A mystery fan schools you on mystery games

I love mysteries, I love them in real life, I love them in fiction and literature, and I love them in games. In this thread I tell you all about different approaches to mysteries and mystery plots. I am going to bounce back and forth between stories and gaming a lot.

The first mysteries I ever read and loved were the Sherlock Holmes mysteries. I am a bona fide Holmes fanatic. I have the annotated versions, a leatherbound version, three biographies of Holmes, two different series of Irene Adler books, the Inspector Lestrade books, the Mrs. Hudson books (!), the Moriarty books, two different series of Mycroft Holmes books, I have the Solar Pons series and the Creighton Holmes series, I have the Larry Millet 'Holmes in America' series, I have a Holmes vs. Dracula book, a Holmes vs. the Phantom of the Opera book, a Holmes vs. Martian Invaders book. I have Holmes horror and Holmes comedy and Holmes pastiche and Holmes parody. I have the Jeremy Brett TV series, I have the Basil Rathbone movies, I have the Arthur Wontner movies, I have "Young Sherlock Holmes" and I have "Without A Clue", in short, I know everything there is to know about Sherlock Holmes. (Actually only about ten percent.)

Yet a lot of people make posts like "well, Sherlock Holmes could never be a good gaming character, he's right about everything, good at everything, and anyhow nobody could make the deductive leaps he could".

I proved everyone wrong by playing Sherlock Holmes online for a good 4 years.

The difference?

It was a superhero game.

Pick up any game system you like, so long as it has a power called 'Clarivoyance' in it. You now have a game that can handle Sherlock Holmes, no problem.

This leads me to my first mystery subgenre discussion.

Mystery heroes as 'supers'

Sherlock Holmes is hardly the only detective who is more properly classed as a superhero. Hell, DC stands for Detective Comics. Between the 30s and the 50s, a constant stream of masked, costumed, or just downright superhuman detectives streamed through the pages of paperbacks and comic books. In the 70s, the "psychic detective" became popular and still is today. The success of the Dresden Files shows that the supernatural and mysteries can feed from the same trough. And even today, plenty of superheros do crime solving and mystery solving work on a regular basis.

The mystery-superhero story goes like this:

1 - An evil mastermind concocts a bizarre scheme.
2 - The early effects of said bizarre scheme appear to be ordinary crime, although with unusual circumstances that attract the attention of the hero (and which either mislead or confound the authorities.)
3 - The hero investigates the crime, focusing on the unusual circumstances and using unique abilities
4 - (optional) The mastermind targets the hero as he is getting too close to the truth
5 - (optional) The hero goes down one or more blind alleys, even with his unique abilities, he is temporarily stymied
6 - (optional) A lucky break goes the hero's way and against the mastermind
7 - The hero confronts the mastermind and reveals the solution to the mystery and exposes the evil plan

You can apply this to (some) Daredevil comics, to "The Sign Of Four" and to many Golden Age mystery comics.

What does this mean for gaming?

The cool part about mystery-as-supers is that it's easy for players to understand. If you can pick up an object and read its history, that is a tool which can be used in many situations and is actually quite complex, but because it's "yours", you will be on the lookout for it. In addition, you can use this format in the modern day just as well as in Victorian England because the "true" crime is always bizarre enough that the authorities can plausibly be said to be stymied, giving good incentive for the player characters to jump in.

Next: the "room" mysteries - locked, drawing, and others.
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Comments

  • Interesting. How do you use the Clairvoyance (as a GM or player) to its advantage in such a game?

    -Andy
  • JD,

    This sounds golden. I'm eagerly awaiting the room mystery part.
  • Games about locations are as old as the hobby. "When do we get to the dungeon?" Here's some thoughts on location-based mysteries.

    One of the first detective stories was a locked-room mystery written by Edgar Allan Poe. Locked-room mysteries are themselves a subset of "impossible mysteries", in which a seemingly impossible crime takes place. Sometimes the locked-room or impossiblity of the crime is to cover up that a crime has taken place at all. (It must have been suicide, the door was locked and the gun was in his hand.) Sometimes it takes place to show off the cleverness of the criminal, or, more often, the author, and often with very little or no cover for that conflation.

    Location mysteries can be broader, as well. Murder on the Orient Express only works because it is on a train and nobody (we think!) could have gotten on or off. The restriction of location is just like any other restriction you can put on a mystery (and we all know that restrictions fuel creativity.)

    Sometimes the restriction of location is primarily concerned with characters. Agatha Christie style novels have a finite list of suspects who might have committed the murder - dinner party guests, or inhabitants of a house. In these sorts of mysteries, where you can gather the suspects together at the end for a confrontation, the location is really just a way of excluding the "random stranger broke in and killed Lord Haversham" excuse.

    The drawing room mystery also has a stylized set of events:

    1 - (optional) The hero or heroes (the drawing room mystery sometimes has two or more heros) arrive as guests...
    2 - The crime takes place
    3 - (optional) Sometimes the hero or heroes are brought in by a member of the household as they don't trust the police or are worried about scandal
    4 - The hero arrives and gets a couple of clues from the crime scene and/or the police
    5 - The hero meets various (but a finite number less than 7) persons involved in the case, most of whom will be considered as suspects at some point
    6 - Some of the information given to the hero is found to be contradictory or false
    7 - (optional) Some of the contradictory or false information is resolved as having nothing to do with the crime
    8 - (optional) Suspicion falls on someone who is, upon further investigation, cleared
    9 - (optional) Because of something someone heard or said, another crime, typically murder or blackmail takes place to silence them
    10 - The hero and the police gather everyone together and the hero expounds upon how the crime was done and identifies the perpetrator

    In games, the great advantage of location is often overlooked in mysteries, primarily because nearly everyone recognizes that the "pixel hunt" is not very fun. (More on the "pixel hunt" and where it really comes from later.) But a good way to focus on a list of suspects rather than the minutia of a crime scene is to make that list very short. If it had to be one of five people that did the deed, players can focus on motivation and relationships rather than trying to track down step by step what happened.

