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Mystery Mechanic: A Clue Bank

Started by jdagna, December 06, 2003, 12:05:13 AM

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I'm about to start a new campaign for Pax Draconis that will focus around a long-term investigation.  The players requested the mystery and investigation parts, and to facilitate it, I'm thinking about giving them some sort of consumable resource for clues.  

In-game, it would be justified as data they got from their sources (one characters was an undercover agent tracking someone related to the case, another character's father was a bounty hunter after another related individual, and the third character's father is a police instructor who will be under investigation as a possible conspirator).  In a sci-fi setting, this data can easily represent thousands of pages of notes and transcripts, so it's also "realistic" that they won't understand all the implications of the data immediately.

Mechanics-wise, my initial thought is to allow them to go to their data 3 (or maybe 4 or 6) times each during the campaign.  Each time they'll pull out some clue that will be useful in the current situation.  Presumably, the clue had always been in their data, they'd just never connected it until now (a pretty classic genre feature).   The limit on uses is kind of arbitrary - I see it as a way to avoid putting the whole case in their data while keeping the data's contents extremely flexible.  Using the clue bank also shouldn't be necessary to figure out the plot - it's just a way to jog the plot along should they miss a clue or latch onto a red herring.

Basically, I'm trying to mee the following goals:
1) The players like mystery, but are worried about getting stuck.
2) I don't want to have to design the whole plot before the first session.
3) I don't want to have to write up exactly what they know and force them to figure out what's useful or not - its a lot of work for all of us.
4) The players still want the satisfaction of solving the mystery "for themselves".

I'm sure others around here have used similar ideas before, so I'm curious about how you've done it in the past, or if you have any recommendations or cautionary tales.  Is there something altogoether better than this idea?

Thanks for any input!
Justin Dagna
President, Technicraft Design.  Creator, Pax Draconis

Andrew Martin

Quote from: jdagnaThe players requested the mystery and investigation parts, and to facilitate it, I'm thinking about giving them some sort of consumable resource for clues.  
I'm sure others around here have used similar ideas before, so I'm curious about how you've done it in the past, or if you have any recommendations or cautionary tales.  Is there something altogoether better than this idea?

How about instead of resource that is expended to gain clues, why not make clues as a resource to be gained by players that can be used to "trap" the bad guy/s and form a good case around them? That would seem to better match the investigation part that's wanted by your players.

An example could be a PC investigator looking for fingerprint evidence. Using the character's most relevant skill (perhaps Crime Scene Investigator career?), and obtain a skill total, like Great (using Fudge). The player declares, "My Guy find this Great impression of a fingerprint on the victim's body!" This then forms a Great clue that has Great difficulty for the bad guy/s to dodge around. Note that as a GM, one didn't have to determine that the bad guy left a finger on the victim.

Then for things like PC resources, like "My Guy checks out the fingerprint on our computerised library of fingerprints of Felons" (AFFIS, IIRC on CSI) the player has the choice of using that resource along with the clue to slice up the "space" allocated to the uncertainity of the identity of the BadGuy to determine the name: "this is the fingerprint of Basil BadGuy, convicted of drug  abuse, selling drugs to schoolchildren, assault, burglary and sundry other offences." Or: "Our database has no record of this fingerprint! This person has no record yet; maybe it was a crime of passion; a first offence?"

Just a couple of thoughts.
Andrew Martin


The model you are proposing essentially moves information gathering from what I call fortune rewarding (information gained by random skill rolls) to karmic purchasing, information is gained automatically by expending a resource.

I was mindful of the weakness of fortune rewarding in investigative games when I wrote the post Cthulhu's Clues. In fortune rewarding bad dice rolls can lead to the 'bogged down' problem.  In my opinion failure isn't an option in an investigative game.  If the players can't get the information to solve the mystery the scenario is essentially dead in the water.  You can't trust something that is vital to the scenario to luck. It's just a question of interesting roleplay along the way....
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I'm not so worried about how players gain the clues, since in this case, they already have the information as part of character creation.  Essentially I'm looking for a mechanic that allows us to take abstract data and make it concrete during play while giving players a security blanket to let them know they won't get stuck.

If you take most mysteries into the truly abstract, the detective is simply following a trail of breadcrumbs until he winds up at the end, with the mystery solved.  Normally, if you miss one of the crumbs (for example, the players don't realize the clue is significant), you can wind up in a situation where you're not sure where to go next.  This is where players could withdraw a clue from their bank, and stick it down.  It fills in the gap, and they resume following the little trail of crumbs.  Or, perhaps there's a branch in the trail where one leads off to a dead end.  You go pull a clue out of the bank to figure out which trail is the right one (since you know your banked clues are always right).

Or at least that's the paradigm I've always used.  

