Thursday Feature – Fourth Wall Challenges

The players look to one another with expressions of uncertainty and bewilderment, shaking their heads and shrugging their shoulders as the GameMaster watches silently, expectantly. Character sheets are skimmed front and back, and one hopeful player pages through notes in a futile effort to find something, anything that will help. Seconds continue to tick by, the obvious tension in the room mounting with each one. Finally, someone cracks and admits defeat: “I,.. I don’t know man… what was that shopkeep’s name?”

Not every challenge players face in a campaign is related to the rules, or even the actual events taking place in-game. Sometimes, the hard part is remembering some small detail that suddenly becomes important, or reading between the lines of an NPC’s dialogue because what wasn’t said is every bit as crucial as what was. It’s the kind of thing that rules systems rarely cover because it exists outside the scope of the game proper. It’s a lot like when a character in a movie breaks the fourth wall and speaks to the audience, it happened, but not in terms of the narrative of the story.

As a GameMaster, this is the sort of challenge I like to construct for my group from time to time. I like the idea that it’s purely for the players, and that nothing on their precious character sheets will help them. Usually, the only challenges that reach this sort of “fourth wall” area are riddles – but why limit yourself?


A personal favorite that crops up in my games now and again is the “how closely were you listening” challenge. The premise (obviously) is that I provide an in-game presentation of some variety, and the players give me back the correct piece of information that I require of them – which they will only know if they were paying attention and not say… looking at their phones or the like. Said required information is then contained within the presentation in one of a few formats.

Format options include (but are certainly not limited to): broken into bits, stated by way of NOT being stated, obvious when other already known information is applied, and given outright, but in a convoluted way OR with enough time misdirection so as to make the particulars a little harder to remember.

To give a specific example of this, here is a challenge that I used for my players during the first session of my Crucible campaign. A few things to note:

  • The campaign setting is Kenzer and Co.’s Kingdoms of Kalamar. In this setting, “The True” is the god of truth and justice.
  • This was presented during game one, when the PCs were level 1 – and was meant to be “CR 1” to use D&D 3.5 terminology.
  • There were seven players at this point in the campaign, so the number of tankards used is scaled for a party of that size.

The PCs (students at Cosolen’s military academy), volunteered to assist the crown, and were assembled as one group among four to undergo a series of challenges to determine the most able party for the assignment. Their guide, the High Elf cleric Zelaena Onaeriel escorts them to the first challenge.


The PCs enter a side chamber containing a round wooden table with a metal basin set into it’s middle. Nine tankards encircle the basin with names and accompanying symbols for various townsfolk upon their surfaces. One tankard, “The Usurer”, lies on its side – its contents spilled into the basin. The remaining eight are filled with a dark liquid. As the party draws near the table, Zelaena bids them to her and speaks:


“Welcome friends, The table before you represents, in miniature, the scene and suspects of a foul murder. One of the tankards, the murderer, is poisoned. To successfully complete this challenge, you must correctly identify the culprit and prove your claim to be true by toasting from the remaining tankards.”


Walking over to the assembled table, Zelaena pulls a scroll from her robe and continues “As this is a test of your wit, magical detection, alchemical testing and purification spells are prohibited. Everything you need to complete this challenge and move on to the next…” she pauses, placing the scroll onto the table. “…is now on the table.”


With the introduction delivered, Zelaena backs away, allowing the party access to the table and the Tankard Challenge Scroll.


As you can see, the party needed to look at things that were said as well as things that were left unsaid to arrive at the solution and not get poisoned. In this particular setup, there was an extra micro challenge in that the party assumed that Zelaena would then take them to the next challenge. However, she merely stood there waiting. It took the group a couple minutes to remember that she had said that everything they needed to complete this challenge and move on to the next was on the table. Turned out, the murderer’s tankard held more than just poisoned wine.

While it wasn’t an overly complex challenge, it was a great deal of fun. Before allowing the players to actually see the text so as to reread it if necessary, I read it aloud with a bit of performance in my standard narrator voice. Throwing in the secondary requirement of needing to remember Zelaena’s words and thus look inside the murderer’s tankard put it over the top, as the players had known they were in for a listening challenge, but they didn’t know that it wasn’t quite over once they figured out the murderer’s identity.

So in closing, don’t forget to challenge your players as well as their characters. You might just find out that “attention span” is their dump stat.

All the best,
– Kallak

Got a challenge you’d like to share? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

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