Voodoo Reinforcement Learning

Can you beat the swamp witch at her own game? Voodoo Reinforcement Learning is an interactive puzzle that will set your party on edge.

Mageek


Deep among the lichen-draped canals of the elder bayou lies the domain of the voodoo priestess Grezelda. Her home, perched among the intertwining vines in a thicket of cypress trees in the deep swamp, is difficult to find even with the half-correct directions of the commoners who live on the swamp's outskirts and sometimes venture in to risk their lives for her aid. Unfortunately for your party, Grezelda possesses a key vital to their mission, and they must venture forth to seek the swamp witch and barter for their prize.

Grezelda greets the party with open arms but with her own odd tongue-clucking language. Despite your best efforts you cannot dredge up a suitable method of deeper communication, but through gestures and primitive conversational grimaces you gather that she is willing to give you what you need, provided that you beat her in a game.

In the center of Grezelda's hut is a table made from the twisted trunk of a swamp cypress tree. She bids each player sit. She goes to a cupboard, taking out a few humanoid-shaped dolls made of woven swampgrass fibers, beads, and bits of hair. These she places before herself as she sits, one between each character and herself.

Grezelda places her offering onto the table before her: the key the party desires. Each of you are expected to place an offering as well, whether it be food, valuable trinkets, or arcane sundries, to forfeit in the event of your loss. Grezelda is careful to approve or disapprove the collection of items; to her the net value must be enough for her to deem it worthy the risk of losing the key.

Grezelda takes out a sack made of animal hide, bedecked with beads and feathers. From it she carefully counts a number of colored tiles. She counts an equal number for each of the three colors: red, green, and blue. (5 each of R, G, and B for a total of three players, 6 each for 4, 7 each for 5, 9 each for 6 total players). She then places these tiles into the bag, shakes it, and pulls out two tiles for herself, placing them before her. She hands the bag to each player in turn such that they do the same. Once each player has their two tiles, she pulls a final tile from the bag and places it in the center. Now the game begins with Grezelda acting first.

Rules of the Game

On closer inspection the tiles are each engraved with a symbol. These correspond to fire, foliage, and water. At the core of the game is the idea that fire consumes foliage, foliage grows from water, and water quenches fire. In a boring version of the game a player would take one of their tiles of the appropriate color and place it on top of the tile in the center, thereby `defeating' it. They would then keep the defeated tile as a point and Grezelda would offer them the bag to draw a new tile to replace their spent one, which remains in the center.

In this version of the game, however, players use their tiles as if they were the same tiles as those belonging to the player on their right. For example, Grezelda's left green `G' tile in the image above counts as the blue 'B' tile belonging to player character 2 sitting on her right. On her turn, Grezelda can play her left tile to defeat the red center tile.

A player may pass any tile to the player on their right instead of playing a tile. Each other player must, in succession, take one of their other tiles and pass it to the player on their right, until it goes full circle.

If at any time no player possesses the correct color tile to defeat the center tile, Grezelda takes all tiles on the board, puts them in her bag, shakes it, and doles out new tiles. Points are retained.

Once a player has acted, play proceeds to their left. The game is over once a player has collected three defeated tiles. The winner takes all of the offerings in the center of the table.

Voodoo Reinforcement Learning

The trick of the game is that the players do not know the rules ahead of time, and must learn to play by trial and error. Any time a player breaks a rule or plays incorrectly, Grezelda pulls out a rusted dagger and makes a small cut on the offending player's voodoo doll, drawing a bit of blood from the player as well. The doll emits a thick black ichor, which she collects in a small earthen vial, clucking happily. Players must catch on to what the legal moves are and avoid losing all of their trinkets and the will to play.

A player who makes a violation during their turn forfeits their turn.

Notes for the DM

  • You can easily emulate the game using a set of colored tokens and placing everyone around a table. Whenever a player breaks a rule, have Grezelda make a little snickering noise and ceremoniously draw the knife.
  • Grezelda does not give any feedback except for her response to violations.
  • It is expected that the players will have to ante up and play a few times in order to defeat her.
  • The game isn't all that difficult, and though Grezelda plays first it is typically possible, as a group of players, to force her to not be able to collect a point come her next turn. This requires the players to collaborate.
  • Play Grezelda as you will, but have her quickly collect points to end games and collect the players' offerings.
  • The party may get fed up and attack Grezelda. Perhaps she is a powerful shaman or has other tricks up her sleeves to prevent this.
  • Voodoo Reinforcement Learning can be adapted to other settings and to more complicated setups.
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? Responses (11)-11

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Goto Author

Towards appeasing the Barbarian Horde!

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Goto Author

Sweet, another one for the BH. I'm not much of a graphics person normally but I actually like the first two pics for setting out the atmosphere quite well. And this one is the simplest to understand puzzle out of all of the recent ones you have posted up, for me anyway.

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Goto Author

Thanks for the feedback. You are right, my stuff of late has been a bit academic.

I have been trying to find puzzles that are interactive. It is easy to give out logic problems that people solve on their own. The goal of role-playing is to have challenges that involve interactions with other PCs and NPCs. Phantom Paths, guard riddles, and this one try to follow that vein.

I stumbled upon the barbarian horde challenge to come up with location-specific puzzles. Most puzzles are Dungeons/Any/Puzzles simply because you can re-skin them. That being said, trying to come up with location-specific puzzles provides a nice lens that ends up spawning all sorts of other ideas I wouldn't have considered before.


Goto Author

It's good to hear that the BH challenge creates a positive outcome in helping you to think in a different way (provide you with a new lens) rather than it being a kind of obligation on you to write subs of a certain theme (I'm personally bad at that and all the BH appeasing subs I had written came from the challenge giving an impetus to idea sparks that I already had so less sweat than if you gave me a random theme and tell me to start writing).

As for interaction, I think this one has the best interaction out of all your recent puzzles. The others have nice logic to them which I like (cos I'm a logical person with leanings towards the academic side, actually I sorta work in the academic field). But I think this one is definitely the one that I see the greatest degree of interaction among PCs and between PCs and NPC.

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Goto Author

Too cool! I love mini-games like this. I would heartily adapt this wholesale for my Swynmoor setting.

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Goto Author

Sorry for the throwaway comment but...what they said!! Another great one, Mageek!

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There's actually quite a few experiments to measure a patient's mental flexibility with games with hidden rules. Haven't encountered this one yet - but I love game design that operates with hidden information.

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Goto Author

There's actually quite a few experiments to measure a patient's mental flexibility with games with hidden rules. Haven't encountered this one yet - but I love game design that operates with hidden information.

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Goto Author

Just happened to stumble across this puzzle. I love it. I haven't looked through too many puzzles on this sight yet but I'm delighted that this one is simple while being extremely fun at the same time. I usually get lost in more complicated puzzles, particularly if they involve numbers. This one will happily find it's way into my campaign!

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Goto Author

Okay, this is a good one!