The Mystery Machine

If I’m going to figure out how to get the best out of investigations in games, I really need to set down the things that cause me anguish about them. That way I’ll have a better idea of what strategies to employ to mitigate or avoid them.

They bore me.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I get bored in more than just mystery games. Sometimes it just doesn’t go right on the night does it. But with Investigation based scenarios (herein called IBS), well, they do tend to drag. The players turtle up at the slightest provocation, usually because any kind of violent consequence is extraordinarily lethal (for RPGs). Or they plan. And plan. And plan. Gumshoe has great advice for avoiding this trap: go out and get more clues. A good GM will figure out a way to deliver that advice in game.

They’re difficult.

Imagine five people sitting in a room. It’s a book club. One has an Agatha Christie novel, which he has read and enjoyed. The others haven’t read it at all. The non readers job is to find out the plot of the book. To do that they can ask questions of the person with the book. Some of the answers will be true, some false, some he won’t answer at all. At the end everyone has to compare notes. What are the odds anyone will get the killers identity?

The roleplay takes a back seat.

They are really all about player skill aren’t they? Especially the ones set in the modern day, where every PC suddenly becomes an IT expert because that’s what the player does for a living. It’s all about short cutting to the clues in order to ‘win’, drawing a relationship map, and staring at it like a particularly tricky Sudoku until there’s a fight at the end. Yes, it fosters talk between the players, normally a good thing, but it’s never in character, never in a cool locale, and is never interesting.

The NPCs suck

They have clues. They don’t give them out. Unless you pull a specific lever. Your only clues are from the way the GM portrays the character. No one is that good at GMing really.

There’s no game

“And we didn’t roll any dice all night!” is not a ringing endorsement of any game. It means nothing really happened that mattered.

Apart from all that, I love investigations!

Gumshoe is bringing me round though. I like a lot of the arguments and explanations it offers, on an intellectual level. Once I’ve finished off Ashen Stars and Mutant City Blues I’ll move on the the scenarios. That will be the real acid test for me: can they follow their own advice?

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1 Comment

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One response to “The Mystery Machine

  1. Richard

    Interesting.

    But, what I think you’ve described above are not problems with investigation games specifically, but more certain role playing games or sessions in general; all of the above I’ve witnessed in games other than investigations as much as, or more than, in investigations.

    Excess planning and turtling? Yep, can happen in fantasy sci-fi just as easily except that players may have an awareness that their characters are a litle more buff in those games so may actually grow a pair and drive things ocasionally. GMs, have a device to drive things forward.

    Plots? Just as difficult to get your head round in other genres and, deep breath, just as open to being railroady.

    Back seat roleplay? Imagine a sci-fi or fantasy game with constant OOC interruptions while players talk about the pc game the situation resembles or the thing that happened in Xena. The cool locale means nothing if I’m continually wrenched from it by irrelevant asides. You’re bang on about player knowledge but that’s the job of the player to not use their personal knowledge and play their character instead; again, not unique to investigation games.

    Npcs? Yep, sometimes in investigations they can be awkward and difficult to break down; the Esoterror Factbook has ideas about this. This falls within the remit of the GM to be flexible and play all NPCs as individuals and not stock awkward buggers. Players need to trust the GM is not being deliberately obstructive, after all he probably wants the plot to advance.

    Dice rolling? Different subject and open to variations in taste.

    Basically it’s all about the players and GMs; if they do a good job the game will be a good one. I don’t think the genre really matters in this other than if you’re not into that genre and its tropes in a meaningful way then you’re probably not going to have the best time at the table.

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