Created By: Noaqiyeum on January 23, 2012 Last Edited By: Noaqiyeum on January 29, 2013
Troped

Puzzle Thriller

The focus of the plot is to figure out and take advantage of the rules of the setting.

Name Space:
Main
Page Type:
Trope
Isaac Asimov: Here's a logic puzzle thinly disguised as a story.
Reader: Hurray!
I, Robot (Ultra-Condensed Version), Rinkworks Book-A-Minute SF/F

In general, the details of a story's setting basically serve two purposes: to grant the audience Willing Suspension of Disbelief, and to enable the plot to happen. This can range from technobabble to incredibly intricate rules of science or magic or simply society, but on any level the rules form the setting in which the story takes place.

In some works, such rules of the setting not only shape the story, they are the story. The characters may or may not know what they are, and intend to explore how they interact or outright abuse them for their own advantage. It becomes a form of mystery, with a Driving Question of How does this work and how can it be used? (rather than Who dunn it? or What's in the box?), and the longer the story, the more answers to both facets of this question are likely to be found.

By their nature, such stories tend to encourage certain strains of the Science Hero and Guile Hero, and the Rules Lawyer is more than welcome. The audience of such stories tends to revel in Complexity Addiction and may find themselves having to take notes as necessary, because even Mr. Exposition will probably expect them to keep up.

Refer to Minovsky Physics, Magic A Is Magic A, Rule Magic, and Three-Laws Compliant - these types of stories are much more frequently Speculative Fiction than others that involve puzzles, likely because much of the reader's engagement in the story comes from trying to anticipate and deduce new properties of the mystery and new ways to use it to solve problems, and this is difficult for the writer to maintain by relying on science and situations that are already being encountered and explored in the real world. (Those that do have a real-world setting tend to involve specialist fields of knowledge, such as law, psychology, or mathematics, and put special effort into Showing Their Work.)

Compare the Lord British Postulate and Sequence Breaking, which result from the audience engaging themselves in game mechanics in the same way. Contrast New Rules as the Plot Demands. May involve Loophole Abuse. Runs entirely on the Cool Of Rule.

Main Plot Examples:

Film

Literature
  • Isaac Asimov established the Three Laws Of Robotics principally to write stories of this type. The page-quote synopsis of the stories of I, Robot is pretty fair.
  • There was a short SF story called The Pen and the Dark, by Colin Kapp, in which Sufficiently Advanced Alien Lost Technology is causing bizarre problems that defy the laws of physics and it's the job of the protagonist to work out how to solve them using only human science. (It was part of a series called The Unorthodox Engineers, but I don't know if this was a recurring element.)

Live-Action TV
  • Kenny vs. Spenny: Each episode has the two friends competing at something, each trying to bend the rules in their favor. Of course, that's when they don't just cheat.

Manga and Anime

Tabletop Games
  • From a meta point-of-view, Magic: The Gathering has basic rules and the idea is to bend them with the effects of various cards.
  • The Other Wiki has a list of games with mutable rules
    "In some games, making or altering the rules is part of the game. In many (but not all) of such games, manipulating the rules to one's advantage is the best strategy to win. Persuasion becomes a key technique, and rules lawyering is often encouraged."
    • In Fluxx and its derivatives (Eco Fluxx, Zombie Fluxx, &c), the cards you play may set new rules or victory conditions when played that last until the card is removed.

Video Games
  • See Lord British Postulate and Sequence Breaking for when players do this to abuse the rules by which the computer runs the game.
  • Casual Puzzle Platformers tend to do this intentionally, giving the player a rule-guided environment to survive through, goals within it to obtain, and limited tools to use creatively to do it (run, jump, and gimmick).

Webcomics
  • Erfworld takes a real world wargamer and summons him into a world that literally runs that way.

Subplot Examples:

  • Code Geass - the various geasses, and their limits and capabilities.
  • Mistborn - Allomancy, Ferruchemy, and Hemalurgy and the inherent abilities of kandra and koloss combine in some surprising ways. The Lord Ruler managed to make himself practically immortal this way. (Brandon Sanderson admits to having been inspired by Magic: The Gathering.)
  • This can happen in Superhero Comic Books if a character possesses Story-Breaker Power balanced only by a Weaksauce Weakness.
  • Yoshihiro Togashi is fond of this trope.
    • In YuYu Hakusho, a small group of humans gain the ability to create "territories," where they can create physical rules to the space and people within it. Often (but not always), the creator of the territory can only be beaten by getting him- or herself to break one's own rules. The most notable case is Kaito, whose rules are, "No violence is permitted" and "Every 30 seconds, a letter is banned from use in a spoken word." Kurama defeats him by waiting until nothing can be spoken, then tickling him to get him to laugh.
    • In Hunter Hunter, there are a lot of characters with complicated rules for their powers--characters can decide what sort of powers they'll have, and the more conditions there are, the more capable the power will be. All of the best fighters in this series are Genre Savvy enough to reveal as little as possible (some choose to not use their powers at all until necessary), so victory in a fight largely comes down to who can figure out the opponent's powers first. So far, there has only been one villain in the series whose power contains fewer than 6 rules.
Community Feedback Replies: 38
  • January 24, 2012
    ValiantTurtle
    Full Example: Webcomic: Erfworld - Takes a real world wargamer and summons him into a world that literally runs that way
  • January 24, 2012
    KingZeal
  • January 24, 2012
    Bisected8
  • January 25, 2012
    KingZeal
    Any Courtroom Drama is this by default.
  • January 25, 2012
    Koveras
  • January 25, 2012
    KingZeal
    Since this was expanded to include subplots, you might want to add this to the description:

