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Author Topic: [GMing Advice] Running an Investigative Game  (Read 763 times)

Pebbles and Marbles

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[GMing Advice] Running an Investigative Game
« on: September 26, 2007, 11:58:55 PM »
I've decided to run my girlfriend through a series of solo games where she'll be playing a detective.

What I'm looking for as far as advice goes is how to maximize the player's actions being responsible for the outcome of the game, and minimize any leading by the nose or handing the solution to the player on my part.  I've been in entirely too many investigative style games where it became a matter of waiting for the GM to finally dole out whatever last bit of information might be needed to solve the mystery at hand.

At the same time, we'd want to cultivate a blend of the solution arising from the skills of the character and the ingenuity and problem-solving of the player.  Neither of us would want the game to finally, ultimately come down to a situation of: "You finally make an 18 on your Investigate roll, and know that it was the butler in the cloakroom with the candlestick."  Nor do we want to just hand-wave such matters.  We'd like to keep the game being a game, so to speak.

For the record, in case any of your advice depends on these matters, I'll be using 3.5 as the rules and will be setting the game in Eberron, most likely in Sharn.
 

walkerp

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[GMing Advice] Running an Investigative Game
« Reply #1 on: September 27, 2007, 05:39:55 AM »
I don't have a lot of experience directly with this type of game, but I know more and more people are trying to address the problems you mentioned above.  Esoterrorists, Aletheia and GURPS: Mysteries are supposed to have tons of good advice. Not suggesting you buy the games, but just check out the reviews on them, which explain their basic strategies in presenting mysteries to PCs without getting caught between the scylla and charibdis of giving it all away or the players being totally lost.

I would suggest starting with the crime itself and working backwards toward the clues, scattering as many as you can in as many places and forms as possible, allowing the players multiple opportunities at finding clues and multiple storyline possibilities.  Also, find a range of difficulties for clue revelation.  If the PCs are having a tough time, throw the NPC with the obvious clue.  If the PCs are getting things too quickly, switch to the tougher clues.  All very easy to say in theory, tougher to do in practice.
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GoOrange

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[GMing Advice] Running an Investigative Game
« Reply #2 on: September 27, 2007, 08:16:21 AM »
Don't roll! I hardly ever require people to make investigation rolls or such when running this type of campaign. You want to reward clever thinking and good roleplaying. Don't let a bad roll hinder a good idea. Also, you don't want to give away the farm just because a player rolled really well.

What I like to do is outline the basic structure. Plan out the number of steps the player can use to get from the beginning to the end. Here's an example:

Step 1: The setup. Learn about the mystery and are provided one or two introductory clues (which, ideally you should have to work for). A client comes into the private investigator's office and asks for help. The PI gets the clues by asking the client the right questions.

Step 2: Legwork. This is where the real investigation starts. Hopefully using a lead obtained in step 1, the PC goes and talks to someone who may have information, investigates the scene of a crime or does some surveillance.

Step 3: Run-In. It's often fun to throw in a little action/combat encounter with someone who may have a clue on them or know some useful information. It's important that the character's earn any clues by defeating the bad guy and competently interrogating him afterward. I let them make rolls once in a while, but I primarily judge the outcome on what questions they ask. In other words, if you roll well for interrogation but only question the guy about red herrings, he'll only tell you about red herrings. If you roll poorly but ask the right questions, he'll point you where to go, but won't fill in any other important details.

Step 4: Conclusion. This is where the clues lead to the end of the road, or at least to a big climactic final battle or social conflict where the truth will be revealed at the end.

Depending on the players, I may throw in another legwork step, to make them work harder and prolong the investigation. This would be good for a small game with only one or two players but with a larger group, it's tough to get them to take too many steps to get to their goal.

Now with each step, I try to come up with at least two or three clues that will lead them to the next step. For instance, when searching for a missing piece of art, the PCs can speak to someone in the art community who knows what is coming and going illicitly, or they could talk to someone in the crime community to know who has been making a lot of heists lately or finally, speak to someone with divination magics who might be able to help.

Lately, no matter what I lay out, my players choose an option I hadn't thought of, in which case I improvise a way for them to find whatever clue they need to get to the next step (if their idea seemed like a reasonable one).

One final note is that each of the steps need not be the same depending on the course of action the players choose. One avenue of investigation might lead to a totally different step 2 and 3 then another approach. The only important thing is that the number of steps should stay about the same, to keep the story properly placed.

