In the Triforce of Puzzle Dungeons, we talked about designing an entire adventure around puzzles and mentioned including a puzzle conflict.
Today, we'll dig deeper into a puzzle conflict by looking at the "3 Paths" from the ending of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
Other Conflict Types
The Torchbearer book provides excellent tools for running standard conflicts. However, there are times when those seven established conflicts won't cover the skills or situation. One GM tool is a custom conflict to resolve a competition or challenge.
To Conflict or Not to Conflict...
Using a conflict is just one tool a GM can choose to use, and now there are rules in Torchbearer 2e for running conflictless adventures. We will not get into whether conflicts are right for you, but it is important to remember we use conflicts for various reasons.
When to use a conflict:
- When a single test isn't satisfying
- When multiple actions are required
- When the outcome is uncertain or a compromise is expected
- When actions can be abstracted
Why use a conflict:
- To raise the stakes or make a scene more cinematic
- To enable players to burn through rewards to advance levels
- To provide an opportunity to earn checks
- To involve the entire party in an outcome
- To allow players to use gear, level benefits, and supplies created for conflicts
The 3 Paths Puzzle
Before we begin, Indiana Jones is a loner in the pulp tradition of Americana that celebrates the heroic exceptionalism of the individual. Torchbearer is a team game. You need a team to survive, but setting all that aside, we'll use this scene as a familiar point of reference.
At first glance, the puzzle of the 3 Paths looks like a classic obstacle-to-obstacle part of a dungeon. Each area is a discrete room with an obstacle. It is classic Torchbearer. For most groups, running this in Adventure Phase as separate obstacles is the way to go. The group can really focus on each challenge's details, while the pacing is slower and gameplay predictable.
However, in this instance, Indy has been captured by his enemy Donovan, and the stakes are life and death. Indy's father has been shot, and only Indy can save him.
The situation is leading up to a conflict of some sort, but the player's action has not triggered one yet. A Kill conflict would end poorly, and Indy and Donovan are past the point of talking. Donovan has all the cards.
Risking It All
Conflicts are great when you need to risk it all, and the outcome is tied to a sequence of events. Given Indy's captured position, this part of the adventure would run better as a single climatic conflict to condense the moments into a more cinematic scene that packs a punch. For this situation, a conflict makes sense because Indy doesn't have the luxury of exploring one room at a time. The clock is ticking, and Indy must come through the other side to save his father.
Temple Caverns - Dark
The Grail is mine, and you're going to get it for me.
Shooting me won't get you anywhere.
You know something, Dr. Jones? You're absolutely right...
Donovan points his pistol toward Dr. Henry and fires–the bullet hitting Henry below the ribs.
"Dad!" I shout in disbelief.With a scowl, I turn toward Donovan with murderous intent.
Donovan steadily points the gun at you.
You can't save him when you're dead...
The healing power of the Grail is the only thing that can save your father now.
It's time to ask yourself what you believe.
I grit my teeth and assess the situation. 'All right,' I think to myself. I open the Grail Diary. I'm going for the Grail!
From the diary, you know of three traps called the "3 Paths" that you must solve the puzzle to overcome. To confirm, you intend to go through the traps to reach the grail room?
That's right, and I've got no time to waste. I have to return with the Grail before my pop bleeds out.
OK, this will be an "Other Conflict" type–a Puzzle Conflict to safely reach the grail room.
The GM explains:
"This is mostly a mental challenge to solve the puzzles and avoid the traps, so we'll use your Will as the base of your disposition. However, many of the traps are deadly, so Injury and Death are on the line should you fail without compromise. And, a Major Compromise could mean that you take too long and Dr. Henry perishes before you return.
As this is really a test of your interpretation of the Grail Guide, you'll use the Scholar skill for rolling disposition and Attack/Feint actions. Attack actions move you closer to the goal of getting to the grail room. Successful attack actions mean you are correctly deciphering the secrets and clues in the book to advance.
Dungeoneer will be utilized for Defend/Maneuver actions. These actions allow you to strengthen your position, traverse through the environment, recover from the traps, or set yourself up for the next challenge."
OK, I've got this.
My Will is 5. I have a Scholar skill of 6 and a Dungeoneer of 5.
Plus, I've got 2 fate and 2 persona to burn if needed.
Let's roll your disposition.
Although I am terribly concerned about my father, deep down, I crave this excitement and yearn for such adventures.
Got it, you're using your Adventurous trait for +1D.
