Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Puzzle Question

For several months now, I've been running a forum-based (PBP) campaign of Dragon Warriors.

Since the game was published in the mid-80s, I'm sure many proponents of the Old Ways (TM) would decline to describe it as a true "old school" game, but as it resembles nothing so much as a British version of Basic D&D, it counts as one for me. This being the case, I've done my best to run it in an old-school fashion; which is to say that I take published scenarios, tweak them to fit my tastes, and then let the players muddle their way through as best they see fit.

Much like Basic D&D, DW lacks systems for searching, spotting, outwitting traps, solving riddles, and the like. The GM is expected to ask players to describe what they're doing with a given obstacle, rather than asking for an attribute check or skill roll. In this way, we are told, old school RPGs become more a test of player skill than they are a demonstration of character skill. Players used to tossing some dice to find out if they notice a loose flagstone (rather than having to declare that they're looking for it) can find it difficult to adjust.

The scenario I'm currently running for my players is The King Under the Forest, the first adventure written for Dragon Warriors. Having been published before the setting of the game, Legend, was even fully conceptualized, it is considerably different in tone from the gloomy, mysterious scenarios that followed: in this adventure, the players investigate what would best be described as a magical puzzle dungeon. There are traps and riddles and enchanted fountains and rotating wands and a room with an honest-to-god dragon in it.

Now, with a group largely unaccustomed to the old-school mode of play, tackling the dungeon in question would be a time-consuming and frustrating process even if we were all sitting around the same table. Trying to run it in the often-sluggish play-by-post medium, especially when two of the players live in different time zones from the rest, has proven to be what I think could fairly be described as a quagmire. Some players expressed disgust with the nature of the dungeon as soon as they divined it, others are just having a hard time figuring out what to do. Frankly, I am unsure if I'd be able to do a better job of running it if we were all in the same room. At any rate, for now I'm throwing out a lot of hints, and am using the Stealth/Perception mechanics from the game as written to govern "spot checks", but I'm a little uncomfortable with that.

I know others out there, including self-proclaimed "leader of the Old School Taliban" James Maliszewski, have some experience with running old-school dungeons via play-by-post. Is the issue I'm running into something others have noticed?


  1. Puzzles can be a pain-in-the-butt even face-to-face; basically you sit around with people bouncing ideas off eachother until they either come up with something that works, get wiped out (if there's any element of danger to what they're attempting), or give up and try something else for a while. I'm not sure I have anything to suggest except that maybe you encourage the players to chunk into bigger actions. That is, instead of going step by step post-by-post through the process of searching then solving, have them list out everything they can think of looking for or trying in one post maybe with a bunch of if-then statements: I search for any loose stones anywhere, if I find one I try to examine the walls and ceiling in line with it to make sure there are no holes that something could shoot out of or drop down, and then push it first with my 10' pole, if that doesn't work I see if it can be pried up with an iron spike or slid to one side or the other. If there aren't any loose stones or holes, I examine the door, looking for... and so on. Then you'd report everything they find and the result of whatever tests/attempts they've made in one response, including any saves they've had to make and damage they've taken, things that are revealed, and so forth. I'm not sure that would work, but it probably beats trying it a single action or question at a time.

  2. That is a good suggestion by jamused.

    I definitely think that puzzles and PBP are a marriage made in hell. Ordinarily in a face-to-face or chat game I can enjoy the process of solving them, but PBP really is just too slow sometimes.

  3. I agree with noisms. It is very difficult to get this working on a PBP. Especially if there is no way forward except via the puzzle. I tend to use a Deus ex Machina in the form of a knowledgeable NPC. Failing that, hints to the players with highest Int scores.

  4. I did end up doing exactly as you suggest, Cameron. There actually was an NPC with them, and I had him throw out helpful hints, and yes, I rolled a lot of Intelligence checks. It left a sour taste in my mouth, but I was determined to finish that scenario.

    Having just finished the dungeon in question, I can say that I'll never try do another one like it in the PBP medium. I just hope that it hasn't caused the campaign to lose so much momentum that it peters out, but if it does, well... lesson learned.

  5. Paul -- scanning your blog. Good stuff (far too nerdy for me; doubtless some others will eat it up as a delicacy). 'Grudd', another new guy at Red Box, comes from the UK and has played a lot of Dragon Warriors, I believe. Unfortunately he won't be there on Thursday... Hope we'll see him again.

    -Eric W.

  6. "Good stuff" but "far too nerdy," eh? Oof. Well, I guess nothing appeals to everybody. Thanks for checking the blog out, though.

    Grudd was briefly a player in my online DW campaign, believe it or not. I say "briefly" because I suspended it not long after he joined. I hope to meet him face-to-face!

  7. 'far too nerdy' is something to aspire to. I've come back to rpgs from years away and am completely clueless about AD&D past 1st edition, practically. Also, my wife beats me for my nerdiness, so I try to shield my blog comments just in case she is following up behind me.