    In Superhero Comic Books, this can happen if a character possesses Story Breaker Power balanced only by a Weaksauce Weakness.
  • January 25, 2012
    Bruxist
    A quick note on Death Note - Light doesn't know all the rules from the beginning. There's one rule that he learns later on, although it doesn't bother him until the very end: there is no afterlife of any kind. Poof, you're gone without a trace. Cue Ryuk writing Light's name in his Note.
  • January 25, 2012
    KingZeal
    ^ I've only seen the first few episodes of Death Note, so I'm pretty sure that this rule is mentioned right off the bat, because I'm aware of it.
  • January 25, 2012
    Noaqiyeum
    Updated with the new examples, excepting:
    • New Rules As The Plot Demands is not this trope (it's exactly what I described in the first paragraph), so I'm not going to include Yu Gi Oh.
    • And I've played Munchkin, and I don't really think the rules of the game itself tend to lead to this - it's a parody of the behaviour of munchkins and rules lawyers in RPGs, where the rules are supposed to support the collective storytelling rather than take abuse. Maybe that's just my experience, though; tell me if it is, and I'll add it.

    Bruxist: Fair enough. I've clarified that.

    ...I'm partway through Umineko No Naku Koro Ni. Could someone who has finished it tell me whether it fits better as a full example or a partial example?

    And how is the title, by the way?
  • January 25, 2012
    TheHandle
  • January 25, 2012
    Noaqiyeum
    ...so it is or isn't an example, then?
  • January 26, 2012
    TheHandle
    Well, it kind of is for the first chapters. You could say it's a subversion, since it sets you up to expect this trope, then turns it on its head.
  • January 26, 2012
    TBeholder
    Awful name, and Laconic version doesn't clear anything. Going by description and examples, there may be something, but is it about game rules not being set firm, or about setting rules being there to bend them for the sake of the plot, or?..
  • January 26, 2012
    Noaqiyeum
    It is supposed to broadly describe a type of plot, in much the same way as 'Mystery' is a type of plot. "The characters may or may not know (the rules by which the setting / plot device works), and intend to explore how they interact or outright abuse them for their own advantage."

    The Video Game and Tabletop Game sections are slightly different in that this is the goal of the players rather than of the protagonists; I'm not sure whether that makes it a distinct trope or not. Maybe they should be in a Meta Examples section?
  • January 26, 2012
    SharleeD
    • The novel Chess With A Dragon is about humanity learning how to connive its way to freedom in a galactic culture where every species' survival depends on being a better Rules Lawyer than its rivals.
  • January 28, 2012
    Noaqiyeum
    Bump.
  • January 31, 2012
    ValiantTurtle
    Would Liar Liar count? Possibly in both sections. The main plot is all about Can Not Tell A Lie taken to the point of "Must tell the truth", with the end revolving around more traditional Courtroom Drama style rules manipulation.
  • February 9, 2012
    deathpigeon
    Bump.
  • February 13, 2012
    Noaqiyeum
    I don't know whether Liar Liar counts or not; I haven't seen it. It seems to me that only the Courtroom Drama rules manipulation would count, though, unless the main plot involves a lot of him actively experimenting to figure out what limits he has to work with and what he might be able to use in his favour.

    ...I'm considering splitting this into two tropes, one for 'exploring the rules'(Grand Experiment, perhaps?), one for 'exploiting the rules' (System Gaming Plot). This might help with the apparent title problems, but they also seem to happen alongside each other frequently, as well, since the one seems to typically be the precursor to the other.
  • February 19, 2012
    Noaqiyeum
    WE NEED MORE DISCUSSION OF THE TITLE AND DESCRIPTION.
  • February 19, 2012
    pawsplay
    I don't understand the laconic description at all. The full description is a little more trope-shaped, but is still a tough piece of bread to chew on. So many words.
  • February 24, 2012
    Noaqiyeum
    Did the re-attempt earlier in the comments help at all?

    "It is supposed to broadly describe a type of plot, in much the same way as 'Mystery' is a type of plot. "The characters may or may not know (the rules by which the setting / plot device works), and intend to explore how they interact or outright abuse them (and their limitations) for their own advantage.""
  • February 24, 2012
    Belian
    How about "Setting Provides Plot" as a name?

