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A Question Of Agency?


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pemerton

Legend
Your mention of red herrings has (of course) gotten me thinking of whodunit-esque mysteries--which aren't a super fit for TRPGs because the pleasures of the genre (in books, movies, etc.) aren't all that compatible with the pleasures of TRPGs. Obviously, if one is running such an adventure in D&D, the expectation is that the emergent story is going to be about the players figuring out who the killer is, probably with some sort of (probably metaphorical) ticking clock, and that the DM knows who did it. I know people have run mystery-type stories in FitD or PbtA games, but it seems to me that they'd have to work differently around the table. It seems likely to me they'd have to focus less on if the playerss will figure out the mystery and more on the results and repercussions when the PCs do so. This isn't intended on slagging on such games, FWIW; I'm just saying the play experience, here, would be a very different one.
At one stage (low Paragon) my 4e D&D game involved a "kidnap" mystery. The general shape of the events and personalities was established by me (as GM), in advance. I'm sure there was some tweaking/massaging to reflect developments as we went along, but it's a bit hazy.

The big reveal was that the "kidnapped" niece (daughter? it's a bit hazy) was in fact herself a necromancer and member of the Vecna cult rather than their victim. I can't recall at what point I decided on that. I can't find stats for her in my files, which means I may have been using a sourcebook (probably Open Grave), which means the decision might have been made quite close to the moment of play. But it seems more likely I had it in mind as part of the set-up.
 


prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
At one stage (low Paragon) my 4e D&D game involved a "kidnap" mystery. The general shape of the events and personalities was established by me (as GM), in advance. I'm sure there was some tweaking/massaging to reflect developments as we went along, but it's a bit hazy.

The big reveal was that the "kidnapped" niece (daughter? it's a bit hazy) was in fact herself a necromancer and member of the Vecna cult rather than their victim. I can't recall at what point I decided on that. I can't find stats for her in my files, which means I may have been using a sourcebook (probably Open Grave), which means the decision might have been made quite close to the moment of play. But it seems more likely I had it in mind as part of the set-up.
It's a tricky line to walk (but I'm sure you and your players enjoyed it): The pleasures of ratiocination mysteries (IMO) are either you beat the detective to the solution, or you follow the detective's thoughts as they explain the solution; the former seems difficult without some sort of clock, and the latter doesn't seem tenable to me in a TRPG.

My solution when I ad-libbed myself into this particular corner was to have the mystery they were trying to solve--if the merchant didn't murder his lover, who did (and why)?--tie into a larger plot that was a threat to the entire dwarven stronghold the party were in. The party figured out the broad outlines and started working to alert the stronghold--in the larger scale, it didn't matter much that they'd guessed doppelgangers when the shapeshifters in question were oni (ogre magi), and the party's moves to get word of the plot to the hierarchy turned the party into targets, so things worked out relatively well.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
It's a tricky line to walk (but I'm sure you and your players enjoyed it): The pleasures of ratiocination mysteries (IMO) are either you beat the detective to the solution, or you follow the detective's thoughts as they explain the solution; the former seems difficult without some sort of clock, and the latter doesn't seem tenable to me in a TRPG.
That sounds true for detective fiction, but I'm not sure it's true for mysteries in RPGs. Personally, I think the main draw is straight up the joy of finding things out. Plus a side order of feeling clever.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
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That sounds true for detective fiction, but I'm not sure it's true for mysteries in RPGs. Personally, I think the main draw is straight up the joy of finding things out. Plus a side order of feeling clever.
Yeah, I think that's the way they play at the table. The hard thing, I guess, is getting the difficulty level right, just like anything else. I guess I just didn't (before running one) trust myself to do so--and failing on the too-hard side is kinda fun-breaking, IMO.
 


prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
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Lotsa clues, and some flex on the GM side and you'll be fine.
As it turned out, lots and lots of clues, and there was some flex as to when other things were going to happen. I think the one that did it was when the merchant and his lover were seen arguing in two places at the same time (or close enough). When the players figured out there were shapechangers at play I was happy we were gaming online so they couldn't see my victory arms. \o/!
 


