Feb 18, 2014


Babbling at the Counter #29 – Pen and Paper


A comment on a recent post got me thinking. I love mystery and investigation fiction. As a matter of fact, I’d say at least a half of the fiction (series, books, movies) I consume falls into this category. So, why did I recommend NOT running a murder mystery last week? Here’s why:

My main point is that seeing an investigation on TV and running one on your game a two completely different animals. Even though it can be fun to see a mystery, solving one can be a bummer.

And before I begin, I mean a “real” “Sherlock Holmes quality” mystery, a.k.a.: lots of talking and clue gathering before a big reveal.

Lastly, as this entry is rather large, you may prefer to skip to the conclusion/short version if you are pressed for time.

Too many moving parts:
Making a good mystery means striking a delicate balance. It must be hard enough to pose a challenge, but easy enough to be solved.
In TVland, that’s easy. The main characters are going to find the answer because the writer knows it. It doesn’t really matter if the audience can do that too, because the story will get resolved even if not a single person can guess who the killer is.
At your table, that’s not the case. The writer and the characters are not the same person, and if the players can’t find the answer, they'll get frustrated and it won’t be fun.
Unless everyone is fine with railroading, the mystery will have to be on the “easy” side of the spectrum, taking the challenge away.

Less Talk, More Rock, please:
Do you watch the series “Elementary”? Or “The Mentalist”? “Law and Order”? Even “Fringe” or “Psych” apply here, really. What those series have in common is that (as real investigation does) they include pretty few fist fights. And gunfights. And chases. They are, mostly, a bunch of people doing surveillance and waiting for some analysis to get back from the lab.
On TV, that’s fine. We see the really intelligent and insightful character find clues and figure them out. In the end, it was their minds what got them to the perp.
At the table, on the other hand, that means players ask for information, roll to get it, then hear it. If you don’t see the problem, let’s go for an example:
What can I see on the crime scene?”
A footprint. There’s a substance on the footprint, roll for the chemical analysis. (…) Great, it’s resin from a tropical tree, roll to know where you can find it in the city. (…) Great, roll to calculate a three mile radius around that place. (…) Great, roll to check the police database for people with the perp’s profile on that area (…)” Etc, and etc.

That’s how they do it on TV, and I love those shows. I sure as heck would hate the previous exchange at my game table, though.
In the end, characters in those shows can be pretty passive creatures. Players, by nature, are not.

The Clue Conundrum:
Another must on mystery RPG discussion is the old: And what if they miss a clue? Some GMs have had a game grind to a halt because the players missed an important clue. And some had the same when the players couldn’t connect them.
Again, on TV, the author makes both the clues and the connections. In an RPG, the GM makes the clues, the players the connections. That sometimes doesn’t go so well.

Playing a strong character is the same being a weakling or a bodybuilder. It's all on your Strength (or similar) score and a roll of the dice. Coming up with theories on an investigation is not so easy for everyone.
I mean, you could roll to ask the GM for the connections, but that makes the game too mechanic for my taste.

And this brings us to my last point.

It's not a job:
Detectives are not a TV invention, they do actually exist. So, if real people can solve real mysteries, why can't the players? Easy, because they are players, playing a game. As you don't have to know actual cartography to find a dragon's hidden island, you shouldn't need actual forensic knowledge to identify a stalker. Getting information should be a simple and fast task at the table, so the players can go on, and make choices and do stuff.

After all, it's a game. How do I know who the guy is won't be as satisfactory as knowing my plan to get him worked. If all I do is follow clue after clue until I confront the guy, then it's over (as most cop shows do), I'm a passive observer. I want to fight him, to run after him, to design a trap, etc. My pleasure doesn't come from seeing him behind bars, but from actually putting him there.

Conclusion/Short Version:
Running a mystery at the tabletop can be hard.
Take an average episode of a mystery show and count the times they “roll” (or would roll if it was an RPG game) to get information from a lab or from memory, or from any kind of source that would have to be given by the GM; and compare them to the number of times they “roll” to catch up with a perp, or jump a fence, or wrestle someone down, or seduce someone, or anything that wouldn't be a “question/answer” with the GM.
Oh, and let me know if you could have made the leaps on logic that are required to figure out the mystery before the characters tell the answer. Remember, if you can't, the game won't advance. If it's too easy, you'll get bored and the game will end really fast.

I'm not saying it's impossible to run a mystery at a tabletop. Just that you must remember it won't be like TV.

- The Storeman


  1. Excellent advice, particularly the warning that tabletop investigations won't pan out like an episode of Law and Order.

    In my experience, I've found that pure investigation games (like Trail of Cthulhu) take some serious skill to manage game-play and player expectations. I've never run one for fear of falling on my face.

    1. I do believe you can run an investigation. The problem is, just like you said, the player's and GM's expectations. It won't be like TV.