The New Columboism

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.

This entry was posted in The Mystery-Investigation Complex, Theory and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to The New Columboism

  1. 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.

    That is probably the most interesting idea I have read about RPGs this year.

    • Oh and this should really be on gametime, even if just a cross post.

      • mashugenah says:

        I’ll see how I’m feeling in another month. I’ve still got half a dozen little pieces that need to be tidied, finished and gotten off my thinking shelf before I can really evaluate where I am for gaming and theory.

        Sadly, all the posts I’ve been making recently just highlight how little fun I’ve been having at a variety of campaign games for almost three years, without explaining, or rather without helping replicate, the awesome fun that Dale’s game was. I’d like to play a game that was as enjoyable as Dale’s, but was more than a glorious comic ramble masquerading as the Old School… A post like this just explains what I didn’t like about my own last GMing effort, and goes some way towards explaining what I wasn’t enjoying about Ivan’s BHS; it doesn’t give me any positive thought yet.

      • mattcowens says:

        Agreed – you should totally cross-post this to Gametime.

    • mr_orgue says:

      Ditto from me, this is a great post with some genuinely new and useful ideas.

  2. mattcowens says:

    I like the approach you suggest above. I think the more successful games I’ve run have used a similar approach?

    – What is the plot purpose of the scene – what will develop or what will the PCs learn?
    – Who are the interesting NPCs that I can play during the scene to drive the pace if necessary?
    – What will the PCs actually do? How will this be complicated and fun?
    – Where does the scene lead to next?

    Example: in the ESOL Teachers in Japan game I ran (which was brilliant the first time I ran it, good the second time, and merely passable the third) there was a pub scene near the start. I thought of it like this:

    – Plot: You’re all in Japan, Perry has gone misssing, there are dangers in Japan (yakuza in this scene, sets up sense of unease to be exploited with horror later)
    – NPCs: Friendly locals, mean yakuza. Can play them against each other to create a conflict (help locals or not) if the PCs ignore the direct abuse of the hoods. Also, yakuza guys are actually posers so they won’t kill anyone.
    – PC Action: Share anecdotes from character sheets. Roleplay in character talking shit. Decide whether to get involved in bullying.
    – Leads to: hangover morning, Perry not being there more significant than first thought.

    Not a great example, but kinda heading toward the method suggested…

  3. Disavowed it? Man what?


    • mashugenah says:

      I remember having a couple of conversations about it with you afterwards where you expressed some doubts about it yourself. Did I misunderstand?

      Anyway, welcome back. 😀

      • Yes, I think you may have mistaken recognising that it is one amongst many approaches to investigative games for doubts about the validity of the approach.


      • mashugenah says:

        Perhaps so: there was definitely some breakdown in communication between us on this topic. That being the case, I apologize. I would have titled my post something else and written a different introduction if it weren’t for my understanding that you had become disenchanted with your original post.

  4. Mash, I was thinking about this post over the weekend and I think your last line sums up where I got to:

    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.

    NC is a great idea but it would need a lot of effort form the GM to pull off. For one I can see a need to redefine what success means in an investigative scenario, as I see many players who would equate solving the problem = success rather than have a fun story = success, and this itself is a challenge. As such, many player swould enjoy themselves but would probably come out of such a scenario feeling unsatisfied unless something more was done to convey the change in focus.

    • mashugenah says:

      I think that if the players are on top of their investigative game, that the GM psychology I talk about above should be more-or-less invisible. It should feel like a standard investigation game with more flourishes and more verve.

      They can still successfully solve the mystery: there are still clues that can be pieced together. What I’m arguing for is that the game can’t be just the clues. Even the best group, with the smartest players, will occasionally stall in an investigative game – I’ve never been involved in a game where it hasn’t. And it’s just in that stalled part where NC kicks in, giving them something else to do while the clues percolate through the subconscious and while they re-focus their thoughts.

      And then, if they can’t put the final piece in place: NC is there to ensure that there’s not just an awkward anti-climax.

    • mashugenah says:

      Let me sketch three alternatives to a scene.

      Bob has been murdered, and the PCs go to visit his wife, Emily. The key thing that Emily knows is that Bob owed Owen a shitload of money. The PCs already know of Owen’s slightly dodgy circle of friends and previous conviction for GBH.

      Option 1 – Traditional Approach

      They go see the wife. They chat about the husband. If the PCs are perceptive they’ll see her palpable fear. (Skill challenge 1) If they’re persuasive, she’ll open up about her fears about Owen (Skill challenge 2).

