Thursday, March 12, 2020

Music Puzzles For Games

In my last entry I promised one content post for each engaged answer to my question I got. There were a few so I owe y'all some game stuff.

This is from the previously-mentioned LotFP project that got cancelled when the RPG scene went insane last year.

Do your players not hate you enough? Fix that right away!

First, Some Music Theory

Imagine a piano’s keyboard from left to right. Or don’t imagine one—google one. Each white key is a pitch. In traditional western music, these are designated, in order, by letters A-G which then repeat over and over. (You can probably google a labeled piano keyboard). The white keys of a piano are, in fact, a bit like a typewriter going ABCDEFG over and over.


This simple fact is somewhat obscured by the fact that standard musical staff notation starts with the E at the bottom, progresses to the end of sequence (through lines and spaces) and then starts over and gets to F in the last line and further obscured by the fact these are taught to students as lines and spaces (the famiiar spaces: F, A, C, E and Every Good Boy Does Fine for the lines E, G, B, D, F). (Why? Because if there’s one things musicians like, it’s making life harder for future musicians.)


While most people can’t identify a pitch and corresponding letter by ear, say which pitch goes with which piano key or even say which pitch goes with which line or space on the staff, nearly everyone is familiar with the concept that notes can be attached to letters. This, and concepts which build on it, can be used to create puzzles.

Second, Some Puzzle Theory

Before we go into more detail about these kinds of puzzles, let’s take a look at how you get them into an adventure:

By far the most difficult part of any puzzle is figuring out why there even is a puzzle? Why would anyone bother to give you part of an answer to something relevant to a life-or-death struggle or fabulous treasure but not all of it? In order to devise music puzzles you need a Riddler: someone who can or will give you the clues you’re supposed to use or a plot device that fulfills the same role.

Ideally, the reason the Riddler is in this position should be interesting—this not only is fun in itself, it gives the players context to know they might be dealing with a music puzzle. However, it’s not always necessary or even worth it to knock yourself out making things make sense, sometimes the puzzle is diverting enough that the why? is de-prioritized.

Kinds of Riddler particularly relevant to a musical puzzle, in order of how easy (and thus boring) they are to explain in order from easiest to hardest, include:

Crazy Wizard
They put it there to put it there. There is no rhyme or reason to why the treasure is on the far side of a music puzzle. 

Asymmetrical Stakes
From the point of view of the Riddler, this isn’t a very important interaction and so putting a prize behind it is just a whim—even though for the player characters it’s a big deal. So: the player needs to get themself into the prince’s employ and gain his trust with a dazzling display of wits but the prince is just like “Blahh so bored, look at this stupid musical puzzle my dad made, isn’t it stupid?”—the prince doesn’t care about it, but solving it makes him think you’re smart.
Or the local tavern has a puzzle contest—the players (unlike anyone else) know the trophy secretly contains the ashes of a dead god. They need to solve the puzzle way more than anyone else there.
These kinds of set-ups are rather rare since while players regularly find themselves in situations where they very badly want something an NPC doesn’t care if they get, unless there’s a lot of railroading it’s easy enough to skip the puzzle and just get to the goal some other way. Solving the puzzle is harder than just, like, breaking into the tavern office and stealing the trophy.Then you made a puzzle for nothing—in order to avoid that you need to make it so the only way to get through an objective is through the puzzle, and that usually means the creator of the puzzle appreciates the value of what’s beyond.

The puzzle is intentionally created to gate out the unworthy. Popular reasons for testing include:
-Some kind of organized society (college of wizards, warrior clan, etc) hiding a resource (library, armory, etc) behind the test so that only members or people with equivalent abilities can use the resource.
-A potentate of some kind (wizard, king, witch, demon) requires personnel to take on a quest, so some obstacles are placed between the reward and the (knowing or unknowing) applicants.
The major problem with this kind of Riddler is the stakes: either the puzzle is life-or-death or it isn’t. If it isn’t, it can be difficult to motivate the players to try to solve it rather than avoid it or find an alternate solution. If it is: why? What’s the tester get out of killing or maiming people who fail to past their test? There are answers and ways around these things, and the more satisfactory they are the less cheesy your adventure will be. Sometimes cheesy is fine.

