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A Question Of Agency?

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
@Fenris-77 That's an impressive piece of work. I didn't work things out in anything like that much detail, at least not before I started. I think that whatever layers emerged at my table came from answering questions from one session while prepping the next.
Its really just a mind map and some point form notes. I just already knew I needed faces, places, movement, and physical clues. Once you start I find new ideas tend to pop up as an organic part of the process.
 

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I've not seen one tied to the CSI lineage of TV shows, but...

There are a bunch of games where the process of solving mysteries is a major expected avenue of play...
Including L5R, Crime Fighters (the late 80's one from TFG), Dresden Files, and Call of Cthulhu, amongst dozens of others.
Yeah, I was just thinking of a format where there is ongoing solutions of cases or something. That would make 'solve this specific mystery' not so big of a deal. I would point out that many games that have had mysteries as an integral part have actually had NO real solution for how to handle them. CoC is a poster child for this, it is really no help at all. The rules are actually more in the way than helpful. Never played or read L5R, but what I understand of it is a pretty classic 90's RPG. Likewise no knowledge of Crime Fighters. Dresden Files is based on SotC is it not? I'd hope that it can basically handle this in a Story Now sort of sense.
 

Aldarc

Legend
So this is an interesting look at it. And it kind of raises a question in my mind. And this is just something that popped into my head reading the above, I don't mean this as a question specifically for you, @Bedrockgames , though I am interested in your take, too!

How does a player feel like Sherlock Holmes? How do we try to portray that in play?

There's the idea with this kind of mystery that there is information that's been intentionally obscured, and Holmes is going to find it, right? That's kind of the essential element.

Is the best way portray that in a game to be to try and replicate it? By that I mean, have the players be searching for the clues that are hidden in hope of finding them?

Or is there some other way? Because to be honest, Holmes stories sometimes require major intuitive leaps made by the character because he is a fictional character allowed to make those leaps......it's all the product of one author, and so Sherlock can make these crazy proclamations and he seems amazingly intuitive and observant. But it's all artifice.

I would think that trying to replicate that would either see the players fall short because their crazy intuitions will not likely be right, or the mystery itself would be simple in comparison to those of the kinds Holmes tends to get involved with.

Would that still make for an engaging game? Very possibly.

Or would it feel more Holmesesque if the players had some kind of ability to steer things beyond simply finding what's there? Would that feel more like Holmes?

If we think of his deductions as being class abilities and Doyle as his player......maybe there's a case for approaching mysteries in another way.

Not that I have any idea how you would do that. But just some thoughts.
The problem is, for a lot of players this isn't actually solving the mystery, this is helping to write a mystery story. Which is fine, but it isn't what someone who wants to have a go at the challenge of being a detective is looking for. And in such a case, I think having a concrete mystery external to the player is crucial. That said, it shouldn't mean there is only one way to solve. There may be one true event that occurred, but there ought to be many paths to arrive at the truth of that event, and the GM should be open to pathways that would realistically yield clues to the truth (even if the GM has not foreseen those pathways). In this sort of scenario, the GM is basically doing his or her best to run a holodeck Sherlock Holmes scenario for Data. If the GM just allows Data's theory, even if it is wrong, to become the truth, it isn't really beating the challenge (and players in this style want to genuinely win or genuinely lose)
I would possibly consider something akin to a solo play of Clue with the various cards regarding perpetrator, weapon, motive, etc. being selected face down and then placed away in a sleeve. Maybe something akin to Ironsworn could work, though with "solving mysteries" rather than "fulfilling oaths." You could then set up "easy," "medium," and "hard" mysteries that require various effort to solve.

