To recap; after surviving the night and securing transport, the agents begin their drive to Elberwick, ready to start their investigation properly. As they drive down the county lane, the early morning fog creeps in…
The agents wake up in a bare cement room. No explanation as to how, or why, because you don’t get things like sensible, logical explanations in Elberwick. There’s nothing in the room except an old wooden school desk. On the desk is a creepy children’s crayon drawing of the sun, the moon, and some stars, along with the scrawled line “What is closest to me?”
This was the first time I’d included a puzzle in an RPG I’d run. In hindsight, it wasn’t a very good one really; the agents were in the basement of Elberwick primary school, and the only way out was through the main doors, which was locked with a weird mechanism that had a row of five circular slots, about four inches wide. To the left of the mechanism was a drawing of a stick figure.
The puzzle was a scavenger hunt through the school, which was full of smaller, child-like gribbles who stumbled around ganking the agents in the shins with scissors. This is where I learnt another important lesson; know your players, and what they’re comfortable with. Let me explain.
Emi and Ryan (players of Edge and the Doctor) are both parents with young kids, and – understandably – when you’re a parent, your acceptance for certain horror tropes changes. The whole “creepy child” archetype can become uncomfortable to deal with when you’re trying to play an RPG for a bit of fun and end up having to deal with children being in the sort of situations that horror games create, such as mortality, psychological issues, possession, “body horror”, etc. They got through the game without an issue, but raised it with me afterwards. The school session was the last time the gribbly-babies got used, because I’d rather have everyone at the table having fun than feeling uncomfortable, or even offended.
I can’t emphasise that enough; know your players, and even before that first session begins, ask what people are and aren’t comfortable with. Some groups run games involving “mature themes” (for lack of a better term), and I’ve no doubt that in the hands of a good GM and a sensible group those themes can add to the story, get players more involved, allow for memorable roleplaying moments, and so on. But the group has to be up for that sort of thing in the first place; you can’t casually drop something like child slavery into your game and not expect at least some of your players to put their “what-the-hell” faces on.
Anyway, moving on…
The agents ran through the school, searching the classrooms and fighting off the gribble-kids. Eventually, they found five medals, each marked with a different symbol; a crescent moon, a heart, a sun, mountains, and stars. Once they had all five medals, they worked out the puzzle fairly easily, and put the medals in the right order in the lock (the correct order being heart, mountains, moon, sun, and stars, with the heart being closest to the stick figure drawing on the lock, following the clue in the basement, “what is closest to me”?).
I remember being unsatisfied with the session. Not due to the actions of the players, but because of the puzzle. To this day I still cannot think of a good way to run a riddle or puzzle in a tabletop RPG. Make it too “videogamey” (i.e. scavenger hunts, sliding block puzzles, etc) and it feels very artificial. If you reduce the puzzle to some skill checks, then it feels bland and mechanical. But if you make it a purely “out-of-character” challenge with no dice rolls, it may too hard or obscure, and players might not be able to work it out and grow frustrated, especially if their character is meant to be one focused on intelligence and problem-solving.
Perhaps the best way is to combine the two; allow successful skill checks to provide clues to the puzzle’s solution. The better you roll, the better the clue. Eh. I dunno.
The problem here was that I was sticking too closely to the Silent Hill game formula (locked door, scavenger hunt for key in monster rooms, minor puzzle involving key and door), and it resulted in a lacklustre session. If I ever include puzzles or riddles in an RPG again, I’ll be sure to think more carefully on the impact it could have on the game. Will it be a pointless speed bump, or will it grind everything to a halt?
Anyway, with the puzzle solved, the door opened, and the agents ran out of the school into the dark mists of Elberwick. They weren’t in Kansas anymore…