I can think of other variations that might work. The PCs are actually trying to pull off the murder (IE cover it up, not solve it). @prabe's idea sounds quite good too. Another set of scenarios might involve situations where it isn't required to solve, like it is politically expedient to pin it on M, and it doesn't really matter who the real killer is (though this begs for a plot twist as well). The PCs could be any of the parties in this sort of thing, or maybe even all of them...

Another option would be a party of PCs who don't trust each other. The Netflix series IMPOSTERS has a story arc sort of like this (there isn't a murder to solve, but there are some other crimes). None of the main characters knows exactly who to trust, and neither do the viewers. Everyone is a con artist, so who trust anything anyone does or says?

I think you can make some of these work with various story telling models as well, but maybe not all of them. A classic whodoneit pretty much seems like it needs one GM who knows the plot and players who don't.
 


pemerton

Legend
It's a tricky line to walk (but I'm sure you and your players enjoyed it): The pleasures of ratiocination mysteries (IMO) are either you beat the detective to the solution, or you follow the detective's thoughts as they explain the solution; the former seems difficult without some sort of clock, and the latter doesn't seem tenable to me in a TRPG.
I think the analogue in a RPG of "beating the detective" is figuring it out before the GM reveals it in a way that counts as a loss for the PCs (and so for the players too).

I don't think my kidnapping mystery would have slowed down Poirot for very long! I also think it's hard to do physical evidence or personality/behaviour-type evidence in a RPG because that has to be conveyed via the spoken word which tends to foreground the stuff that the detective should be inferring.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
I think the analogue in a RPG of "beating the detective" is figuring it out before the GM reveals it in a way that counts as a loss for the PCs (and so for the players too).
That's probably about right. I don't know that an actual clock is necessary--the sense of diminishing time before something goes bad might work well enough. Certainly the other (lesser?) pleasure of the genre--following along with the detective as they solve the mystery--is not going to translate to TRPG play.
I don't think my kidnapping mystery would have slowed down Poirot for very long! I also think it's hard to do physical evidence or personality/behaviour-type evidence in a RPG because that has to be conveyed via the spoken word which tends to foreground the stuff that the detective should be inferring.
Yeah. The PCs in my mystery had received a trustworthy divination that told them the merchant wasn't a murderer, so they knew it was someone else. The witness-type evidence they developed worked out well--as I think you are saying would be likely. I can see how maybe some physical-type evidence could be made to work in play, if you have players who can make the leaps (the head is bashed in, but there's no blood spatter, so it was done with one blow, so the killer is really (plausibly superhumanly) strong), and using something like Insight/Sense Motive to see if someone is lying seems to make sense; but I agree there are kinds of detective-type activity that are hard to make go as part of play, and letting skill checks take care of the inferences seems more likely than not to lead to the players being in "watch the detective figure it out" mode.
 

Mysteries can be tough.

About a year ago, my group played some of Modiphius’s Star Trek Adventures. A buddy of mine is a big Trek fan and wanted to run it, and despite nit being a big Trek fan myself, I’m always happy to take a break from the GM seat and play a bit.

I bounced off of this game in almost every way possible. Some of the mechanics were pretty interesting, and they have a kind of lifepath character generation method that’s cool, but everything else felt very predetermined.

This was not helped by one of the scenarios that he ran us through. It’s a published one, but I couldn’t say in what product. It’s a mystery. There’s been what appears to have been an accident with some experiment, and some scientists are dead. The goal of the scenario is to piece together bits of info to try and get to the actual truth.

It basically became a case of the PCs asking questions of different NPCs and some answers were gated behind rolls. So it’s just a slow crawl to ultimately solving the mystery.

It was brutal.

I don’t think it was just the scenario. The GM who ran it is a very by the book kind of GM. He’s run countless hours of public games at a game store for a wide variety of players. I think this has conditioned him to always stick with prewritten adventures. So that was part of it too. Plus, my kind of chafing at the Star Trek constraints, which is my own thing.

