Last week, I rediscovered and reposted something that I’d published long, long ago and pissed a lot of people off with. It was a combination of a funny gaming anecdote and a riddle contest. And people have been anxiously awaiting the answer. It sure did stump a lot of people. And a few people have been obsessively demanding the answer. Many others chose to e-mail me or message me with their answers despite my basically saying I wasn’t interested in anyone’s answers and that I would post the answer sometime “next week.” That’ll teach me to share fun bonus content. Also, I’m sure that now that I’m posting the answer, I’m going to get A LOT of angry replies. Like I give a f$&%. Last time I got death threats.
As with last week’s reposting of the original event, I’m going to preface the original answer with a more detailed, nuanced explanation. It’s partly an attempt to forestall any fury at my “unfairness.” I’m sure I’ll still have to deal with it. But whatever. Because, here’s the deal, this contest was designed to f$&% with people’s heads on multiple levels. See, back then, I was far more trolly than I am now. And I delighted in screwing with people who thought they were good at this kind of crap. Which is precisely what this riddle did. Nowadays, I’m actually more concerned with being instructive. And there’s some value in looking at how I put this puzzle together in the first place and how I loaded it with booby traps.
So, assuming you’ve read the riddle, let’s look at the puzzle and the solution. And note, I’m not going to hand you the solution. I’m going to walk you through the solution.
Working Through the Logic Puzzle
First, it’s important to call attention to a few very important details. Some of them are very central to the idea of puzzles and riddles. The most important thing to understand is that people always bring assumptions into any riddle, puzzle, or problem. People are very good at assuming things. Especially rules.
Now, you might have noticed that I didn’t refer to this as a logic puzzle. Or even really a puzzle at all. The original contest was called “Outwit Angry.” The post is currently titled “The Infamous Riddle Contest.” And that little distinction is actually supremely important. The idea behind a logic puzzle is that the participants are given all of the information that they need to solve the puzzle and all they have to do is apply logic and reasoning. And logic puzzles have some very specific rules and procedures. First of all, logic puzzles are divided into two parts. First, you have the instructions. The instructions lay out the rules for the puzzle. And those rules are always trustworthy. For example, in the classic puzzle wherein one person always lies and one person tells the truth, the instructions are usually delivered by a puzzle master or narrator. And that narrator is always trustworthy. That’s important because the clues in a logic puzzle are factual statements that, depending on the nature puzzle, may be true or false. And a clear separation is needed between the “trustworthy instructions” and the “suspect clues.”
Riddles, meanwhile, are implied to involved trickery, wordplay, and misdirection. This was a riddle about a logic puzzle. As you’ll see.
Most people who enjoy logic puzzles – who are good at them – understand that separation. And that is precisely why, in Angry’s puzzle, there’s a booming voice that delivers the instructions. The statue gives the clues for the puzzle. And they are suspect. But Angry’s puzzle is tricky. Normally, the instructions include the part about how trustworthy the statements are. “One always lies, one always tells the truth.” But in Angry’s puzzles, the statue delivers the statement about its own honesty.
This is the first level of trickery in the puzzle. And most people who were trying to solve it picked up on it. The statue makes four statements: “I only say one true thing; the bronze chest is safe; the copper chest is safe and has the treasure; the copper chest is trapped.”
Normally, that first statement would be part of the instructions. And if it were a trustworthy statement, the logic is easy. Essentially, the two statements about the copper chest can’t both be true and they can’t both be false. One is true, one is false. But since there is only one true statement, it doesn’t matter which one is true. The statement about the bronze chest is false. Therefore, it is safe.
Now, some people conjectured that the statement “the copper chest is safe and has the treasure” is a conjunction. An “and” statement. Technically, that statement could be false if, for example, the treasure was inside but the chest wasn’t safe. In that way, both the statements about the copper chest could be false. It could be trapped AND not contain the treasure.
It was the booming voice that specifically said that one of the chests was safe and that specific chest would contain the treasure. And that brings us back to the instructions. In a logic puzzle, the instructions are entirely trustworthy. They have to be. And Angry said the puzzle was fair. The instructions establish an equivalence between a chest being safe to touch and containing the crown. In other words, one of the conditions of the puzzle, in logical form, is this: a chest is safe to touch IF AND ONLY IF it contains the treasure.
