Arcana: Riddles

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Riddles hold power. When one person or group challenges another person or group to a riddling contest, and the challenge is accepted, the participants are bound to the results. Any cheating or reneging will bring consequences from the gods or other underlying power of the world.

Riddles can take many forms, but the answer must be obviously true once stated. Answers do not have to be the answer the riddler expects. If the answer is obviously true once stated and follows logically from the riddle, then it is a valid answer.

If a party to a riddle contest does not honor their side of the bargain, the injured party gains one automatic success at an opportune time for an action in opposition to the dishonorable party. The success may be chosen by the player after any roll, and it is the Guide’s duty to inform the player if an automatic success at that time gives no real benefit. The injured party also gains a bonus of 1 to any rolls in opposition to the dishonorable party. These benefits last until the dishonorable party honors the agreement made over the riddle. If the riddle contest takes place in a place of power, the injured party bonus is increased by the place’s level.

A party that cheats in a riddle contest loses and suffers the consequences. The party trying to answer a riddle may not steal the answer from the riddler. “Stealing” means acquiring it from the riddler’s mind or from any item on the riddler’s person. Riddles do not understand the concept of extant property; if the answer can be stolen from elsewhere that is not cheating.

The party giving the riddle must not ask an impossible riddle. If they ask an impossible riddle, and are answered with a true answer, one that seems obvious once given, the effects of dishonoring the riddle are doubled if the asker reneges.

Riddles in a place of power increase the place of power’s level by one with regards to the riddle’s context. Only one riddle may be in effect for any given context.

Rituals that last beyond the sacrifice need a riddle to make them fair. This is why magical traps and defenses often come with riddles.

What makes a riddle?

A riddle is constructed of clues hidden in plain sight with a definite answer. Most of them will be questions or rhymes. The classic riddle is the riddle of the sphinx:

What goes on four legs at dawn, two legs at noon, and three legs at evening?

It’s a great fantasy riddle because it doesn’t just require an answer, it requires a philosophy. It’s also obviously a riddle and obviously a question.

Many riddles consist of two to four contradictory statements, and the answer to the riddle is the thing that matches all of the statements. For example, here are two classic riddles of that sort, one of which answers a definite thing, and one of which requires thinking outside the box.

I went to the wood and got it. I sat down and sought it. I kept it against my will, and brought it home.

The poor have it, the rich need it. It is greater than god, more evil than the devil, and if you eat it you’ll die.

In the first riddle, the answer is something that people in forests and jungles find all the time: a thorn. The questioner was pricked by a thorn in the wood, sat down and tried to find and remove it, but, as is often the case with thorns, could not.

The second riddle is brilliant; it’s the kind of riddle that makes the genre, because it’s about language, the basis of all riddles, and is also a riddle of life and desire.

Riddles don’t have to require a spoken answer. They can also describe actions to take or traps to avoid. Here’s a riddle I encountered long ago:

Sinister is Dexter and Dexter is Sinister.

This riddle is a play on language, and will only really work in a world (such as Highland) where both English and Latin exist. Like Tolkien’s famous riddle,

Ennyn Durin aran Moria. Pedo mellon a minno,

the translation is the answer. In the first case, knowing that a translation is needed is almost all that’s necessary: left is right, and right is left, or, left is good and right is bad, depending on the circumstances.

In Tolkien’s riddle, their initial translation is what confused the nine:

The Doors of Durin, Lord of Moria. Speak, friend, and enter.

In both cases what makes them a riddle is that they’re not obviously a riddle, but once recognized as a riddle the answer is obvious.

For a different take on obviousness, look at the riddle of St. Ives:

As I was walking to St. Ives, I met a man with seven wives, and each wife had seven sacks, and each sack had seven cats, and each cat had seven kits. Kits, cats, sacks, wives, how many were going to St. Ives?

This is a classic example of a riddle that relies on misdirection. It tells us the actual answer in the first line, and then throws number after number at us in the hope that we’ll forget the critical information: that the teller is the one person going to St. Ives. The cat-carrying clan was coming from St. Ives. Now, if you think about it, he could just as well have met them by overtaking them. After all, carrying all those cats must slow you down quite a bit! But the rule of riddles is that there should be a single obvious answer, that, however, difficult it is to reason out, is obvious once realized. This riddle meets that requirement, partly because it is a classic form, and once you recognize the form, you recognize that the middle part is irrelevant to the question. But mostly, because counting them up is a confusing answer, and realizing the speaker met them while they were coming from St. Ives is the obvious one.

There’s a similar riddle that has been labeled the psychopath test in social media. It isn’t, but it’s a great riddle.

A woman, at the funeral of her mother, met a man she did not know. He was amazing, the man of her dreams. She fell in love with him at first sight. But she didn’t get his name or contact information and afterward couldn’t find him. A few days later, she killed her sister. Why?

This is similar to the St. Ives riddle in that you could probably come up with a very complex answer to it that technically works, but there is a simple answer that is, once spoken, obvious—and very difficult to guess without going beyond simple human decency. She wanted to meet the man of her dreams again.

In marble halls as white as milk, lined with skin as soft as silk, within a fountain crystal-clear, a golden apple doth appear. No doors there are to this strong-hold, yet thieves break in and steal the gold.

There are so many riddles that refer to eggs but this, I think is the most beautiful. Beautiful riddles are nearly their own genre, filled with simile and high language.

Note, however, that egg riddles are the most easily guessed. Even Gollum guessed Bilbo’s, though Bilbo used a more prosaic form, and Gollum hadn’t seen eggs for hundreds of years.

Riddles can also be self-referential. Magritte wrote beneath his painting of a pipe that

This is not a pipe.

That was also a riddle. Why wasn’t it a pipe? Because The Treachery of Images is a painting of a pipe. In an adventure, it could just as well be a painting of a door, a cave, or a jewel. Of course, in a fantasy world, Magritte could very well be wrong.

Where can I find riddles?

Old nursery rhymes often contain riddles, as do folk stories. If you can find a book of nursery rhymes or folk stories from a culture similar to the one you’re creating a riddle for, you should be able to find some very nice and appropriate riddles.

Think up some topics that would be appropriate for this particular riddle, and then do a web search for “topic riddles”. Or if the dungeon the adventurers are exploring is based on a particular culture, do a search for “culture riddles”.

Do a web search for “traditional riddles” if you want to find a general-use riddle but avoid the silly ones that riddles have degenerated into in the modern age. You can easily modify nouns in a traditional riddle to fit the locale and time period. A search on “gaming riddles” and “RPG riddles” will also find traditional riddles, usually with a fantasy bent.

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