4/25/12

Running investigations and mysteries

I don't know about other folks, but when I started running games with a heavy investigative component, I structured them the way you see investigations structured in movies and books. Just add freedom of action for the PCs and stir. For some people, I'm sure this works great - your players piece together your cleverly (but not too cleverly) hidden bits of information and come to the conclusions that you expect.

This pretty much never worked for me. Too often, players miss key clues, no matter how smart the player or how obvious you've made the clues. Investigative games where players aren't finding their way have a habit of slowing to a crawl as the PCs start flailing - interacting with every NPC they find to try and get a hint, or throwing their characters at the setting to try and cause a reaction.

So, here are 3 things that I've done to make my investigative games work better:

Provide too many clues:
I don't do this as often as I should, but I've seen it work really well. In my experience, a lot of GMs try to control the pacing of investigative games by doling out clues sparingly. Instead, I try to do the opposite. Give the players a bunch of leads right at the beginning. Make following up on some of the leads dangerous, make some of the leads provide conflicting information and force the PCs to make choices based on the characters involved or the information presented - (who are the players going to trust - the Prince or the King's Steward?  

As with any clue, these still need to be compelling pieces of information. The players should be encouraged to come up with inventive ways corroborate or follow up on them, and there needs to be enough depth in the story or setting to support the players' efforts. Otherwise you can fall into offering the sort of meaningless binary 'choices' that too many computer games are guilty of. 

Make at least some of your clues modular:
A lot of leads don't really have to be placed with a specific trigger or area. The PCs could find the Steward's secret letters in his bedroom or in his office. I don't have a good book keeping way to deal with this (thoughts?), so I usually just keep a list of major and minor leads handy, and place them as appropriate during the game. This also makes it easy to reward particularly good ideas and/or amazing rolls that technically wouldn't have given the players anything - you just place the clues where the players look, provided you think they have a well-thought out rationale for looking there.

I usually have at least a couple of static major clues or encounters though - things that the minor leads point to that the PCs will inevitably figure out sooner or later. The clues that point to the plot between the Steward and the Captain of the Guard might be placed as needed throughout the game, as might the letter that points to the location of the farm that they use for their secret meetings. But, if the PCs want to save the princess, sooner or later they are going to have to go to that farm and break her out. Unless they can find a way to get her captors to move her . . . 

Establish a default timeline:
I've found that one of the most time efficient bits of prep for these types of games is to outline what will happen if the PCs do nothing. There an important caveat to this though - the timeline should interact with the PCs, but you probably don't want to dick the PCs over too badly just because they aren't picking up on your plot lines.

So - a finger from the Princess might arrive at the palace if the PCs are dragging their feet. Or, perhaps the Captain of the Guard arranges for some of his men to try and kidnap the PCs. Either way, the usual considerations about foreshadowing and respecting player choice and freedom of action apply. Also, I'm a fan of steadily increasing consequences for inaction - a couple of days before the attempted kidnapping, perhaps a couple of guards start harassing the PCs, or the Captain tries to convince them to leave. The point in this case is to add some action to the sleuthing, build some tension, maybe drop a clue during the encounter, and get the PCs back in the game if they are getting bored.

There are others that come to mind. Being flexible about the facts of the secret come to mind is good. Sometimes PC musings make a better backstory than what you had planned. And as always, being open to PCs affecting the story is important. That's one of the reasons they are playing after all. 

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