Riddle and Tilt

Riddle & Tilt is a design pattern for structuring scene development and emergent narrative in role-playing games. Because these are tasks often delegated to a setting master, Riddle & Tilt is particularly useful for facilitating solo games or scenarios.

Basic method

A common procedure for solo play is the oracle method: players ask questions about a scene and roll the dice or toss a coin for a yes/no answer. This sort of simple oracle serves as a foundation, on which the Riddle & Tilt pattern builds to achieve more complex effects.

In the context of Riddle & Tilt, the oracle serves two purposes. First, it generates details about the immediate setting by providing yes/no answers to questions asked by the player. By that process, the setting incrementally becomes more elaborate, directed (but not necessarily defined) by the player’s interests and imagination.

Second, the oracle provides a method for testing the narrative hypotheses that are the crux of Riddle & Tilt. Whenever the game produces a narrative contrast with no immediate explanation, the player is encouraged to formulate that contrast as an open-ended question: the Riddle. Then, as new game elements emerge, the player attempts to integrate them as solutions to that Riddle, formulating narrative hypotheses as yes/no questions, which may then be answered using the standard oracle.

To incentivize this behavior, the procedure awards modifiers, called Tilts, that can be used to move the game or adventure toward some goal.

An example

In What Fiend Stalks the Night, the first adventure to use the pattern, the character finds themself lost in a labrythine corn field. Each time they travel through the setting, the player generates new locations by rolling three d4s. The only way to escape the field is to find an exit by rolling a 5 on one of the dice, which is, of course, impossible on a d4 die. In order to get the needed result, the player must roll a 4 and increase that result using a +1 tilt. The only way to collect a tilt, though, is by answering a riddle. And since that gives them only a chance of getting the necessary result, their odds of success are improved by answering as many riddles as possible. While the adventure itself has no pre-written narrative, the design pattern encourages the player to seek out meaningful narrative connections, and provides a structure for doing so.

Expanding on the method

Applying a negative pressure to the player’s efforts to collect tilts can give the game more structure. What Fiend Stalks the Night uses d4s as an oracle, for the following distribution of answers:

d4 Answer
1 No + Peril
2 No
3 Yes
4 Yes + Chance

Rolling a 1 not only repudiates your hypothesis, but also creates a hazardous situation that could result in more substantive losses. This negative pressure accomplished two goals:

  1. It imposes an eventual penalty for simply “spitballing” hypotheses at the expense of playing through scenes, and
  2. It generates more in-game events, which helps push narrative play along.


Riddle and Tilt is a design pattern describing a set of procedures for play—what are sometimes called "mechanics." As far as I know, game mechanics are not considered intellectual property under US law, so there should be no legal barrier to their use. This page is published under a CC-BY 4.0 license. You're free to use the text and images here so long as you provide appropriate credit and indicate what changes, if any, you've made.

The following logos are provided so that you can mark games that utilize this design pattern. They’re free to use, but not required.