Tuesday 24 November 2009

Players and Intelligence

Now that I’ve been DMing again for a while, and having read copious amounts on the way of Old School, a conundrum has presented itself to me.

It is quite feasible that a player with a slightly higher than average intelligence, may well play a character who has, let us suppose, an INT of 17 or 18. Clearly, the character is more intelligent than the player.

So what happens when, as is common in dungeons, the DM wishes to present a puzzle challenge? One approach might be to say that a roll under INT on a d20 would mean that the character has solved the puzzle, but this goes against the maxim of Old School, ‘challenge the players, not the character’, and indeed reduces what is often a key feature of the dungeon to just a die roll.

So how should this problem be approached?

 Test the player – sure, but doesn’t this mean that the character’s INT score becomes rather meaningless as an indication of their intelligence.

 Abolish intelligence as a requisite – good idea on the surface, but doesn’t this mean that the Magic User then becomes a very difficult class to run as it no longer has a prime requisite.

 Ban players from running characters above their natural intelligence. Tricky one this. It’s almost like a kind of intellectual discrimination and besides, who judges player intelligence? It's a minefield, to say the least.

INT is not like STR. You can say I’m kicking a door open, or I’m bending the bars, and no-one expects you to actually do it. The DM might get a bit annoyed if the doors in his house are routinely broken off their hinges by players with the equivalent of 18/00 STR.

Puzzles, on the other hand, the bread and butter of Old School dungeons:

"4. At least one puzzle, trick, or obstacle that requires the players to figure it out, rather than being solvable by a die-roll"

Grognardia 20th February 2009.

They are something that either the player solves or the character does, and if the character does, then it revolves around a die roll, or the DM saying that the puzzle is solvable with the application of, say, 30 INT points.

And what if the DM is hopeless at making up puzzles? He might present the players with the D&D equivalent of the Gordian Knot or leave the main treasure chamber guarded by a problem that Elmo from Sesame Street could solve.

As a converse example, what if the player is running a fighter whose INT is way below his own? Is it fair to ask the player to restrict his own intellectual input into the game, just because his dice rolled low? Or should the DM ask someone who may not be capable of it, and would find it immensely frustrating, to role play a dimwit?

Junior Grognard is 6.5 years old and there is obviously a point beyond which his deductive powers are not, as yet, capable of going. I had to put on my thinking hat in one of our Training Dungeon sessions recently and devise a puzzle that would reward the players whilst not relying on the characters to make die rolls. However, as there are two magic users in the party, it stands to reason that the characters, realistically speaking would have tumbled the puzzle in moments. JG got it, but it took a while and a good deal of effort.

The temptation is strong to ‘help’ the players if the DM suddenly realises that the puzzle is just too tricky for them, or if he’s overdone the complexity thereof. Tempting though this course of action is, it has the potential to ruin a dungeon.

But players might very well complain if they realise, as has been outlined above, that their characters could well have solved the puzzle that the players could not. And not everyone is good at logical puzzles, although they might be very intelligent in other areas.

I would certainly be interested to hear how other DMs have solved this particular problem and if anyone’s got examples of puzzles that can be placed into dungeons to give players a tough but ultimately feasible chance of solving them.


  1. I think that there are a number of similar types of things that fall into that category: Traps, tricks, secret doors. Each slightly different but all have that element of "Do I roll the dice to see if they get it or do I give them details to figure it out?" I tend to focus on having the players figure it out with clues given to them as it is, after all, a game and they are players. However, when I use a puzzle I put a lot of effort into my puzzles. I was just reading another post on clues and I do think that if there cannot be done with 3 or 4 clues, then it is probably too complicated for gaming (and that's for adults). I loved playing Myst for this very reason. Sometimes I would work on one little puzzle for hours, but then upon figuring it out, I'd marvel at the simplicity of it and consider myself a dolt. That's the sign of a good gaming puzzle.

  2. I don't worry about player vs. character INT just like I don't worry about the other PC stats vs. player abilities. If a puzzle is meant to challenge the PC itself, and the player can't suss it out via play/rp - I might allow a roll vs. the most logical skill that matches how the player has negotiated the task with me. (e.g. If the player is facing an obvious test of dexterity and he's worked out with me how he'll do it, but using his wisdom and common sense as the main "instrument", then he'll roll against his WIS).

    I may also test the players themselves and I'll let them know that.

    Having said that, I'm terrible at riddles. Completely suck at them. I make good use of the web when I need riddles or traps.

    I also recognize that natural elements make the best puzzles and traps. Ye gods, the 3 level hall that I had in my last Dark Ages game was a puzzle all to itself and it took the players a long time to figure it out.

    Go into it slowly and see what works for you.

  3. I like to play out puzzles/tricks instead of simply solving it with dice rolls. I give players of high INT or WIS characters hints I'd never give someone playing a dimmer character. No fancy mechanics just me making judgment calls.

  4. JD - at the end of the day, judgement calls are what it's all about. Rulings, not rules.

    The question of clues is a tricky one and with reference to Rusty's post, I remember the blog to which he refers but not where it is (damn old age!) and it made some interesting points. However, the DM needs to balance handing out clues to the smarter characters with the temptation to 'help' them if they seem to be struggling and the puzzle's solution is the sine qua non of the rest of the adventure.

    Since taking on board the Old School blogospherre, with the guidance on puzzles, especially Jamie Mal's guide to Old School design features (and the K&K site from which it comes), I am very reluctant to allow die rolls to solve puzzles.

    But it's where to get those puzzles from, if like Chgowiz, you suck at riddles. Or if you know you are good at them, how to pitch it so that the players have a reasonable (but not almost impossible) chance of solving.

    I guess that to a certain extent, puzzles are a timesink, to use James Raggi's phrase about secret doors. If you take too long, you can hear the rattle of the dice as the DM starts to roll for wandering monsters.