On The Case

“You ever wonder how to be a detective? I used to enjoy that as a kid. The idea of taking clues and figure things out from them. There are so many great detective stories, so people want to be in those sort of stories. I remember movies and books making me feel like I was going to be able to do well as a detective,” Drraagh says as he sits at his desk with a spread of food containers covering over top of a few files. “So, if you ever think you could do it, how can you test these skills? Games are a great way to do this because, in essence, they are like a detective’s exam, having you have to gather information, figure out puzzles and solve the mystery as it is presented to you.”

“However, there are so many problems that video games have when it comes to telling detective stories. Rather than reinventing the wheel on explaining how they have that problem, I am going to recommend the video that actually inspired me as it covers the topic in extreme detail. Of course, not to just leave the conversation there, I will add my thoughts on the subject, especially how to incorporate them into a free-form RPG style of game since that is going to be the best way to do it since there is no electronic system to make the connections for the players.”

Drraagh smiles and takes a bite of his food, chewing as he pulls out a pad of paper and starts to sketch a simple house blueprint. “So, a body is found in a house. The mystery is figuring out who did it and why,” he says as he draws an X in one room indicating the body. “So, we’ll probably have a few pieces of evidence, and the players have a chance to find the evidence if they are good enough in their checks to find it. They may miss some of the, but it isn’t until they miss a lot of them that the mystery starts to fall apart. But before we get to this point we need to define what a mystery is in game terms.”

“There are two ways people say that you can run a mystery adventure. Either the story exists in Schrodinger’s Universe, where until the player experiences something it could be anything as details are all in limbo waiting to be pinned down, or the end is written in stone and it is just a question of the players figuring the events to get there. The first version is more smoke and mirrors, letting the players figure out clues and try to come up with some way to tie them to whatever narrative they have, while the second is more like an actual mystery where the players may fail if they can’t put the clues together the right way. I personally prefer the second, because I think you need to understand there is a failure state and if you do make enough mistakes, you’re going to end up going to a point of no return.” Drraagh sips from his coffee and chuckles a little at that statement.

“The best way to keep them from going too far off course is to give them some sort of leash. This way, you keep them from spinning their wheels for too long. Perhaps it is a superior who needs them to get back to doing other things, or there is a trial date for the currently suspected party coming soon if you can’t prove who really did it, or the city is only being able to lock the scene for so long, things like this. With restrictions like this you can, in some cases, make use of the character skills in special ways; check out Unforgettable where the character Carrie Wells has the ability to review her memories for clues and evidence to help solve crimes. If a character has an exceptional intelligence or some way to go back into scenes, like perhaps the tv series Intelligence where a character has a computer chip in their head and can analyze information like a virtual evidence wall.”

Drraagh smirks and taps at a screen on the wall of the office which switches from displaying a mountain vista to now displaying an operating system. Pulling up a dozen pictures, he spreads them across the screen. “Now, to actually tell a mystery with the chance of failing, we need those clues for players to find.  Come up with a list of clues, giving some vague and some specific. The vague clues point to any number of solutions while the more specific clues tie to one answer. Think of it like a game of ‘Guess Who’. In one example of the game the breakdown of the of the character clues were as follows:

Bald – Five characters are bald/balding.
Beards – Four characters have a beard.
Big Lips – Five characters have big/thick lips.
Big Nose – Six of the characters have a big nose.
Blue Eyes – Five characters have blue eyes.
Bushy Eyebrows – Five characters have bushy eyebrows.
Child – One character is a child (Anita).
Female – Five characters are women/girls.
First Letter – The first letter of the people’s names break down as follows: (4-A, 2-B, 2-C, 1-D, 1-E, 1-F, 1-G, 1-H, 1-J, 2-M, 3-P, 2-R, 2-S, 1-T)
Frowning – Three of the characters are frowning.
Glasses – Five characters wear glasses.
Hair Color – All hair colors except for brown have five characters that share the same color. There are only four characters that have brown hair.
Hats – Five characters wear hats.
Jewelry – Three characters wear jewelry.
Mustaches – Five characters have a mustache.
Race – One characters is black (Anne).
Rosy Cheeks – Five characters have rosy cheeks.
Shoulder Length Hair – Four characters have shoulder length hair.

This breakdown gives you all sorts of questions to ask to select out specific groups of characters, especially if we only look at elements from their pictures and ignore the names clue. So, ask if the character has a beard, gets rid of four characters if no or leaves four if yes. So, you don’t get a specific 100% guaranteed answer on your first clue, but if your next clue is that the character also wears glasses, then maybe of those five characters with glasses, two of them have beards. Narrows our suspect pool a bit further, doesn’t it?”

“One thing I think that needs to be factored into mysteries is that, since they need to have a solution, we need to be able to logically get there from the evidence as it is observed. Do not follow the common trope of only giving your characters the last, vital clue at the end of the adventure, like so many shows do. Have about the first half of the adventure be about gathering various clues and the second half about putting those clues together. Now, of course, don’t fret if your players are able to make a leap of logic and figure out your mystery before having all the clues to point that way. Of course, you can play a little narrative chess here if you want to, bringing back that supervisor who wants to know how they got to this leap and can they prove it, as the court that is going to try this person will need that evidence. Perhaps you’re playing a fantasy genre where the heroes strike down the villain and the day is saved, great… except what if someone tries to prove that was not the villain because the characters missed something, and now they’re on the hook for murder.”

Drraagh takes a bite of a sandwich and smiles, washing it down with some more coffee. “This is why I think Columbo is a great example of a detective series, as you know what happens when the episode starts, you are seeing how Columbo solves the mystery. This allows the viewer to try and figure out how they are going to solve it. This way it is not one of the famous ‘flashback scenes’ of how someone may have done it because that’s how Jessica Fletcher says so. Sherlock Holmes stories also work by letting the audience try to figure it out before the detective, as do shows like Monk and Psych. Sure, the hero may know someone is guilty, but they are under the burden of proof to be able to show that the person is guilty before they can charge them. Your game may be more frontier justice, shoot them dead if they are guilty but if they are innocent then someone will come for you too.”

“So, back to those clues. Take a look at this article about an idea called the Three Clue Rule which  talks about clue placement for player encounters.  The idea is that there will be multiple occurrences of things directing the player to the key points. This way, no matter if the players miss some things, there are elements tying back to the sites you want them to encounter. Say there is a secret door that the players must access to get to the clue that proves who the murderer is, then there needs to be multiple clues leading to it as there are key elements now. So, maybe there is a legend about the place having secret passages that the owner used for smuggling that a PC hears about, or they happen to stumble on an unrelated secret tunnel being discovered, or there is a bit of the construction that seems odd like scratch marks on the floor or something stuck under what looks like a wall.  Various things like that show that they will find some clues and start putting things together with a little help.”

“And finally, with these elements we can start putting together the mystery. Now,” Drraagh says and leans back, the food containers brushed aside. “We can make this work for any mystery. How smugglers are getting goods into a city, who murdered the CEO of the corporation and why, where the stolen gems are, any sort of mystery where an element is not known. You develop a series of clues, work them into interactions with NPCs or the environment that the PCs will have, and then from those clues, they need to puzzle out a suspect who had means, motive and opportunity to commit the crime they are being accused of. Sometimes, a few tricks like having there be a disguise to make someone seem like they were in a different place or finding a way to make the time of the murder seem like it happened differently, those will add a layer of complexity to the plot, as long as you make it possible to find those out. Red herrings are problematic because they need to be done well, and they need to depend on the people who you are playing with. Not everyone likes to lose because they misinterpreted something.”

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