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Sometimes Arsonists Leave Riddles

Updated: Jun 21, 2022

Last time, I talked about how my first D&D group encountered something bizarre on the road to a town called “Powderkeg.” It was a tense walk – after our encounter with the glowing plant, none of our characters trusted each other anymore. When we reached the town, we handed our letter to the mayor… and it turned out it was a chess move. The mayors of Powderkeg and Kareth’s Landing were playing chess via messenger.

It’s hard to put into words just how disappointing that was. Which, of course, was exactly the point.

However, at that point we learned the town of Powderkeg – a town built entirely of wood – was under threat of a half-orc arsonist named Gorath. See, Gorath had broken out of prison, and vowed fiery revenge on the town. However, Gorath had also provided a riddle to challenge the town to try to stop him. There were five targets referred to in the riddle… five different locations around town.

At this point, our DM Daniel handed us a map of the town, and told us that, for this session, he would keep a timer going in real-time. At certain intervals, something would happen whether or not we had solved the relevant portion of the riddle. The moment we started reading the riddle, we heard an explosion, and the clock started ticking.

We followed the sound and smoke to the inn, and started putting out the fire. Meanwhile, Teya (our elf fighter) had taken charge of solving the riddles, and we figured out where the next likely target would be, just in time to get there as it exploded. Again, we put out the fire and saved the civilians, but this time Teya figured out the next location with plenty of time, and we were able to prevent the explosion.

At this point, Daniel had to start cheating the clock a bit, to make it a bit more fair – otherwise we would completely solve the issue of the riddle, and make the encounter far too simple. But there was another wrinkle – the fires / bombs weren’t being set by Gorath, but by minions under mind control (each wearing a cursed article of black clothing) – once we removed the mind control, they were themselves again, but that meant Gorath was at large during the entire chase.

However, once again, Teya solved the riddle in advance, and we realized Gorath’s plan – to kill the mayor in his office. We got there just in time (because that’s the most cinematic way to resolve the issue), and defeated Gorath. We sent the Mayor to get help, and while he was gone we tortured Gorath for information. However, at a certain point, after he was no longer of any use to us, we executed him. Then, in order to cover up the fact that we had murdered an unarmed prisoner, I tied my ropes around his body and cut them, so it looked like he had broken out of his bonds (he wasn’t tied up at all), and we had murdered him in self-defense.

Sometimes that’s how you roll when you’re an adventurer.

Based on the cover for Avengers: The Initiative #4, by Jim Cheung. Kalan the halfling rogue vs. Gorath the half-orc arsonist. It’s worth noting that this didn’t actually happen - he didn’t take on Gorath one-on-one, I just hadn’t used him much in the previous art, and he worked for the scale of a smaller character fighting the Hulk.

Odds are your D&D campaign won’t have a deranged arsonist leaving riddles for you while huge explosions go off around you, but there’s a very good chance it will include at least one riddle. Riddles are a fantastic way to get the entire group engaged and working on a single problem from multiple angles at once. If not for the explosions, we probably would have solved all the locations within 20 minutes - that was the point of the explosions, to keep our attention divided, and force us to literally put out fires while others focused on the riddles.

Riddles can also help engage players who don’t always have a chance to shine. Teya took charge of solving the riddles because her player took charge of solving the riddles in our group. And this helped Teya really engage in the game – which was a running problem.

See, Teya's player was often frustrated during our games, because she never had a chance to get a word in edgewise in our group. Add to that the fact that she never settled on a character backstory, and Teya was always a bit nebulous. But when that riddle came out, she managed to solve it almost completely by herself. She was able to use the riddle and the map to direct us around town – at one point, we split up to prevent two explosions at different points around town, and that has to be credited to Teya.

Riddles help provide a change of pace for a game. Most RPGs, especially Dungeons and Dragons, are combat-focused, but if all you do is throw encounters at your players, things are going to get redundant. As someone who has written a few riddles for D&D games, I can tell you that it’s extremely gratifying to watch a group of players huddle around a note you pass them, pull out their notepads and start scribbling furiously, drawing diagrams or passing maps around and taking notes. Riddles engage the players on an intellectual level, in additional to the personal level that most D&D games involve.

Discussion Question: This week, I mentioned that Teya’s player had a hard time getting a word in during the sessions. It was actually very frustrating to her, and sometimes she would give up and let us argue. I’d like to think that’s something we’ve all been better about in more recent years (we’re not all college students anymore, so hopefully we’ve done some growing), but it did used to happen a lot during our early games.

So, here's this week's question: How have your gaming groups clashed? No gaming group is perfect – maybe it was a minor issue, or maybe you had to deal with serious rifts between players? Did someone have a hard time connecting to the group, or have you had one player monopolize the game so no one else could participate? There are no judgements here - we're all human, and we've all had to learn as we went along, just like everybody else. Maybe by sharing our missteps, we can learn from each other, and help other groups avoid our pitfalls.

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