RPG Evolution: Ratioed

Solving a murder mystery? You might need some ratiocination first.

Solving a murder mystery? You might need some ratiocination first.


Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

The Fundamentals of a Murder Mystery

It's not uncommon to have characters involved in a murder mystery in a quest to identify the real killer. While the fundamentals of investigation are something we take for granted today, they evolved only quite recently in fiction.

To begin with, the justice system needs to care about the facts of the case. What might seem self-evident today wasn't true for medieval societies, in which the ruling class was more concerned about divine judgement or reputation. The city watch didn't have the tools to determine guilt or innocent and were more preoccupied with keeping the peace.

You'll see this trope in media that portrays murder mysteries without systems to support them, with the characters usually coming from more scientific backgrounds but considered outcasts or oddities by law enforcement.

In movies like Sleepy Hollow (which takes place in 1799), the New York police constable Ichabod Crane (far different from the original tale with Ichabod as a Connecticut schoolmaster) is criticized for using scientific methods to solve crimes. Although the movie involves supernatural elements, the setup is necessary to create the grounds for an investigation audiences will recognize from modern whodunnits.

Similarly, Barbara Hambly's fiction novel Those Who Hunt the Night is about professor and former spy and James Asher and his wife Lydia Asher, a physician with a keenly analytical mind. The book's premise involves vampires hiring the human investigators to get to the bottom of multiple murdered vampires. With James' procedural instincts and Lydia's scientific thought process, they apply logic to supernatural creatures to help solve the crime.

It's no surprise then that these characters are sometimes referred to as the Scully, inspired by Dana Scully from the X-Files, the skeptical scientific counterpart to Fox Mulder. But what distinguishes a Scully from a Mulder? For that we have to look to Edgar Allen Poe.

What's Ratiocination?

The origins of the term "ratiocination" can be found in Poe's stories. Poe believed in using a system to determine the cause of unknown events, no matter how outlandish they may seem at first. He demonstrated the application of ratiocination through his detective C. Auguste Dupin, who sees crimes as puzzles to be solved. This is most evident in The Murders in the Rue Morgue, in which the killer isn't even human. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes was certainly inspired by Dupin (and in fact, in the first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, Doctor Watson compares Holmes to Dupin), and later Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot.

To wit, ratiocination requires belief in facts and the ability to find them through analysis. These tropes are common in detective fiction today but didn't exist in popular form until Poe, and even then were relegated to gentlemen detectives instead of police forces. That would come later, as the trope became more common and policing shifted from keeping the peace to preventing crime.

All this means that if you plan to introduce a murder mystery into a fantasy campaign where facts matter, you'll need to establish some ratiocination.

Fantasy Applications

The easiest means of inserting ratiocination into a fantasy campaign is through the player characters. PCs can be eccentric, smarter than everyone else, and have the means to investigate a crime through magic or skill. Arcane spellcasters and rogues make for the best investigators, but it really depends on how the crime is positioned in the game. If it is meant to be solved by players (and thus a fair-play whodunnit), any analytical player might be able to solve the crime. If it is an in-fiction crime meant to only be solved by characters, high Intelligence and Wisdom characters will likely have to make skill or ability checks to pick up on clues.

Even if a PC does solve a crime, police forces and judicial systems may have little use for the conclusions. The game master will have to determine the technology level of their police force and their investigative techniques, as well as the judicial system's interest in facts vs. reputation (or, in theological societies, divine judgement).

And finally there's a question if anyone actually cares about facts. In a world of magic, enchantment spells can coerce testimony and divination spells can find killers easily enough. But are there magical counters to stop them? Pushed too far, and ratiocination in a fantasy world becomes impossible if someone can simply cast a wish spell and completely alter reality, making logic impossible to apply to any crime backed by sufficiently powerful magic. It's possible to have ratiocination in an illogical world, as Scully demonstrates. But in a world where miracles are real, it can make the rational character the odd one out.

We discuss the implications of ratiocination in our podcast, 50 Date Night Screams, when we apply more modern detective fiction tropes to fantasy villains.

Your Turn: How much logic and deductive reasoning do investigators use in your fantasy campaign?

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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca


He had a case once where one person was hit by a car, but that was not what killed him he had been poisoned, stabbed and shot before the car hit him. The one who poisoned him was the real murderer as the stabbing was not fatal and the shot could have been treated but the poison was hemlock and seconds after being hit by the car he died.

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