The Puzzle Monster

Whoa! A post not exclusively about LARPing on a site about Game Design! Wow!

Ok, that’s out of the way. On to the topic at hand!

A puzzle monster is an encounter in a game in which the standard beat it to death with your choice of death-dealing method doesn’t work, or is very ineffective, but has a weakness or strategy the player must discover on their own. You find these often with boss enemies in video games.

Puzzle monsters can be done very easily, but they can be also done badly. A good puzzle monster is one that can be defeated by any player, regardless of any skills or abilities the player may possess at the time.

E.V.O. The Search For Eden for the SNES has a simple puzzle monster at the end of the first chapter (if you’ve never played it, I recommend getting a SNES emulator and playing it. Great game). You are a fish at that point, and the boss is a Great White Shark. It charges at you often, and if it gets close enough to you, it bites you for massive damage. If you try to bite it normally, it will either bite you back or smack you with its tail, also for large amounts of damage.

The trick is to stay near one of the cave walls where the Shark dwells, and wait for it to charge, then move out of the way. The Shark will hit the wall, and become stunned, giving the player an opening to attack the Shark. Repeat a few times, and the Shark explodes into large portions of fish sticks (sorry if I spoiled this one for anyone, but later bosses are a LOT harder). Because of this strategy, you didn’t necessarily need to have all of the cool evolutions to beat the monster.

A bad puzzle monster, however, can endlessly frustrate the player. A couple of years ago, I attended a LARP which had a REALLY bad Head of Plot. Among many of his poor choices were puzzle monsters which had a very specific weakness, all of which were in the form of a skill in the rule book. A specific kind of magic spell or the like. If a character did not possess this skill, they had no possible way of defeating the puzzle monster. This led to a lot of frustrated players, especially less experienced players that left simply because the difficulty curve was just made too high as a result.

It doesn’t have to be hard to design a puzzle monster, regardless of what kind of game you’re designing it for. Simple examples include:

  • A monster that can only be damaged while standing in a specific area
  • A monster that can only be damaged while the player is standing in a specific area
  • A player must stand in a certain spot for a certain time to gain a sort of buff that allows the character to damage the monster, but has a very short time span, so the player must go back to that spot repeatedly.
  • The monster has a weak point that the player must hit in order to affect the monster in any way

Even a simple puzzle monster like the examples above can be rewarding for a player just for defeating it. Giving loot or the like as a reward isn’t always necessary as a result, depending on the difficulty level of the encounter. The player can walk away knowing that they took down something that was seemingly impossible to defeat with their own abilities, not being held back by the numbers on their character sheets.

Puzzle monsters can be challenging and rewarding, but if you design them badly, all you end up with is a bunch of pissed off players. Designing puzzle encounters around circumstances that anyone can pull off, regardless of the skills of the character a player is playing, will be far more rewarding than loading it up with skill immunities, and I guarantee it!

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