Yup. Also, I am going to channel my nature to perform this heroic deed. I'm determined and confident that I will be victorious. I look back to my father and take a deep breath.
It is outside of my nature descriptors, and my current nature is 4.
I rolled 6 successes, plus my Will of 5 equals 11 HP.
Excellent. Since it is outside of your nature descriptors, your nature is taxed down to 3 now.
It might be tempting to name each weapon after specific parts of a puzzle. You could have a "Breath of God" weapon for the first example. However, that linear thinking boxes you into narrative dissonance or constrains your weapon choices from round to round. The better approach is to think of reusable "types" of weapons that the puzzle has. This allows you to update your GM description from action to action without shoehorning the unfolding action. So think in general terms for your weapons.
If a weapon is disarmed, the temple still has the three challenges but will not gain any mechanical bonus.
Temple Puzzle Conflict Weapons
- Perplexing Paths +1D Attack
- Enigmatic Riddles +1s Maneuver
The puzzle has 12 HP (Nature 5 x 2 + 2 weapons).
The GM is treating the entire puzzle in the temple cavern as a single big monster. This allows for flexibility to focus the conflict spotlight appropriately throughout the encounter as the party depletes the Temple's HP.
For other puzzle conflicts, where constant or simultaneous threats plague the party, a GM could treat the conflict as a Boss Battle where the traps were helper monsters with their own disposition and own weapons.
For this conflict, the GM plans to focus on one trap and use those sections of the temple as weapons. The GM has declared the Perplexing Paths weapon (+1D Attack) for the first round.
If Indy were to somehow defeat the entire puzzle in the first round, the GM would feed the player an update regarding the physical layout and then throw it back to the player to describe how they found a shortcut or some clever way to overcome the puzzle.
The first weapon is the Perplexing Paths. A wall of spider webs stands before you–gently swaying ever so slightly.
I'll use my Grail Guide book to figure this one out.
Great, the diary provides +1D to Attack and +1s for Feint actions.
And, I've drawn my 3 actions cards.
Round 1; Action 1
Indy Attack vs. Temple Maneuver
For this challenge, the diary's chapter header is: "The Breath of God."
Your father's notes read, "Only the penitent man will pass."
I mutter to myself, "The Breath of God... Only the penitent man will pass."
I scan through the book for any clue.
Indy rolls Scholar 6 +1D weapon vs. the Temple's Tricking Nature 5. Indy wins and does 2 HP damage.
You reach the spot where two previous attempts failed. Tell us how you proceed.
Sliding my feet forward, I'll sidestep right up to the corpses of the fallen soldiers.
Round 1; Action 2
Indy Maneuver vs. Temple Attack
You are approaching a thick tangle of cobwebs. At the end of the tunnel, a glowing light flickers.
I very carefully take a step forward through the cobwebs.
I mutter, "Penitent? Hmmm... The penitent man is humble..."
I wonder what else could that mean as I carefully cross.
Indy rolls Dungeoneer and gets 2 successes vs. the Temple's 3. Indy has a six on one die and spends a Fate for Luck to explode and reroll it. He gets another six! Now he is tied, but he rerolls this new six for another success and a Margin of Success of 1.
Indy spends his MoS 1 for an Impede. This gives the temple -1D on the next action.
You got the impede. How is the temple hindered?
I'm figuring out how these traps are designed and that disadvantage for the temple makes the traps less deadly.
Round 1; Action 3
Indy Attack; Temple Attack
As you make your way through the cobwebs, you notice they begin to move... the webs lift up in a gust of wind.
I hear the rush of the air as I think about how 'breath' and 'wind' are related.After taking another glance in the book for more clues, I snap the book shut, press it tightly against my chest, and prepare for what comes next.
Indy gains +1D from the weapon and gets 3 successes.
The temple has -1D from the impede but +1D from the weapon. The temple rolls 2 successes.
Razor-sharp blades swing out from the wall. At that moment, you recall the penitent follower kneels before God.
"Kneel!" I cry out as I roll forward under the blade.
You arrive on the other side of the three pendulum blades and cautiously land on your feet. From here, you can see a rope mechanism that controls the spinning blades.
Can I reach the rope to stop the blades?
Sure, you pull the rope, and the blades come to a grinding halt.
I'll call back to the others, "I'm through the first one!"
The GM declares the Enigmatic Riddles weapon (+1s Maneuver).
Your fedora is covered in cobwebs. Ahead of you is a cobblestone path.
The second challenge is a riddle called the 'Word of God.'
I'll use my book again this round.
All right, I've drawn my three action cards.
