In my last post I talked about meta-gaming and when it was appropriate versus when it hindered the game. This is very relevant to my thoughts on the “mini-games” of D&D. These are the things that players must do in the game that are not actually being completed by their character. Certainly players may choose to roleplay these as if they were their character, but first and foremost, this is a challenge being completed by a person, not a fictional character. I’m referring to certain features of the game like riddles, puzzles, and diplomatic interactions with NPCs. All of these are pretty traditional parts of D&D and I include all of them. They are the only times when it is more important how you as a player perform than what numbers you have written on your character sheet. Here is how I implement them to encourage player participation.
Riddles are hit and miss in D&D games. Some people love them, but others will not like to waste time on them. I know for myself as a player, I dedicate about 30 seconds to thinking about a riddle and then give up; my mind is just not great at solving them. Likewise, when I include them, I run the risk of halting the game, or resorting to allowing a person to just make an Intelligence check to succeed (defeating the purpose of including a riddle in the first place, or at least making them less interesting). What I recommend is that you make your riddles easy. Have something that has at least one relatively obvious clue in it to tip players off. You don’t want it to take to long, and being stumped by a riddle is frustrating. It is better to have a person succeed at figuring these out than having people working too hard to crack them.
Puzzles, in a similar way, can’t be too hard to figure out. I’ve written before about the degrees of puzzle completion, but I personally feel like I have not done a good job if it gets to the point where someone just wants to make a roll to see if they figured it out. In order to make puzzles engaging enough you first need to make sure you do an excellent job of describing it. Every feature, especially any critical information needed to solve it, must be presented in a clear and easy to understand way. I once had a puzzle that involved some standing mirrors, and it was very important that whenever I described them, I mentioned the little brass legs shaped like lion paws that they were standing on (as opposed to being bolted to the floor). This clue helped them figure out that the mirrors were able to be moved into different positions. Give them something unusual to investigate too; hanging glass globes (like from the classic White Plume Mountain pre-made adventure), different tapestries with images, lots of nooks and crannies, or maybe some secret levers and buttons. Keep them engaged by giving them plenty to explore; everyone will get bored by your “the room is empty except for a table with a dagger and a waterskin” puzzle.
Diplomacy is an interesting one because there are actually skills dedicated to doing these. Obviously I still use the relevant skills when deciding the outcome of a Persuasion or Deception situation, but it’s the skill that I most often allow to be modified (or have advantage/disadvantage) from roleplaying. When someone wants to convince a guard to let them go, I will ask what they say specifically, and if they say something good, they get a bonus. But if they say something stupid, they get a penalty. However, what they say is actually coming from the player, not from the character, and so people who are actually more clever or persuasive in real life will have an advantage in the game. Personally, I don’t mind this advantage and choose to always ask a player how they are approaching the dialogue, even if their character has an 18 charisma and would probably not go in that direction; sometimes I think it’s important to have the players playing the game, not just the dice. I also think it’s fun to try and spin the conversation in game to match the slip ups from people outside the game. Like if a Paladin tries to comfort a widow by saying that even though her husband is almost certainly condemned to eternal suffering in the Nine Hells, at least the will of the gods was done, it’s fun to make it this naive slip-up of a religiously devoted person, and not the carelessness of a player who just wasn’t thinking their approach through.