One of the things which has often perturbed me a little about the so-called “Story Games” has been how they shy away from really getting to grips with the mechanics of the genre form they’re going to try and emulate.
For example, A Wilderness of Mirrors brings onto the table the concepts of planning a mission and Control eliminating a “rogue” agent – but it never ever talks about what kinds of things happen on a spy mission and why those things happen that way. This means that the game is totally flexible but it also means that unless you can bring substantial genre understanding to the table yourself, the resultant story may not even fall within the right genre. The game works best in the hands of people who possibly don’t even really need the system to begin with. Examples are surprisingly common, and I would include two of my favourite games in that set: Zombie Cinema and Fiasco. Both work well with the people I play them with because we’re genre fans first and foremost.
On the other end of the spectrum, probably the majority, there are story games that focus on the minutae of procedure. They break down the stories they want to emulate into small chunks and guide you step-by-step. These processes are the result of structural forces inside the fiction. Games which focus on the processes are, in essence, recipe books rather than a manuals of principles. They allow you to replicate an experience, but not necessarily understand why the experience was shaped that way. I want to talk a bit more about two specific games that fall into this category: A Taste For Murder and Dirty Secrets.
Both of these games are about crimes and their solution and I offer some perspectives near the end on solving their specific genre questions in a different way later on. Investigation is intended to serve as an example of a more general problem where game mechanics are not explicitly tied to fictive outcomes, or are tied to them, but not in a way which explains why the fiction is structured that way. There is probably no game that is more riddled with these than early iterations of Dungeons and Dragons. Consider such as the difficulty of rationalizing weapon restrictions inside the fiction. E Gary Gygax offers no useful advice on why a Magic User can’t pick up a sword in a desperate situation and run someone through, the rules simply constrain the fiction and leave the players to figure out why. Investigation is an easier genre to try and tackle because it is more consistently formulaic, and there are over 100 years of literary criticism of the originating genre to draw on in tackling how the games should or could work.
A Taste For Murder and Dirty Secrets are games that try and evade the central question posed in all detective fiction: Whodunnit? Both games explicitly want this to be unresolved until the last possible moment, when it is resolved by the mechanics and then post-rationalized by the play-group. Normally in detective fiction, “Whodunnit” is approached through 3 different and contra-balanced questions: Motive, Means, and Opportunity. These are the basic story-mechanical entities in play, and the basis of almost all classical detective fiction is that one of these things is never directly stated, but must be rationally deduced. This mirrors the revelations in a classical detective story, where the murderer is unmasked amidst a gathering of the suspects. There is another entire tradition in the genre, of showing the execution of the crime and then focusing on the unraveling. The famous use of this technique by Columbo prompted Malcom Craig to suggest this as a possible solution in 2007 with the working title of Columboism. The approach taken by these two games is the opposite. Instead of everyone knowing the murderer at the start, nobody does, and indeed, every character is Schroedinger’s Murderer: there’s no way to know until you crank all the way through to the end of the system and open the box.
A Taste For Murder is structured in two distinct story phases. In the first the group establishes the familial relationships with the instruction to the players to make the
relationships dysfunctional. A victim is then selected and that player becomes the
inspector, who “investigates” the various remaining characters, all of whom are
encouraged to reveal deep dark secrets that would motivate the murder. After a
character has been “investigated” enough times, with successful escalation of their
motives for murder, the criminal is revealed.
This evasion of the central question seems like a neat circumvention of the well-
known problems with investigative games. Instead of tediously piecing together
clues, you simply decide who’s guilty and then reconcile everything. However, on a
fundamental level of story strucutre this evasion means that these two games leave
only the surface appearance of the genre intact. In order for this approach to work,
the game must inherently violate almost all of the famous “Rules of Detection” that
lurk in the story mechanics of most of the “Golden Age” fiction.
These rules were most cogently and clearly set out by R Austin Freeman and Willard
Wright writing as S. S. van Dyne’s. [Both in The Art of the Detective Story, edited
by Howard Haycraft] Both advocate strongly for the core principles of “ratiocination”
(i.e. logical deduction) and see the genre as entirely based around the concept
of equalizing the information accessible to the detective and the reader. These
principles are thrown out on the simple basis that there is no logical process for
determining the guilty party.