      If the two skill challenges are failed, the PCs leave empty handed.

      Option 2 – GUMShoe

      They go see the wife. They chat about the husband, and the GM casually drops in the line that she seems more on edge than is usual, even for a recent widow. If they ask about the husband, she volunteers the key clue here: that Owen was owed a lot of money, and still is. If they don’t, she volunteers the information.

      All the vital information for solving the crime is automatically given out.

      Option 3 – New Columboism

      They go see the wife. She won’t let the in: she’s frightened of someone wanting to do her harm. She’s cagey about the details, unless they are persuasive (skill challenge 1) but her fear is real and palpable. If they persuasive, she tells them the story of the debt. If they are not, she begs them to take her with them, obviously motivated by fear, and possibly using the line that if she’s kept safe she knows something that’s useful.

      The PCs can get the clue, but whether they do or not, they’ve got a decision to make about the widow. She’ll hinder them if they take her along, but she’s obviously got good reason to be afraid. If they don’t take her along, the GM can have her turn up dead too: to ratchet up the tension and more deeply involve the PCs: it was their decision which resulted in her death.


      To a group not explicitly clued in to the GM’s meta-game approach viz-a-viz, the distribution of clues, these three scenes will probably all feel pretty similar right up until the end, where the NC multi-layered approach kicks in. The GM has more of a plan than “give them a crack at Clue A”.

      • I agree with all you say here. As said, I think your last line of your original post is accurate. I still think that there would be effort needed to focus players away from clue = success mentality to a story fun = success mentality, given the established view of many to investigative scenarios. Its not impossible but I think NC could do with some thought about communicating this shift.

        So, I agree with you totally in theory. I am just thinking about the practicalities of pulling this off as a GM.

      • mashugenah says:

        Ah, right. I get you now: if they’re off-task, and failing… how to make the PCs feel good about it because of the story payoff.

        Fair point; but again, I think you’re no worse off than if you were using the Trad approach. Because either way they’ve lost the investigation, but in NC they’ve got some other consolation prizes going on.

        I guess that most groups will still be disappointed to have not solved the puzzle, but at least they’ll be consistently still doing stuff rather than, as my experience has been, sitting round just waiting for the penny to drop. I guess for a lot of groups, a GM might be able to use Smoke-and-mirrors to distract them entirely.

        For example, Chandler was once asked what was actually going on in The Big Sleep, and he replied along the lines that he had no idea, but wasn’t it fun? 🙂 Does Marlowe really solve that case? I think he presents a bunch of plausible theories, but I’m not sure he really gets all the facts.

  5. I’m glad I saved this for later reading, it’s fantastic! Also, I need to play Inspectres, because I think you just sold me on it.

    • mashugenah says:

      It’s one of many Indie games that I’ve had a one session go at that I’d be keen to try again for a slightly longer stint, with a slightly more committed group.

  6. bloodthorn says:

    Have you taken a look at the game Dirty Secrets by Seth Ben-Ezra? It does a fantastic job of creating hard-boiled detective stories like the works of Dashiell Hammet, Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald.

    It works by inverting the standard RPG setup. Basically, there’s one player who plays the Investigator and everyone else takes turns, effectively as rotating GMs. At the end of the scene you move a token around a grid depending on how many “exchanges” there were in a conflict (one minimally) and whoever one the conflict (the Investigator by default if there was no conflict) gets to write in a name on the grid. If the token ever gets boxed in and can’t move you roll to select a random square on the grid. If there’s a name there already BAM, that’s someone guilt of a crime (there are more than one in the game, two minimally).

    There are other cool bits and pieces and it’s amazingly effective. I HIGHLY recommend checking it out.

    • mashugenah says:

      I have heard of it, but haven’t ever read played it. I don’t really game much with the Indie-experimenters locally. If the chance comes up, I’ll definitely take a look. It sounds more like a board-game than a roleplaying game though: what makes it more of a roleplaying challenge than if you were to act out the parts from Cluedo? (I played in a game like this recently, and it was just like the board-game, with a bunch of fluffy in-character chatter between times.)

      I have, however, run A Dirty World by Greg Stolze, and keenly await the eventual release of Fly From Evil. I know hardboiled and noir aren’t quite the same thing, and the two games I mention are Noir rather than hardboiled; but there is significant overlap.

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