    There is another sort of location use in mysteries - in which the location or setting of the story provides color, metaphor or some other sort of contribution. Raymond Chandler (and James Ellroy)'s Los Angeles is a perfect example. There's not really any restrictions on the murders by virtue of the fact that it takes place in Los Angeles, and (other than Ellroy's fictionalizations of actual murders) the same sequence of events could be followed in any city. That is not to say that Los Angeles isn't a vital, powerful presence in the stories. It just doesn't contribute (much) to the plot. I won't touch on this use of location in gaming much except to say that sometimes just the right dash of spice can get a player's interest in a dish they were not particularly interested in before. Investigating the murder of a high class hooker may be a meh undertaking - but if it's set in Washington, DC, you've got something cooking, and if it's set in Washington DC during an election year you've got some heat - even if the election ends up having nothing to do with the case.

    But what about the locked-room mystery? Is solving the GM's puzzles any fun, even if you're guaranteed up front that there's a discoverable solution? As always the answer is yes and no. This is another topic for a little further down the page.

    One more thing: notice how all mysteries so far are innately politically conservative? Meaning they act to preserve the status quo in the form of "law & order" vs. "criminality"? More on this later too...

    Next step, though, is the procedural mystery.
  • Jason, will you touch on the difference between "mystery" fiction and "detective" fiction? I see you're headed for procedurals next, which partially answers that question, but you've already alluded to Chandler and Ellroy. Do you consider their work to fall into the "mystery" bin? I sure wouldn't.
  • Good question Mark, to me they are crime which is a very different genre.
  • There's a lot of boundary-blurrers, sure. I'll talk about the kissing cousins of mysteries as well.
  • The key difference to me is that in a mystery there is an expectation that the reader should be capable of solving the mystery themselves as they read. In a crime novel, there is no such expectation and the criminal may be revealed earlier to the reader than the protagonist or there may well be no way in which the reader could deduce whodunnit, because whodunnit is not the point.

    Ellroy, Chandler, Spillane, Hammett, McBain, none of these guys are about solving the mystery, they're crime writers rather than mystery writers. Christie by contrast is a mystery writer, though one who occasionally cheats I understand.
  • edited April 2007
    That is an interesting definition but NOT one held by the mystery writing and reading community at large. Certainly the 'reader challenge' is a topic to cover.
  • I am loving this thread.
  • I second the nothion that there is a difference between Murder Mystery and Hardboiled Detective stories. Your first plot track is very hardboiled. The detective knows they are on the right track because someone beats them up. This plot track lends itself to role playing very well because it requires no real skill on the player's part.

    Personally I like police proceedurals. Give me "Law and Order" over Mike Hammer.

    I've run proceedural Sherlock Holmes murder mysteries at Gencon every year since the late 90's using Engle Matrix Games. In these games players make arguments for what happens next - so they in effect make up the clues of the game. We use the following plot track.

    1. A body is found (This info is provided in the story openner.)
    2. Find clues.
    3. Clue show who had means, motive and opportunity to do the crime.
    4. Arrest the suspect or do a man hunt if they flee.
    5. Were we right? Time to second guess yourself.
    6. Hold a trial.
    7. Epilog. What happens to your character after the game?

    It is typical for the players to make clues that point to one of the player characters. This player often makes up other clues that draw attention elsewhere. If they are wise they create doubt that can be used in the trial. The trial is what is truly unique about these games.

    In a trial one player presents the case against the suspect. The suspect presents a defense (trying to create reasonable doubt.) The rest of the players are the jury (who decide how likely the argument "He's guilty" is. I've seen players really role play this up. When there are more players the defendant can have a separate player be their lawyer and another player can step in a judge to ask people to speak. Eventually the die is rolled and guilt determined.

    Chris Engle
    Hamster Press = Engle Matrix Games
  • I'll toss out at this point that GURPS Mysteries is an excellent primer on exactly this topic, breaking down the various sub-genres in much the same way. And it's written by a criminal defense laywer to boot.
  • Just to say I'm enjoying this thread too. Good stuff, Jason. Thanks!
  • Haha, JDCorley, GURPS Mysteries already stole your brilliance.
  • Posted By: joepubHaha, JDCorley, GURPS Mysteries already stole your brilliance.
    I own that, and indeed had it printed and bound, but I'm still finding this useful.
  • Nobody can steal my brilliance.......only RENT it!

    More to come. :)
  • Posted By: ptevisI'll toss out at this point that GURPS Mysteries is an excellent primer on exactly this topic, breaking down the various sub-genres in much the same way. And it's written by a criminal defense laywer to boot.
    This thread has actually inspired me to break out that book and read through it again!
  • Procedural mysteries are those in which a professional method is applied to the mystery at hand. The professional method is showcased, it is central and important, and verisimilitude is crucial.

    Ed McBain, essentially the undisputed king of the police procedural, said once that he started writing procedurals because he knew a lot of police officers and he was absolutely fascinated by the methods that they used, and he thought 'teaching this would make a great book'. For him, the procedural is at least partly an educational work. Indeed, a fair chunk of his 87th Precinct novels actually have authentic police department forms reproduced in them.

    The procedural does, however, deviate from reality in a number of ways:

    1 - The number of cases worked on by the hero(es) is one, or at the very least a considerably smaller number than actual investigators work on simultaneously.
    2 - Procedurals rarely end in uncertainty, typically the crime is solved and the perpetrator caught, although not always.
    3 - Procedurals rarely depict accurately the amount of delegation that takes place in modern investigations. (The 'CSI' television shows are the most blatant depiction of this imaginable.)
    4 - The legalities of a criminal case are simplified down to one or two issues at most. Even "legal procedurals" which follow a case thoroughly emphasize really only one or two legal conflicts.
    5- Procedurals rarely depict any sort of systematic defect or lack of resources. Situations of that kind are treated as an exception to a rule.