So, those of you who pointed that out? Wrong.
So, let’s get back to this idea that the statue might have been lying about how many true statements it would make. That is a possibility that has to be entertained. And some folks realized that and then got stuck. They felt that nothing the statue said could be trusted and that NO LOGIC could be applied. But that isn’t true. In point of fact, many logic puzzles deal with just this sort of thing. And again, the puzzle is a “fair” logic puzzle.
What does fairness mean in terms of a logic puzzle? It means two things. First, it means that any factual statement can either be true or false. Second, it means that the universe is consistent. There are no contradictions. I can say “the sky is blue” and I can say “the sky is green.” In a logic puzzle universe, each of those statements is true or false. But they can’t both be true about the same sky. That’s a contradiction.
Once you have a collection of statements and have to determine which are true and false, the easiest way to solve the puzzle is to start making guesses and then looking for contradictions.
For example, let’s assume the first statement is true. The statue makes only one true statement. If that statement is true, all of the other statements have to be false. But that means the copper chest is both safe and deadly. That can’t be right. That’s a contradiction. Clearly, the first statement is false.
Knowing the first statement is false, we know the statue must have made two or three or four or zero true statements. Let’s suppose all of the statements are false, for example. Well, in that case, we get to the conclusion that the copper chest is both NOT safe and NOT deadly. That can’t be right either. And all the statements can’t be true for the same reason. Follow that?
So, either the statue says two true things or three two things. Can it be three? Well, the first statement is false. That means the other three statements have to be true. And, again, we have the copper chest contradiction. The only possibility is that the statue makes TWO true statements.
ONE of those two true statements has to be about the copper chest. Otherwise we have a contradiction. And since the first statement can’t be the other true statement, the only other true statement must be “the bronze chest is deadly.”
And that IS true. We saw that.
And THAT is the first part of the puzzle. New Guy overlooked the fact that “I say only one true thing” was not part of the trustworthy instructions, it was part of the puzzle itself. By ignoring that fact, he reached the wrong conclusion.
Now, one of the insidious things about this puzzle was that it was designed to trap inattentive logicians. Those logicians who neglected to consider the first statement part of the puzzle would not only reach the wrong conclusion, they would reach exactly the OPPOSITE conclusion and get themselves killed. It wasn’t just that the puzzle was hard to solve if you made the obvious mistake, it’s that the puzzle killed people who made that obvious mistake. Neat, huh? That ISN’T an accident. I’m a jerk.
Where the Logic Fails
To be fair, a lot of folks figured that out. They caught the flaw in New Guy’s logic. Honestly, though, if you use a puzzle like this in your game, you’d be surprised how many people will make New Guy’s mistake. Even people who are good at logic puzzles. Especially people who are good at logic puzzles. And that is because, again, people bring assumptions without realizing it. Assumptions like “instructions are trustworthy in logic puzzles.”
And if you’re going to pull a trick like this, you have to be very, VERY careful about being fair. Like making sure your booming voice narrator delivers only trustworthy instructions and having someone else deliver the fake instruction that’s part of the puzzle.
But lots of people got stuck here. They couldn’t find the crown after that. And, looking at the logic, it’s obvious why. After you figure out that the statue made exactly two true statements and that one of them was that the bronze chest was deadly, you’re left with two statements. Either the copper chest is deadly OR it is safe and has the treasure. ONE of those is true. But which one.
Well, guess what? There’s no way to know.
And this was the second trap. The first trap, the one about the bronze chest, that was a trap for the characters in the game. This second trap was for the people playing in my contest. Because people ASSUMED that the logic puzzle would lead them to the crown. And when they hit a wall in the logic, they assumed they had missed something. And they couldn’t get past that point.
And here’s the thing they missed: in the contest, I never asked where the crown was. There is no way for anyone to know where the crown is. I asked what the party should do to find the crown. Or what they should have done in the first place. And the answer is this: have someone open one of the other chests. If they blow up and die, the party knows where the crown is. That is literally the only way to find the crown.
