May 3, 2013

It's a Mystery


Today I'm talking about mysteries in RPGs.  I've run/played RPG mysteries three ways.
  • The Clue Chase
  • The Gestalt Mystery
  • Building a Case

The Clue Chase

aka Gamer Standard

The most common way mysteries are done in RPGs and modules is a clue chase. The characters are following a trail of clues (hence the name) from their discovery of the crime to the inevitable dramatic confrontation with the criminal.  The benefit of the Clue Chase is that the GM can design a series of scenes, with planned challenges (combat, skill, RP, etc.) and pre-prepared NPCs (monsters, witnesses, etc.).  Each scene contains a clue that the protagonists will discover that leads directly to the next scene.  Usually there is a sense of urgency, turning it from a trail to a chase to add excitement and take away from the fact that nobody is actually solving a mystery.  

But usually nobody minds because it's a lot of fun -- the scenes are never extemporaneous and the GM has had a chance to prepare a lot of material ahead of time.  Resolving a mystery with a Skill Challenge in 4e would be an abbreviated Clue Chase, for instance.  If there's some time pressure, you can write a clue chase with divergent paths, to give the players some control over the direction of the story (do you investigate person A or B with your limited time?).  You can also use divergent paths to allow the players to fail:  If they don't draw the right conclusion in Scene 1, they go to Scene 2B, etc.


The Gestalt Mystery

aka Cheating

Gestalt is the apprehension of a phenomenon as its whole, not the sum of component parts or origin and construction.  This technique creates very good stories, but doesn't work with very simulationist players.  Here's how it works:  The GM creates a mysterious circumstance (The Crime) to which he has no explanation in mind, but which seems fun and dramatic.  The protagonists encounter the crime, and propose a theory as to What Happened.  Then they go investigate that theory.  The GM usually decides to accept the second, third or perhaps fourth theory that the players invent as true.  So the first theory is disconfirmed.  The GM introduces the previously-unplanned fact that the suspect has an alibi, for instance.  The players keep coming up with theories, they keep investigating them, and the GM keeps disconfirming them until the appointed theory is arrived at, at which point, any clue that the PCs want to find that supports their theory is invented on the spot, and no disconfirming evidence will be invented.  

It's cheating, plain and simple.  But because possibly the players -- and definitely the characters -- are doing real mystery solving, it makes for a good story from a narrativist player's point of view.  Players who don't have much of a narrativist creative agenda may feel cheated.  It may help to let them know that you're trying something "more high concept" before starting this.

Building a Case

aka The Hard Way

So you want real mystery solving, but you don't want to cheat?  Sure!  It's gonna cost you, though.  For the players to solve a real mystery, you need to have a real mystery.  You need to establish exactly what crime happened, how it happened, why it happened -- including all the details and evidence of the contributing events -- what evidence of it exists, and who knows it.  I've run three of these and they take a ton of work.  You have to build a timeline of events and work it over, proofreading and continuity checking to make sure there are no missing threads or contradictions.  Then you present the protagonists with the crime as they discover it and all the initial evidence.  Finding evidence is never hard in this sort of mystery -- they just have to think of the right questions.  The players need to examine the evidence and build a case -- the theory of suspect (or unknown subject with certain hypothesized characteristics)/means/motive/opportunity or who/what/when/where/why and how.  Then they search for confirming evidence -- which, if they guessed well, you will almost surely already have (or have a strong implication for) because you thought out all the details ahead of time.  If they did not guess well, they will not find the evidence.  Or they may find disconfirming evidence (alibi).  They have to refine or rebuild their theory and repeat until they have the mystery solved.  Very little system gets involved -- if the PCs fail to find a clue because the system caused them to, the story is unnecessarily delayed.  So if you use system at all, it should be tangential to finding the clues/witnesses.  It's a lot of work.  But it's real mystery solving!

Tips for the Hard Way

The "murder board' they use in the TV show "Castle" is something that will help your players.  They can construct a timeline, list suspects, evidence, witnesses, and possible motivations; and thereby organize the requirements for the means/motive/opportunity clues they need to identify the correct suspect.  A timeline establishes opportunity.  Witness accounts and physical evidence then demonstrate means.  And motive comes from a mix of circumstantial evidence (business deals, romantic affairs), character witnesses, and interrogations.