Before playing that game, I already tended to avoid games or scenarios that involve that kind of “whodunnit” mystery. That game pretty much convinced me to never mess with it again. I’m sure it can be done, but for me it’s a risk/reward thing.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
@hawkeyefan That's kinda a worst-cast scenario, and one of the failure-states I was trying to avoid. Even though the mystery-adjacent scenario I ran worked out pretty well, I'm still leery of them in general.

Of course, I also have never been able to make sense of any published adventures, so I don't run them.
 

Mysteries can be tough.

About a year ago, my group played some of Modiphius’s Star Trek Adventures. A buddy of mine is a big Trek fan and wanted to run it, and despite nit being a big Trek fan myself, I’m always happy to take a break from the GM seat and play a bit.

I bounced off of this game in almost every way possible. Some of the mechanics were pretty interesting, and they have a kind of lifepath character generation method that’s cool, but everything else felt very predetermined.

This was not helped by one of the scenarios that he ran us through. It’s a published one, but I couldn’t say in what product. It’s a mystery. There’s been what appears to have been an accident with some experiment, and some scientists are dead. The goal of the scenario is to piece together bits of info to try and get to the actual truth.

It basically became a case of the PCs asking questions of different NPCs and some answers were gated behind rolls. So it’s just a slow crawl to ultimately solving the mystery.

It was brutal.

I don’t think it was just the scenario. The GM who ran it is a very by the book kind of GM. He’s run countless hours of public games at a game store for a wide variety of players. I think this has conditioned him to always stick with prewritten adventures. So that was part of it too. Plus, my kind of chafing at the Star Trek constraints, which is my own thing.

Before playing that game, I already tended to avoid games or scenarios that involve that kind of “whodunnit” mystery. That game pretty much convinced me to never mess with it again. I’m sure it can be done, but for me it’s a risk/reward thing.

I think it is about goals going in. If the fun for the players is the solving of the mystery, the finding of clues, and the possibility of failure (because the game is the mystery), the traditional approach with structural approaches like the three clue rule are a good approach (I like adding a ticking time clock to my mysteries to make sure things stay exciting even if they bog down: works well for counter terrorism mystery adventures). If failure to solve is a problem for the group, Gumshoe has a good approach for getting around that issue (and even if you don't use Gumshoe, some of its advice is still helpful: for example while I don't take the Gumshoe approach it has prompted me to realize some clues, due to their nature, simply don't need to be rolled to obtained).

My approach to clue finding is: big obvious clues need no roll. Less obvious clues need to be searched for actively (in which case specific types of searches like "I look in the drawer" would yield the clue without needing a roll). Basically I try to use skill searches when players are not actively engaging the environment but doing so more passively. Also, spending an hour to search through everything in a room can turn it up, unless it is particularly well hidden. Also the same clue can often be found in multiple places, and I always consider whether an action taken by the PCs would reasonably yield a given clue, even if I hadn't thought of it before the game----this happened for instance when a group of players did a phone records search that I never considered when I was making the mystery.

One technique I use is having some looming disaster that triggers if the players don't solve the mystery by a certain point. I like this because it also means the outcome is very different depending on what the players spend their time doing (I have had supernatural adventures where monsters are unleashed if the mystery isn't solved, and I have had adventures where a terror attack takes place at a festival if the mystery isn't solved. Both these outcomes still gave the players something to do, even something to investigate, in the adventure. They just kind of kick it into high gear and show the players how high the stakes are (and you can have multiple tiers of these kinds of events).
 

@hawkeyefan That's kinda a worst-cast scenario, and one of the failure-states I was trying to avoid. Even though the mystery-adjacent scenario I ran worked out pretty well, I'm still leery of them in general.

Of course, I also have never been able to make sense of any published adventures, so I don't run them.

Oh yes, I realize it was a worst case kind of scenario for sure. It was a combination of a few things.