This was another trap. Pure and simple. Just like shifting the instructions into the puzzle content. I purposely made the logic puzzle impossible to answer AND specifically avoiding asking about the correct answer to the logic puzzle KNOWING that most people would fail to see the difference between “figuring out where the crown was” and “figuring out how the party can discover where the crown was.”
Ideally, the perfect scenario is this. The party thinks about the logic puzzle, realizes the statue is delivering four statements, goes through the logic, and comes to the conclusion that the bronze chest is deadly. They don’t know where the chest is at this point, but they definitely know where it is not. Then, they are left with picking one of the two remaining chests at random and opening it. There’s a 50% chance the character opening the chest will die. But either way, they find the crown. Because if character does die, that leaves only one place for the crown.
THAT’S the correct solution.
And very, VERY few people recognized it. First of all, lots of people got stuck in the assumption that the riddle was a logic puzzle and there was some way to solve it and find the crown without any risk. Second of all, even those people who realized they couldn’t solve the logic puzzle refused to accept the idea of a puzzle that required at least one possible human sacrifice.
Of course, a small number of people did get there. And those are the people who carefully read the speech by the booming voice. The one that said that wisdom would be tested, but wisdom alone wasn’t enough to earn the crown. A ruler must take risks and make sacrifices.
And that is exactly the solution. If you weren’t wise, you’d either guess at random or lose a party member to the bronze chest. If you were wise, you’d eliminate one deadly possibility. After that, one person would have to be risked to get the answer. Wisdom mitigated the risk, but it didn’t eliminate it.
Where Is the Crown?
If you’re curious, the crown is in the copper chest. And the reason it’s in the copper chest is because of a weird assumption that people often make when it comes to logic puzzles. If there is an explicitly offered option that isn’t mentioned in the clues, people tend to think that one is true. The statue gave no clues about the iron chest. Therefore, many people – if they can’t or won’t work through the log – tend to assume that the iron chest is the right answer. It’s just a weird habit.
That trap was built into the puzzle specifically to deal with logic puzzle frustration. Often, when a group of players is confronted with a puzzle or riddle, there’s one or two party members who simply get fed up waiting for the party to solve the puzzle and just throw themselves at a solution. And they usually make snap judgments. The iron chest is the barbarian trap. The “f$&% this puzzle, I pick this one” option.
Is It Fair?
Now, here is the question: is it fair? A lot of people argued this question the first time. In point of fact, a lot of people got really angry with me because they felt it wasn’t fair.
First, I’m not engaging with the question of whether the “death with no save” is mechanically fair within the rules of whatever game system the group is playing. Some people did complain about the lack of a die roll being explicitly unfair. I will say this: this puzzle was written in the 4th Edition era. Under those rules, the chest would have make an attack roll against a static defense (probably Reflex). There were no saving throws to resolve actions in 4E. Saving throws were used to determine the duration of ongoing effects.
That aside, I do not feel this puzzle is unfair. I have never put this puzzle in my game. This puzzle, including all of the backstory and the characters and the artifact and everything, all of it was creatively specifically for this puzzle. It was part of a series of made-up stories I was occasionally publishing about a funny 4E group of players stuck under Angry’s iron thumb. But I totally WOULD put this puzzle in my game. And I have done puzzles just like it.
Here is why I am comfortable with this puzzle, even with the instant death effect: the players knew. The booming voice told them everything. It told them what was at stake. It told them death was the risk. And the players knew there was a 66% chance any character opening a box would die. They also knew that they may be required to make a sacrifice. Through the NPC, the GM told the players exactly the risk, exactly the cost, and exactly the prize. The GM through the NPC also pointed out – VERY CLEARLY – that the door was open. It said, “if you’re not ready to see someone die, walk away, the door is open.”
Now, you can argue whether you’d be willing to ask a character to die for a major magical artifact or plot MacGuffin or whatever. That’s fine. Every group has a different tolerance for that stuff.
But fairness ultimately comes down to whether the players know the risks and have some sway over the outcome. Honestly, in that respect, it was far more honest than your average trap or combat encounter. The odds and the costs were very clearly spelled out and the players were only at risk if they opted in. And, in fact, absolutely nothing could result from the puzzle that the players were not forewarned about.
