Puzzles and Failing
Something has been on my mind in the last couple of weeks, as I am laying down the basics for each of my dungeons.
It was puzzles, and how they are implemented in RPG maker style engines.
Short aside, this is the definition I am going to be using as a puzzle: an obstacle in a game that cannot be overcome through brute combat or manual dexterity.
My biggest problem was with how much work they take if you want them to be Flexible, Resettable and Solvable
Now for a little story time.
I come from a heavy Tabletop RPG background, and have 18 years of experience as a Dungeon Master in D&D.
My second favorite part ( apart from the actual face-to-face role playing) is handing my players a difficult
puzzle and seeing them trying to solve it in a creative way. Now, could this be frustrating as all hell if your players are having one of their Duuuuuuuuh moments?
Yes, but I solve this by having 2 things :
1. THE solution of the puzzle doesn't exist. Or more specifically, the puzzle doesn't have a definite solution. Now, this is exceedingly easy to do in a Tabletop game, where you are, as a DM,
can actually hear them working it out, and when they actually start doing things that should work, I can say :"Sure, That works". I call it the room full of tools approach.
Give them the obstacle and a lot of ways to interact with it.
The player feels clever, their creativity feels rewarded, and I didn't have to sit there waiting untill they found my "one true answer."
Now, while this is easy as pie in a tabletop RPG, this is by far the hardest to do in a digital RPG, as each possible solution has to be specifically put in the by the developer/deigner.
But there is a middle of the road approach:
While you can't have puzzles with no solutions, you can still implement the room full of tools approach (or the all ways lead to rome approach, whatever),
and have multiple answers to your puzzle.
My favourite puzzle to do this with is the push a block puzzle, or the scate along the ice into rocks puzzle, or the teleporter puzzle. Spatial puzzles, not dialogue puzzles is what I'm talking about here.
I sprinkle the adequate blocks/teleporters around, and keep trying to solve it myself until I get A solution, and then start trimming the ones I did not use. If there are more possible solutions, great, but I am sure there is at least one.
Cross the broad river is another one that works kind of well with this. Or as you might call it, the find 3 out of 5 keys approach. There are more interactables then are needed, with the spares either unlocking a bonus treasure,
or some of them are locked behind additional obstacles.
The key to make this the least bit workable is to have a lot of common events that do the things you want.
I have a stockpile room, with a pile of interactable objects that just need 1 or 2 variables changed, and a boatload of common events.
Now for the next Piece:
2. Allow the players to "Fail Forwards". This was especially relevant in tabletop, but our cRPG's can benefit from it too I believe.
Imagine : the players are investigating a murder in a dwarven city, and they find Gunpowder on the crimescene. Instead of thinking "Gunfactory" and them going to the Industrial district,
they interpret it as cannons, and go and look in the Harbour district. Do I let them waste their time and present them with a roadblock ? Off course not, you give them a hard encounter
with no treasure, have them find a note specifically indicating the Gun Factory, and maybe a tighter timeline for the rest of their mission.
The heroes are trying to climb a wall, and they fail their skill check, do I let them plummet to their death ? Off course not, have some damage, and you attract a simple encounter.
Don't let failure be a roadblock, but just another obstacle.
Now this is again easy to do face-to-face, and harder to do in a computer RPG, but there are lessons that can be drawn from this.
a. withold extra reward
Once again the example of a block pushing puzzle. Maybe the solution is really easy to just pass the puzzle, but off to the side is a treasure chest, and getting that one will be way more difficult.
Maybe if he usus only 3 out of 4 keys, he might still have one for the bonus room
The player can advance anyway, even if he fails, but that treasure chest is there; shiny, shimmering, splendid.
b. give hints if stuck
Another aspect of this is getting the player back on the right track if he is wrong or stuck. I'm not saying solve the puzzle for him, but maybe have an interactable object start blinking
after the player is just standing there with his finger up his nose for 2 minutes. Maybe give a hint, or give him the first step of the puzzle , maybe have the hint be delivered by a partymember who would see such things.
c.penalties, not roadblocks.
A final aspect of failing forwards is to have failing the puzzle to just apply a penalty to a later event.
Concrete example: Somewhere a third through my game I have a 7 Sins Themed Demonic Dungeon, with each sin being represented by a different permanent status effect.
There are seven Bosses, each removing one sin from the party, until only one is left, then there is a final boss battle. Depending how you do it, the final boss, or any boss in between really, can be a breeze, or an absolute (but still winnable) nightmare.
So even if the player just does the bosses in a random order, he could still possibly defeat the dungeon, it would just be insanely hard.
Now, on to a totally different topic:
Resetability and Robustness.
Sometimes a player fails a puzzle. He pushes a block into an inescapable corner, he drinks the poisons in the wrong order, ...
Basically he screwed up and cannot continue.
Now, how much do we need to plan for this ?
While there are certainly ways to foolproof a puzzle, and we should do this to as many puzzles as we can,
doing this to each and every one would, in my opinion, be enormously laborious.
I have found a simple way around this, but most of you are not going to like it : The player is going to have to sometimes reload.
When a player has to do this, I feel not the player, but the designer has failed, but limitations on the engine are what they are.
Now to soften the low : Use autosave. Have the game save at the beginning and end of small local puzzles. Having to redo just the puzzle stings a lot less.
It almost mimics the table top puzzle solving in that you can try and interact with the object to find the right solution, instead of being stuck if you fail.
Ah! You say, what about your promised big puzzles ? Your 5 skills required dungeons ? Those are actually also solved by very careful use of when to autosave.
Here the autosaves are at the beginning of the dungeon and at each convergence point; the choke point in the dungeon each of the possible paths has to take, where you put your minibosses, Story Cutscenes,...
Because you know that if they made it that far, they are not halfway a broken puzzle.
Of course I still allow manual saves, but the autosave is there to say : you're allowed to experiment and fuck up, we've got your back.
Is this an enormous Hack ? Yes, Yes it is, but so are most things in RPG Maker
Because resetting a "shove the block into the right hole" puzzle might be easy, a "push te rock into the river,
so you can cross, then freeze the river under the block, so it floats off, and blocks the river further downstream slowing it down so you can make a bridge out of ice so that you can melt the block free and push it into some other river" might be slightly more difficult.
One final thought : there is no reason to have random encounters during a precision puzzle, unless the puzzle deals damage on failure and thus the encounters are part of the puzzle design.
So, what are your favourite kind of puzzles ?
Push a block
Sequence of levers.
Entire minigames (Mastermind, ...)