    The procedural format has become so familiar to modern audiences that it is regularly subverted for emotional effect - the "troubled procedural" is one version of this, in which the protagonist(s)' personal difficulties are brought to the fore as the case escalates. In this respect the realistic feel of the procedural portions of the book ground the narrative so that the emotional escalation can take place without going into melodrama (more on melodrama in a bit.) (By the by, John Le Carre did this for the spy novel.)

    Procedural stuff is often looked down on or handwaved by gamers for the reason that it requires specialized knowledge. However, it can also be used as a backdrop - and a game itself might have a similar educational aspect to it as McBain saw his early 87th Precinct work as being at least partly educational. There are a ton of intro-level law enforcement books in the US, to help applicants in police academies take exams. One or two of those can go a long way for both game organizers and participants. Also, intro-level criminal procedure books such as West's Nutshell series can help a lot.

    The procedural has a natural arc to it from when a case comes into the hand of the protagonist to when it leaves their hands. For police, this is from report to arrest. For lawyers, it's from consultation to verdict. For crime scene investigators, it's from crime scene to arrest.
  • This. Is. Good.

    -Marco
  • JD, I'd love to see some of this stuff reposted elsewhere too, so that others can make use of it. Any thoughts?
  • A good idea.

    More comin'.
  • So, if I read correctly JD, the Sherlock Holmes material that's insolvable is still "Mystery" but not "Reader Challenge Mystery?" Do I have it right?

    Mike
  • Wow. This is some good, good stuff. The first "Mystery Supers" post had me thinking right away of the Monk TV series, which I love. Monk is, for all intents and purposes, a superhero when you think about it--his ability to recognize tiny incongruencies, his miraculous memory, the exceptional acuteness of his senses. His sidekick, Natalie, actually calls it a superpower at one point. The brilliance of the series which makes Monk so appealing to a modern audience is that his powers are inextricably tied to a fatal flaw that is at once tragic, comic, and endearing. And also ties into issues of mental illness and the universal theme of lost love, etc.

    Another appeal of the series, I think, is that it keeps to the tried-and-true format of the reader (viewer) challenge while adding just a dash of the procedural to keep it somewhat grounded in reality. The end of an episode often comes down to a fight to find or preserve enough evidence for a case, because no matter how brilliant Monk's reasoning is it's not going to mean a thing in terms of actually bringing the perpetrator to justice unless there's some kind of credible evidence. That was often my gripe with the old armchair mysteries ("What kind of prosecutor is going to open a case on that?"), a problem the series sidesteps by injecting just enough realism to keep the suspension of disbelief.

    Anyway, I'm loving these! Keep 'em coming!
  • The hard-boiled mystery is a highly specialized subset of several strains within mystery stories. It's extremely popular among gamers for many reasons.

    First, as noted, the mystery-as-supers story provides a parallel, although unlike the mystery-as-supers story, the hero is often victimized as a method of advancing the story. Nobody ever conked Sherlock Holmes on the head and tied him to a chair. However, if Mike Hammer is stumped and pneumatically endowed women are a dime a dozen, you can bet someone is going to slip him knockout drugs or smack him in the back of the head with a shovel and he'll wake up with someone explaining the next plot point to him.

    Second, hard-boiled mysteries are a subset of "action" stories as well - action sequences such as shootouts, fistfights, and chases are integral parts of the plot. On the blurry edge between hard-boiled mysteries and "men's adventure", these set pieces are the showcase of the story, the mystery itself takes a back seat. Even in works considered thoroughly mysteries, this sometimes creeps in (famously, in neither the book nor the movie version of "The Big Sleep" does anyone ever actually solve the chauffeur's murder). Gaming has traditionally been at its strongest in action-oriented play.

    Third, hard-boiled mysteries are rarely solved by the discovery of a crucial clue - instead, the investigation almost entirely involves working out relationships between characters, interviewing people, determining their secrets, tracing out motive, bluffing through situations, finding contradictions in people's stories and boxing them into corners. These are tasks that require very little specialized knowledge on the part of gamers but which also have a learning curve that will reward those who take the time to learn to become skillful interviewers and analysts. Hard-boiled stories avoid the "reader challenge" and "pixel hunt" entirely, typically being entirely insoluble until the last revelation of the book.

    However, and I need to emphasize this, everyone who says the hard-boiled detective story is somehow not a mystery is dead goddamn wrong. The mystery genre is heeeeyyyyuuuuuugeeee. It encompasses all sorts of things. The hard boiled detective has a criminal puzzle to solve just as much as the old lady sipping tea in a drawing room. Yes, the plots are very different. Yes, the props are very different. Yes, the language is very different. But it is still considered a mystery story.

    Let's step over the blurry borders of hard-boiled mysteries in a few directions in hopes that this will clarify where the center of this subgenre is:

    I already mentioned "men's adventure". These are such an unacknowledged resource for gaming that they need a whole thread to themselves. Someday you'll get one. Over the border you will find more violence, with the adventure and set pieces taking more center stage. You will also find more "team" novels, whereas the hard-boiled detective is stereotypically a loner.

    In another direction is noir. "Noir" is a word highly misused by gamers, like "pulp". In literature, it reflects a highly dysfunctional world, presented in a stylized manner. It comes from film. In noir stories, the antiheroic nature of the protagonist is emphasized - nobody in a noir story is clean. Corruption is the most overwhelming concern in noir stories. Often noir mysteries shade into crime stories - my favorite border case is "Double Indemnity" by James M. Cain. The initial mystery is whether a murder is going to take place - then it slowly and inevitably becomes a story about how the murder occurs. More on the blurry border between crime stories and mysteries later. The best distinction between noir and hard-boiled mysteries that I can give you is tone. The Shell Scott series by Richard Prather is hilarious, but also completely hard-boiled. No noir stories are (intentionally) hilarious.