Now, some argued that NO GROUP would ever walk away from such a challenge, specifically if there was a plot-important Macguffin on the line. So, for all practical purposes, the characters COULDN’T walk away because the players NEVER would. And that is also arguable. As part of the fun little story (shown below, Angry addresses this very issue). In general, it comes down to how the GM runs their game. But, in point of fact, it comes down to how failure is handled in the game. A GM should plan for failure. As a GM writing this game, I would have had planned for the party’s failure to retrieve the crown because I don’t want one failed adventure to end the campaign. And I also don’t want to railroad the characters by guaranteeing their success. See, guaranteeing success IS railroading. It is essentially FORCING an outcome on the players regardless of their actions.
In the end, this was a fair challenge. But it sure as hell wasn’t easy. And it carried a cost that some groups and GMs wouldn’t be willing to charge. But I find that kind of funny since most groups are willing to risk character death on the outcome of random die rolls with much less clear knowledge of the probabilities and risks.
And the real reason why it pissed people off? Well, I don’t want to be unkind, but it pissed off egomaniacs who are good at logic puzzles and who can’t handle being wrong or having their intelligence questioned. Which is exactly who I was trying to trap. And I paid for that. The response from some of those people was stunning. I’ve been the victim of online harassment, threats, and stalking three or four times. Of those few times, this was the one that shocked me the most and this was the one that included some of the most reprehensible, vile things I’ve ever had said to me.
But here’s the talking point, the thing to take away. It isn’t about the “fairness” of the in-game situation. Like I said, it was entirely fictional, but I would also have no problem including this situation in one of my games. Hell, I HAVE included situations like this. Deadly situations in which players had to choose to risk their lives outright, knowing the wrong move didn’t have a safety net or a hell of a lot of dice rolls before death. I’m proud of the fact that I can say my players have faced their mortality in more measured, thoughtful ways than “I sure hope that monster doesn’t roll a crit” or “I need to make this death save.” THAT, to me, is the more interesting sort of role-playing.
No, the talking point is this: when it comes to puzzles and riddles, things that are based entirely on the players’ abilities with no random chance involved, how do you add challenge. More abstractly, how do you add challenge and adjust the difficulty OUTSIDE of just increasing the numbers on the dice. One answer – the answer I chose in this particular riddle – is to take normal expectations and subvert them while still ensuring the puzzle is scrupulously fair and gives the players ALL of the information. But that isn’t the only answer.
See, one of the reasons people play games – rather than just watching movies, reading books, or telling stories – one of the reasons many people play games is to be challenged. And what D&D and other RPGs refer to as “difficulty” tend to boil down to just making it less likely to roll the right numbers. The assumption is that, in order to ensure a good outcome, the players have to make up for the numerical disadvantage with strategy. But that’s a pretty haphazard way of doing it.
So, how do you create and adjust difficulty in the game so that the players, NOT THE DICE, feel the difference.
And NO, I am not interested in the argument as to whether you should challenge the players and not the characters. That question, as far as I’m concerned, is asked and answered. It’s done. All you have to do is watch players engage with the game – OR ANY GAME – and see that many of them, MOST OF THEM, on some level, enjoy overcoming a challenge. That’s why games are such an important part of the human experience.
So, noodle that one.
And, meanwhile, here’s the ORIGINAL text explaining the answer.
The Original Solution
[In the Other Room]
New Guy: Look, I’m…
Angry: Shut up. I’m going to ignore that outburst for one reason: you are the only one who didn’t piss and moan and whine or make smartass remarks about the puzzle. You took the situation you were presented with and you tried to work it out. But the next time you quit the campaign, you quit the campaign.
New Guy: I didn’t…
Angry: You got it wrong, kid. Sorry. Those are the breaks. You missed something and I gave you every opportunity to notice it and rethink.
New Guy: I didn’t miss…
Angry: You did. How many statements did the statue make?
New Guy: Three. The copper chest is…
Angry: How many? Look at the paper. Count them.
New Guy: Thre… four?
Angry: Four. I speak truth only once, the copper chest is deadly, the bronze chest is deadly, and the copper chest is safe and has the crown.
New Guy: But that’s part of the conditions of the riddle, isn’t it? It’s like the instructions.
