On Harry Potter and Puzzle Chambers

And to get going again… here’s an offline question about magical schools, puzzle chambers, and Harry Potter which mostly boils down to “Why?” repeated several times. Fortunately… the answer has applications to a lot of games.

So to start with “Why are these rooms there in the first place”…

  • You’re in a medieval setting.
  • You’re building a school for magical children.
  • You want it to last for a long time.

So generations of magical kids are going to be filling the place with accidental magic, miscast spells, effects that haven’t even been invented yet, and attempts to counterspell or cover up all that stuff when it goes wrong. Throw in magical fights, research, and experiments.

So you don’t want to hold classes in a magically-expanded broom closet lest someone somehow disrupt that magic and turn the class into crushed pulp. You don’t want the roof held up by magic for the same reason. You certainly don’t want to hold classes in an extradimensional space; there are so many obvious ways for THAT to go horribly wrong that it would take a couple of chapters of listing them just to make a good start.

You want real rooms. You want nice, thick, durable walls that don’t rely on magic lest someone counter that magic in the process of setting off an explosion. You want solid foundations built on solid bedrock so that the place will stay up without magic. You want as much of the place as possible mundanely resistant to fire, corrosives, and other destructive forces. You may want light roofs (like a fireworks factory) to go with your heavy walls, but that depends on whether you think it’s best to contain or vent problems – which depends a lot on the magic system you’re using and on whether you want to have more than one floor.

Regardless of roof designs, and whatever magic you mean to apply to the place, you want the solidest, most durable, mundane structure that you can possibly get as a basis for your school. You may want to make it defensible too, just in case of an attack.

In a medieval setting… you want a castle (In a modern one you may want a bunker). Moreover, you want one designed by the most competent non-magical architect you can find and built by a skilled mundane construction team.

So Hogwarts should be a solid, sensibly-designed, and quite functional building underneath all the magical special effects.

But then we come to Chapter Sixteen of Harry Potter And The Sorcerers Stone, wherein we are told of a trapdoor on the third floor, covering a shaft dropping down into a sizeable room, which has a long downwards tunnel leading to a sequence of five additional – and sometimes very large – rooms. There can’t be any other easy access or there wouldn’t be much point to the whole sequence. That alone pretty much eliminates any chance of it being in the castle proper; what architect would waste huge amounts of expensive space on the main floors on intentionally inaccessible rooms? Perhaps it is indeed deep underground?

So who built these rooms and why?

  • They really can’t be a part of the original architecture. If they were they would undermine the foundations and be an immense amount of work invested in a space with little or no practical use. And why would the access hatch be in a corridor instead of a room or at least an alcove? And why not start in the basement or at least on the ground floor instead of wasting space on a useless shaft? And isn’t there a water table? The place is by a lake!
  • If they were carved out by Dumbledore and company then we know that magically removing stone must be pretty easy. So what stops people from just tunneling around the obstacles? What architect did they consult to avoid collapsing Hogwarts? Where did the shaft through the lower floors come from? And there’s STILL a water table…

There really isn’t any place in or under Hogwarts where those rooms can rationally exist.

So maybe they don’t. After all… those rooms don’t need to be stable against generations of students producing random magic. They don’t need rational access ways for people to use them. They don’t need to exist without magic.

They don’t need to be REAL.

Perhaps what we’re looking at is a chained series of extradimensional spaces, each one with a specific set of conditions needed to bring it into alignment with the last.

So you can’t just tunnel around things; there is literally nothing to tunnel through. You can’t just force the doors: they don’t actually go anywhere unless you fulfill the activation conditions to get the next space lined up. You can’t go through the walls, because the next chamber isn’t on the other side – it’s in a dimensional pocket. You could try to undo the spells and collapse the spaces – but that risks losing whatever is in the further rooms (and yourself) into some random dimension even if it doesn’t just cease to exist.

So basically… no cheating short of story (and game) wrecking effects like d20’s “Gate” or “Wish”.

