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Aug 02 2012

Puzzle Piece Mysteries

I’m currently playing in a Dresden Files game. It’s a lot of fun and has a very Dresden feel to it but has had a few snafus, mostly with the mystery surrounding the emerging story. The biggest problem is our group has been presented with a bunch of leads, or puzzle pieces. I believe some of the leads were planned and some of them weren’t due to unexpected player actions. She’s improvised and done a decent job of it too. We ran down a bunch of these leads while trying to prepare for this spirit who was killing kids by the dozens. I think it was sucking the life out of their bodies but I didn’t get to ask it as we blasted it out of existence. At least I think we blasted it out of existence. I’m sure I’ll find out if that’s true or not at a future inopportune moment. Sorry. I tangented. Where was I? Oh yeah. Mysteries and the leads. Each of these leads led to some interesting scenes and clues but very little in the way of action. It was more of a gathering of puzzle pieces and then trying to sift through them to figure out what the connections were. As I write this I find myself thinking this seems like a perfectly valid way to run a mystery. I think the problem was creating situations for passive protagonists and repetitive situations. Whenever we went to investigate something we encountered a person, persons, or a situation but the only conflict was gathering information. We talked to people who gave us information or we found locations which did the same. That was it. There was no way to act on the information we were given. It just went into the case file and we moved on to the next thing. Not the most fun thing in gaming.

I think successful mysteries can have these puzzle piece mysteries but they need to be linked into other scenes where there’s a way to act on the information found, like a trail of clues to be followed. You can also spice up the framework of this style of game by interspersing scenes of action into the middle of these information gathering scenes to keep the players active in the game. If you’ve ever read a Dresden Files book Jim Butcher does this pretty well. Whenever Harry gets a clue that doesn’t quite fit with everything else something tends to happen. He gets into a fight, a complication he needs to act on occurs, or some kind of conflict he needs to deal with right then and there happens. It keeps the pace up. I think this concept can easily be used in RPG investigations. It also makes me think I need to buy and read Hamlets Hit Points by Robin Laws which talks about how to figure out the pacing of your game with up beats, down beats, and a few other types. The general rule is if you have three of the same type of beat in a row then next beat better be different or you suffer from boredom in repetition. In a mystery you can have an information gathering scene but think of that as a beat. If you have three information gathering scenes in a row you’re probably already boring your players. Think about it. They’re players, they have A.D.D as it is and you’re just dropping information on them like puzzle pieces to a puzzle. Throw one more info gathering scene and they’re probably gonna start throwing poo like a mischievous monkey. So what’s the solution? Vary your scenes. Utilize chases, fights, social conflicts where there are some stakes, and clues your investigating players can act on right away. This allows you to have your puzzle piece mystery as the players collect the pieces while keeping them engaged and entertained during it until they get to the ah ha moment.

Game On,

Chris “The Light” Sniezak

2 comments

  1. Chris McDermott

    I think it might be interesting to run or be in a game that uses the Star Wars pacing template:

    http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/4032/beyond_pacing_games_arent_.php?print=1

    Though the article with the pacing chart argues that cinematic pacing like that doesn’t work in (computer) games.

    Regarding mysteries and clues in RPGS, have you played any of the Gumshoe games? (Trail of Cthulhu, The Esoterrorists, Fear Itself, Mutant City Blues). I’ve read that it handles clues in games very well.

    http://www.pelgranepress.com/site/?page_id=672

    1. Chris Sniezak

      I am very familiar with the Gumshoe Core clue idea. If fact it is my default mystery method when running such a game but this is an attempt to look at other ways to construct mysteries since I find the Core Clue idea to be the best but only one type of mystery structure.

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