    Laconic: "The focus of the plot is figuring out how to best use the rules of the setting"

    Description: ...not sure how to improve the description. I will agree it does need to be rewriten.
  • February 24, 2012
    ZombieAladdin
    Let's see if I can come up with some examples. Not sure if they'd count or not though:

    • Wishmaster (and its sequels) is a movie about a genie who twists every wish people ask of him into a death in any way he can think of. (For instance, someone asks a million dollars from him--the money arrives as life insurance money from a horrific plane explosion that killed everyone on board.) The protagonist has to figure out how to undo, or at least stop the damage he's done by wording a wish in such a way that's impossible to be interpreted as someone dying.

    • Yoshihiro Togashi is fond of this trope.
      • In Yu Yu Hakusho, a small group of humans gain the ability to create "territories," where they can create physical rules to the space and people within it. Often (but not always), the creator of the territory can only be beaten by getting him- or herself to break one's own rules. The most notable case is Kaito, whose rules are, "No violence is permitted" and "Every 30 seconds, a letter is banned from use in a spoken word." Kurama defeats him by waiting until nothing can be spoken, then tickling him to get him to laugh.
      • In Hunter X Hunter, there are a lot of characters with complicated rules for their powers--characters can decide what sort of powers they'll have, and the more conditions there are, the more capable the power will be. All of the best fighters in this series are Genre Savvy enough to reveal as little as possible (some choose to not use their powers at all until necessary), so victory in a fight largely comes down to who can figure out the opponent's powers first. So far, there has only been one Big Bad in the series whose power contains fewer than 6 rules.
  • February 25, 2012
    Noaqiyeum
    Setting Provides Plot is much broader than this! The Laconic is good, though.

    I think Yu Yu Hakusho and Hunter X Hunter sound like they would count, though I'm not sure whether it would be in the main plot or subplot section. Wishmaster not so much.
  • March 2, 2012
    ZombieAladdin
    Well, in Yu Yu Hakusho, these humans don't show up until very late into the series but play a huge role in a single arc. In both cases though, the main plot doesn't really involve figuring out rules, but rather, figuring out rules is the means that the heroes use.

    By the way, would you count early Yu-Gi-Oh? Before the card games became part of the forefront, the series was about Yugi and his friends getting involved in highly dangerous games like Russian Roulette Dinner or pick-up sticks with chloroform. Yugi always finds himself in over his head and wins via Loophole Abuse. (Each manga chapter and anime episode featured a different game.)
  • March 2, 2012
    abk0100
    There is definitely this trope in Yu-Gi-Oh. New Rules As The Plot Demands is what happened when the writers didn't feel like putting much effort into the story, but, at its best, Yu-Gi-Oh is about trying to figure out and manipulate the rules of the games being played.

    Like the comment above mine says, a lot of the early manga just involve really simple games that each person tries to win by finding some loophole, or even just by playing the game normally.
  • March 3, 2012
    Met
    "unless the main plot involves a lot of him actively experimenting to figure out what limits he has to work with and what he might be able to use in his favour."

    I saw Liar Liar recently and this is the bulk of the plot. Carrey's character attempts various kinds of deception to get around the rule because he must win an important case and needs to be able to lie. He finds he can't write a lie or ask a question in the popular lawyer "Did you, in fact," format when he knows the witness didn't, in fact. He also tries streams of nonsense words to avoid answering questions, and also answering truthfully but pretending to be humorous or sarcastic.
  • March 29, 2012
    Noaqiyeum
    I'm not very familiar with Yu Gi Oh, but it sounds like the early series would indeed fit based on your descriptions.

    I'll add Liar Liar, too.
  • November 6, 2012
    PsychoFreaX
    Only one more hat needed. This can also make a good subtrope to what I have here if it's ever published.
  • November 14, 2012
    Noaqiyeum
    While I wasn't looking, this draft gained five hats. And that's awesome. Wow. I guess I probably shouldn't give up on it, then!

    I'm not quite satisfied with it, though - the name and description, in particular, so I've made some changes. Could I get some more feedback or comments on both before I launch?
  • November 30, 2012
    justanid
    What about Puzzle Plot?
  • December 1, 2012
    Arivne
    Seconding Puzzle Plot.
  • December 1, 2012
    Noaqiyeum
    That seems kind of drab to me. :/ I get the Added Alliterative Appeal, but it's less descriptive - since most if not all of the examples are mysteries or thrillers, it would be nice to tie that aspect in explicitly.
  • December 2, 2012
    MetaFour
    Puzzle Plot (or anything with Puzzle in it) could be easily confused with Jigsaw Puzzle Plot, which seems to be mostly unrelated to this.
  • December 3, 2012
    Tuomas
    The entire plot of Cube is about a group people placed inside a giant deadly puzzle trying to figure out how it works, and how they can use than knowledge to get out of it.
  • December 3, 2012
    justanid
  • January 29, 2013
    Noaqiyeum
    I don't think so...

    I guess this is ready to launch, then.
http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/discussion.php?id=0mt3j0s53alalsagngtbxafj&trope=PuzzleThriller