    Hard-boiled stories are almost always about detectives, and normally private detectives, so there's a good deal of private detective stories that lies outside of hard-boiled world. Archie Goodwin of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe novels talks like a hard-boiled detective, and acts like one, and the mysteries are created like mysteries in hard-boiled detective novels (almost all relationships and ferreting out contradictions), but Wolfe himself is a clear successor to Sherlock Holmes (he is even reputed to be a Holmes relation in some fan works), intellectual, irascible, largely immobile. There are innumerable other detective stories in which the protagonists have more foibles than toughness.

    The hard-boiled hero is cynical, tough, fast with a wisecrack and with his fists. That makes hard-boiled stories a natural for gaming.
  • Addressing some earlier questions from the thread that I have inexcusably missed:

    Clarivoyance is a good analogue for Sherlock Holmes abilities because all you have to do is cook up the bullshit Holmesian 'deduction' for whatever it is that your clarivoyance tells you. Clarivoyance powers that allow you to ask limited questions from a GM are especially good. "Where is this guy from?" "He just arrived from Afghanistan." "'Watson, I perceive that...'"

    The 'reader challenge' aspect is not a term that is widely recognized by mystery readers and writers - typically the nearest thing is called "puzzle mysteries", but that to me carries a lot of baggage that I don't see as adequately explaining the distinction that gamers are trying to make. This will be expanded on in probably my next big installment.
  • Reader Challenge

    Remember this? Match wits with Ellery Queen and see if you can figure out...whodunit?

    A very popular subgenre of mysteries that popped up almost immediately in the genre's development is the "puzzle mystery" - one where there are ostensibly enough clues onscreen for the reader to be able to figure out the killer if they are ingenious enough. There are plenty of puzzle mysteries where this is a sick farce: it requires you to know 19th century methods of Hindu mathematical notation, or to conjecture that an entirely new character who is a midget armed with a paralytic-dart blowgun was hidden in a hollowed out statue. (These are not jokes.)

    Other puzzle mysteries are much more "fair". Ellery Queen novels often even have a specific spot where Queen addresses the reader, saying, essentially, "you now have enough to deduce who the killer is". This was famously replicated for the 1975 television series with Jim Hutton turning to face the camera. In both the television show and the novels, the selection of the place where the reader challenge came was itself a big hint. I would often find myself thinking: "Okay, what did Queen learn last? That has to be the factor that settles the case for him, otherwise he would have challenged me 20 pages ago."

    The puzzle mystery has actually been stripped down into just puzzle form, most famously in the Encyclopedia Brown series and its many imitators, where the mystery elements are really just there to provide a framework to hang the puzzle on. (Sally + Leroy 4 eva.)

    As far as the genre itself goes, though, the puzzle mystery is something of a cul-de-sac. It's very hard to make a story serve one master, let alone two - the compelling mystery with all the difficulties that it offers, and the effective and fair puzzle. Most that try it end up not creating very good mysteries or very good puzzles.

    Speaking of puzzles, we now turn to a completely different field - adventure games - and the origin of the pixel hunt. Back in the late eighties and early nineties, it seems crazy to say so now, but the future of computer games appeared to be graphical adventure games. One of the earliest graphic adventures, King's Quest, could easily be put in an "unwinnable state" if the player failed to do a particular task early in the game. This also occurred with text adventures earlier, but for graphical games, one challenge that was often given to the player was to "Search everywhere! Try everything!" and key clues or items would be hidden - sometimes only visible as a single pixel or a smudge of pixels on the screen. This cheap method of prolonging gameplay lasted for years, like many bad ideas.

    Gamers adopted the "pixel hunt" terminology to reflect a situation in which a GM requires a detailed statement of everything the characters are doing in order to succeed at the task they're attempting. "You said you were searching the room, not the curtains on the window!" "You said you were looking behind the curtains on the window, not looking under them!" and other such nonsense.

    Pixel hunts were clunky versions of the puzzle mystery - except instead of testing your analytic abilities or knowledge, "did you remember that Anna said she was in the bedroom at eight o'clock?" "did you know there are no penguins at the north pole?" - they simply, quite literally, tested your patience. Where if you were on the verge of success in a puzzle mystery, you could always page back and re-acquaint yourself with what Lord Faversham said at dinner, in a pixel hunt all you could do was keep clicking. And unlike the pixel hunt, if you gave up on the puzzle mystery, you could just keep reading and find out the answer.

    Next - games split up on the solution to this challenge.
  • Yay! Fun read.
  • Yes - very cool history JD.
  • Okay, this submission was eaten once and the second time is never as good, but here goes.

    I am in this post going to answer the question "What was that guy thinking when he said 'You said you searched the couch, you didn't say you looked under the couch!'? Is he stupid? I bet he has one of those dysfunctions I heard so much about."

    No one likes the pixel hunt, no one has ever liked it, why would anyone adapt it to RPGs?

    The answer is in what is fun about mysteries.

    There are many different things that are fun about mysteries, so a lot of times when people say "but it's what's fun about mysteries!" many will throw things and yell "no it's not!" But one thing that's great about (some) mysteries is The Reveal. We even shortened the words: whodunit?

    When there's something unknown, and a skillful presenter gives us a glimpse, then another glimpse, then another glimpse, we reeeeally want to see what's unknown. Each glimpse gives us a thrill and the big reveal gives us a big payoff. This is how the stage magician, the con artist, the monte dealer and the mystery author all work.

