Valdron Inc. presents
Game Ideas Unlimited:

by Multiverser author M. Joseph Young

  I really don't like certain kinds of puzzles.  People think it's strange.  After all, aren't I one of those super-intelligent people, and since I am, wouldn't I enjoy games for the super-intelligent?  Bah.  I don't like those mathematical magic squares.  Finding the next one in the sequence doesn't excite me. 

  And these:  Mr. Carpenter, Mr. Cook and Mr. Baker met on the street.  "It's funny," said Mr. Baker to the man who was the carpenter, "that each of us is named for a trade, and although between us we represent all three of the trades of our names, not one of us has the job that matches his name."  So which one is the carpenter, which is the cook, and which is the baker?  The Law School Admission Test--L.S.A.T. for those of you more familiar with test abbreviations--has those, in varying levels of complexity, as about a quarter of the questions.

  I hate those, too.

  And I don't unscramble words.

  It isn't that I don't think I can do these.  On the contrary, the problem is that as soon as I see the problem, I know that I can solve it, given enough time and effort.  It generally becomes clear fairly quickly that if you shift the information around sufficiently, eventually the answer will appear.  It is inevitable.

  And that reduces the entire exercise to busy work.

  I don't like these puzzles because they are exactly like having to do homework.  The answers are attainable, often without much that could be considered cleverness or even thought.  You just have to plug away at it until you find it.  I'll show you what I mean.

  My youngest was handed an assignment in which all the adverbs had been "scrambled" and he had to unscramble them to answer the questions.  I'm supposed to help him with his work (this doesn't make a lot of sense to me--I can do his work easily, and don't see how that helps him learn, but I don't have the patience to listen to him whine some days about how hard it is and how he can't do it), and I'm supposed to check it when it's done.  So I read the paragraph, and all the words quickly revealed themselves, but for one.

  So I have no idea what this is.  I note that it contains the word "apt", and that the "usis" ending is worth considering.  But as yet I don't see a whole word.  So I change things around, at first keeping the two halves isolated.

  I like the way the first four letters work; they seem to have a lot of possibilities.  The last four don't, though, and I'm already thinking of pulling one of the "s"'s to the front, as there are an awful lot of words that begin with "s", and "sp", "st", "str", and "spr" are very common starts.  But before I do that, I try another twist.

  It's not working.  It's time to shuffle things in a larger way, move letters between the front and the back.

  Understand that in the back of my mind I'm already aware that I could systematically examine every combination--start by switching the last two, then shuffling the last three, the last four, as if testing permutations in a Mastermind game.  I'm also quite aware that it can take a very long time to do that, even with the aid of a computer.  I wonder if there's a scrambled word cruncher on the net, like the "convert your phone number to words" site I once saw.  But I'm working on the assumption that poking at this inductively will eventually give me a letter combination I recognize.  In fact, I get such a letter combination when I bring the "s" up to the front.

  However, it's too much. I've got a five letter run that looks good, but the rest can't be made into the end of any word I can see.

  And this is supposed to be third grade work.  Did I mention that I don't like scrambled words?

  A classic movie comes to mind; but this is supposed to be a time or place.

  This actually sounds like a word; I pause to see if I can find the word--no, it would be a cute pun in a way, but probably very few would get it.  Keep going.

  Well, I'd tried the "str" opening, I had to try the "spr".  This is so far from inspiring that I drop it.

  I'm beginning the think again about whether I can have the computer print them all to a text file.  Then I could open it in Word, and the spellchecker would choke, but maybe find for me the one word that is not misspelled.

  And suddenly I can see it; it's right there.  I have enough of it that the rest falls into place.  I have unscrambled the word.

  Did I mention that I really don't like scrambled words?

  I'm sure some of you knew what Aptrusis was almost as soon as you saw it in the title; your mind is geared to unscramble words more quickly than mine.  Others have not yet made the final step to finish the process.  Don't worry about that--we all process information a bit differently.  But more than a few of you are probably wondering what any of this has to do with game ideas.

  Quite a bit, actually.

  I just took you for a walk through a mental process.  This, in a perhaps abbreviated form, is the way I thought about this problem.  In some ways it should have seemed familiar to you, like I was doing something you might have done; in some ways it should have seemed surprising, like I turned left where you would have climbed the ladder.  That means that there are similarities between the way you and I think, but we don't think quite the same way.  What looks easy to you, what is easy to you, might stump me, at least for a moment; and I might breeze through something that would confuse you.

  Years ago, before people were talking about drama, karma, and fortune mechanics, or about narrativist, gamist, and simulationist goals, or about actor and author (and more recently director) stances in role playing games, someone tried to divide players up into categories of what they wanted to do.  Some, it was said, were there for the action, fighting monsters and escaping with treasure.  Others were there for the characters, the creation of story and the development of their world.  But there was a third category about which I don't hear much anymore:  some play for the puzzles.  They like solving them.  Whether it's a riddle, or a logic problem, or a scrambled word, the moment that the story stops and the players have to put their minds to cracking a problem is the moment this player shines.  And in fact, I am that player.  I like solving puzzles as the way to the solution of the mystery in the game.  It's just that there are some puzzles which don't seem to me like puzzles at all.  They seem like homework.  I never liked homework (and left too substantial a share of it unfinished over the years).  I want puzzles, but I don't want homework.

  And because we know that each of us thinks a little differently about everything, it follows that the puzzles that appeal to you might not appeal to me.  So if you're creating the situation, you need to think of puzzles that will appeal to the players, particularly to the players who are going to be the ones to tackle and enjoy them.  If they like wordplay and don't like numbers, they aren't going to enjoy a numerical puzzle so much as a linguistic one.  And probably they're going to have trouble with some puzzles, to the point of frustration.  The last thing you want to do is give them a puzzle that they aren't going to like and will frustrate them.  After all, they're here to have fun.  The puzzle should be challenging and fun.

  This was a lot of words to say that, if that was all I was going to say.  Why did we bother to go through that look at how I solve scrambled words?  It was supposed to bring into focus the fact that everyone approaches puzzles a bit differently (at least, of those that bother to approach them at all).  Everyone likes different types of puzzles, and everyone has different strengths and weaknesses in puzzle solving.  So you can't assume that because a puzzle looks too easy to you that they're going to get it right away.  You need to have a grasp of what puzzles entertain your players, what kinds of puzzles they enjoy and which ones provide the right level of challenge, if you're going to use them, and gear things for that.  The puzzles that appear in your adventures must entertain and challenge without frustrating.

  Did I mention I hate scrambled words?

  The word was "upstairs".  I have since been given the URL for, which would indeed unscramble any collection of letters you insert into whatever word or words can be derived from them.

  Mr. Baker says that he is not the baker, and that the carpenter is not Mr. Carpenter; but since Mr. Baker is talking to the carpenter, he is not the carpenter either.  (I don't know--they don't allow that Mr. Baker might be mistaken; and they don't allow that he might talk to himself.  But I suppose in logic puzzles things have to be logical, even if they aren't realistic.)  He must therefore be the cook.  Mr. Carpenter and Mr. Cook are therefore the baker and the carpenter, but since Mr. Carpenter is not the carpenter he must be the baker, and thus the carpenter is Mr. Cook.  But perhaps the answer is as confusing as the question.

  Next week, something different.

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M. Joseph Young is co-author of Multiverser, author of Verse Three Chapter One, the first Multiverser novel, and Vice President for Development at Valdron Inc.  His many contributions to online literature are indexed for convenience, and he looks forward to discussing these things by e-mail or on the Gaming Outpost forums.  This article originally appeared at Gaming Outpost.