Back in December last year, posted a quite interesting piece called Columboism and then almost immediately disavowed it [Or, apparently, not. 🙂 – Mash]. My own reaction to his post was pretty straightforward: he was wrong.
The idea of having an investigative game where the focus was on the emotional responses around finding the clues seemed insular. It seemed like a system of closed possibilities. I also thought there would be a lot of logistical problems inherent in such an approach. Preserving game continuity while keeping things interesting could prove problematic. My initial reaction was that such a game would be almost totally about “story conferencing” rather than what I’d instantly recognise as roleplaying.
At the same time, has a damned good basic point: for all their dominance, investigative games have a tremendous number of difficulties. Many are adequately described in his post, and many more are easily brought to your mind without my assistance.<lj-cut text="Read on McDuff."
The first thing that tackled in his post was “[a]longside the ‘kill them and take their stuff’ adventure and the ‘prophetic quest’ set-up, the ‘investigate this!’ game is one of the most common paradigms in RPGs. …. [W]hy is this the case?”
I have been thinking a lot about this question, because I think that it is very important. Like , there is a lot about this style which has been frustrating for me both as a GM and as a player over the years. Despite that, it is a genre that I keep coming back to, one way or another. Why? Why do I spend hours interrogating NPCs, sifting clues, trying to devise ever more complex investigative techniques? Conversely, and probably more importantly, why do I make my players do these things?
The straightforward answer is that we like to feel smart, and piecing together puzzles and eventually solving the crime. We may be Hastings for most of the game, but at the end we feel like Poirot.
But I think the real answer is even more fundamental than that: We investigate because we lack sufficient knowledge to tell a story.
Now that I’ve had that thought, I can see it applying to a lot of games I’ve been in that are anything but investigative games. Any time that a player is uncertain of what the story options are, or what the situation is, they’ll start little investigations into their surroundings – they’ll explore. The psychology involved seems different from a lengthy crime-scene examination or suspect interrogation, but the process can be very similar: a lot of questions, only some of which are useful, many of which are somewhat tedious, all of which take time.
In recent months, three different ways of making sure that this isn’t wasted time have been suggested to me.
The first, following InSpectres is to establish a starting situation, and after that negotiate the facts of the case until it is resolved. Nothing is pre-determined, and you need merely to keep some grip on continuity for it all to work out with no back-tracking, and with no scenes that lead nowhere.
The second, Columboism, publicly determines the details of the crime; so the emphasis is on teasing out those facts in an interesting way.
The third, via Fear Itself, is to liberally sprinkle clues around your game, making the only chore piecing them together. Scenes automatically lead somewhere, information is automatically disseminated – it’s just a matter of hanging in there long enough to get the last bit and you’re done.
Each of these solutions has its merit – but none speaks directly to why we investigate. Making up stuff, a la InSpectres, is not really the same as finding out stuff. Nor is having a story-conference followed by extemporized performance. And Gumshoe takes the difficulty out of the clue-hunt, but doesn’t really attack the core question: it takes for granted that of course you need to find clues.
The real answer is a slight mix of these answers; touched on but not fully explored in ‘s post: to ensure that the clues themselves are dramatic and interesting. Gumshoe “solves” the most common problem with these games, that they can stall, but does not address the more fundamental issue of making exposition interesting. ‘s solution does fix this – but in a backwards kind of way.
What’s needed here is a multi-layered approach to writing games. Where a scene is intended to deliver a piece of vital information it must also do something else; partly in case the clue isn’t found, and partly for the sake of keeping things interesting. And I think this applies to the general run of scenes that are largely expository in character. The way the scene plays out must justify the scene even if the the PCs learn nothing.
Another way of looking at this, with direct reference to my epiphany, is to ask yourself what knowledge is necessary for the planned story to proceed. Then to ask yourself what story can proceed without that knowledge. What can story is available to you if the PCs remain, for whatever reason, ignorant.
The most recent game I’ve written was Death on the Streets. For the final write-up of the game, I went through every scene that I’d written, and I thought about that scene until I had determined
1. A “clue” that could be found in the scene
2. A way of directly introducing the scene (I used a variant of a timeline for simplicity, but there are other approaches)
3. A way of railroading the scene to a conclusion (so that they did not drift on interminably; though this was not a problem in any of my runs)
4. A conflict between PCs that could be sparked in the scene
5. A conflict between a PC and NPC that could be sparked in the scene
This was time-consuming; but it covered all the bases to ensure that the game ran with and without an effectual group, with and without an investigative focus, with and without a character-oriented group. It was far from a railroad: the Fright Night group got quite “lost” in terms of the obvious story route followed by the other groups. However, because all of the peripheral scenes were so well understood, I was able to easily shift around story elements so that I never really had to extemporize, but could adapt existing material.
Furthermore, the expository components of the game faded away dramatically. Almost information delivery was carefully disguised as a peripheral part of a conflict, or as a dramatic bit of dialogue with an NPC. In both the play-tests I was asked a large number of “who’s this guy” questions, compared to almost none on Fright Night.
And so, that is what I present to you as the New Columboism. Rather than writing your game as a giant puzzle, write it as a story that reveals a puzzle that the players may not even have noticed at the outset of the game. So I reverse my original conclusion about the Old Columboism: the best thing here is to not worry about solving the mystery, but make the process interesting.
Is this more difficult than writing a big list of clues and some skill challenges to uncover them? Hell yes. But it’s also just plain better.