Player Challenge #04 Think Sideways

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0906

Krug, Sala, Dunin, and Kailua all live in the same home. Krug and Sala head to the tavern. When they return, Dunin is lying dead on the floor in a puddle of water and glass.

It is obvious that Kailua killed him but the guards are not called and Kailua is not severely punished.

The PCs find Sala in tears at the tavern. She tells them this story and demands justice. What do the PCs do?

This small brain teaser comes from a one-minute mysteries theme I was researching the other day. I was curious if short mysteries and brain teasers might make good adventure hooks. I found the one above at the Something Different website [(126) Minute Mysteries] and modified it.

I’m not good at lateral thinking puzzles. However, they are perfect grist for RPGs.


Such puzzles cannot be solved by logic. Initially, the PCs are never given enough information to deduce the answer.

That means your players have to take action to get to the bottom of the mystery.

Lateral thinking puzzles also can have multiple answers. Some people hate this. “That’s dumb. Anything could be the answer then!”

But put this type of conundrum into RPGs and it means players get to engage and take action to discover which solution is the right one.

Play the game to find out what happened.

I’m no pro at creating and GMing lateral thinking puzzles. But here’s a simple framework we can try and see how it games out.

Start With The Ending

Begin with what happened. The key here is to answer Why.

An elf walks into a tavern and asks the bartender for a drink of water. The dwarven bartender pulls out a loaded crossbow and points it at the elf. The elf pauses before saying “Thank you” and leaving. What happened?

The question to the PCs is what happened? But the thing you build first is figuring out why this happened.

Turns out the elf had hiccups. The dwarf figured scaring the elf would work better than a mug of water.

The elf went into a tavern. Why? To get a drink to cure hiccups.

The dwarf pointed his hidden weapon at the elf instead? Why? A better cure. (Besides, elves are bad for business in a dwarven bar. You gotta stay on-brand, right?)

Once you know Why then you can start setting up the situation and the events leading up to it.

Ask Yes-No Questions

Brainstorm what simple questions players might ask to get enough information to start forming possible answers.

Were the elf and dwarf enemies? No.

Was the elf threatening the dwarf? No.

Does the dwarf always threaten elf customers? No.

Was the elf a criminal or known enemy? No.

Did the elf and dwarf know each other? No.

Did the elf speak in a language the dwarf could understand? Yes.

Did the elf act strangely or ask for the drink in a strange way? Yes.

And so on. Ask your friends to come up with questions if you get stumped. (It’s hard coming up with questions when you already know the answer.)

Turn The Questions Into Encounters

Who knows what and where?

Single questions and grouping of questions become quick missions for the PCs to go out and gather information about.

Here’s where the RPG aspect makes this really cool.

If this was just a puzzle game between you and I, we’d do the question thing and pose solutions until the right answer.

But in your game, questing for answers can turn into roleplaying scenes, combat encounters, hooks to more plots, exploration, and more.

It’s like lateral gameplay triggered by your lateral puzzle!

So you try to guess as many questions your players might ask and plan encounters to trigger when the PCs go out and about getting answers.

The real game here is in proving or disproving players’ ideas about the solution via encounters.

Break The Logic Chain

Here’s the toughest part, in my opinion.

You have to construct a situation that does not follow a linear train of thought. You need a twist or a gap so players cannot say A =B, B = C, therefore A = C.

You don’t say, “The elf walked in with hiccups. He asked for a mug of water.”

That’s the linchpin fact — your Why. Hide that.

So create a sequence of events. Write them down. Then take one or more events or facts and hide them to break the logic chain.

What’s the missing event or fact from the puzzle with Krug, Sala, Dunin, and Kailua?

The answer is Dunin was Sala’s pet fish and Kailua is Krug’s cat.

Simple fact.

But hide it and the whole mystery becomes tough to solve. Only some footwork by the players will close the gap.

So that’s a four-step recipe for building lateral thinking puzzles:

  • Start With The Ending
  • Ask Yes-No Questions
  • Turn The Questions Into Encounters
  • Break The Logic Chain

Give this a try and let me know what you think.