Curse of Limited Communication
The Riddler gives only clues instead of answers because they have no choice. Like: A musician was inappropriate with a lich and is now a ghost who can only speak by writing music. The fey king desires diversion and so has made it so that his daughter can only play the piano and nothing else, etc. The piano, awakened to sentience by a misfired spell, literally can only speak via music, etc.
The most interesting way to use these kinds of Riddlers is if they have appeared all along in the adventure doing things besides just giving clues, so when they finally come along with something useful it’s like oh damn, look at that. (A la Hodor).

Intercepted Code
The Riddler intentionally encrypted the key to getting the information/prize behind the puzzle knowing that A)  only the intended recipient would know there was a code and B) they would know enough music theory to decode it.
For example: the architect was forced to create the dungeon by their enemy and built a weakness into it.
This is slightly different than a Test (above) in that in the intercepted code the Riddlers knows or imagines the clue will be examined by someone totally hostile, so they’ve intentionally hidden the fact that it even is a code.
For example, in a Test, an adventurer might be presented with fifteen chests while a note corresponding to the right chest plays on a piano, in a code, the sound source would be hidden and the uninformed observer might not even realize the note is intentional—the person who was supposed to open the chests will be told ahead of time to listen.
For this reason the decipherment of a code is often aided by the players getting some information that tips them off to look for some kind of code. Like: a sage reveals to the party that both the wizard who created a treasure and the lover he meant to give it to were musicians.

Accidental Riddler
The puzzle was not intended to be a puzzle—and not only that, the “creator” of the situation wasn’t even aware of the music as communication. Imagine a piano the size of an aircraft carrier that you can climb inside. A creature escapes into it. Since a piano is full of cords that cause hammers to hit notes, by listening carefully to the sounds created as the creature crawls below, you should be able to locate the beast. This usually requires the music be produced by relatively complex mechanism where a creature or natural forces just going about their business inadvertently activate a sound producing a clue.

Note Puzzles

So now that basic music theory gives us a basis for some puzzles and basic trap theory gives us some idea how to frame them, let’s take a look at some of the kinds of puzzles you can make, starting with the easiest:

The simplest kind of puzzle to construct is one using the information conveyed by a single note.

A single note corresponds to:

-A letter of the alphabet
-A key on a piano
-A string, a hammer and many other pieces of hardware inside the piano
-Equivalent mechanisms or positions on other fixed-pitch musical instruments (a harp string, for instance)
-A position on a five-lined musical staff

You can create a puzzle by “translating” from any one of these things to any other. So if characters are given (say) an image of five lines they realize is a musical staff with a single mark on it (in the F position for example), they might:

-Hum the correct note to open a sonomantically-sealed door.
-If several mechanical wasp-golems attack, each buzzing at a different pitch, they could find the leader.
-Choose the correct door out of 26 doors (one for each letter of the alphabet).
-Find the one key on a giant piano that doesn’t contain a trap.
-Find the position inside the piano where a treasure is hidden.
-Find which of a series of gongs, chime, or bells to ring to stop the sealed room you’re in from filling up with water.

You might be wondering about the clue possibilities of flats and sharps (the black keys)—these are harder to use to communicate information since they have two names, so F sharp and G flat are the same note on a piano. If you wanted to use notes to communicate that the bottom of one pit was covered in spikes (“sharp”) and the other wasn’t (“flat”) then you couldn’t use the notes—though you could use the actual notation symbols (a sharp looks like # and a flat looks like a lower case b).

Don’t create a situation where the only way to solve the puzzle is for the players themselves to identify the note by ear.

If the clue is the audible note itself, then it's possible to create enough context where playing it out loud in real life to the players on some instrument (“You hear this -Bing-“) or simply saying the players hear “a note” is enough for the characters to figure out they should ask someone in the game world with musical knowledge what that note is. If they know, for example, that the dungeon was created by a composer, this should be enough. Assume anyone with the Entertainment (5e: Performance) skill can identify a musical note, interval, etc by ear on a successful roll.

Note-Word Puzzles

Only a step more complex are puzzles which combine the letters forming notes to create words. These compositions can be genuinely musical, as a few minutes playing variations on “CABBAGE” over and over on a labeled keyboard* can show you (a composer named Peter Wang created an impressive piece based on just playing “cabbage”, it’s on YouTube).