    And that's why the pixel hunt. The GM has a glimpse he's ready to give - a shell casing under the couch, and if the player says "I look under the couch" and the GM says "You discover a shell casing!" then you get a gigantic thrill payoff. 1) "Hey man, that's awesome, you found a shell casing!" as the other players high-five. 2) A new glimpse of the mystery! A new clue! 3) It was hard, it wasn't just handed to them. These are all three different kinds of thrills but getting a tough clue exposed gives you all three.

    So that means there are a lot of different ways we can combine those three thrills. Designers, listen your ass up, here's your chance to shine:

    Narration-passing can get you #1 but not #2 or #3. Big broad skill rolls ("You walk into the room. Searching it, you discover a shell casing under the couch") can get you #2 but not #1 or #3. And the pixel hunt is just a misapprehension of how difficult the toughness of #3 needs to be in order to get that thrill.

    In a lot of mysteries, you want to find out what happened. And being asked "well what do YOU think happened?" without there being a possibility of being wrong is a cheat.

    Now, this is not true of all mysteries. A lot of times we know what happened up front and we want to experience something else - Columbo's annoying tactics, Victor Plotz' latest scheme, and so on. Sometimes we don't even really have any feeling of urgency or suspense about the resolution of the mystery but we just want to hear Archie Goodwin's narration or enjoy the Continental Op getting people to murder each other. But if the mystery is about revelation then we want the glimpses to mean something.

    This is the first puzzle piece for gaming, feel free to add onto it particularly if you've worked on a game or designed a campaign with mysteries as an element.
  • edited May 2007
    @@@
    In a lot of mysteries, you want to find out what happened. And being asked "well what do YOU think happened?" without there being a possibility of being wrong is a cheat.
    @@@

    Okay - now we are getting away from the literature and into game design. I think this breaks down game into two types. 1. The mystery is predefined. A clue book or GM knows what happened and will reveal it as the players go. Or 2. No one knows for certain what happened. The players make it up.

    You've just called 2. a cheat because there is no way to be wrong.

    I disagree.

    If the players are automatically working together (as is the case in most RPGs) I grant your point BUT they don't have to be. As soon as players are possibly working against one another, nothing made up is certain because a later fact might twist meaning 180 degrees.

    Let me use two actual play examples to illustrate. Both are Engle Matrix Games - very well play tested, fun to play and quite workable.

    Sherlock Holmes: The Case of the Dead Duke

    This one is available at RPGNow now and I've run it since 1998. The players all take on roles of people in the mystery. They make up clues in the matrix arguments they make. A referee does rule on argument strength (so arguments based on previous facts and logic have a better shot of happening) so arguments are not automatic. If they happen though they are facts. Usually players make facts that point to one player character or another. This player is now on the spot and tries to dodge the bullet. Maybe they try to run or maybe they make arguments creating red herring clues. These games end with a trial so the case against is presented and ruled on. On one level the game is about a mystery - but in actual play it is about assigning blame.

    Dead Man on Campus also available on RPGNow.

    This is a horror story but the way I run them is exactly the same as how I run Hard Boiled Detective stories. The players start the game knowing of an odd occurance. In this case Herbert West has delivered a lecture on reanimation and now two corpses are missing. The players may form a party but they may also decide that they are bad guys right off the top. They make up clues via arguments that suggest and slowly define what the dastardly plot is. Eventually someone argues that "This is what the plot is!" If it happens the plot is know - the twist is ready. Players may have worked together to define the plot a certain way but now they have to decide which side they are on. Players who have been friends may find themselves enemies. The Feme Fatal pulls a gun on Hammer - "No you don't gum shoe. Hand over the bird." The second half of the game is the players vying to complete or stop the defined plot.

    In both cases the players were put into opposition so though they made up clues you could never be certain what use they wanted to put those clues to.

    You get the "Hey I found a clue!" You glimpse the mystery "I wonder what Bob will do with that?" and the feeling of having to work for it because other players can twist the meaning of clues back on you if you are not very careful.

    Unlike a "Predetermined" mystery (which have zero replay value) Matrix Game mysteries have high replayability.

    The puzzle is in the players and how they want to mess with one another.

    Chris Engle
  • I think this breaks down game into two types. 1. The mystery is predefined. A clue book or GM knows what happened and will reveal it as the players go. Or 2. No one knows for certain what happened. The players make it up.

    You've just called 2. a cheat because there is no way to be wrong.

    I disagree.

    If the players are automatically working together (as is the case in most RPGs) I grant your point BUT they don't have to be. As soon as players are possibly working against one another, nothing made up is certain because a later fact might twist meaning 180 degrees.

    I would say this is why InSpectres works. The GM can have a plan for the mystery, but whether that becomes the answer to the mystery depends on who wins the investigation rolls. By clever play, the players can pick their battles, only rolling for investigation when they have lots of dice on their side.

  • I am not saying that "well who do you WANT to be the killer?" cheats every single player of enjoyment of mysteries, you should read my last post again. I disclaim that idea thoroughly and explicitly.

    What I am saying is there are many different things about mysteries to enjoy. IF what you enjoy is "seeing the solution to the problem", there has to be a solution to see or else it's a cheat - and neither readers nor gamers who enjoy the revelation aspect of mysteries will stand for it. If the author blatantly makes it clear they've been making it up all along and just slamming elements together for an endgame, the book gets thrown across the room. Similarly for gaming.

    In the Matrix game cases described above, there is no opportunity for a player to discover anything. No opportunity for them to see the revelation of something that they have invested in being real and immutable. They must instead create clues/arguments/elements. That is not the same as discovery. That is not the same type of enjoyment.

    There are many different kinds of enjoyments of mysteries, I am only identifying one (so far.) When someone says "but I don't want to make up who did it, I want to find out who did it", and others and say "ah, but that is not what's fun about mysteries", both can be right.