Dresden Files is based on SotC is it not? I'd hope that it can basically handle this in a Story Now sort of sense.
Yeah, it's the Fate engine. There was a Dresden Files RPG that I believe used something closer to the SotC rules, but Dresden Files Accelerated is comparatively lighter, using the Fate Accelerated engine, but with the added complexity of playbook-like Mantles.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Yes, but there are difficulties. The 'walls' of this 'maze' are invisible, which is a big problem. I have a section in my 'classic dungeon' where there is a whole sub-level with invisible walls (they also shock you if you touch them, just to be even meaner). Nobody gets through that. Trying to navigate that stuff is just super nasty. There are almost no landmarks, it is hard to orient, even if you invent some tricks to (partially) map it.
Side question: is this invisible shock-maze something you designed yourself, or did you get it from a published source?

I ask because as a player I've met something very similar; which means if you designed your version yourself then you and my DM must share a hive mind or something. :)
 

pemerton

Legend
If someone was shot in the street, and I have two witnesses who are in custody who are the noted clue bearers for the attackers identity or description, but my players decide instead to go to every single house and see who saw something (and I think to myself, yeah, I guess somebody would have seen something----I live on a street with houses and look out the window when something sounding like gunfire makes a noise), I think it is reasonable and fair to say they can get the information from this path rather than going to the suspects in custody.
In resolution structure, how is that different from the AW or DW moves which oblige the GM to answer a question like What here is not what it seems? or Who is in charge here?

The players are making a move that obliges the GM to author new fiction that answers a question the players have posed.
 

In resolution structure, how is that different from the AW or DW moves which oblige the GM to answer a question like What here is not what it seems? or Who is in charge here?

The players are making a move that obliges the GM to author new fiction that answers a question the players have posed.

i don’t know AW enough, so you may have to answer that. But this is just a pretty standard GM technique. Perhaps it is more formalized in AW. so possibly the difference is in the formal ways moves operate in those games. The one possible difference I see is in my situation the GM is working if the facts established about the mystery and answering as logically as possible when the players go into unexpected territory or take unexpected action. But a question like what here isn’t what it seems appears more likely to be changing material of the mystery that wasn’t there before (not sure, just going by what the question suggests). Not sure why it would matter here though if they are similar or the same
 

I would possibly consider something akin to a solo play of Clue with the various cards regarding perpetrator, weapon, motive, etc. being selected face down and then placed away in a sleeve. Maybe something akin to Ironsworn could work, though with "solving mysteries" rather than "fulfilling oaths." You could then set up "easy," "medium," and "hard" mysteries that require various effort to solve.
Yes, but interestingly you don't 'solve a mystery' in Clue. There is actually no explanation of what the clues are. In fact, amusingly Clue has no clues at all! You simply reveal cards without the slightest explanation of how the investigation is carried out, or what it consists of. Why is it not possible that Mr Mustard did it in the Study? We have no idea, this is not addressed. So Clue is not a model for a mystery game at all, and in fact it is a pretty silly game with as much sophistication as Tic, Tac, Toe when you get right down to it.

I don't really see how Ironsworn helps much either. It is a thoroughly narrativist game in which the players invent the fiction, or else it is generated via 'oracles'. The 'fulfilling oaths' part is a structured set of GOALS that the players, through their PCs, construct, but the rules don't really address how you achieve them, except through the mechanics of play. It is in these actual mechanics that a pure mystery story game would have to deal with a mystery. In order for that game to achieve success by the criteria of the 'traditional' non-narrativists in this discusion it would have to involve a fixed answer to a mystery which can only be revealed by either specific player declarations "I search the dresser." or mediated through skill checks which resolve those actions "I do a thorough search and roll an X on my Search skill check."

Frankly, I don't see that the above approach will ever avoid the pitfalls of "its too simple" or "its too complicated." Any given mystery MIGHT manage to fall in the 'sweet spot', but that spot is going to be different for every set of players and GM. So writing one would be pure hit and miss. Thus any rules which would produce reliable success at a session would need to 'calibrate'. However, the mere fact of that calibration is anathema to some, as it implies a game architecture in which there is some roughly fixed overall probability of success which doesn't map too closely to the approach taken by the players. This undermines any goal of building a system where the players both reliably enjoy solving a challenging mystery, AND feel like solving said mystery was a genuine challenge and not a pretense.

