Saturday, April 25, 2020

OSR Social Challenges

Credit J Line

Puzzles are obstacles with one, singular, perfect solution. Nothing else except that solution will ever solve it in a meaningful way, though puzzles are often accompanied by clues that will guide the attempts taken to divine said solution. Any other method taken is stymied, and preferably quickly, because if it isn't obvious whether progress is being made or not, it's incredibly hard to tell what the proper (only) solution is.

Challenges are obstacles with no solution attached. They just exist! They are in your way! They have details and facts, but apart from that, they don't care about what attempts you might make. They won't break if somebody casts Detect Magic, or can fly, or can breath underwater. Those are just solutions! How many traditional adventures have traps and puzzles that come with a laundry list of restrictions and conditions to make the puzzle "work"?

Puzzles suffer from the information entropy that comes with the territory of RPGs. It's really hard to describe a multi-faceted interlocking scenario to a group of players, especially when they would rather be murder-hoboing it up and are just acceding to your whim for the moment. A key detail might be missed, a contradiction slipped up, a restriction forgotten. "Wrong" solutions (clever ones) are suggested, and denied, since that isn't the "right" (listed) solution! Frustration mounts. Phones come out. We've all been here. In addition, keeping secrets from your players is never fair. You are their only window into the world that primarily exists in your head. Playing "Guess what the DM is thinking" is slow, boring and hard.

Challenges on the other hand, are robust, modular, and frequently fail to survive contact with the enemy. Spells, abilities, half-remembered bullshit, all of it comes to the forefront when a weird door or a chess conundrum bars the way. The players will feel so clever! They've bypassed your cunningly designed puzzle! Pat them on the head for being clever and attentive players, and breath a sigh of relief that you didn't need to design anything at all...

Challenges benefit from being simple, yet frustrating. A blasting jet of water, with the pump located in the room beyond. A guardian angel that will only allow green things to pass. A locked door that mutates any organic material it touches, and transmutes inorganic material into more of its own material. A roof made of powerful magnets. A completely flooded hallway. An obvious pit full of spikes, with a less-obvious invisible wall directly above it. A hoard of skeletons that will eviscerate anything that moves.

Keep in mind that having challenge in between the players and ultimate success can have mixed results. Maybe they'll have to go back to town and buy 200ft of rope. Maybe they'll have to go all the way back to civilisation and find a sage, or buy a new spell. Maybe they'll just give up. Maybe they'll die. But if you already knew the outcome of an obstacle put before your players, why put it there at all?

This probably isn't new to you, all things considered. For your perusal, a selection of OSR Social Challenges and Conundrums! With all of these, keep an eye on the real goal that is proposed for the players. The classic example of "Prince A and Princess B must married to unite these lands, but, oh noes! They hate each other!" doesn't necessarily require masquerades and poetry. You just have to unite the Kingdom of A and the Principality of B, through any means necessary. Eyes on the prize!
  1. "In the castle, there's a singularly ugly painting of Saint Bartholomew on his War-Zebra. Can't mistake it. The meeting takes places in the room three doors to the left of it, next Solemn's Day. If you can make it to the meeting, you're in."
  2. "The duke and one of his knights needs to sign this deed, and then it's all over. Two signatures, on this piece of paper, got it? We've got a few copies of it if you need..."
  3. "If it looks like the Ambassador from Ackleware has killed the Prince of Pursuit, it'll kick off the war, obviously. But if it looks like the Ambassador has saved the Prince from assassins, it'll throw the high countries into absolute chaos. The catch - we won't know which will be more useful until halfway through the talks. Can you arrange this?"
  4. "The count is dead! He had no heirs. His seat reverts to... his wife? No. His niece's husband. No- actually, nobody knows. Perhaps it could be you, or you, or!"
  5. "W-who is it? Who is there? My eyesight is not so good these days... ah yes, of course, I can show you where the Phantom Mines are! But only if you have my son come with you, the useless drunkard will sober up fast down there!" (the son is an absolute asshole and will betray you immediately in pursuit of drugs and alcohol)
  6. "The Prince of Pursuit is coming back to town. Yes- yes! I know! I know what he did- who threw that? I know what he did last time. Listen. Listen! We've got to show him a good time, and keep him away from the damn nuns and the damn wizards and the- yes I will keep blaspheming!"
  7. "The Bishop of Vestlavia is going to the beach for a week for his health. We need everything to keep ticking over perfectly until then. The mill, the quarry, the hunting grounds, the brothels, everything. But once he gets back... that very same day, the Vice-Pope is visiting. And on that day everything needs to fail spectacularly. Understood? It needs to be loud, funny, and look expensive as hell."
  8. The malfunctioning mining golem from Sector 12 is almost impossible to kill and incredibly dangerous. However, it loves music more than anything, it's practically addicted to good songs, and there's a band in town. All you have to do is stage a performance where it can hear.
  9. The highly depressed and incredibly powerful angel is going to obliterate this town and everyone in it, unless you can prove to the angel that they are worth saving. It's so depressed that it's magical visions are clouded, so you might be able to cheat. But that would be a mortal sin, so you do you.
  10. Only the rightful king can lift the binding placed on this vault, deep in the steaming inhospitable jungles. What treasure might lie within? Oh well, no point in speculating, since there's no way you could get the old codger to come out all this way.


  1. Hey Spwack, I created a generator using that list to HTML translator you have on your other blog, and I'm having trouble with it. I created a generator that works exactly how I want to when I press the "test output" button on your blog. However when I paste the code it gives me into the HTML of my own blog article, it creates a button that looks right, has the right label, but does nothing when clicked. What am I missing?

    1. Oh yeah I should move that over here. Is it the latest one (v3)? If you look up how to open the javascript developer console, it'll tell you exactly what is going wrong when you press the button (for instance it's cmd+alt+j on chrome). My advice is to test it first on a text document saved with .html, open that and see what happens. Sometimes blogs can mess with things in weird ways. Good luck!

    2. Thanks Spwack, that worked! For some reason it was adding in a superfluous line after the last table that was producing a syntax error; the problem went away when I deleted the line.

      The offending line was
      : [``],