs, as is the case with Pathfinder’s Diplomacy skill. Green Ronin’s outstanding Song of Ice and Fire RPG actually made an effort to redress even this problem by introducing the social combat rules, but this caught a number of players flat-footed, specifically because it threatens player agency. Under the social combat rules, if I wear out your resolve in an argument, you agree with me and do as I ask. This mechanic raises immense questions about the nature of argumentation and how (or if) it relates to physical combat. Those questions go from raised to right in your face when you take White Wolf’s system of Epic (for Scion) or Mega (for Aberrant) social attributes and their capacity to wipe agency for just about anyone else in the game clean off the table.
So what’s a poor game designer to do? Game players want to be challenged. Roleplayers want their characters to be challenged. Both of them, however, want to win in the end and they can have very different concepts of what victory looks like and how it ought to be achieved. Is it possible to measure intellect in the same way we measure proficiency with a broadsword? Do we lose something when we treat a cunning trap as a “you must be this smart to ride” sort of challenge? These are the sorts of questions that raise good game design from hobby to profession, because they form the core of the specialized knowledge that doesn’t exist as much outside the field.
It’s a puzzle. (Sorry, couldn’t resist)