Andrew, you bring up a very interesting way to see it where its less a trail of clues and more of a way of counting up the unknowns and then reducing them until you wind up with only one possibility that fits all of the criteria.  It certainly describes the real process better, but I'm not as sure how it translates into game play, so maybe you can offer some ideas there.  Bread crumbs work perfectly into standard games - the McGuffin will give you more information, go get it (or him), kinds of things (which happens to work well, since my players enjoy fetching McGuffins).  In my experience narrowing the pool (like saying he's a white male or someone with no prior convictions) still leaves players with no clear idea of what to do.  As one of my players put it: if there are five suspects and only one is guilty, then there are four times as many boring options as there are interesting ones.  It's an oversimplification, but a valid point.
Justin Dagna
President, Technicraft Design.  Creator, Pax Draconis

M. J. Young

Let me throw something at you that may be completely useless, but might help a bit somehow.

Years ago I was playing a game of twenty questions, and I didn't figure out what it was. So I asked. The two guys who were answering the questions said they didn't know either--they were just making up the answers, and figured maybe I would narrow it down to something and that would be it.

Perhaps I didn't get there because I only had twenty questions; perhaps I didn't get there because they goofed and created a category which contained no members. But the experiment has stuck with me a long, long time.

The question is, can you make a mystery style game in which the players are going to create the clues and create the answer to which they point?

I think it could be done. I don't know that I could write it up as a game scenario (I'm currently playtesting a mystery, but it has real clues and a real answer). I don't know if it at all interests you, but there it is.

Perhaps more on point, one of the ways I'm running the mystery I'm doing is that I have a lot of non-player characters who are also trying to solve the mystery. They keep asking questions, some of which point in the right direction and some of which are completely wrong; they also keep making statements about what they saw or discovered, some of which are clues and some of which are red herrings. Remember, there are two ways to hide clues. One is to make them hard to find. The other is to bury them in the middle of a ton of worthless information so they are plainly known but have to be recognized as important.

For example, in the current mystery, there are six suspects plus the player character; five of the suspects and the player character never left the building. One of those investigating the mystery has wondered aloud how the thief managed to get out of the building without triggering the alarm--but the player character is the only one who found the door that was opened, so he is the only one who knows that the thief left the building before the police arrived. He just hasn't mentioned it to them yet. Hopefully he'll recognize that as significant and use it to get the investigation focused in the right direction.

--M. J. Young


Quote from: M. J. YoungThe question is, can you make a mystery style game in which the players are going to create the clues and create the answer to which they point?

I've done that before - at least to some degree.  I made up five suspects who each had a possible motive and means for committing the crime (a murder which was obviously an attempt to prevent the victim from reporting on embezzling).  I didn't bother to figure out who at the beginning, since I figured I'd let it develop as playl went along - I'd get a feeling for the bad guy, and I could see where the characters were taking things.

It turned out that one of the players said "Maybe the murder was committed by one of the suspect's assistants in the belief that it would help his boss - I don't think any of these guys would have resorted to murder by themselves."  And so it was, even though the idea hadn't occured to me before that.  I had already decided that one of the suspects had an assistant who was lying for him, so that assistant became the real killer.  The player thought he was incredibly clever to have "picked up on the clues" :)

I've never tried to let them create all the clues, though.  I'm sure if they knew that was happening it would take the thrill of discovery out of it.

By the way, I will also have plenty of NPCs on the case as well.  In fact, that's the reason I'm providing the PCs with their starting info - without that info, the NPCs have little hope of putting the story together ahead of the PCs.
Justin Dagna
President, Technicraft Design.  Creator, Pax Draconis

Andrew Martin

It seems to me that when a player cares enough to design a character with specific, esoteric or exotic information gathering skills and resources, the game system should permit or, better still, demand that that player be given the right to describe the clues as they are "found" in the game with successful uses of the character's skills and resources. Kind of like how combat is done in traditional RPGs with an encounter consisting of X opponents with Y hitpoints each, with Z, P and Q weapons, armour and level. In a clue discovery game, the GM could determine before hand that the culprits are found when X clues are "found" by the PCs.

Or perhaps the accumulated "clue" results can be "spent" on convicting the suspect in a trial scene? For example, my PC has accumulated a Great result for a fingerprint at the crimescene, which after use of the PCs fingerprint library has determined that Basil BadGuy last used the murder weapon (a knife). This could then be used as the skill to convict in a courtroom duel versus the defence lawyer. So if Basil BadGuy has a Superb defence lawyer, the players can roll a Great (for the fingerprint) versus the Superb defence lawyer, and perhaps get a Mediocre result. Which then could be narrated as the lawyer pointing out that the knife was in Basil BadGuy's home, so naturally it would have Basil BadGuy's fingerprints on it. Basically this process is accumulating an "arsenal" of evidence to use in the court case against the suspect. The players are collecting (by creating it themselves) the means, method, motive and oppotunity, IIRC, of the crime.
Andrew Martin