So there's my method for running a mystery. Hopefully some of it will be helpful to you!
 

Warthur

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[GMing Advice] Running an Investigative Game
« Reply #3 on: September 27, 2007, 09:47:07 AM »
A friend of mine once pointed out that the key to running a really good mystery RPG is to make a distinction between "clues" and "evidence"·

"Clues" are just bits of information. They're what let the investigator follow the investigation to some kind of a conclusion. They're the facts that you want to make damn sure the investigator finds, because otherwise the game's going to hit a brick wall before you get to the conclusion. Clues are pretty easy to pick up - in some investigative scenarios the challenge might be choosing which to follow up, especially if there's a lot of chatty witnesses all with slightly differing stories. At the same time, clues aren't always especially solid or clear-cut: they can often be ambiguous, or open to interpretation, or hopelessly compromised because of an investigative blunder ("Hey, the gun also has YOUR fingerprints on it, detective!") or because the witness providing the information isn't very reliable.

"Evidence" are bits of information which help the investigator get what he or she wants out of the situation, whether that's getting someone convicted of murder, or exorcising a ghost, or uncovering a lost treasure. The "game" element in an investigative game revolves around accumulating enough evidence to back you up when you get to the conclusion. Sure, you may get enough clues to make you decide to arrest Mr Smith for the murder of Mr Jones, but you'd better have the evidence to back that up when the case comes to trial. If the player has skillfully accumulated most-to-all of the evidence, the climax should be reasonably easy - a moment of triumph for the player to bask in for a bit - although it obviously won't be without risks. ("Your meddling has ruined everything! I kill you!") If the player has only a little evidence to hand at the climax, it's going to be real challenge and failure should be a very real possibility. All pieces of evidence are clues, but not all clues are pieces of evidence, and in general pieces of evidence should require skill and smarts to acquire.

(The terminology, incidentally, is based on an analogy with criminal cases - the police might have a whole wealth of clues, but only a small subset of those are going to be admissable as evidence in court.)

Once my friend had explained these ideas to me I realised that that's pretty much how I'd been running investigative games all along: you might find it useful to think in these terms too.
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Seanchai

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[GMing Advice] Running an Investigative Game
« Reply #4 on: September 27, 2007, 10:16:49 AM »
Quote from: Pebbles and Marbles
.


Create a matrix of clues. You can do this by having each clue lead to at least one other clue.

A clue doesn't have to be a physical thing. It can be a relationship, opportunity to commit the crime, etc..

Create an enjoyable journey by having the clues lead to memorable places, people and scenes.

Some clues will be red herrings or merely allow the investigators to cross a suspect off the list.

Don't allow there to be just one solution. At least a couple of paths of inquiry should lead to the real suspect.

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Skyrock

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[GMing Advice] Running an Investigative Game
« Reply #5 on: September 27, 2007, 10:31:06 AM »
I can only give some general bits of advice:
1.) Keep it simple, stupid. No, much simpler.
2.) Avoid red herrings. The players will very probably investigate anyway stuff you never had thought of and that has no significance, so you should avoid to put in any by yourself.
3.) Redundancy in the leads is a good thing - single threads are prone to be single points of failure.

Moreover, I find investigative stuff as easiest to construct if you start with the solution and track from thereof leads to the very beginning. Such a flowchart is anyway useful as a quick reference for yourself.
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GoOrange

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[GMing Advice] Running an Investigative Game
« Reply #6 on: September 27, 2007, 11:00:32 AM »
Quote from: Skyrock
Such a flowchart is anyway useful as a quick reference for yourself.


Great idea. I do this all the time. I grab a big sheet of paper, draw in the starting point, draw in the ending point, and then start flowcharting all the stuff that comes between, tracking how various clues and pieces of evidence relate to each other.

I find that the players who are most successful at playing an investigation scenario and that get the most enjoyment out of it often do the same thing themselves when they come upon various clues, people, places and things.
 

pspahn

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[GMing Advice] Running an Investigative Game
« Reply #7 on: September 27, 2007, 04:04:02 PM »
Quote from: Skyrock
The players will very probably investigate anyway stuff you never had thought of and that has no significance,


Man, that's the truth.  That's why flowcharts don't work for me.  Something I like to do when this happens is be flexible.  If the lead they're following up seems remotely plausible and/or they invest some serious time and energy into following it up, I try and work it into the scenario as a viable clue.  

