Monday, March 25, 2013

Riddles in the Dark

So the most vitally important thing the guys who made the big jillion dollar Hobbit movie had to do was to nail the Gollum scene. It has just enough fairy tale, just enough naturalism, just enough horror movie, just enough D&D, and just enough whimsy. It's easily my favorite part of Tolkein's work and I think an argument could be made that it's the scene most responsible for the Hobbit's original success. There's not a lot else like it in fantasy literature that isn't just someone who came after, trying to capture that lightning in a bottle.

When I was a kid and the local UHF station ran a lot of reruns of the old Batman TV show, my favorite guy was always the Riddler. Frank Gorshin has an undeniable charisma and intelligence that shines through and transforms a one-note seventh-rate Batman villain into an engaging, captivating figure. Writers in the comics have been trying to recapture that ever since then, and I usually consider how a writer handles the character a good litmus test for how their Batman run as a whole is going to go.

The sphinx is awesome, obviously.

What I'm getting at is, I love riddles. And I expect them in my D&D games because duh, right?

My players don't. For that matter, my DMs usually don't. Riddles and puzzles are not their forte and it was a huge growth for me as someone who runs games to realize that this base assumption I'd made about my world was something my players had no interest in. Which is a shame because riddles always make the world feel bigger, weirder, and most importantly, smarter than it actually is. Or smarter than I actually am, and convincing your players you're actually on top of things and their actions are going according to plan is a huge part of being a convincing GM.

Part of the problem with riddles and puzzles in games, apart from deliberately slowing down the game sometimes (which players have a problem with when it's not their choices or actions which slow down the game), is that whole "appearing smarter" thing. Nobody wants to guess at the answer because nobody wants to be wrong because nobody wants to be thought anything other than super-smart. There's also a paralysis that comes from knowing wrong answers usually have consequences. Gollum eats Bilbo if he can't guess correctly. The sphinx eats you if you guess wrong. The Riddler um...ties you to a giant typewriter and the keys mash you to death, or something.

This is of course what's awesome about riddles, too.

The key to making them work, really, is not being shitty about them. If you're in a dungeon and you barrel up to a gorgon and have to save or die from its breath, that's a choice you make. If you open a door without checking for traps and a blade comes down and chops you in two, that's a choice you make. If you go find a sphinx and can't answer its riddle and it eats you, that's a choice you make.

But it's a crappy railroady design to make them something you have to get through in order to get to the rest of the game.

The only tpk I've ever had was when my current party was sentenced to the Trial of the Riddling Cricket. They all died thanks to bad decisions in other parts of the dungeon, but up to that point they were all terrified of the prospect of facing it. But there were at least 3 other ways out of that dungeon that I had come up with, and I was open to anything the party suggested that worked. I had THE answer to the riddle, but also a few other possible answers, and was open to a really fucking good guess by the party.

My current group has yet to actually engage any of the options I've laid down for riddling. But I've continued including them, because if all they do is make the world feel bigger, more dangerous, or smarter than them, not because they have to deal with them but through just existing? There aren't even many monsters I can get that effect with.