This weekend I was listening to Dungeon Talk #20, one of the awesome podcast segments put out by DnD Academy. There was a good discussion around a listener email asking about how to best handle the topic of handling intelligence-based challenges with players, specifically puzzles. The discussion centered around the classic question of “how can someone roleplay a character smarter than themselves?” which is a very legitimate question. Roleplaying is all about being larger-than-life heroes. I can legitimately fight with a sword and throw a punch, but I’m no professional warrior. And I fancy myself a pretty smart dude, but I guarantee I’m no Master of the Arcane toting around an 18 Intelligence. We play heroes that we wish we could be. I am personally a fan of playing very clever and intelligent characters, but I am only so smart. So how do we handle challenges in-game that require the players to be quite smart, and how do you shine the spotlight on the appropriate character, even if that particular player isn’t capable of solving the puzzle on their own?
Here’s my thought based on how I’ve seen this handled in a past game. Note that this is taking the approach of a challenge that is meant to challenge the players not the characters.In the particular example, this DM was using a challenge the drew on some piece of music theory that he was confident one of the players would know. I can’t remember if that same player was playing the bard, but for the sake of this argument, let’s say someone else was playing the bard. So we have a puzzle requiring knowledge XYZ, and one player has the capability to answer to XYZ, but a different character is the one that would make the most narrative sense to know the answer.
- Present the puzzle/challenge to the group.
- Allow the group to talk through it, work it out and figure out the solution out of character, as a group. Let them put their heads together and even maybe allow searching the web for ideas. Let them be as communally intelligent as they can.
- At this point have all of the appropriate characters make their knowledge/skill rolls, ability checks, or simply nominate the character most likely to have that solution from a narrative standpoint. In the case of rolling, the highest roll gets the spotlight. That character steps forward and gets to activate the solution that the group came up with.
Since the challenge was intended to challenge the players instead of the character, I’d say that the roll is really irrelevant here, but if you want to use the roll, if none of the rolls succeed, the “fail forward” approach makes a lot of sense here. They manage to open the special door, but spring a trap, the path behind them caves in, or it took too long, and they get attacked while the spotlight character is inputting the solution. But because the group came up with the right answer, they solve the puzzle, since the point was for everyone to have fun solving a puzzle together. This approach allows you to challenge the group in a way that personally engages everyone, but still give the narrative spotlight to the right character.
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