This week: puzzles
There's been a lot of discussion in the past on how (or whether) to use puzzles in D&D games. The chief argument is that puzzles rely on player skill rather than character skill. That's definitely true.
The older editions of D&D were full of puzzles. By this I mean that whenever the party entered an area, there was often something to be discovered or learned, and the players had to approach the problem in different ways to figure it out (or survive). Sometimes--especially in the original UK1: Beyond the Crystal Cave--there were practically unwinnable combats that required a less direct approach. You couldn't usually just roll a die and say "Do I figure it out?" You had to explore, find out what you could, make a conclusion and then a choice. Prodding the floor with a 10' pole to see if the entire room was a trapper was part of the game. So was fiddling around with potions and magic items to try to figure out what they did. The electronic adventure games of the late '80s and early '90s were also all about puzzles, from King's Quest (and anything else in Sierra's catalog) to The Secret of Monkey Island (and all similiar titles in the LucasArts catalog). In those games, you went through the story by figuring stuff out. Even in Sierra's wonderful Quest for Glory series, the game was mostly puzzles, but interspersed with combat.
The thing is, puzzles rely just as much (or more) on DM skill as they do player skill. Sadly, many of us have been stuck in puzzles where the DM has either not communicated the scenario very well, or simply refused to yield more information, which has resulted in a boring stalemate where the players have completely lost interest in the adventure.
When running the puzzles in this session--or any session of any game--here are some things to keep in mind:
1. Give all the clues and let them think about it for a while. Let them poke around in the environment and try different things. Some players are going to get a puzzle instantly, while other groups are going to be slower about it. Let the players explore and experiment, and be sure to continue to provide them useful answers to their questions.
2. Hints. If the players haven't figured something out after 5-10 minutes, it's time to start highlighting the things they notice. This is where you drop down into character knowledge. Character knowledge doesn't depend strictly on skill checks. As the DM, it's your job to highlight specifics that certain characters would notice. In this week's encounter, for instance, if one of the PCs spent a lot of time examining the crystal glasses in the Water Palace or the song of the crystals in the Crystal Cave, or in the bowers last session, he/she would take special notice of the glasses on the table here, which produce that same strange song. Even if the player has forgotten, or the PC failed a check to notice--the character would notice. So just tell the character what he/she notices by calling attention to the relevant clues.
3. When all else fails, spell it out for them. If the players aren't up to the task, you can blatantly spell things out for them. For instance, "There was something about what the nymph said about day conquering night. You notice how gloomy and dark the adjacent room seems to be--the room with the soot-blackened sun mosaic on the floor. Maybe if you cleared away the black soot and revealed the sun..."
Sure, that takes the challenge out of it. But there are many different styles and preferences of play, and some players and groups just want to get together once a week, roll some dice at monsters, and go home feeling like they've accomplished something. That's a completely legitimate style of play. Nevertheless, there are other players that want to be challenged in other ways. Explorers, problem solvers, role-players, and so forth. Those folks are getting short changed on the skill check system, where a high die roll "solves" the encounter. By mandate and by design, this season of D&D Encounters is the one where the problem solvers, explorers, and role-players get to have their fun. If those people aren't in your group, just move things along and get to the fight.
But one last thing about puzzles: if at first the group can't figure them out, it's generally best to help them along a little and gently hint them along the way than it is to spoil it and move on. The reason is, that players want to feel smart. They want to be the one that figures out the cunning solution to the problem. There's nothing wrong with helping them along, pointing out the relevant details; the "aha!" moment becomes its own reward. Finally, a group that figures out a puzzle (or feels like they figured it out, even if you've been hinting them along the whole way) tends to be a lot more satisfied with the resolution than one that rolls a couple skill checks and bypasses it. Because the first group worked for it and they earned it and they can go home feeling like they accomplished something.
Puzzles in Session 12:
1. When Rocks Teach Birds to Sing: the key here is to make the discordant sqwaking of the songbirds (that's another clue) into music. The same music the characters have heard repeatedly throughout the season--at the Crystal Cave, at the Water Palace, and from the Bowers in the last session. Since this is a D&D Encounters session, there's a good chance not everyone will remember. Fortunately, the glasses here provide a reminder.
I think one of the tougher parts of this puzzle is comprehending that the crystal glasses are the "rocks." Here's a small clarifier from the first draft of the module. I've underlined the clarifying clue:
If the characters choose to examine the crystal glasses, read:
These glasses are of a unique make, for it seems they are not of leaded glass, but made from the actual crystals found in the Crystal Cave—though strangely light and delicate. As you examine the crystal, you think you can barely hear the same harmonious, tinkling melody that sounded gently throughout the Crystal Cave.
2. When Day Conquers Night: as previously discussed, there's a mosaic of the sun in a room where the darkness cannot be banished. The sun is blackened/defaced. Let it shine through, and it will brighten the room again. Probably pretty straightforward.
Those are two pieces of a larger puzzle, that being the way to create the water stairway and ascend to the rooftop garden where Soryth waits with Juliana. There is, however, a combat puzzle in this encounter, which could make a huge difference in the way this session turns out--so DMs hitting the clues on the head for some groups may be required.
3. How to "win" the combat: The caryatid columns will attack PCs that draw their weapons. They will not attack those who behave nonviolently. In addition, if the PCs have not slaughtered the charmed fey they've encountered previously, the pixies will consider them friends of the fey and drop out of the combat before it starts. Thus, the optimal way to tackle this one (provided the fey aren't involved) is to ignore all other combatants and take out Kalbon as quickly as possible, and then sheathe all weapons. This fight is either going to be a cakewalk or a slaughterhouse. Just make sure that you've been clear in your clues about why the caryatid columns are attacking, and that you run the pixies according to the PCs' prior choices.
For some groups, this session will be exceptionally rewarding. It will reward their prior choices and it will make them feel like they've "beaten the game," being clever enough to solve it. Others may be frustrated with the puzzles while they itch for something to beat their swords on--and that sword fodder may be too tough for their taste.
In the time I've spent supporting this season on the forums, I've read about a lot of fantastic DMs making really cool choices and making the adventure their own. A module is a template for you to adapt and improvise to fit your table and group. Keep up the great work and adapt this session and next as you need, in order to maximize player fun. Try to read those tables to figure out who's engaged and who's not; let the engaged players continue to explore, and give hints to those who need it.
Best of luck.