*Graphic Designer: This is a footnote: Here’s an internet keyboard—
Here’s Cabbage:

Some useful words that can be created using “note-letters” include:

Ace (What card is the Marquis across the table holding?)
Age (What happens if you press this button?)
Bad (Should I open this door?)
Badge (How do I get past the golem?)
Baggage (Where is the lost diamond?)
Bag (Where is the severed head?)
Bed (Where is the secret door?)
Bead (Where is the Sleep spell emanating from?)
Bee (Which of these creatures was the soul transferred into?)
Beef (Which part of the feast grants superhuman strength?)
Beg (How can I convince the Mud God’s avatar to let me pass?)
Cabbage (Which dish was poisoned?) 
Cafe (Where is he hiding?)
Cage (I know the scroll tube is rolled up inside of something, but what?)
Dad (What is the relation of the Silent Pharoah to the Claw Merchant?)
Dead (What happens if I open chest number 4?)
Deaf (What does putting on the helmet do?)
Decade (How far have we gone back in time?)
Deed (What do I need to be let onto the property?)
Edged (What kind of weapon is the Pox Lord invulnerable to?)
Egg (What is this strange sphere?)
Facade (Can I trust the priest’s pleasant demeanor?)
Face (Which part of the squamous abomination should I strike?)
Feed (How do I get past a Vapor Dogs?)
Gag (How do I silence the Binaural Banshee? Or maybe “a gag” is clearer)

A dinner puzzle featuring choices between poisoned or enchanted egg, beef, and cabbage would be relatively easy to hook up.

(Graphic Designer: you might want to put this in a box somewhere or off to the side)

You can also create puzzles where the answer is a name, with the clue telling you that it was Aggada, Aceeda. Dee or Ed who killed the abbot or stole the Wolfgauntlet. 

It’s also possible to go “backwards”: the party is presented with a means of making music (an actual instrument or, say, a floor whose different tiles activate different sounds) or notating it (a five-barred grid with sliding gems indicating note position) and are presented with an bead or a cage or something else “spellable” with music and must perform or write out the appropriate music in order to pass the obstacle.

Here’s a simple one:

A beautifully carved Faberge-style egg covered with keys which play notes. Playing “e,g,g” opens the egg to reveal an even more valuable treasure inside. 

As with single-letter puzzles, be careful to create a context where characters can actually ask someone what notes they’re hearing once they realize they’re dealing with a musical puzzle.

Interval Puzzles

The concept of the interval—moving from one note to another a given distance away—is important in western music, and anyone trained would be able to identify it. Again imagine the white piano keys: if you play the A and then the adjacent B, that’s called a second, if you skip the B and go from A to C that’s a third, going A—>D is a fourth etc all the way up to a seventh. Going A then eight note up the scale and all the way up to where it starts over again at A is called the octave. The same goes for whatever note you start with, so if you go from the C to the adjacent D that’s also a second, and if you go C—>E that’s a third, etc.

One thing this means is that you can compose music puzzles where the clue is a number one through seven.

Which door do I pick? If I hear a pair of notes going B—>E or A—>D or D—>G? Then it’s the fourth door.

If you think of a puzzle where the words “minor” “major” or “perfect” are involved, you can also get a little fancier because the names of intervals get fancier.

If you go from C to the adjacent black key, which isn’t a whole pitch higher, just a wee bit higher (this key is called C sharp or D flat) and moving from a white key to the adjacent key is called a minor second, as are other intervals which go from a white key to a black key. So a clue with that kind of interval could communicate something is “minor” or might be pun-based and indicate a “miner”. And, going from a white key to another white key (which we were doing above) is called a major interval. So you could communicate that the “third major” had the bomb, by playing A—>C.

After that, musical terminology gets weird enough that explaining where the names come from is less important than simply saying there are names and they are attached to sounds. For example, a fourth going from white key to white key is technically not just called a “fourth” or “major fourth”, it’s called a “perfect fourth” and the same goes for the fifth and then for the sixth it goes back to being called a “major sixth” for reasons that aren’t important right now. The important part is: if you want to build a clue that communicates the word “perfect” there’s a sound that means the word “perfect” consisting of two notes and you can google a recording of it.

Other Terminology Puzzles

There are a lot of terms in music and it’s beyond the scope of this stupid April Fools’ Day RPG book to explain them all (it’s also beyond the scope of how much I got paid to go research them all) but a general pattern for using them can be laid out.

