Content of the article: "The Hangman’s Guide to Unknown Languages"
Preface: This is a mini-game I've made for D&D to help players figure out codes and languages they don't know. I'm sure some of you aren't going to like this idea on principle, but I'm not particularly interested in hearing these takes. I know that I'm trying something that is outside the norm, and I really don't need 100 comments telling me that puzzles are bad or minigames break immersion. I'm really only looking for questions, thoughts, suggestions, and helpful criticism.
Your party stands before the entrance to a dungeon: the doors leading inside are decorated with the elvish script that glows blue in the moonlight. The only issue is that the elven archer and all-knowing wizard are too busy fighting a giant octopus to help translate. So what should the rest of the party do?
If you said, "Play a round of Hangman," then this guide is for you!!! The idea is simple: it's boring when a party has to walk away from something written in a language they don't know and don't have the means to figure it out, and it's equally boring when the party knows all the languages and they keep bypassing your puzzles! You could use those draconic and elvish alphabets in the PHB to come up with some sort of cipher, or even create your own secret alphabet to use, but a) you don't want to spend two hours writing up a bunch of clues in a made-up language (not including the time that it takes to make such a thing), and b) your party probably does not want to spend an hour trying to decipher your made-up language. So what do you do instead? HANGMAN!!!!!
Well, kind of. This sort of meta-minigame is already pretty immersion breaking, but playing literal hangman is going a step too far. Instead, you are going to use the characters' knowledge, experience, and information to create the guidelines of this minigame rather than just drawing a stick figure on the gallows.
Here's how it works:
Start in the classic Hangman fashion by presenting the players with a bunch of empty spaces that represent the word or words they're trying to guess (i.e. _ _ _ _ _ _ for the word "friend").
Look at how complicated this puzzle is and give it a rating of 2-5. 2 would be good for short, single word answer, where 5 might be a sentence or longer. This is going to be the base number of guesses the party has.
Give the players extra guesses based on how much information they have. Add in the highest intelligence modifier. Give a +1 for every language the party knows that shares a script with the one in question (if the answer is in elvish, the party would get a bonus for speaking sylvan or undercommon). Finally, give the players a bonus for any other information they have access too that might be helpful. This could be books or notes with translated scripts or context clues based on other words they've deciphered.
Once you add the extra guesses to the base number, let the players know what that final result is and you're ready to play! Note: Hangman traditionally gives the players 6-11 guesses based on how complicated the answer is; this is a pretty good guideline to follow, but feel free to step outside the bounds if the players are especially over or underprepared.
Weave in the fiction as your players make their guesses. Describe the characters rifling through page after page to no avail when they make a failed guess. Give them the Eureka moment when a character remembers that Sylvan has similar root words to Elvish. Present a memory of some dumb luck conversation they had about the intricacies of elvish grammar. If the party gets to the point where they can guess the answer (or they plug in all the letters), then they solved it! If they aren't able to figure it out, then they've exhausted their collective knowledge and will never know what it says (at least, not without a spell or native speaker translating it for them).
(Note: This minigame requires a fair amount of suspension of disbelief: obviously it's not even close to how deciphering languages, or ciphers, works, but its a quick and fun little thing you can pull out when you forgot no one in your party took infernal despite delving into the Nine Hells. And on the subject of suspension of disbelief, you can push it a little bit further by letting the players decipher larger works without actually having to guess the whole thing. No one wants to spend 45 minutes trying to figure out the entirety of the tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise, but having the players guess "It's not a story the Jedi would tell you" is much more manageable and will let you paraphrase what information they need to know from it.)
And that's it! Let me know your thoughts, especially if you have questions or suggestions to make it better (or just good, I guess)!
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