    Frankly 3 out of the 5 players in my group would not be interested at all in either of those scenarios and would glare at me hatefully if I tried to organize a game based on them, would stop participating about ten minutes in and try to end the game as soon as possible after that. That is not because your game or my players are bad, it only means that they are looking for a different kind of enjoyment than you are providing. Similarly with Inspectres (from what I know of it.)
  • Jason, I think I get where you're coming from, and the Reveal is a big part of the appeal of a certain kind of fictional mystery to some people... but what I'm not seeing is (for RPG purposes) how the Reveal can ever hit all three of your conditions with any reliability while still preserving meaningful player agency. It's either a Magician's Force or it's pixelbitching, neither of which gives players anything other than an illusion of agency. The Force gives the players the answer by making sure they pick the right one, and the pixelbitch just stalls them out and refuses to allow any progress until they hit the right dot. The middle ground that would appear to exist is, in practice, just about impossible to hit - sufficient information to prevent the pixel hunt is also sufficient information to be a Force.
  • Posted By: JDCorleyIn the Matrix game cases described above, there is no opportunity for a player to discover anything. No opportunity for them to see the revelation of something that they have invested in being real and immutable. They must insteadcreateclues/arguments/elements. That is not the same as discovery. That is not the same type of enjoyment.


    I completely agree that a lot of gamers don't groove on Matrix Games - though I hope to find more who do!

    When people believe that there is one immutable, but hidden, truth they really hate games that suggest otherwise. They want to think that the truth is revealed rather than "we engaged the problems and made an answer." It's kind of like Aristotle and Plato. Aristotle wrote authoritatively about many things and said "beleive me - accept authority". My understanding of Plato is that we are all in the cave looking at shadows trying to make out what is going on. We impose order and then alter it as new evidence comes in. Objective truth may exist but we don't see it directly, we struggle towards it.

    The fun in Matrix Game mysteries is in creating things. Now I personally believe that this is closer to what happens in real life investigation than not. We find what we look for and confirm truths we already believe in. At the end of the trial we think we got the right guy but we can't be sure. There is a dramatic tension of uncertainty. Criminal justice dips into politics where "Justice must be SEEN to be done". That loaded phrase has so many interpretations.

    How much do you want underlaying truth to be there?

    Clearly I'm on the "create your own truth side". This means that rules lawyers don't like my games.

    Chris Engle
  • edited May 2007
    Mark - not so! Remember that the pixel hunt is just a miscalculation of a level of challenge - it doesn't impact the revelatory aspect. It is the same type of mistake as putting a too-powerful monster in a D&D game's first dungeon and killing the whole party. (And just as there are groups and games for which that is a perfectly acceptable state of affairs, so there are groups and games where a completely unfair pixel hunt is a perfectly acceptable thing to do.) You can get the thrill of revelation with no player challenge whatsoever if you want.

    The answer to me is not "don't do those sorts of things, ever", it's "practice and do the things your group enjoys". If your group doesn't care a bit about player challenge, then yeah, just give them the clues when they show up. It's not a magician's force, the clues "were there" all along. If they care about it a little, challenge them a little and make it easy. (Broad skill rolls, etc.) If they are really into it, they're going to be yelling "I search the couch AND look underneath!" and there's no problem.

    Player agency? I don't even know what that is. Revelation is a matter of pacing anyway.

    Don't forget there are a lot of other pleasures in mysteries besides revelations, I hint at some above, more will be in the next post.
  • Posted By: JDCorleyPlayer agency? I don't even know what that is. Revelation is a matter of pacing anyway.
    I'm down with your "lots of players don't give a shit about being empowered, they just want the GM to tell them a story" thing, Jason, as well as the "we don't actually care whether we get the Reveal, we just want to match wits with the GM" motive. I know darn well that it's a fun way to play for lots of people. I'm just pointing out that the Reveal only works for that kind of play - which isn't a kind of play that's real popular at Story Games. If players do want to have a genuine ability to make decisions that matter to the outcome of the fiction, it's nigh impossible to have a satisfying Reveal as a reward.
  • @@@
    Player agency? I don't even know what that is. Revelation is a matter of pacing anyway.
    @@@

    I think player agency presuposes that players want to have some control over how things happen in the story. If I ask the GM "What do I find?" the GM has agency, I'm a member of the audience. No one is denying that can be fun but it is against the trend of story now games. No one is grappling with any "here now" emotional issue.

    Granting players power over the story - means letting go of that certainty I mentioned above.

    Since mystery games can be run either way and work it comes back to a decision on the game maker's part about what game to make.

    I can see that my approach to mystery games probably isn't your cup of tea. I'd like to see what you do want out of a game. I expect we will agree to disagree but that's cool to.

    I've expressed my Neo Platonic acceptance of uncertainty (to put it in a funny way "How I stopped worrying and learned to love the bomb.") and you've acknowledged games can work that way but that you (or 3 of 5 of your players) wouldn't enjoy it. So 2 of 5 could. Now I will listen to your views of what the 3 want instead.

    Chris Engle
  • Posted By: MatrixGamer
    How much do you want underlaying truth to be there?

    Clearly I'm on the "create your own truth side". This means that rules lawyers don't like my games.
    I don't know about that -- for my part, it's another case of "Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don't." There are days when what I really want is the thrill of discovery as described by Jason, and days when I feel like participating in the writing of a story as described by Chris. But it's certainly true that those are different kinds of thrills.

