[meta] When Characters Are Smarter than Players

I woke up this morning to a friend talking on Discord about a game of Call of Cthulhu he was listening to.

Apparently, the game did not go well, with players not picking up on clues in the adventure, and so they spent two days doing nothing while the world ended around them.


So this raises a question, what do we as DM’s (However you want to name the role) do when our players are not picking up on that obvious clue?

I will straight up admit, I have been that player, and it was the most simple thing as well (the sticking of ones arm in a hole) and though as I recall it was a bad day for my head, it took an animated statue literally forcing my character to mirror a movement.

Did this remove my agency as a player? Yes, but it was neccessary to progress things when I as a player, was unable to grasp something that day, something that my Character should have been able to work out but that day I remember having distinct issues visualising anything.


Admittedly, the idea of forcing my players into the thing to progress is almost abhorrant, maybe a neccessary evil on rare occasions (and I know in the above example I needed the hand of gond to interfere).

I think one of the things we, as DM’s need to consider, is either what the Character can work out a puzzle they are presented, independant of the player, but that can seem a little.. unfun, right? So what do we do?


There’s two methods of “puzzle solving” that I know of, which I am somewhat fond of.

The first is general investigation based, you detach clues away from specific triggers, I’ll admit this is somewhat yoinked from Sly Flourish’s Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master (Thanks to JeffAtom of the Dice and Dreary podcast for the hookup), to summarise, you have a bunch of clues designed to aid players in getting from where they are, to where you need them to be for the story, from there you drop a clue when they do something clue-worthy.


The second is specifically puzzle based, players can’t work out how to twist the pedestals to get the invisible stepping stones to appear over a chasm, what do you do? As a DM you want the players to get across this chasm, that’s where the story is, obviously.

So your players don’t work out the puzzle, but they find a solution that is equally cool, maybe they use sand to “Indiana Jones” their way across, or maybe they had a rather fancy use of Fog Cloud to outline the stones on their way across, or maybe they search the pedestal for a recess that matches an ornate dagger they found 3 rooms back and what do you know? Now it fits! They get across and you get to continue the story, right? You as a DM need to write the puzzle, but you let the players write the solution, between their smart thinking and dice rolls you get a solution.


So when you are running a game, what do you do to help the players out when they can’t get to the pre-imagined solution?

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