Of course, this is only a good security setup for items that you’d rather see lost or destroyed than risk letting an unauthorized person get their hands on for even a few minutes, which is why you won’t see it being used at Gringotts or by Voldemort to protect his Horcruxes – but the Sorcerer’s Stone qualifies.

Unfortunately, this is the point where setting-logic runs into plot imperative. The plot requires that a handful of fairly normal (for reader identification purposes) first year students be able to get through the defenses. Ergo, those defenses are formulaic and really rather pathetic.

Honestly, just for practicality…

  • Devil’s Snare? Use a tank full of Box Jellyfish. Lets hope you have a no-contact spell going.
  • Flying Keys? How about hooking a massive electrical discharge up to the lock? Brought your insulated linesman’s gloves?
  • Chessboard? If you don’t use the correct opening sequence, won’t it be a surprise when one of your own pieces smashes your head in from behind? For that matter… why not something that most people won’t know how to play? Perhaps Go? Or Shogi? Mancala? Or any one of the thousands of variations of Fairy Chess? We want security here, not fairness.
  • Troll? Well, at least it doesn’t need to eat, drink, or have a bathroom if it only experiences time when the room is in “active” – but perhaps a helmet? After all, the FIRST troll was ALSO put down by a blow to the head. If you REALLY wanted to be sensible… why use a living creature when you’re expecting the attackers to be dark wizards who routinely throw unstoppable death spells? Why not use a golem or something?
    • Of course, the book gets a pass on this one, since this “obstacle” was set up by a character who didn’t actually want it to be effective.
  • Potions? Why tell the truth in your riddle-instructions? Bring your own keying potion and have ALL of the ones on display be lethal – or, if “detect poison” is a thing (it probably isn’t in the Harry Potter universe, since divination there is basically useless), have them be magic inhibitors or sleeping potions or some such. Make sure that some of them turn into clouds when opened, to avoid having some methodical pest opening and testing each one.

At least the bit with the mirror was clever.

Of course, the puzzles can’t be serious obstacles, or Harry winds up dead – but we CAN justify both Harry and Voldemort actually having to solve them to get through.

I could attempt to justify their simplicity by throwing in some sort of magical rule that renders such obstacles null and void if they aren’t “fair” or which adjusts them to BE “fair” according to the abilities of the people dealing with them (which would at least explain why they so neatly fit in with the abilities of Harry and his friends)- but a “fairness” rule that does that while still allowing Gringotts to have decent security, letting wizards use Imperius and Adavra Kadavra, and letting infants be saddled with prophecies, is going to be quite subjective and extremely contrived. In fact, such a “rule” would effectively be a semi-omnipotent force that breaks the fourth wall to adjust reality to be “fair” to whatever character or characters it has chosen to focus on. That’s pretty difficult (albeit not impossible) to justify within a setting, but it should be quite recognizable from our external viewpoint. HELLO Author / Game Master / Storyteller / God! Let thine all-powerful plot overcome all logic!

Now none of that is “proof” of anything because we’re talking about a work of literature. There’s no underlying reality there to test or to support an actual proof – but it makes a reasonable amount of sense in the setting, which is all we can rationally expect to get out of this kind of exercise.

So why is this relevant to gaming? It’s because the “puzzle chamber” is a pretty classic idea – and those pretty much always look a lot like the Sorcerer’s Stone puzzles. They’re solvable with the players resources (otherwise they just say “go no further this way” and end adventures), they have an implicit “no cheating!” implication (you do not cut the Gordian Knot, shrug and teleport past trap-tiles instead of figuring out the code, or blow up the animated game pieces rather than playing because the game master spent time on those puzzles and may not have anything else ready), and there’s pretty much always a time factor to consider. So here you go; a sample rationale for WHY those assumptions hold true for the next time you want to get your players to deal with some puzzles.

There are other methods of course. Perhaps they need to collect a magical key from each puzzle, and the keys will be destroyed if they cheat? Perhaps their opponent has information that they need and will not provide it if they do not win by the rules? The trick is simply to make sure that winning by the rules gets them something that they need – while cheating, bypassing the problem, or otherwise not bothering means finding another (and probably much more bothersome) route to success.