For these reasons I conclude that the most sensible design paradigm for such a game (or subsystem of an existing game if you will) would be a narrativist approach, a kind of Story Now in which the focus was moved from purely "can we follow the clues and solve the mystery" to some kind of social and psychological, or political/other implications and ramifications arise in the course of trying to solve this particular mystery. I think we've already discussed some examples of such story lines.
Yeah, it's the Fate engine. There was a Dresden Files RPG that I believe used something closer to the SotC rules, but Dresden Files Accelerated is comparatively lighter, using the Fate Accelerated engine, but with the added complexity of playbook-like Mantles.
Ah, given that I was never really sucked into that whole genre much I guess I never knew there were TWO different RPGs covering the same IP. I remember the earlier SotC based one as being favorably received. I've never played any SotC-based games, but I did read through the core rules way back when. It seemed like a fairly reasonable system core for this kind of thing.

I'm thinking that a PbtA might work pretty well too. You could spin that a few different ways. Focus on the social conflicts, on the 'police procedure' aspect, or perhaps on the internal mental state of the 'detective' (ala a lot of 'film noir' detective pictures). I'm sure there would be other possibilities as well that would work with a playbook centered system like that. It sounds like the 'playbook-like Mantles' you mention would be pretty suitable to this kind of psychological 'grey area' sort of game.
 

Side question: is this invisible shock-maze something you designed yourself, or did you get it from a published source?

I ask because as a player I've met something very similar; which means if you designed your version yourself then you and my DM must share a hive mind or something. :)
Yeah, I invented it, it is in a huge dungeon that is 'explained' as "Ancient ruined dwarf city that various squatters have hacked on." I guess one was a particularly sadistic evil wizard... I don't recall an inspiration from other material for this part. I also don't tend to read a lot of modules/dungeons since I like making up my own stuff, so I am not sure where I would have gotten an idea for it. Anyway, it was definitely something I invented before about 1994, since it was part of at least one 2e campaign I ran with people I lived with back then.

I also doubt anyone copied it from me. A bunch of people have had the pleasure of stumbling into that maze, but I don't think any of them have gone to the trouble of publishing any RPG material, nor writing about it, etc. There is one person on EnWorld that was in the 4e campaign where it featured, though I don't think she's very active these days.
 

i don’t know AW enough, so you may have to answer that. But this is just a pretty standard GM technique. Perhaps it is more formalized in AW. so possibly the difference is in the formal ways moves operate in those games. The one possible difference I see is in my situation the GM is working if the facts established about the mystery and answering as logically as possible when the players go into unexpected territory or take unexpected action. But a question like what here isn’t what it seems appears more likely to be changing material of the mystery that wasn’t there before (not sure, just going by what the question suggests). Not sure why it would matter here though if they are similar or the same
I think there are a couple of aspects to a "what here is not what it seems." (This is one of the outcomes of the 'Discern Realities' move in Dungeon World, not sure about AW). First of all it obviously has an aspect of simply 'perception' and assuming the GM can simply answer the question straightforwardly (IE a section of the wall to the north is actually a secret door) then it can function like that.

However, in DW, the GM is OBLIGED to answer the question, and an answer of "all is as it seems" isn't really kosher. In fact DW specifies that the PC making the move gets a "+1 Forward when acting on the answers" (so the GM's response logically must have fictional in-game utility to the PC which explains why they get this bonus). Of course the bonus will only assert itself if the PC's further actions engage with the answer. If the GM responded to "what happened here recently?" (another question that can be asked) and the GM said "some goblins passed through, you see their footprints" then surprising the goblins later might get the +1, assuming the PCs track them. If they ignore the clue, then there's no benefit.

The main point is, DR often obliges the GM to make something up. If it was a move in a mystery solving scenario, then clues would appear wherever it was applied! I would expect a mystery game based on PbtA would have to tweak the core moves, but I'm not sure what that would look like without first working out what the focus of the game really was.
 

