Using Puzzles in LARP game design

A lot of LARPers come from a tabletop tradition, and a lot of those traditions love puzzles.  This harkens back to the old-school “Speak friend and enter” puzzle from Tolkien, and perpetuated by Gygax, may all hail his unholy name.

I use puzzles myself in tabletop DMing.  I often buy those metal puzzles, and have solving them linked to something going on at the table.  I will do riddles and codes as well.

Nevertheless, I’ve never heard somebody say “I loved that puzzle in that larp game”.  They have said “that was an intense fight”, or “what a great RP experience” over and over.

Here’s the reasons that happens with puzzles in LARP.

  1. The puzzle brought the role-playing and the game flow to a screeching halt.  Often the  puzzle or elements of the puzzle are anachronistic or silly, and out of tone for the game. Often the puzzle’s physical representation was no more than a piece of printer paper, or something just as cheap and cheesy.  The puzzle is often, for production purposes, in an encounter with one or zero NPCs, being a GM-only construct.
  2. The puzzle segmented the player group, with only 1-2 of the group being able to participate.  Perhaps only 1-2 can look at or hold the puzzle at a time.  Almost always, the GM/Marshal present is completely consumed with adjudicating the puzzle.  Solving puzzles is not something done well by committee.  As a result, the remainder of the group plays “swap the butt thumb”, and inevitably starts to break character.
  3. The puzzle was forced as a do-or-die.  If you wanted to continue in the game, the puzzle had to be solved.   Using spells for some reason was a no-no, so there was always a bullshit “anti-magic” field to prevent you from using your spells to solve the puzzle.

Already, you can surmise the “rules” that I’m going to propose for things not to do with a LARP puzzle, but I’ll spell them out.

Rule #1:  If it can be done in tabletop, leave it on the tabletop

Could you do this puzzle in your living room with your tabletop group?  If so, leave it there.  Nobody spent $200 on costumes, drove two hours in the dark, and walked 2 miles into the woods for you to hand them puzzle or riddle printed on a sheet of 8.5” x 11” paper.

You can salvage a “printer paper” puzzle by making it “live action”.

  1. Have the puzzle involve a larger-than-life phys. rep:  A cargo net to climb, a huge compass, a life-size chess board, the classic “trap corridor” riddle with physically repped traps.
  2. Have the puzzle need to be solved during a combat.  An endless spawn of weak npcs fights the team while they also solve the puzzle.  This eliminates the “sitting on your thumbs” issue for the rest of the group as well.
  3. Give the rest of the team NPC(s) to role-play with during the puzzle, or an impetus to role-play with each other.   Instead of a riddle on the door to open it, make it a “demon door” that has several demons in the door.  Some of the demons want to make deals, and others have riddles.  You need X demons to help you open the door, and you can tell some of them to piss off.

Rule #2:  Never invalidate spells

People play spell-casters because they want to cast spells.  They often are gimped in combat because they chose a utility class/build.  Never screw those people over, give them their moment in the sun.

You should do the opposite.  Let the spells work, and let them work really well.  If your puzzle can be solved with a single spell, then your puzzle probably sucks.  Yes, there are spells (Bump of Direction, I’m looking at you) that are super powerful for cheap cost and clever usage.

For those unfamiliar, Bump of Direction is a low-level IFGS spell that points you the direction of a named place or object.  Have a hard puzzle?  Tear up pieces of paper and write the possible solutions on them.  Spread them in a circle and cast BOD stating “BOD towards the piece of paper with the solution”.

If your puzzle can be solved with that method (i.e. there’s only one correct answer, and it involves numbers) then your puzzle isn’t really LARP-fun.  It might be “bored and sitting in an airport for two hours”-fun, but that’s about it.

Rule #3:  Don’t do a puzzle for the sake of a puzzle

The puzzle should make sense in the context of the game plot.  Your players should never feel “oh, the writer put this in just to be clever”.   These are almost always the ones that involve math or numbers.  If you like putting these into games, let me present you my own numbers puzzle.

Puzzle:  Game designer Tommy puts a numbers puzzle into a game for 6 people.  Of those 6 people, what is the chance that at (1) somebody on the team likes number puzzles and (2) they are playing a character than can also RP the anachronism of tackling a number puzzle?

Answer:  The chance is zero.  Unless you larp at an engineering school.


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