RPG Creations and Musings.

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.

Comments on: "It’s a mystery to me." (7)

  1. Yeah, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the sandbox/investigation thing. I’m assuming its a Venn Diagram without much in the middle!

  2. doctormitch said:

    Whether that’s true or not depends on your definitions! For me, sandbox investigation is closely akin to exploration which is the whole point of having a sandbox. But that will be my next blog post. Probably.

  3. Nice. That’s a very accurate summary for me of where GUMSHOE goes; I may be pinching bits of that to woo sceptics.

    The danger the pcs encounter along the way is often the antagonist reactions when they realise that they are being investigated; for example, sending a hitman to interfere with the pc’s investigations or summoning a creature of Unremitting Horror to kill the OV good guys before they can interfere in the summoning of a much nastier ODE.

    The one thing I’m getting better at now is using subtle, unobtrusive visual signals to the players that the main clue has been found but if you want to stick around and chew stuff to deepen your experience then please do; I didn’t have that in place for the G+ game which probably resulted in some extended scenes that may have dragged a little.

  4. doctormitch said:

    Thanks Richard. I agree that the best source of danger is antagonist reactions. The once place to be a bit cautious here is that it then becomes safer for the PCs to do nothing. Of course, that’s easily enough solved by making the investigation their job (Esoterrorists), or by saying that the nasties are coming for them anyway, so they need to step in and get them first (Night’s Black Agents).

    I think the one place I’m cautious with Gumshoe is that the use of Investigative abilities blends easliy into the background- sometimes a bit too easily. I like to point out quite obviously that a PC has only managed to find something because they’re awesome at skill X- but maybe I go too far in this direction.

    I feel the need now to take Gumshoe on a con outing. Oh, and I enjoyed the G+ game enough that it got me into the whole thing! Cues to subtly signal scenes can come to an end are good, but if we’d had that, we wouldn’t have kept you in character for over an hour as Cassandra Madrigal.

  5. I’m hoping we’ll get to a point where the whole abilities use thing is completely player-driven and owned; it’s heading in that direction but I’m still prompting a lot more than I want to be as well. I wonder whether being a reader of crime and mystery fiction is an advantage when playing Esoterrorists.

  6. Sorry to arrive late to the party, but I’d have thought that a key feature of combining ‘sandboxes’ with ‘investigations’ is that it is much more acceptable for the PCs to fail in their investigation. In a sandbox, much more than a straight scenario, failure can be fun, because the consequences affect the characters (not the players, as in a ‘game over’ failure). The PCs might simply pack up and do something else, have to flee from their angry patron, or ‘solve’ the mystery in the tried and tested method of framing a patsy.

    Anyhow, I’m looking forward to what you have to say on the topic, and will be interested to see the scope for investigative play in Here Be Dragons.

  7. doctormitch said:

    Thanks Andy. I think you’re spot on in that failure being fun, and moving onto the next thing, is part of the sandbox. A post I must get round to writing! You’re not late for this party, you’re fashionably early for the next one. Where I will say more!

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