I wrote a section in Vice Squad: Miami Nights called "No Dead Ends," the gist of which is that every lead/clue that is followed up should somehow further the investigation.  What this means is that if you want the PCs to go to the hotel, but they decide to go to the bowling alley, you should insert another lead/clue at the bowling alley that could point them towards the hotel.  However, instead of gift wrapping it on a silver platter, you should also insert some sort of complication into their trip to the bowling alley (a run in with police, a gang fight, etc.).  

I've found that players get a lot more interested in a mystery if they're following up clues and leads that they picked up on themselves (or at least, clues and leads that they think they picked up on).  The trick is not to let them know you're doing this, of course.  This is kind of an unpopular tactic in most RPG circles, but if they don't realize it's happening and they're having fun, what's the harm?

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Ian Absentia

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[GMing Advice] Running an Investigative Game
« Reply #8 on: September 27, 2007, 04:18:44 PM »
Quote from: Skyrock
2.) Avoid red herrings. The players will very probably investigate anyway stuff you never had thought of and that has no significance, so you should avoid to put in any by yourself.
So true it needs to be repeated (twice, apparently).  If the players are doing well at figuring out a puzzle, connundrum, or mystery without completely heading off in the wrong direction, they should be rewarded, not penalised with irrelavent clues.

!i!

Blackleaf

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[GMing Advice] Running an Investigative Game
« Reply #9 on: September 27, 2007, 04:24:10 PM »
Quote from: pspahn
This is kind of an unpopular tactic in most RPG circles, but if they don't realize it's happening and they're having fun, what's the harm?


It's lying. It's cheating. It removes the risk of failure and thus removes the reward of success.   What's the point in playing poker for pennies if the dealer is cheating to always let you win?  

If you want to play in a game where there's 100% success rate for solving the mystery, then the "game" part shifts to something else, like improv acting, tactical combat, etc.  That's perfectly okay, and you should be upfront with your players about that, so they can actually play the game instead of the illusion of playing a game, when in fact they're not.

pspahn

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[GMing Advice] Running an Investigative Game
« Reply #10 on: September 27, 2007, 04:47:05 PM »
Quote from: Stuart
It's lying. It's cheating. It removes the risk of failure and thus removes the reward of success.   What's the point in playing poker for pennies if the dealer is cheating to always let you win?  

If you want to play in a game where there's 100% success rate for solving the mystery, then the "game" part shifts to something else, like improv acting, tactical combat, etc.  That's perfectly okay, and you should be upfront with your players about that, so they can actually play the game instead of the illusion of playing a game, when in fact they're not.


Hahaha.  Blahblahblahblah.  

I can't cheat.  I'm not playing _against_ my players.  I want them to succeed.  My group meets once a week.   I don't want them to waste all night following Mrs. Cheevers around town only to find out that she had nothing to do with the mystery and I don't want to tell them "Mrs. Cheevers has nothing to do with the myster" because then I _am_ just leading them around by the nose, making them dance to the clever little mystery I cooked up.  Look how smart I am.  

That's why I made a point of saying the trick is not to let them know what you're doing.  In this case, what they don't know won't hurt them, especially if they're having fun.  If I'm the only one who knows I'm adapting the scenario, who's to say that I am.  A tree falling in the woods and all that.  

Pete

EDIT - What it does is shift the focus of the game from being on the mystery (which is limited by a set series of encounters) to being on the actual process of the investigation (which can have many interesting encounters).
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Skyrock

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[GMing Advice] Running an Investigative Game
« Reply #11 on: September 27, 2007, 05:57:41 PM »
Quote from: pspahn
Something I like to do when this happens is be flexible.  If the lead they're following up seems remotely plausible and/or they invest some serious time and energy into following it up, I try and work it into the scenario as a viable clue.  



I've found that players get a lot more interested in a mystery if they're following up clues and leads that they picked up on themselves (or at least, clues and leads that they think they picked up on).  The trick is not to let them know you're doing this, of course.  This is kind of an unpopular tactic in most RPG circles, but if they don't realize it's happening and they're having fun, what's the harm?
I have to agree to Stuart in this regard: It's cheating. It's negating the influence of the players on the play. If you want to make solving of the mystery by player achievement the main point of the game, they lie to them and instead give them an automatic success where their efforts don't make any difference. It's like a dungeoncrawl where the GM rolls behind the screen to make sure that no PC dies and they win in the end.