Yes, but interestingly you don't 'solve a mystery' in Clue. There is actually no explanation of what the clues are. In fact, amusingly Clue has no clues at all! You simply reveal cards without the slightest explanation of how the investigation is carried out, or what it consists of. Why is it not possible that Mr Mustard did it in the Study? We have no idea, this is not addressed. So Clue is not a model for a mystery game at all, and in fact it is a pretty silly game with as much sophistication as Tic, Tac, Toe when you get right down to it.

I don't think this is a fair assessment of clue. It approximates the feel of a mystery by providing a game, if I recall correctly, based largely on the process of elimination. There is still some mental challenge there, and its simplicity is its appeal. Like I said, there were much deeper bookshelf mystery games made in the 70s (I have an aunt with shelves of them) and they were often better at getting at the sort of mystery solving game I am talking about. But that doesn't make clue a bad game or a bad mystery game. Clue is perennially popular I think because it is a very easy, fast, and fun way to do mystery but with broad appeal.
 

I think there are a couple of aspects to a "what here is not what it seems." (This is one of the outcomes of the 'Discern Realities' move in Dungeon World, not sure about AW). First of all it obviously has an aspect of simply 'perception' and assuming the GM can simply answer the question straightforwardly (IE a section of the wall to the north is actually a secret door) then it can function like that.

However, in DW, the GM is OBLIGED to answer the question, and an answer of "all is as it seems" isn't really kosher. In fact DW specifies that the PC making the move gets a "+1 Forward when acting on the answers" (so the GM's response logically must have fictional in-game utility to the PC which explains why they get this bonus). Of course the bonus will only assert itself if the PC's further actions engage with the answer. If the GM responded to "what happened here recently?" (another question that can be asked) and the GM said "some goblins passed through, you see their footprints" then surprising the goblins later might get the +1, assuming the PCs track them. If they ignore the clue, then there's no benefit.

The main point is, DR often obliges the GM to make something up. If it was a move in a mystery solving scenario, then clues would appear wherever it was applied! I would expect a mystery game based on PbtA would have to tweak the core moves, but I'm not sure what that would look like without first working out what the focus of the game really was.

If that is the case and if I understand then this is definitely different than the example I provided of the witnesses on the street. In that case the players are simply going to place the GM didn't expect (to peoples houses on the street) and asking if anyone saw anything. The GM thinking about this, decides yes there was a gunshot in the street, certainly it is plausible someone who lived on the street saw the event or saw the suspect fleeing. What information that person might have the GM either decides or rolls based on some sense of the likelihood. But nothing about the event they witnessed is changed by this, and nothing really is changed. The GM is brining enabling their exploration of the mystery by going beyond the notes for it, but being true to the backstory and events that transpired.
 

When I say be Holmes, I mean in Holmes shoes to play detective. What you are describing is what I mean by simulating Holmes, which is a totally viable option. But it isn't the same as playing the game Holmes is playing. In this style I am there to strive to be like Holmes, to pit my wits against the scenario the way Holmes does. I think a lot of people who are fans of mysteries, approach mystery novels this way (they are interested in solving the mystery before the story reachers its conclusion). That is how I read mystery novels, and for this type of person and for me, the most fun I have in mystery scenarios is getting an opportunity to truly play detective. This isn't about Sherlock Holmes specifically. This is about seeing how good of an ace detective you can be, and trying to become a better one. My point is, that is the game some players want to be playing. If you are playing it this way for this reason, you don't care if tests of strength in the game are testing your real world strength, you care that your mind is solving the puzzle. Bridging the gap between the players mental abilities and the characters makes sense if you want to simulate Sherlock holmes, but bridging that gap interferes with playing the game of solving the mystery i you want to be in Sherlock Holmes' shoes.

Again, both approaches are fine.

Right. I agree that both approaches are fine in so far as they may be fun and the participants may be perfectly happy to play in such a way. All approaches are fine in that sense.