Angry: Normally, yes. But isn’t it interesting that the Booming Voice didn’t say ‘Beware, the statue only says one true thing?’ The speaker himself – the statue – was making a claim about his own honesty. And admitting he was an occasional liar. Why should he be honest about how often he lies?
New Guy: So, the logic puzzle is impossible? The statue just lies or tells the truth at random?
Angry: Come on, kid. That’s what the smartass and whiny would say. You know better. Those are factual statements about a presumably consistent universe. They must either be true or false.
New Guy: Or the statue could be insane and spout gibberish.
Angry: Yes, but that wouldn’t be fair. So come on. Reason it out now.
New Guy: Okay, the first statement can’t be true because it would have to be the only true statement. Since the two statements about the copper chest can’t both be false, the first statement has to be a lie.
New Guy: So, the first statement is a lie. And one of the copper chest statements is a lie. So the third statement about the bronze chest can’t be a lie. If it is, that leaves only one true statement, one of the copper chest statements. And that would make the first statement true. But it’s a lie.
New Guy: Damn it. So the logic guarantees that, no matter what, the bronze chest is deadly.
Angry: And you proved that.
New Guy: So, we’re down to either the copper chest has the crown or its deadly. And… wait… there’s no way to get any more information than that.
Angry: Not from the logic puzzle.
New Guy: So… the logic puzzle is worthless.
Angry: No. If you figure it out – which you didn’t – it tells you the bronze chest is definitely deadly.
New Guy: But where do we go from there? All that means is that either the crown is in the iron chest or its in the copper chest. There’s no way to figure out which.
Angry: Yes there is.
New Guy: No there isn’t.
Angry: How did you discover the bronze chest was trapped?
New Guy: You mean we are seriously supposed to narrow it down to two chests and then risk blowing someone up to find out the last piece of information.
Angry: Risk and sacrifice. Might only gets you so far. Wisdom only gets you so far. Risk and sacrifice. If you figure out the puzzle correctly, you only have to risk one life, and there’s a fifty-fifty chance you’ll just find the crown outright. That’s the point. Sometimes, a good leader needs to be willing to send people on dangerous, deadly missions. A ruler who can’t make those tough decisions is unfit to rule. And the ruler can’t take the risk himself in this case, because the crown will only function for someone with a legitimate claim to authority. The crown can’t make you a king, it just makes you a better king.
New Guy: That’s a nasty puzzle. Really brutal. The way the logic puzzle is worded – its specifically designed to mislead people into doing exactly what I did. And when they do make that mistake, it is specifically designed so that their death doesn’t give any new information. I died and the party is no better off than they were before. They are still stuck with the same situation they would have been in if we’d solved the puzzle.
Angry: Yeah. I’m really proud of that, actually. Most parties, after someone dies, they go back and look at the logic puzzle again, trying to incorporate the new information. Eventually, they figure out what they did wrong. In this case, all they will discover is that they blew someone up for nothing except to punish their own failure. Except now, they are convinced the logic puzzle has the answer. They will spend hours trying to figure out what they missed before they tumble onto the idea that it doesn’t actually have the answer.
New Guy: That’s brutal. It’s really unfair.
Angry: What’s unfair about it? The voice laid out the conditions: if you want the magic crown, you’re risking death. There are three chests. If you guess blind, there is a 66% chance someone will die. If you guess blind again, the next person has a 50% chance of dying. You weren’t locked in here. You didn’t have to take the dungeon up on its offer. You could have just walked away. You knew, up front, what the price of failure was going to be. And, thanks to Whiny, you also knew the designers of the dungeon were going to make sure you couldn’t circumvent the conditions of the puzzle. They were going to make sure you satisfied their conditions: wisdom, risk, and sacrifice. You had everything you needed to at least know what the risk was going to be.
New Guy: But we couldn’t walk away.
Angry: Why not?
New Guy: Well, Ragnar needs to claim his father’s throne and raise an army because that demon’s gnolls are going to sweep across civilized lands and kill tons of people.
New Guy: So… if we don’t do this, lots of people will die.
Angry: Risk one life – or maybe two – to save hundreds of thousands? That seems like a good trade to me. Besides, Ragnar doesn’t need the crown. He could still claim the throne and try to raise an army. It’s just a trinket with some magical powers that will make it a lot easier for him to prove his claim and raise an army. It’s a shortcut.