What that means is that inside the fiction created by these games, we no longer need
to really address the three principal questions of detective fiction. The action of the
game can thus be nominally “investigative” but the investigation is actually irrelevant.
It can be completely impossible to solve the crime in fictional terms: without the
arbitrary and irrecovable intervention of the system, ambiguity could always remain.
That makes the stories inherently unsatisfying as mysteries – it shunts the games
firmly into another interesting genre, the melodrama, where the revelations and
counter-revelations are given impetus by a murder.
I think this is reinforced by the play advice after the main rules, which is all about the interpersonal relationships and period detail. For me though, this begs the question
of the game’s existence. Why would I play a game called A Taste for Murder for
my dose of melodrama and interpersonal strife?
Dirty Secrets takes a quite different approach, and in a lot of ways is even more
difficult to use to create a satisfying crime story. The main difficulty is that where A
Taste For Murder calls for a collaborative “and” approach to improvised detail, Dirty
Secrets actively and enthusiastically calls for blocking and obstruction at every turn. It
is the most adversarial game I’ve ever read and after several attempts we eventually
had a fun game with it by basically disregarding all the play-style advice. It does
redeem itself though by mentioning the key phrase “Theory of the Crime.” What it
says is that in every scene, each player should have a theory of who did it, why and
how, and be working to insinuate facts which support their theory into the game.
It gives little guidance on what this theory should look like – what are the moving
parts, what are the constraints – but it does mention it. Once you as a group decide
that the adversarial aspect isn’t necessary, and collaborate on the theory of crime,
moving the conflicts into the fiction rather than around the table, the game does
produce a fictionally-functional crime, inasmuch as you are capable of it based on
your understanding of genre.
Is it practical to demand any genre-emulating game to also function as a poetics
for that genre? Do we need A Taste For Murder and Dirty Secrets to spell out the
possible crime schemas? Well- yes. I think that there is a tendency, exemplified
by these two games, to try and treat the game mechanics and the fiction they
create separately. The two are usually explained in parrallel, encouraging the
reader to see the points of equivalence, but there is a strong causal relationship to
story “anomalies” from certain mechanics. What we’re looking for here is a statement
like “X Rule implies Y player behaviour.”
In A Taste for Murder all the play advice is structured around the melodrama, but
there is no specific discussion of how the need to have motives for murder will shape
that melodrama. The advice is “investigate relationships, don’t investigate clues.” But
there isn’t a discussion on what kind of relationship is appropriate for the needs of the
story, other than it should be dark, and even that is mostly implicit from the text on
the character sheet.
One game that does integrate the fiction with the experience at the table fairly well
is EPOCH. It is built around explicitly calling out the effect of certain mechanics
on player behaviour, and hence on fictional outcomes. For example, when your
survival inside the fiction relies on you being interesting, then you make that effort to
be interesting. In the play-advice, EPOCH is one of the clearest games around for
outlining what will actually happen at the table, and how the game mechanics push
the game to turn out that way.
For my money then, we still need a better mouse-trap. For all that there have been
innovations around the field, the fundamental problems that exist with investigation-
based games have not been resolved. The most fundamental problem is the
construction of a crime with sufficient clues and sufficient robustness to be resolved
The various iterations of Gumshoe are often discussed as solving this problem,
but I think that while they have solved the problem of investigations stalling due to
failed dice rolls, no iteration that I’ve read cuts to the heart of how crimes should be
structured in fictional terms.
I think it’s worth being upfront in admitting that this is a problem with the fictional
as well as the gaming genre. There are two different answers – one in the so-
called “English” school AKA “Fair Play Method” AKA “Golden Age”, and one for the
so-called “hardboiled” detective.
