I think people either strongly agree, or strongly disagree, with the following statement: “I love riddles.” I’m in the strongly agree camp. I’m enamored with them, honestly. This attitude goes hand-in-hand with a thing for puzzles, as well — I’m a particular sucker for cryptic crosswords and other such word games that test something other than raw trivia. I love seeing riddles in literature, even when they’re so unfamiliar I can’t really solve them — I couldn’t get the charades in Emma, for instance. You lop off the last few lines of a classic like “This thing all things devours,” much as Peter Jackson did, and I’m afraid we are no longer friends. And I also like writing riddles for fun.
My coat has iron stitches,
I wear it every day.
It never sees the weather
But it keeps the dirt away.
Naturally, the temptation to use riddles in games is therefore strong for someone like me. And it’s often such a perilous mistake.
Riddles tend to skew toward the more unfair part of game design, scenario scripting or running a tabletop game. Like many other puzzles, the people who excel at solving original riddles are the people who think most like the person writing the riddle. It’s not based on book-learning — it couldn’t be, unless the only riddles used are ones taken from other sources. If you set an original riddle down in front of a batch of players, not many are going to automatically get it unless it’s really easy.
Tell my story to another and slay me
Die with me and I am yours forever.
So how on earth do you use them fairly? First answer: “don’t ever use them.” But that’s not entirely satisfactory. It’s a difficult thing to measure, of course, but there’s often someone who enjoys riddles in a gaming group, and if you’re building an RPG odds are that some of your audience likes them, too. There are a lot of us out there who were affected the “Riddles in the Dark” chapter at an early age. But you don’t want to bring things to a halt when a riddle’s posed because most of your audience just doesn’t enjoy spending time turning over possible solutions in their brains. Riddles are terrible roadblocks.
In the morning she adorns her hair
At noon she brushes it out
In the evening she cuts it all off.
I don’t know that I’ve gotten riddle use down to a science, but I’ve had the most success in using them as bonus content. The players get an advantage or extra loot if they spend time with the riddle, but there is no real penalty for failure. (Maybe a small one, tops — I might offer a riddle in which a failed answer means that the player character becomes an opponent’s target during the fight, but nothing that would give the enemy increased lethality.) Riddles are hard, and punishing failure for what is in some ways a guessing game is basically incentivizing your players not to participate at all. A riddle opens a secret room, but doesn’t block the way to the dungeon boss.
Video games are particularly tricky in that if a player thinks of a good answer that also fits, the code can’t just say “That also works, you pass.” And of course, there’s no way of telling whether any given player or play group has any interest whatsoever. This is where you absolutely want riddles to serve as bonus content. Maybe they’re optional objectives that increase a quest’s payout, but not the heart of the quest.
And with a video game, you generally have to give the player the answer in some fashion. Text entry is the least awesome option — it relies on spelling, possibly punctuation or capitalization — ugh, such a pain. A better solution might be as simple as offering a multiple-choice answer. If retests are allowed, sooner or later everyone will get it right. If they aren’t, it’s easy to work through the choices offered and see which one fits all the criteria — and of course, a multiple-choice format means you can also stack things in the player’s favor. After all, all the incorrect choices can range from “almost, but not quite” to “so obviously wrong.” Another option is to have the riddles themselves provided in the game, complete with answers. There are plenty of games where picking up the right journal or book gives the player the answer necessary to solve the puzzle, whether a combination to a safe or a cipher to translate a coded script. A book of riddles with answers included would serve nicely as a simple “check the journal, find the answer” solution, but also give the Edward Nygmas of the audience ample opportunity to work it through in their heads first.
The warrior-king sinks into red oblivion, and his subjects bespattered by the blood find it beautiful.
The implementation and use of riddles is, appropriately enough, an interesting puzzle in its own right. For many people, the ideal option would be “don’t bother” — but I’m always grateful when someone does, even if the riddles are as easy multiple-choice options as the ones given by spirit ravens in Guild Wars 2. (Which themselves count as optional content — they’re one way to fill up the “completion” heart, but you could be out there killing monsters to fill it up instead if you don’t care for the riddle games.) And with the typical ego of a human being, I figure there are probably other people out there like me in this respect — and so I can’t help but figure out how best to make them happy, without inflicting grueling tedium on all the people who aren’t.