Feb 25, 2014

Mysterious - Cont.

Babbling at the Counter #30 - Pen and Paper

Mysterious - Cont.

Last week's Babble wasn't what I wanted. I mean, I said what was wrong with Investigation Plots, but didn't offer a solution. So today, I'll talk about how to actually run a mystery.

The Layout of this post will be this: I'll use the same sub-titles as last week, but instead of whining about a problem, I'll offer an alternative. Then, a little example. As supernatural investigation is one of my favorite genres both on TV and to run as GM, I'll use it.

Too Many Moving Parts:

To make clues more fun, make getting them the challenge, not understanding them. Getting a peek from the crime scene, stealing the files from the police station, finding the witnesses, these are all nice challenges for a game. Players can come up with creative ways to overcome them and the character's stats will be used.

Now, once they have the clues, make them obvious. After all, the characters know what they are doing, they should figure them out easily. This way you make sure the players won't get stuck. The characters should know their city pretty well, and even if they don't, sitting around to read is something you shouldn't roll for. They will have actually accomplished something (getting the clues) and the game can keep moving.

Ex: There's been a mysterious death at the piers. To get a shot at the crime scene before normal police officers have a chance to mess the supernatural evidence up, two of the characters decide to dress as the CSI team to collect evidence.
They botch their rolls pretty badly, so a veteran sergeant recognizes them and tries to get them arrested. Even though they all get away, now the characters have to come up with another approach.
Meanwhile, another player decide to have her character talk to all the street vendors and hobos nearby, in case someone saw something. Luckily, they did! They describe the creature as a fish-like man, with razor sharp teeth. After mangling the poor soul that stumbled in his way, it jumped into the water and disappeared.
Now the characters have a clear path to the creature (it may live or at least travel through water), but a lot of ways to get to it. They could wait around for the next attack, or actually go after it with cameras, scuba gear or even a water breathing spell or submarine (if it's that kind of game). They even have witnesses, so they could take one back to HQ and show him pictures of sea monsters till he identifies it.

Less Talk More Rock:

Research is a vital part of investigations, and different series devote different amounts of time to these scenes. Here we are going for an action/investigation kind of story. So action comes first, priority-wise, and we'll set aside just enough time for research.

We are looking for something like Buffy, The Vampire Slayer. Even though there was investigation on the show, it was mostly one of two kinds (and there was at least a fight scene per episode, if not more):

What is it: Maybe the characters got a good look at the creature before it got away, or maybe it has a particular way of killing, but after this scene, the characters already know it's name, what it wants, and more often than not, how to kill it. This is usually a quick scene at the library, with a few jokes before someones finds the right book.

How to stop it:  Sometimes, it's easy to know what it is. Is you find an empty sarcophagus and people from Egyptian descent are the target, it doesn't take a genius to think "mummy!".
The question then are what does it want and what does it fear. Any of those things could work to stop it. The characters can set a trap for it, or use it's weakness to design a weapon. In some cases, like the mummy, it's motive and weakness could be the same thing. The mummy might need the blood of the pharaoh's descendants to return to life before the minions of Anubis drag it back to the Underworld.

Ex: Not to be denied, the characters decide to steal the lab results on the crime scene  from the police station. They stage a big distraction outside, while the most agile character sneaks in to take a peek from the file.
They learn that the creature left behind some kind of oil, and that it deteriorated quickly when exposed to sunlight. Now they know the creature is nocturnal (to help predict it's movements) and that sun is a handy way to kill it (maybe a tanning bed could have the same effect).

The Clue Conundrum:

Don't be too strict when it comes to giving away the clues. The players can't read your mind, so they'll do what makes sense to them, not to your plot. Taking a sample from the crime scene to analyze, stealing the lab results, or even getting the lead investigator hammered at a bar to loosen his tongue, are all possibilities and should be equally useful. In the previous example, the characters stole the lab files because they couldn't get into the crime scene. It doesn't matter, they get exactly the same information either way.

I have said this before, but it bears repeating: don't expect the players to connect the dots. You may leave a few things for your players to figure out, as long as they are not vital parts of the plot. I'm not saying everyone is too dumb to figure out the clues, what I'm saying is...

It's not a job:

People at the gaming table want to have fun. Some of them have just gotten back from work, or have spent the whole day studying. Others may just be looking for awesome stuff to happen to their characters. Other just want to hang out with friends. More often than not, though, they are not looking the acquire the real abilities of a detective.

Bottom Line:

Playing an investigation can be a blast, but for most groups, it means laying the investigation down a bit and making the action central to the story. It's not only about fights. Chases, climbing dangerous places, sneaking past enemy lines, having a stressful negotiation, that's what players are looking for. Things that get the blood pumping and that make great stories.

- The Storeman

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