The Referee explains that:

-A sound is heard
-An instrument or instrument-like-artifact is seen,
-A notation on a staff or staff-like diagram is seen

…and if the party figures out it might be a music puzzle (that’s the hard part), they ask a musical expert what that arrangement of notes is called and this word is a key to solving the puzzle.

Some useful terms include:

Canon (obvious pun on “cannon”)
Da Capo (literally means “from the head”—which could indicate any number of things. In music in means “start over from the beginning” so it’s something that would more likely be seen in notation “DC” than understood merely by hearing.)
Main Gauche: In organ or piano music, this indicates what the left hand is playing. It also indicates a parrying-dagger.
Modes: Aeolian, Algerian, Dorian, Phrygian, Arabic, Hungarian, Ionian, Locrian, Neapolitan, Byzantine, and Persian scales (to indicate something is located in one of these places, or a person or object of that origin?)
Tonic (to indicate an antidote?)
Tritone: An interval which hops a little more than a perfect fourth or a little less than a perfect fifth and produces a spooky horror-movie sound which has been traditionally identified as diabolus in musica or the “devil in music”. If the five-lined diagram on the massive double doors indicates those two notes, a musician should know what’s coming.

Mechanical Puzzles

Layered on top of all this you can also create puzzles that involve the physical construction of instruments—these can be especially interesting if they’re the more complex kind of instrument.

A piano, as mentioned before, is basically pressing a button which activates a hammer which hits a stretched string, when you release the key, a damper comes into place which silences the string. As in all stringed instruments, the pitch depends on how thin and how tightly stretched the string is. An exotic or magical instrument could involve characters in a search for the hair or guts of a specific creature in order to produce the proper pitch and timbre.

A pipe organ works by having each key (or pedal) open up a passage where compressed air goes through one or more pipes. The air comes from a box called the windchest. At the top of the windchest is a series of gated holes leading up to the pipes, at the bottom of the windchest are openings that keep the air in ithe chest pressurized—that is, they are open to another fluid that is “trying” to get into the windchest and force the air out. This fluid is either:
-Air from bellows under constant pressure (i.e. gravity is always trying to pinch them closed), or…
-Water in an adjacent chamber filled to a high level attempting to rush into the windchest
The windchest for a church organ can be as big as an entire room.
In addition to the kinds of which key vs stop shenanigans detailed earlier in the article on magic instruments under The Leviathan Organ of Nasen-Ra, getting the right sound out of an organ can involve replacing or altering the pipes (longer pipes equal a deeper sound), de-flooding the windchest, redirecting the flow of rivers or streams, or even climbing around in the pipes to clear out obstacles. As organs can have hundreds of pipes that snake all over the buildings that contain them and are characterized by pedals, keys and sliders that open access to these pipes, it’s very easy to imagine an entire dungeon that is a pipe organ.

Other complex pre-modern “programmable” musical instruments are precursors to modern computers. Typically a score is encoded Braille-like on a continuous scrolling surface which a crank or some other action drags against a row of levers. Raised bumps on the score where notes would be trip the levers which then cause any number of results: knock a hammer on a string, ring a bell, drop a marble onto a specific pitch on a glockenspiel, release a boot to kick a chicken, etc. By placing the bumps on the score at different intervals the instrument plays different tunes. The possibilities are literally endless. If you imagine such a device scaled up to the size of a dungeon, there’s lots of interesting work to do making sure all the pieces are in the right places and trying to get past anyone who stops you, or—better yet—get rid of the monsters who keep rearranging them to play a different song.


Trent_B said...

I like the breakdown of puzzle theory components. That's important to fit the whole thing together. Thanks!

Zak Sabbath said...


Then share it

Matrox Lusch said...

"And the nurse will tell you lies
Of a kingdom beyond the skies.
But I am lost within this half-world,
It hardly seems to matter now.
Play me my song,
Here it comes again."
~Genesis, "The Musical Box"

Excellent, our next up in DM rotation (Joe the Recently Engaged) plans a scenario of puzzles to whom I shared your composition a capriccio. Thank you.

Zak Sabbath said...

@Matrox Lusch

Thanks! Share it on an RPG forum where I'm getting smeared