    I completely disagree with the idea that the Reveal-style mystery makes players less empowered. It gives them (as long as the GM is not being a dweeb and that sort of adventure is what the players are seeking) the "Ah-HA!" thrill, the "Gotcha!" thrill, the "We're the smaaht party" (thank you Lister and Cat!) thrill. The more they put the pieces together and the closer they get to a solution, the more powerful they feel.
  • On target, Sophie. The reward is not the reveal itself, it's the victory over the puzzle. When I'm talking "player agency", I'm talking specifically in the fiction-relevant sense of "the choices we make will cause the story to happen differently than it otherwise would." In games with a Right Answer, either you fail to get any answer at all, or you get the answer that was decided on in advance. You beat the boss fight and get a cut scene. Or you reload and try again.
  • I always liked mystery games that put that "the choices we make will cause the story to happen differently" part someplace after the mystery was solved (or near enough to the solution as to make no difference).

    You discover the killer, but you also discover that they had an excellent reason for killing, or there's some political complication if you bring them to justice, or letting this crime go unpunished may give you the opportunity to catch a different criminal later on, or some other moral choice pops up, and then you have to stop and think about whether you want to reveal your brilliant solution to anyone else. Your detective work revealed the facts of the case, but what you do with those facts has yet to be determined.

    It's a little like what JDCorley calls the "troubled procedural" above, and maybe shares a little headspace with the hard-boiled subgenre: the mystery part of the story is there not only for its own sake, but to complicate the lives of the investigators.
  • Posted By: Mark WOn target, Sophie. The reward is not the reveal itself, it's the victory over the puzzle. When I'm talking "player agency", I'm talking specifically in the fiction-relevant sense of "the choices we make will cause the story to happen differently than it otherwise would." In games with a Right Answer, either you fail to get any answer at all, or you get the answer that was decided on in advance. You beat the boss fight and get a cut scene. Or you reload and try again.
    As a GM, I often cheat. I always start with an explanation, reveal or breadcrumb trail in mind, but usually the players come up with something better. I mix and match as needed to preserve both suspense and creativity. ;-)

    Of course, this works best if everyone in the group is hot about coming up with explanations and theories, and also pretty good at running with scissors, story-wise. ^_^
  • Posted By: Accounting for TasteIt's a little like what JDCorley calls the "troubled procedural" above, and maybe shares a little headspace with the hard-boiled subgenre: the mystery part of the story is there not only for its own sake, but to complicate the lives of the investigators.
    Please, someone write that up as a game. As a fan of characters like Easy Rawlins, Phil Marlowe, and the Continental Op, that so much hits me in all the right spots...
  • So one reason I started with subgenre descriptions in this thread is because I wanted to emphasize the breadth of mystery fiction so it would be easy to convince you that there are a lot of different sorts of pleasures that can come from it.

    Here's a non-exhaustive list:

    1) Revelation - like watching a stage magician. See above.
    2) Unrelated literary merit - we read to enjoy the banter between Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe, or because Victor Plotz is hilarious, or because James Ellroy shoots you in the brain about four times a chapter, or because the character of the protagonist is compelling and their circumstances are tragic
    3) Reader challenge - can we figure out the mystery before or as the characters do? See above.
    4) Specialty material - Margaret Truman's mysteries are all set in and around national landmarks, Nevada Barr's in national parks and monuments, there's a whole subgenre entirely dedicated to cats solving crimes, historical crimes take place on ships in the 18th century, on battlefields in the 19th, near monastaries in the 13th, the mystery in these cases is just "something to do" (albeit a very important one) while presenting that specialty material.
    4a) Procedural verisimilitude and education - a very significant subset
    4b) Sex and violence - ditto

    So when you're working on a mystery game, be sure you're aware of what sort of pleasure you're looking for. (And don't forget, as noted above, there are gaming pleasures that apply to mysteries as well.) Don't throw up your hands and say "well, I can't really challenge the players fairly so fuck it, they'll never like a mystery" - there are other things they might like.

    Questions and comments are welcome...I may have one or two more things to say but that's mostly it.
  • Please do continue your comments. Don't let people's tangents into game mechanics specifics divert you from your thread. It is very interesting.

    Chris Engle
  • Thank you. Actually I've said most of what I want to say. I might do one more post about the 'mystery framework' on which are hung everything from romances to personal tragedies to cute cat stories to historical melodrama to this, to that, etc. etc. etc.
  • Cool!

    Chris Engle
  • Posted By: Mark WI'm down with your "lots of players don't give a shit about being empowered, they just want the GM to tell them a story" thing, Jason, as well as the "we don't actually care whether we get the Reveal, we just want to match wits with the GM" motive. I know darn well that it's a fun way to play for lots of people. I'm just pointing out that the Revealonlyworks for that kind of play - which isn't a kind of play that's real popular at Story Games. If playersdowant to have a genuine ability to make decisions that matter to the outcome of the fiction, it's nigh impossible to have a satisfying Revealas a reward.
    I know I'm derailing the thread, but I gotta say I find the above a little bit patronizing. Sometimes, actually quite often but not always, I like to be in a game in which narrative control is strongly centered in a GM. This is not "tell me a story" nor is it "match wits with the GM." Its a social contract of mutual trust (or at least it is, ideally).

    Why is it that when I sit down at a table with a group of players and we all compete for control of narrative or cooperatively imagine a shared fiction, this is "players making decisions that matter." But when I trust another player enough to say, "okay I'll play by the rules of your story. I will act as a participant in your world and I promise to challenge you and the world that you create, but I won't break your world and its rules." And, that other player says "Okay, I trust you enough to let you inside my head, to show you this story that I think is cool and to let you run around inside of it and change things through your actions, and I trust you to act as if this story were real and to treat it with the respect that I show for the character whose interactions you control," why is that social contract any less valid a form of play?

    I realize that the former is in large part a reaction against the latter, so some amount of antipathy is to be expected. And I love what indie games with shared narrative control have done to the RPG scene. However, I do think restrictions in player choice and negotiating your way through a shared fiction in which control is not always equal present different challenges that can yield great stories and oodles of fun.