The fair-play genre, that almost all investigative games have as their implicit model,
is based around the process of outlining a number of facts (aka clues) some of which
turn out to be false, and by cross-checking all the various stories against each other
you derive the one true situation. So inherently the genre is about penetrating lies,
and it is all-too-easy for an author (and hence, a GM) to “unfairly” stack the deck
such that the mystery might technically be solvable, but in practice be impossible.
Adding supernatural elements into the equation only compounds the problem.
To try and ensure that mysteries were “fair”, you get lists of rules like the ones
cited above. van Dyne’s rules constrain the type of crime and criminal quite closely.
Freeman and others allowed more freedom, but at the core, all of them wanted the
clues to be plainly and completely stated as such, and for those clues to fit together
in a logical pattern for the crime. I think that the GM must at least manage that much
– a puzzle with sufficient clues, which are apparent to the reader as clues. At that
point, a solution is at least possible. In conceptual terms, I think that is as far as
Gumshoe usually takes us. At this point, it is still very easy for something that the
GM believes is obvious to be all but incomprehensible to his players.
We must refine the concept of what a clue actually is in fictional terms. At the
most basic level you must deal with the three key questions: motive, means
and opportunity. In practical terms, most Golden Age fiction is oriented towards
untangling the very complex means and opportunity for the murder, with motives
often being fairly nominal – you can always default back to greed as a catch-all
motivation. Means and opportunity are the two rational parts of the equation – they’re
simply factual entities, and so easy to deal with fictively.
The GM needs to look at every one of their “clues” and ask themselves which
of these three major questions is answered by the clue. Does the clue point to a
means? Does it point to a motive? Does it point to an opportunity? If not – then
it’s not a clue; at best it’s a link in a scavenger hunt or a pointer to where a real
clue is hidden. A mystery then needs a minimum of 3 clues, one for each of the
big questions, and that is the critical element that needs to be discussed in game-
For RPGs these three things need to be relatively simple in comparison to the fiction.
I almost always use television as a guide for what can happen in an RPG. For a 3
hour session, I expect to get about the same amount of story and information as in
a 40 minute American TV episode. Or better yet, an episode of Scooby Doo. In that
context, strictures like van Dyne’s limit of 1 killer make a lot of sense.
Looking at the story mechanics in this way, we can see that A Taste for Murder
assumes that everyone has a means and opportunity, and so focuses exclusively
on motive. It is thus pretty much an inversion of the focus of a detective fiction. And
that makes a lot of sense from the point of view of structuring a game, since that is
the human component, and the component we are both naturally most interested
in and best able to deal with in terms of creating a fiction. As a result of the focus
on motive, the text is almost silent on those two big questions of Means and
Opportunity. That is why it wants you to investigate relationships instead of clues,
but it needs to come right out and say that. This is a constraint on the fiction: you
cannot create any aspect of the fiction which eliminates you as the guilty party on the
basis of lacking means or lacking opportunity. By pre-setting those, you now at least
guarantee a fiction that when it is arbitrarily resolved, makes sense. If you want to be
sophisticated about it, you can create the appearance of lacking means or lacking
opportunity, but you must always accept that facts will be revealed which dispell this
Hardboiled detectives took another approach entirely, which was to have a very
simple puzzle whose solution created a problematic situation. The drama then comes
from living with the crime, rather than solving it. This is one reason why it is claimed
to be “more realistic” even though it is patently not.
There is perhaps no clearer fictional example than The Maltese Falcon. Sam
Spade knows the solution to the formal problem almost immediately, and then
spends the bulk of the novel trying to decide what to do about it. Most hardboiled
novels resolve not through a careful recitation of facts, but the inherently unstable
situation creating a cascade of scenes until the guilty are played out. Investigation
is still an important part of the equation, but the fictions are built around the concept
that human drama is more important than puzzle solving. This is particularly evident
in the works of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler; later hardboiled writers
became more and more adept at integrating their essentially melodramatic stories
with a clue-puzzle complex. For example, Ross Macdonald can be read and enjoyed
in either mode.
This is a far better tack to take with RPGs, because it has no “failure” mode (i.e. not
solving the mystery) and has the possibility of numerous different possible outcomes.