Of course, you can do a game where it's less about solving by achievement and more about exploring a investigative story, and in that case it is of course advisable to avoid lengths and needless frustration in moving forward. (InSpectres is the most typical example that comes to my mind.) This seems however to be less what the thread starter had in mind:
Quote
What I'm looking for as far as advice goes is how to maximize the player's actions being responsible for the outcome of the game, and minimize any leading by the nose or handing the solution to the player on my part. I've been in entirely too many investigative style games where it became a matter of waiting for the GM to finally dole out whatever last bit of information might be needed to solve the mystery at hand.

At the same time, we'd want to cultivate a blend of the solution arising from the skills of the character and the ingenuity and problem-solving of the player.
And even in that case, it's advisable to tell them up front that their skills won't make any difference and that it's more about interesting, well-paced fiction and less about problemsolving and puzzling. (InSpectres is another fine example for this - everyone knows by the very system that earlier or later every case will be solved, regardless of which leads the PCs follow.)
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Blackleaf

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[GMing Advice] Running an Investigative Game
« Reply #12 on: September 27, 2007, 05:58:41 PM »
Quote from: pspahn
Hahaha.  Blahblahblahblah.  

I can't cheat.  I'm not playing _against_ my players.


So a soccer / football referee couldn't cheat, because they're not playing against the players?  

Bwahaha wrong. :haw:

Balbinus

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[GMing Advice] Running an Investigative Game
« Reply #13 on: September 27, 2007, 06:00:18 PM »
Quote from: pspahn
Hahaha.  Blahblahblahblah.  

I can't cheat.  I'm not playing _against_ my players.  I want them to succeed.  My group meets once a week.   I don't want them to waste all night following Mrs. Cheevers around town only to find out that she had nothing to do with the mystery and I don't want to tell them "Mrs. Cheevers has nothing to do with the myster" because then I _am_ just leading them around by the nose, making them dance to the clever little mystery I cooked up.  Look how smart I am.  

That's why I made a point of saying the trick is not to let them know what you're doing.  In this case, what they don't know won't hurt them, especially if they're having fun.  If I'm the only one who knows I'm adapting the scenario, who's to say that I am.  A tree falling in the woods and all that.  

Pete

EDIT - What it does is shift the focus of the game from being on the mystery (which is limited by a set series of encounters) to being on the actual process of the investigation (which can have many interesting encounters).


I don't consider "lie to your friends" to be good gm advice.

I also don't think it's particularly ethical actually, what you are advising is that you intentionally mislead your friends and deceive them.  I find that rather bizarre.

What I do when I run mystery games, which I often do, is I work out what happened and I work out how it happened and I put the knowledge of that in the heads of a variety of NPCs, so that the players need to talk to people in game to work out what went down.

As others suggest, I go for multiple clue paths, and I accept that the players may fail.  The fact they can fail, and occasionally do, makes the victories sweeter.

I find the idea of guaranteed success through lying rather bland, compared to the players knowing they worked it out through their own skill.  But mostly, I don't think lying to friends is good policy and it's not something I think is good advice.

Also, in my experience, people work it out over time and it takes some of the fun out, there is no real satisfaction because you were always going to win.  It's kind of hollow.

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[GMing Advice] Running an Investigative Game
« Reply #14 on: September 27, 2007, 06:01:40 PM »
Quote from: Skyrock
I have to agree to Stuart in this regard: It's cheating. It's negating the influence of the players on the play. If you want to make solving of the mystery by player achievement the main point of the game, they lie to them and instead give them an automatic success where their efforts don't make any difference. It's like a dungeoncrawl where the GM rolls behind the screen to make sure that no PC dies and they win in the end.

Of course, you can do a game where it's less about solving by achievement and more about exploring a investigative story, and in that case it is of course advisable to avoid lengths and needless frustration in moving forward. (InSpectres is the most typical example that comes to my mind.) This seems however to be less what the thread starter had in mind:And even in that case, it's advisable to tell them up front that their skills won't make any difference and that it's more about interesting, well-paced fiction and less about problemsolving and puzzling. (InSpectres is another fine example for this - everyone knows by the very system that earlier or later every case will be solved, regardless of which leads the PCs follow.)


Inspectres works because it's up front about what's going on.

What Pspahn is suggesting is that he acts so that if I were a player, what I do doesn't matter because he will bend the game around it so it works out.  That makes my choices meaningless, and to use a phrase I do find useful utterly deprotagonises me.

Bugger that for a game of soldiers.