Round 2; Action 1
Indy Attack vs. Temple Maneuver
The book reads, "Only in the footsteps of God will he proceed." A letter is carved into each cobblestone.
I'll pull away some of the cobwebs to take a better look. Clearly, the footsteps have something to do with these letters on the floor. I'll open the book and scan for anything mentioning those words or words that can be made from these letters.
However, I'm all alone here, and sometimes I get myself into trouble and in over my head.
I'll use my Loner trait against myself to earn a check.
Indy rolls with -1D, earns a check, and still wins the roll. Indy does 2 HP of damage.
You figure out that the word of God is the name: Jehovah.
Round 2; Action 2
Indy Attack vs. Temple Attack
I was afraid you'd play an attack.
I was going to use my last persona to win right here, but I'm probably going to take some damage.
I want to minimize my compromise, so I am going to save that persona.
Between the cracks in the cobblestones, you can see a deep... bottomless pit underneath.
Hmmm... I'll step on the letters to spell the word 'Jehovah.'
Indy rolls and does 3 damage.
The temple does 4 damage. Indy is at 5 HP and is at the Half Compromise range. That would mean that Indy doesn't reach the grail room and only gets halfway, or he'd have to offer up some other compromise. He knows he has to do better. Fortunately, he planned for such a situation and scripted a Defend for his next action.
Round 2; Action 3
Indy Defend vs. Temple Attack
A stone breaks away, and your leg falls through the hole where the cobblestone letter once was.
My book ain't gonna' help me now.
I attempt to pull myself back and return to the landing to rethink this whole situation.
Indy rolls but gets 0 success vs. the Temple's 1. To regain disposition, Indy has to beat the versus roll by a MoS. As it is now, Indy would take 1 HP of damage, but he has something up his sleeve.
I've faced many traps like this before, and this ain't my first rodeo. I am trap-wise; so, I'll burn a persona to reroll all those scoundrels.
Of course! In Latin, "Jehovah" starts with an "I."
Indy rerolls and gets 4 successes. He has a six, so he spends a fate to reroll it and gets 1 more success. Indy now has 10 HP.
The GM selects the Perplexing Paths weapon. The GM thinks Indy might go for a Maneuver-Defend-Attack, so the GM draws a Defend-Feint-Attack. The GM knows that Indy will probably try to Defend in this round, so a risky Feint-Feint-Attack could also be interesting to shoot for some compromises.
Remember, the GM has the option to play any weapon and present the loss of disposition in many ways. Indy's failure could mean a mental toll, or it could be a physical setback.
The GM keeps revealing and describing the situation until the conflict is over. Don't get hung up on timing or rounds or where actions fall in some prescribed fiction. What is important here is the mounting pressure on Indy as he tries to solve the puzzle.
You still have a few cobblestone letters to cross to reach the next landing. Beyond that, you can see a doorway that opens to an enormous stony abyss.
Round 3; Action 1
Indy Feint vs. Temple Defend
The GM knows that Indy could win the conflict right here and describes a little more of the next puzzle piece. The GM adapts and sets up the next challenge.
As you skip across the final letters, you make it across. Now you stand in a small opening, just small enough for your shoulders to squeeze through. At your feet, a sheer cliff plummets into a dark ravine. The gap is too far to leap, and there is no visible way across.
The final challenge in the book reads, "Only in the leap from the lion's head will one prove their worth."
Feint cancels the defend attack, so you are unopposed. The defender forfeits the action.
Awww yeah. I am certainly brave and willing to take such a leap of faith.
Indeed, that's +1D for your Brave trait. You notice that there is a carved lion's head on the opposite side of the ravine.
I look back through the diary, but it won't help me here.
I need to change gears. This isn't a cerebral puzzle like the others. I know I have to believe...
Indy rolls and gets enough successes to win the conflict with only 1 HP loss.
You take a leap forward and land on what, at first, appears to be an invisible bridge. Your faith has paid off.
You see that the bridge has been painted with the perfect perspective to blend into the rocky cliff wall.The bridge ahead is clear. How do you cross?
I grab up some dirt and sprinkle it ahead of me to reveal the bridge.
I hold my arms out for balance and carefully cross to the other side.
Awesome. Yeah, you make it to the temple entrance with a Minor Compromise.
Conflict Compromise and End
The GM offers up that Indy is Angry from the ordeal, and Indy accepts the compromise.
I hope this has given you some ideas for your own custom conflicts or how to incorporate puzzles into your game.
Happy New Year,