    Admittedly, it can also yield a massive explosions of player v. player antagonism, rules lawyering, big GM thumbs falling from the sky to crush your character's head and all manner of nastiness.

    By the way Jason, I want to thank you for this thread. Its a great read.
  • Noclue

    There is nothing invalid about a game where players put total trust in the GM to control the story and guide them through an entertaining evening. Nothing at all. When these games work they are things of beauty. Not all GMs are evil rail roaders. When I run games for my wife and brother over the holidays they prefer this brand of play.

    At the same time, when I'm on line I'm advocating for the style of play my self made products do, which is a more GMless player controlled method.

    I don't think you're derailing the thread since it largely seems to be over. It has been a good one.

    Chris Engle
  • Glad you enjoyed it, noclue. I didn't feel patronized to in that specific comment but there are a lot of comments thrown around on that subject which are indeed patronizing. Fortunately for me I am right about everything so I merely shake my head sadly when people display such ignorance. Since we built fires we've been gathering around them to listen to people tell us stories. It's that simple.
  • This is indeed a great thread. I'm a big fan of the spectrum of mystery fiction and have been incorporating those tastes into my gaming for a while. I especially appreciate what you wrote about "revelation" within the genre and emulation of that in gaming. My personal read on this is that, in the fiction and non-fiction that concerns itself chiefly with an underlying mystery, then the pieces of that mystery are largely outside of the control of the characters involved. If you are trying to emulate this sort of narrative structure/tool/what have you in a game then there needs to be a large amount of GM authority in what the pieces of the puzzle are and what clues they reveal. The power of the player at this table isn't in the clue itself, but in the reaction to that clue.

    While this is a classic of games like Call of Cthulhu, it is even seen is classic indie game Sorcerer. Ron Edward's sourcebook the Sorcerer's Soul is all about this construction of underlying mystery elements and clues, mainly through the device of character, and how the PCs unearth the network of lies, deceit and murder that they are plonked down in to.

    This is not to say that what Chris, or MatrixGamer, runs is wrong. YMMV, in the parlance of the abbreviated. What I seem to read is that Chris's desire from a mystery story is the construction of elements that build on each other until there is a satisfactory conclusion or endpoint. He prefers details "on the fly", a desire that taps into the imaginative powers of the people at the table. The desire of those players that prefer the big reveal is in the feeling that there is something bigger that they are uncovering, that they are discoverers. Better yet, this is a case of the desire for narrative control vs. a love of immersion.

    I realize that this is stuff that's already been hashed out. I just sometimes like to type these things out to make sure that I've got the idea correct in my head.

    A good four or so years back I ran a regular campaign that was a police procedural set in a Ghost in the Shell-style setting. My main inspiration for the game was the book Homicide: One Year on the Killing Streets, by David Simon. The PCs all had more than one case going at a time, they were partnered off and worked separate cases, there were suspect and witness interviews, etc.

    The player joy in that game was taken from uncovering clues and then forming actions based on them. A chief example of this would be a murder case in which the chief suspect was revealed to be a sixteen year old kid suffering from Downs Syndrome that made him emotionally and intellectually the parallel of a four-year old. The child, named James, had accidentally killed another child while they were playing and didn't know what he had done. His mother discovered the body and her boy hanging over it and covered everything up, fearful that her boy would be taken away from her.

    All of the above information was uncovered during interviews with witnesses and suspects, as well as the study of physical evidence. Revelation was set on top of revelation until the players had arrested James and brought him in for questioning. With a child welfare officer in the Box (the interrogation room), one of the PCs went about questioning the suspect. The players still speak fondly of this moment in the game because of their enjoyment of those moments of revelation; discovering who was on the scene, interviewing the mother at her home, finding the kid while he was at work, etc. Discovery of something greater hiding underneath.

    I then later played in a game of InSpectres with my current Tuesday night group. The gameplay was totally different and, as a result the enjoyment we got out of it was different. The mystery became a game of one-upmanship. The GM introduces that there's a kid being haunted by ghosts. One of the player rolls some dice and narrates that the ghosts are actually ghosts of some long dead aliens! I roll some dice and narrate that these ghosts are here trying to impregnate the world! Someone else rolls the dice and says that the ghost/aliens were summoned by mistake and that the real spell was supposed to summon Nyarlathotep!

    The gameplay was just as fun, but rather than digging into the depths of a mystery, we were building one ever upwards. Both are, obviously, viable forms of play. It's just that the source of player enjoyment comes from different things.
  • edited June 2007
    Posted By: MatrixGamerNoclue

    There is nothing invalid about a game where players put total trust in the GM to control the story and guide them through an entertaining evening. Nothing at all. When these games work they are things of beauty. Not all GMs are evil rail roaders. When I run games for my wife and brother over the holidays they prefer this brand of play.

    At the same time, when I'm on line I'm advocating for the style of play my self made products do, which is a more GMless player controlled method.
    Thanks Chris. I do play and enjoy GMless games and I appreciate the impetus behind them. Good shared storytelling can be a wonderful thing and overcomming the difficulties in sharing narrative control and still coming up with strong character and plot is a task worth doing.

    I guess I'm saying something something slightly different about games with a GM. To me, provided GM and players are behaving (nothing is dick-proofable), there is an intriguing dynamic at play. The GM has total and absolute control, up until the point where he brings his story to the table. Then it runs smack into me and my character. Now, I may not have absolute control of the narrative, but I do have absolute control of my character's reaction to the narrative. The GMs choices are infinite, but I have an incredible power in choosing how I react to those events. I find the social interplay between an author and an independent protagonist to be one of subtlety and negotiation. I am interested in how player and GM arrive at mutually enjoyable story, absent GM fiat and railroading and absent player anarchy. It may be difficult to do well and prone to all sorts of difficulties, but as you said, it can be a thing of beauty.
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