One thing I liked about early seasons of Castle is that they portrayed the detective work as actually constructing theories and solving a crime.  Richard Castle's off-the-wall theories forced Becket to think outside the box to solve crimes that weren't so straightforward.  Lately, the writers have been lazy, leading to a "clue chase" where they go from suspect to suspect, learning one new fact each time, until they come to the killer.  But at least they have a theory each time.


Also, I found it helpful to set out an outline for the players that said:
1. Gather evidence
2. Propose theories
3. Test theories
4. Refine theories (go to Step 3)
5. Catch the criminal

This helps clear up the process for players who have grown used to clue chase mysteries in RPGs.

Step 1 is not the only place evidence is gathered.  Step 3 is also an evidence gathering step, but there's a big difference.  In step 1, you're gathering enough evidence to make a theory.  In step 3, you're only looking for specific evidence.

Would it be better to just put in a lot of time and manpower to collect all the evidence possible, knock on all the doors, and then induce from the evidence who the killer is?  Yes, if you have time and manpower.  But since the PCs are just four of five people, and they're usually running against the clock (fictional detective Harry Bosch famously forgoes sleep because he believes if you don't catch a killer in a few days, your chances of ever catching them drop almost to zero).  Further, until you have a theory, you might not realize something is evidence, even if you find it.  The show "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" famously demonstrates this:  Usually in the show the first crime scene leads to a theory that leads to a new crime scene.

Step 2 is the process is deduction:  You need means, motive and opportunity to commit a crime.  Suspect A probably has means, motive, and opportunity.  Therefore Suspect A is the killer if we can show he has means, motive and opportunity.  Note that the players should be encouraged to propose multiple theories.  They don't have to agree on one, so if they disagree, let them each pitch a theory, and then test them all.

Step 3 tests the theory:  We asked around and Suspect A has an alibi, so he did not have opportunity.

Step 4 is more deduction:  You need means, motive and opportunity or an accomplice who has them to commit a crime.  Suspect A probably had an accomplice in his friend Suspect B.  Therefore, Suspect A and Suspect B are the killers if we can prove Suspect B had means, motive and opportunity.  Go to step 3.

System Note

The Hard Way does not work in games with a good deal of "utility" magic, such as editions of D&D before 4th edition or Mage: the Ascension.  All the plot-hacking magic both helps and hinders the players.  First, utility magic makes solving a crime really hard if the crime could be conceivably committed by or with a magic user.  "What if he cast Magic Jar to take the body of the butler, and then used Nondetection to hide that fact, got in with Dimension Door, killed the prince, and then used Stone Shape to hide the murder weapon before casting Suggestion on the barkeep to force him to serve as an alibi?"

On the flip side, magic that cuts through mystery is equally disruptive.  The murder weapon is missing?  I'll use the sphere of Correspondence to find it.  One witness is lying?  I'll use Detect Lie to figure that one out.  Vampire: the Masquerade had a low-level power that effectively let the character witness any murder.  Constructing a mystery to foil these powers requires involving antagonists with magic themselves, and that puts us right back to the "too much magic" problem.

4e has magic, but not so much that mysteries are totally screwed.  Most 4e magic is combat-related, though "Speak with Dead" still exists, and more powerful plot-hack magic can be found as high-level rituals.  Stick with low-level PCs, and anticipate what rituals they have and you should be fine.  Other games with magic can work as well.  For comparison, I ran four sessions of a "hard way" mystery game using this technique in Changeling: the Lost.  Mostly the characters' magic guaranteed that they would find clues or be able to spy on suspects without error.  Detective fiction, of course, uses the same conceit only without magic -- authors like Doyle, Christie, Sayers and contemporary authors like Hillerman and Connelly always make their detectives incredibly competent at basic policework (finding clues, interviewing witnesses, stake outs) so that they have all the clues they (and the reader, in the case of modern detective fiction) need to solve the crime.

In sum...


As a final note, the Hard Way technique is genuinely hard.  Only use it if you have the time and dedication to really stick with it; or else aim for a limited run or purely episodic game.  When I tried it, I built a myth arc and used episodic mysteries to drop clues to it.  That was not so smart; since it turned out to be harder than I thought to prep, and I let it peter out.  A clue chase has a lot of story potential and lets you prep more for specific scenes.  If in doubt, go with the old standby.  But if you want to try something more "advanced" I hope I gave you the tools to do it.