I'm just trying to consider if different methods would suit a whodunnit style mystery as RPG. My experience with the Star Trek scenario, which had an apparent accident as the point of investigation, and then different clues or details that could be gathered from either investigating the scene of the accident or a couple of other locaitons, or from questioning the people involved, with all of these being resolved through Skill rolls (or whatever the game calls them!), was not very fun for me at all. I mean, I had fun in the sense that I was hanging with my friends and we had some laughs and so we all had fun. But the game in and of itself was not engaging for me as a player at all.

I simply didn't feel like a detective or like I accomplished anything by piecing together the puzzle. Because this is a perfect example of "RPG as puzzle solving" that was mentioned earlier in the thread. Now, I'm not saying that I can never be engaged by that kind of game.....thinking about it now, I can likely rattle off several examples of that kind of play that I did feel was engaging.....but as the central focus of an entire session it left a lot to be desired.

The mystery wasn't all that compelling and the use of game mechanics was not all that exciting. It wasn't terribly difficult to figure out, ultimately; any difficulty in that regard was more a case of format. Like I remember at one point someone saying somthing along the lines of "Oh wait, you said that engineer we spoke to went to academy with the victim right? Or was it the scientist?" which are the kinds of details that can be blurry in a game but no so when you're actually a detective experiencing interactions with people. Once we resolved any of those, and we had our characters engage in the right locations/NPCs to the correct extent, the answer became clear, and the culprit was revealed. The one bit of credit I will give this published scenario is that the actual culprit was not the most obvious choice.

At the same time, I feel if the mystery were to be more complex, it would easily move into impossible to solve territory. So I think it's a tricky tightrope to walk as a RPG. I know other games address this in different ways....Gumshoe, notably, and some others that have been mentioned. @Fenris-77 provided a pretty interesting node based approach, which I think would probably map to the Gumshoe system pretty well. I've still seen plenty of criticisms of that kind of approach online, as well.

When you say correct solution, what do you mean? Does solution here equal who did it, or does solution mean the ways you can discover who did it? I would see those as two very different things. I think for the style of play I am talking about, you need an objective event that is set: Frank killed John by strangling him to death in the attic, because he was jealous over Loraine. The GM might plan out all the possible ways clues could be found (and these, in my view, should fit a consistent and logical backstory so the clues all make sense). But the players might come up with a way to find clues that would reasonably yield them in this scenario, even if the GM hadn't considered them. That is what I mean more than one path to a solution. Understand with mysteries for someone like me solving what actually happened is the point. If you are a fan of mysteries this is also often the point of reading them (if you sense the writer didn't know who did it and how from the beginning, and didn't have all the details pinned down, it can ruin the book). So if the GM is deciding that Loraine Kills Frank instead because the players went down that path of reasoning instead, I think this would take away from any real sense I had of solving it were I to know this (and I think one would start to suspect this after several sessions)

Here is my question for you in this regard. What if the process for this was still all in the hands of the GM in the sense that the GM decides what happened and how, but doesn't actually commit to all of it before hand? Because it seems to me that your sticking point is looking at this as a challenge, and the satisfaction from overcoming the challenge.

Do you think that in order for this to be challenging to players, all the relevant details or clues need to be established ahead of time? Or maybe only most of them? Or do you think that such a scenario can still be challenging to players if a GM is determining some of these things at the time of play?
 

Frankly, I don't see that the above approach will ever avoid the pitfalls of "its too simple" or "its too complicated." Any given mystery MIGHT manage to fall in the 'sweet spot', but that spot is going to be different for every set of players and GM. So writing one would be pure hit and miss. Thus any rules which would produce reliable success at a session would need to 'calibrate'. However, the mere fact of that calibration is anathema to some, as it implies a game architecture in which there is some roughly fixed overall probability of success which doesn't map too closely to the approach taken by the players. This undermines any goal of building a system where the players both reliably enjoy solving a challenging mystery, AND feel like solving said mystery was a genuine challenge and not a pretense.

