It’s a mystery to me.
A couple of people on RPG blogs I’ve read lately (Baz King and Rabelais, please, take bows) have been looking in detail at investigations in role-playing scenarios, and in particular at the Gumshoe system recently. I thought I’d follow suit.
So what is an investigation in an RPG? It’s following a trail of clues, hopping from scene to scene accordingly, to unravel a mystery. One thing the Gumshoe system does is have you not roll dice for tests to uncover clues; anyone with a relevant skill will automatically uncover any relevant clues in a scene, and can spend points to get non-central clues or extra information. There’s not much more than that to the central investigation mechanic in Gumshoe. If you don’t believe me, here’s a link to the free System Resource Document.
Now, I was a bit sceptical of this at first- it seems like railroading. After all, where’s the challenge in a mystery scenario if the core clues are always uncovered? And the “issue” dealt with by the mechanic- namely a failed skill test meaning a clue isn’t found and the scenario grinding to a halt- is something any competent GM will avoid anyway.
Now, having played a Gumshoe game (the Esoterrorists, played out via video linking on Google+, which is a whole new different topic) and run one (Night’s Black Agents), I look at things a bit differently. What the investigation mechanic does is provide a neat way to handle passing out information, giving a clue in a scene to a player character who’s good at a relevant skill, or who thinks to use one. When I’m constructing a mystery scenario, I want the player characters to solve the mystery. Any clues I construct, I want them to have. Extra information that might help them I want them to have the chance to earn.
I also want uncertainty in the outcome of a scenario, but in a mystery, whether the player characters find out broadly what is going on is not where I want the uncertainty. If they don’t find out broadly what’s going on, the scenario is likely to be a bit rubbish really. Not finding a clue just because a dice roll is failed, and the only consequence of failure is not finding the clue is also a bit rubbish.
So where’s the uncertainty? Well, they might not find out everything, but more importantly, ideally for me, solving a mystery should lead to action, and the process of investigation should carry danger with it. The danger along the way, and the action that’s called for when the mystery is uncovered- that’s where the uncertainty lies. The investigation itself is a vehicle for exploration of the setting and the scenario, and to an extent a pacing mechanism.
It’s only in purist investigative games that the investigation is a puzzle to be solved, and that’s the main point of a scenario. I have the feeling that such pure investigations are a specialist taste among roleplayers. Personally, I like them on occasion, but not as a steady diet.
Investigations, in the form of mystery solving and exploration as part of something else, on the other hand, are a part of many different adventures.
I might return to this topic later on- another thing I’ve been thinking about is sandboxes, and the role of investigations there- but that’s something for a future post.