My takeaway though, from the perspective as a player, is that if everything is already determined ahead of time, then as a game, it's just a matter of jumping through the necessary hoops for the GM to narrate what has already been determined to me. It's very possible this can be mitigated in some way, as people have suggested above, but the risk with a "whodunnit" kind of mystery is that all the facts/clues/details are typically set beforehand, so that's a challenge. If I as a player feel that I'm not bringing anything unique or specifically me to the game, that things would (not may or could, but would) play out exactly the same if someone else was in my chair, then I'm probably not gonna dig it.

So from a GMing perspective, my takeaway is two things. First, if I already know everything that's going to happen in play, then I've erred. There needs to be things that are and can only be determined by the players at the time of play. I've very much embraced the "play to find out" mindset for the GM.

Second, why run this kind of scenario given how risky it would be to devolve into a railroad, when even if I manage it perfectly, it'll likely be as well received as any other scenario? And I'm certainly not averse to investigation based scenarios.....but the "whodunnit" style just requires so much predetermination by the GM that I don't see the reward being worth the risk. The juice isn't worth the squeeze.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
I don't disagree about whodunits--as whodunits--being at least potentially problematic. That said ...
So from a GMing perspective, my takeaway is two things. First, if I already know everything that's going to happen in play, then I've erred. There needs to be things that are and can only be determined by the players at the time of play. I've very much embraced the "play to find out" mindset for the GM.
I knew what was going on and who was doing it and why, and I knew (at least mostly) how they were going about it. I didn't know how the PCs were going to approach the situation, and I didn't know how they'd handle things--and it was at least in principle possible that they'd be able to demonstrate the merchant was innocent without digging up and triggering the larger problem.
Second, why run this kind of scenario given how risky it would be to devolve into a railroad, when even if I manage it perfectly, it'll likely be as well received as any other scenario? And I'm certainly not averse to investigation based scenarios.....but the "whodunnit" style just requires so much predetermination by the GM that I don't see the reward being worth the risk. The juice isn't worth the squeeze.
As I said, I kinda ad-libbed myself into running that mystery. The merchant hired the party to escort him to the dwarven stronghold, and I ended up needing reason/s for him to be persona non grata there. I didn't think the PCs would continue with the job if he was guilty, so he wasn't. So, if he wasn't guilty, something else needed to be going on, and that something else was what the party ended up finding as they were solving what looked like a whodunit.
 

That sounds true for detective fiction, but I'm not sure it's true for mysteries in RPGs. Personally, I think the main draw is straight up the joy of finding things out. Plus a side order of feeling clever.

I like to call this do you want to be in a Sherlock Holmes story or do you want to try to be Sherlock Holmes. Those are very different goals. One expects certain story tropes to emerge, clues to come together in certain ways, for the mystery to be solved by the master detective, and for him to find and piece together clues most of the time (even if he is stumped, you expect Sherlock Holmes to figure it out eventually). But if you are trying to be Sherlock Holmes, you want to experience the challenge of solving a mystery, which demands the possibility of not solving mystery to have any value. There are times, especially for certain types of adventures, for some, where it is more about giving in to the players desire to play a strategic or tactical game of chess in the setting. I think knowing what you are after, knowing what your group is after, is extremely important here. A lot of the arguments I've seen online about mysteries and investigations, are more about two people walking into a game with totally different goals in mind. Once you realize what yours are, it is a lot easier to find solutions to the mystery structure (that is why for some the three clue rule works great, but for others it doesn't; why some love Gumshoe, and some don't). This is an adventure structure I have used a lot, and done well, if you know what you are trying to do with it, it works great.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
This is an adventure structure I have used a lot, and done well, if you know what you are trying to do with it, it works great.
I agree with the post, overall, but I think "if you know what you are trying to do with it" includes--at least--knowing what the players want to get out of it, and having a pretty good sense of how challenging to make it to give them the level of challenge they want (which means knowing how good they are at figuring out stuff). I'm pretty sure you meant that--it seems to be in the subtext of your post--but in this instance making the implicit explicit hurts no one, IMO.
 

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