Xed by Design: Breath of the Wild and TRPGs

Welcome to Xed (Crossed) by Design, a new article series in which I’ll be examining a game feature that two different creative mediums have in common. In this inaugural post, I’ll be looking at the dynamics of puzzles and player interaction in Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and table-top roleplaying games like Dungeons and Dragons.

Here I’m going to make a case that we can study Breath of the Wild to learn how to make better puzzles and encounters in table-top roleplaying games.

Video games, by necessity and nature of their design, player choice and autonomy is severely limited. This is more true with modern video games that are based around narratives, when the player is traversing between a series of plot points. Unless it’s touted as a major selling feature, game designers and programmers don’t have the resources to spend on making a character do stuff that isn’t vital to the player’s advancement in the game. Small features like petting animals or taking selfies are appreciated, but too much time devoted to such pet projects will often be targeted with reasonable criticism if major components of the game are lacking or buggy.

In TPRGs, player autonomy and choice is limited only by player imagination and the laws of the reality the characters are in (enforced by the game rules).  Moreover, these game rules are only enforced if the game master wills it; most rulebooks will include a caveat that states player enjoyment and good storytelling should always win out over rules conflicts.

Past Zelda games have illustrated the traditional implementation of challenges and puzzles in video games; there is only one solution, which the player can arrive at by manipulating the limited variables that they are presented with. (The game does not let them cross a river due to an invisible wall. Thus they must find a way to drop the bridge across the water).

In TRPGs, even if there is a puzzle that lets the players drop a bridge, they might find other ways to achieve their goal (crossing the river). Especially if their solution ends up requiring less effort or resources. Furthermore, depending on how intensely the players are roleplaying in-character, it might prove impossible for the party to solve a puzzle in the GM-proscribed way.  (My dwarf would sooner bury an axe in every goblin’s skull than negotiate with them to get the key he needs!)

Here’s a summarized example based on this argument:

VG: success means reaching Point B from Point A. The only way to do that is to move some blocks in a certain order to find a pathway through a room separating A and B.

TRPG: success means reaching Point B from Point A. Players are presented with the same block puzzle, but because they do not have the limitations of movement and action that video game characters do, they have many more ways to reach their goal.

In BotW, the player will come across various challenges and puzzles that they are encouraged to solve for some sort of reward. However, the game almost never restricts you in how you are supposed to do it. You could use stealth, you could charge in from various angles, you could distract and separate, snipe from afar, use terrain or objects, etc. As you can see, this experience seems closer to a TRPG than a traditional video game, even one in the Zelda lineage.

So why does this approach work so well and what can we learn from it?

Consider the reward of the challenge. In a videogame, figuring out the sole solution to a puzzle brings the reward of accomplishment, and/or a material in-game benefit like new equipment. The difference with BotW is that you don’t feel accomplished for finding the ONLY solution, but the satisfaction of succeeding in a solution you came up with. Creating and enacting a plan of one’s own design flexes a different set of mental muscles than discerning the “real” path from many “fake” ones.

So, what we can learn to do in our TRPGs is to not design puzzles and challenges that work better in videogames. I have been guilty of this far too many times in the past, and each time my players have ended up frustrated either because they can’t deduce the solution and are tired of running into invisible walls, or have figured it out, but not in the way they wanted to.

At one point, I designed a sewer dungeon for three of my players. The dungeon was separated by a large culvert that surged with stormwater, making it “impassible” until they figured out a simplistic switch puzzle. I didn’t want to make it too hard for fear of frustrating them.

The first character encountered the culvert, and flew across it using her magical skin-wings (long story). The second character encountered the culvert, and teleported from one side to the other. The third character encountered the culvert, and left the dungeon, shopped around until she found an antique scuba suit complete with portable air pump, and crossed the culvert by walking across the bottom. I was surprised, but I couldn’t be mad. Instead I wanted to applaud each of my players for their simple ingenuity, the likes of which had totally flown over my head while I was thinking up that poor excuse for a puzzle.

However, I’m not alone in my poor planning. Many TRPG campaigns are designed for characters to march from plot point to plot point and experience the narrative as they go along. It can lead to players feeling “railroaded”, and if they decide to go off course and avoid the narrative, that creates a problem that extends into the metagame.

Why don’t we instead design encounters for TRPGs with the tenets of BotW challenges in mind? In other words, rely on “modular encounters”. Players don’t know the scope or sequence of the narrative until they encounter it. So why should it matter to them if they meet some NPC here or in the next town over? Why should it matter if they beat up these hobgoblins now or later? It only matters when it happens. And of course, don’t spend time building invisible walls around encounters to reduce the number of solutions; provide options instead, like how BotW places explosive barrels or metal boxes in conspicuous places around enemy encampments. Just seeing those can spark a devious plan in any player’s mind, and the act of carrying it out, successful or not, will make for a memorable encounter.

I’ve taken plenty of words just to describe the “why” of this lesson, and I’m still keen to get into the “how”. However, that topic could become quite lengthy and thus shall be saved for a future article. Thanks for reading!

— Nagi