Puzzle Design 101 – How to cope with “Idiocy”

Philip Bernth Johansen

If you are an aspiring or even a thoroughly tested tabletop RPG game master, you have most likely found yourself in the predicament of putting your players in front of a door that requires their greatest wits to solve, that dice alone cannot overcome, that requires thought and precision which takes great mastery of their own innermost intellectual prowess!
However, you have probably also experienced your players asking if they can smash the puzzle to pieces with a hammer or roll the dice to progress because thinking is sometimes a little too hard. Although it is easy as a puzzle designer to come to that conclusion at least, whoever is trying to solve it just isn’t smart enough. But that is not always the case! Sometimes the puzzle that makes all the sense in the world to you, the designer, is as arcane and foreign in logic as the concept of not having access to a daily dose of caffeine is to the average student.

As an escape room designer, it is often a hurdle that I have come across, what level of difficulty is exactly right? My greatest example is two people doing the same puzzle. A token moving puzzle that eventually spits out a three-digit number if the tokens are moved correctly in accordance with the ruleset provided. However, while observing people solving this puzzle two examples come to mind: the kind of people who frustratedly gives up after half an hour of trial and error or the kind of people just taking a brief skim at the puzzle in its entirety, without moving or experimenting with the pieces. Simply stating the answer after half a minute.
The truth is, there is no correct difficulty level for a puzzle. Puzzle design is a tricky sea of shape and substance. Consider IQ tests which are based in systems of logic. All of these can be considered puzzles, but they each have a domain and a purpose. When designing games it is important to consider your target audience. Designing an escape room is no different in this regard the target audience is not the puzzle savvy people, it is your regular average person, who may or may not have solved a puzzle or a riddle once or twice. In short there is no rulebook. You cannot even assume that the person has more than basic arithmetic (addition, subtraction, multiplication, division.)

But there is hope! Here I provide the single most useful bit of advice I have given a handful of aspiring puzzle designers. It is not terribly complicated, as a matter of fact, it is a single sentence design mantra, one which I urge any aspiring puzzle creator to keep in mind when finalizing their puzzles: “Everyone is an Idiot.” Forgive me for insulting you dear reader, but I would like to reassure you. I too am an idiot in this regard. And the puzzles I design are aimed at my understanding of the term “idiot.” It doesn’t mean that people are stupid, rather that people have a largely different understanding of what is reasonable or makes sense logically or systematically. Think of it like this: You have 5 boxes and 10 different objects of shape, color and size. Give 5 different people the same task of sorting these objects however they see fit. Imagine the results for a moment: One will most likely sort them by color, another by size, and a third by function… It is the same pieces, the same task, and it will most likely be completed at the end but the result will likely be somewhat unique for each person. Even the ones who sort it with the same heuristics will most inevitably have slight variance, as whatever the heuristic may be, holds different meaning to each and every person.

So, assuming this is what “idiocy” is in this context which I admit, is a rather misleading term to use. Although I use it to make a striking statement. As it is easier to get the point across by stating idiocy rather than: Someone who doesn’t know anything about logics or systems which are obvious to the designer then comes the next part: think like an “idiot.” Try to put yourself in the shoes of someone who needs to solve a puzzle and ask yourself how much information you would realistically need to be able to solve a puzzle. How many leaps in logic do you need to make if you know absolutely nothing about anything in the world.
The short answer to this riddle: You need everything.

The best puzzles I know of have one thing in common: They give you all the pieces and all the information you need. Sometimes obscured or with holes in it. But all the information is there and then they ask you to put all the pieces together. The best example I can come up with is jigsaw puzzles. After all, you have all the pieces and no real instruction of how to go about it. But looking at the box, you have a clear idea of what the finished product should look like. It might not be as exciting as a chessboard where you need to win within a set amount of moves or a cleverly designed system of levers and water pipes or about finding the difference between two near-identical images. It is a brilliant example of what you need for a puzzle.
To finish this off I will impart you a little toolset that might help you organize your thoughts for puzzle design:

Define Pieces – Your play pieces, tokens, string, numbers, Letters or perhaps even Plushies? Anything goes.
Define Rules – Your logical rules, the fundamental “How-To” solve it.
Define Solution –  The solution and the actual “How-To” solve it.
Keep in mind, you don’t need to follow these three steps of definition in any particular order.
Sometimes you have the answer but need the puzzle. Sometimes you have the puzzle but need the domain/Pieces of the puzzle. And whatever you do,  think like an “idiot.” Design the rules and systems in isolation of common sense. Because when players are solving your puzzles the first thing they will abandon is common sense. Only then will you be able to create a puzzle which your puzzle solvers will be able reasonably solve.

Keep it simple stupid! Or perhaps rather: keep it stupid simple!