New Guy: So, we could have just walked away?
Angry: Sure. And you could have tried to put Ragnar on the throne the old-fashioned, non-magical way. Ragnar does have a legitimate claim to the throne. He’d have to. The Crown itself can’t make someone a king. It can only make a legitimate king better. At least you guys were smart enough to recognize that and not let Ragnar get himself blown up. Without royal blood or some other form of valid claim of authority, it’s just a pretty hat. Artifacts are like that: they only work for people who meet their conditions. So, yeah, you could walk away. Ragnar could declare his rule, win over his people, and raise an army. But there is always the chance that he fails at that. Or it just takes too long and, by the time his army is battle ready, you are already swimming in Gnolls. You guys would have to work fast and everything would have to go right.
New Guy: So we should go for the crown?
Angry: I can’t say. I won’t say. All I can say is that you guys have the information you need to decide which risk to take. At least as much as any characters in your position would have. That’s role-playing. You have to decide which risks to take and live with the consequences. Or die by them. Now, let’s get back in there and see what they do.
New Guy: Oh… will you tell me where the crown is? Since I’m dead, I can’t really help them. I’m just curious.
Angry: Sure, it’s in the copper chest. You’d be surprised how many people actually fall back on Smartass’ so-called logic: “the iron chest wasn’t mentioned as possibly deadly, so its most likely to be safe.”
New Guy: And you still insist this wasn’t designed to be a screw job?
Angry: I didn’t even tell you about the very specific definitions the booming voice used regarding the words “you,” “touch,” and “anyone.” Basically, they ensure that only a willing touch by living humans and humanoids actually trigger the traps and the chests cannot be opened except by one of the people who was originally in the room when the booming voice spoke. I brought a dictionary in case anyone wanted to argue. Anyway, let’s get back in there.
[Back at the Table and Two Hours of Tortured Logic Later]
Smartass: I can’t take this anymore. To hell with it. I’m going with my gut. The iron chest is the only one the stupid statue didn’t mention. I’m opening that one.
Whiny: At least let me open it.
Smartass: No! No one else is going to die for me. Besides, I’m thinking because I’m the one who wants to claim the crown and I’m the one who touched the statue to begin with, I have to open the chest. Angry, Ragnar steps up and opens the iron chest.
What Did You Have to Do to Get It Right?
Okay, I asked two very specific questions: “what did New Guy overlook” and “what should the party have done to find the crown?” And that tripped up a lot of people. I got a lot of answers “deducing” the location of the crown (which was impossible) and a lot of answers that explained the flaw in New Guy’s logic and nothing else. I also got more than a few answers that involved the party just turning around and walking away. That’s obviously wrong because I asked about what the party should do find the crown, not what the party should to do survive. Frankly, if the party was concerned about survival, they would find a new DM.
The minimum needed for a correct answer was:
Correctly identify the fact that New Guy did not consider the fact that the statement about how many true statements were made was, in fact, a statement that might be true or false.
Recognize that the logic puzzle only eliminates the bronze chest as a possibility and that, in order to find the crown, the party must risk the death of a PC guessing between the copper and iron chest.
I didn’t disqualify anyone for not discussing who should be the one to take the risk or suggesting that Ragnar take the risk, even though the party did discuss the importance of keeping Ragnar alive. If the two conditions were met, I let it in.
I did, however, disqualify answers that were technically correct but got the logic wrong. There were a few folks who realized New Guy’s mistake and then analyzed the logic at length only to arrive at the wrong conclusion or to accidentally stumble on the right answer (copper chest) for the wrong reasons. Or to overlook the fact that they were expected to sacrifice someone to find the crown. I tried to be as liberal as possible, though, when it looked like someone had all the elements and understood the thrust of it.
Interestingly, many, many people saw the flaw in the logic and reach the proper conclusion but were then unable to figure out where to go from there. Apparently, the idea of a puzzle specifically set up to require a possible human sacrifice is a bit too brutal for some gamers to consider. A great many people also questioned their own logic when they realized the logic puzzle didn’t give the answer, fully admitting they couldn’t figure out what they were missing because “it looked like the puzzle was pointing to two different chests.”
Of course, I make no apologies for any of that.