This is a really great summary of the problem, in my opinion.

Too easy and it's boring. Too hard and it's frustrating. Combined with the fact that a mystery kind of requires some structure; by its very nature, it's plot driven, so it risks becoming a railroad.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
One of the main complaints about node based design is that it's a recipe for a railroad (to quote @pemerton from upstream). To an extent that's a fair criticism too. One the other hand, if you're talking about a mystery or a conspiracy there are, by their very nature, going to be a finite number of clues, a finite number of things to find out. Where node based design goes off the rails for me is to tie clue X specifically to location A. Sure, there's the three clue rule too, but that doesn't cover locations that aren't on the concept map. So I make room in my game for off piste players by using clue tables that I can roll on for all those unexpected player moves, and those clues tend to index the core nexus points of the mystery and are only partially defined, so the same result could be rolled a couple of times to produce and still work - identical basic content but set dressing improvised based on the the fiction. The use of tables also saves me from charges of illusionism and forces me to be more honest in adjudication.
 

Campbell

Legend
This is a really great summary of the problem, in my opinion.

Too easy and it's boring. Too hard and it's frustrating. Combined with the fact that a mystery kind of requires some structure; by its very nature, it's plot driven, so it risks becoming a railroad.

I think what's most difficult is tying it to the here and now. A mystery on its own is not what I would consider a playable scenario. There need to be real stakes and real decisions to be made by the players. It should not just be about figuring out what already happened. It should be input in how things are about to happen.
 

Here is my question for you in this regard. What if the process for this was still all in the hands of the GM in the sense that the GM decides what happened and how, but doesn't actually commit to all of it before hand? Because it seems to me that your sticking point is looking at this as a challenge, and the satisfaction from overcoming the challenge.

Do you think that in order for this to be challenging to players, all the relevant details or clues need to be established ahead of time? Or maybe only most of them? Or do you think that such a scenario can still be challenging to players if a GM is determining some of these things at the time of play?

The sticking point for me is whether I am actually solving the mystery or not. I think for there to be a real mystery, with real clues, to solve as a game or puzzle, you need to have those concrete details hammered out first. What happens in the course of play, this does not need to be hammered out first. Who did it, where, when, why, etc. all that is the stuff that needs to be detailed by the GM before the game for this kind of mystery to solved. So it isn't just about challenge. You can challenge me with a more amorphous mystery and tough foes. But the challenge I want is to pit my brain against a scenario where an objective crime or situation has occurred, and I have to solve it. I do think there will always be gray areas (for example the GM may realize something naturally would have happened, that he hadn't thought of before, due to players investigating and questioning certain things). But anything the Gm makes up on the fly needs to honor the backstory that was established and the clues that came from that backstory, for it to be the kind of play I am describing.
 

This is a really great summary of the problem, in my opinion.

Too easy and it's boring. Too hard and it's frustrating. Combined with the fact that a mystery kind of requires some structure; by its very nature, it's plot driven, so it risks becoming a railroad.

I get it may not be your cup of tea. I get you may get frustrated if you don't solve the mystery. Plenty of us have engaged this style and been perfectly satisfied (and can accept some mysteries will be easier and some will be harder). Again, if it isn't your style that is fine. But this style of play is far from impossible to pull of or to enjoy.
 

I think what's most difficult is tying it to the here and now. A mystery on its own is not what I would consider a playable scenario. There need to be real stakes and real decisions to be made by the players. It should not just be about figuring out what already happened. It should be input in how things are about to happen.

I think this is going to vary by mystery. Again, in the style I am talking about, the mysteries could be anywhere from leisurely (where the detectives are slowly and freely piecing things together, with no real threat in the mix) to dangerous (where there is an actor or force still active and threatening even after the initial triggering event. This could be in the form of someone trying to thwart the PCs from finding the truth to something more serious like a terrorist attack or a supernatural event (this is what I meant by a looming countdown before).
 

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