Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Mystery Incorporated

A large number of RPG subjects have been on my mind lately. Not the least of which is my 'What Other GMs Do Wrong' series. However, before I address anything else, I wanted to say a little more about mysteries in RPGs.

Some additional thoughts came to me after a Superhero game I participated in this past Friday night. This was a game in which an opening investigation was the key to starting each of the mini-adventures that made up our session, and yet that proved the most difficult element to incorporate into the various scenarios.

In order to facilitate a better understanding of what I am talking about, I am going to use the specific example of the aforementioned Superhero game. While that may be the context, it should be noted that what I am discussing here can apply to practically any game of any genre.

A friend of mine runs a homebrew Superhero RPG, very rules-lite and narrative, set in either the Marvel or DC universe. We switch off. One week we're the Justice League of America facing off against Amazo in downtown Metropolis, the next we're the X-Men trying to prevent Sentinels from destroying Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters.
The typical format is to have four or five short missions during our roughly 4 to 4 1/2 hour sessions.
This past Friday, the theme was Batman: The Brave and The Bold.


We mutually agreed during the first adventure that the style and tone of our game was actually a cross between the Batman: The Brave and The Bold animated series (especially its more surprisingly serious episodes) and the first Batman: The Animated Series show. 
Now, the way each mini-adventure began, the GM would describe some situation going on, and before long, wouldn't you know it, it would attract the attention of Batman, Robin, Batgirl or all three.
The fellow playing Batman would then attempt to use the Batcomputer, his own knowledge and experience with Gotham's criminal element, his contacts with Commissioner Gordon or what-have-you, to figure out what was happening.
Translation: He would ask the GM a load of questions.
The GM would answer the questions, though very often in a very vague way. Most of the time, after Batman's initial investigation, it would be no clearer as to who, or what, was behind the situation than it was before doing his detective work.
The reason for this was two-fold (later explained by both the GM and Batman's Player in our post-game discussion):
From The GM's side:
First and foremost, he felt it was hard to run a true mystery in an hour, and also include a good comic book/animated series style fight and a guest star.
Second, the GM felt that stylistically, Batman would do more footwork in the thematic 'era' we were playing in. Yes, Batman has a Batcomputer, a communicator/phone to call Robin, Batgirl or Alfred back at the Batcave, and a remote control for the Batmobile. At the same time, Batman still looks at things with a magnifying glass, or comparable device. He takes samples while at the crime scene. He punches thugs and they let something slip.
He doesn't use the the Batcomputer, and the Internet, to just Google the answers.
From The Player's side:
I was very impressed when my friend said, "I'm playing Batman tonight, but I'm not Batman."
He admitted that he doesn't have that level of deductive reasoning. Yet, I ask you, who does? Batman is ridiculously astute. Almost superhumanly good at solving riddles, and puzzles of a variety of types. He is a character written to outwit the craftiest of criminal minds. That has little to no baring on a player playing him being able to discern what a GM running the Riddler, or Two-Face is thinking.
So was this an impossible experiment? Can running mysteries simply not be accomplished in RPGs? Well, as with my last post on the subject, I don't think it's impossible at all. I think it's tricky, and I think we need to alter how we think of RPG mysteries in the first place.
Remember that the point of a mystery in an RPG, especially a mystery that leads you to the rest of the adventure, is to have it solved. What I mean by that is, if you, the GM, create an unsolvable mystery, be content in spending the next few hours in a room full of people who are either frustrated, or bored, or both. If you're cool with that, we're done here. Go play a video game.
If on the other hand you get where I am coming from, keep reading.
In essence you are trying to design a solvable mystery. A challenging one, but a solvable one. You want a mystery that gets the players thinking. Not necessarily thinking exactly what you are thinking, but just thinking.
So let's say you are looking to use Catwoman in an adventure. You are thinking maybe she has a partner these days, a younger cat-themed sidekick like Robin is to Batman. You mention a series of crimes, all thefts of cat-oriented items, but some of the burglaries occur at the same time in two different parts of town.
You've planned out the scenario, and even a bunch of clues to indicate it might be Catwoman and an accomplice.
After a brief but thorough investigation involving talking to museum and jewelry store staff, checking the Batcomputer, etc., the PCs are convinced that the culprit is...not Catwoman. The idea of a partner of hers doesn't even come up. No, it's obviously someone trying to frame Catwoman! 
You, the GM, have a problem. You prepped for Catwoman and Kittengirl (or whomever). You have their stats. You know where they're hiding out, and who their thug/henchmen are. The clues you gave, and the answers to the questions you were asked, should have told them it was Catwoman and Kittengirl. ARGH! What are you going to do?!

They are basically three ways to handle this.

1) Tell the players that they are idiots, that it's Catwoman and a sidekick named Kittengirl, and move on.

Not my favorite choice.

2) Continue throwing clues and hints at them until they change their minds about it being an impostor trying to make Catwoman look bad.

That could take a while. It may also never happen. Most players, once locked onto an idea, find it very hard to shake it.

3) Make them, the players/PCs, prove it. Have them explain why they think this is a set-up. Have them go over the clues and the testimony of any witnesses. Let them explain who they think is behind it, and what the team should do about it. If their argument is plausible, go with their idea.

This is by far my favorite approach.

It helps if you can do a decent bit of acting. Appear amazed that 'they figured it out'.

Better yet, follow their lead and perhaps change or add one element to show they were close but not perfectly correct. For example, maybe they thought that the Penguin was behind it all, but in reality the Penguin wasn't working alone. Perhaps he had help from Black Mask, or someone else.

Now here's the best part; Have Catwoman show up anyway, investigating who it is that's trying to frame her and make her look bad! You were preparing to use Catwoman as a character in tonight's game.

Don't stymie the game waiting for, or trying to enforce, the 'correct' answer. That way is folly my friends.

This may seem like something of a repeat of what I said in my last post, and it is to some extent, but this is a little different.

If I can leave you with one piece of advice, one useful thing to take away from this post so that you can better incorporate mysteries into your games, it's this:

Either let your players and their PCs help create the mystery or make the mystery something flexible that you can adjust and adapt as the PCs do their detective work. The ultimate goal of a mystery in a game is to have it solved. If that is not happening, look at why.

Barking Alien

On a sad note...

Casey Kasem, radio disc jockey, actor, and the voice of numerous animated characters of my youth, has passed away. He was 81.

Keep your feet on the ground, and keep reaching for the stars.



  1. Your #3--"let the players shape the solution, and pretend that was your intention the whole time"--is the secret of my GMing success.

    Works in any genre, too!

  2. It is one of my go-to techniques as well, though there is one caveat I must add.

    The players shape the solution, but it still has to make sense based on the information you, the GM, have provided. If the clues point to something Cat-themed, as above, and the players say 'The Joker!', make sure they lay that train of thought out for you before you commit to it.

  3. Good tips, but honestly whoever was playing Batman comes across as lazy to me. Just using the Batcomputer and expecting answers? One needn't be a detective to play a detective.But some effort is called for. Perhaps someone more suited for playing Batman should have had that role. And possibly the "rules light" approach stymied this endeavor. A decent set of rules would at least allow the player to use his character's skill set to get answers the player might not, and ask questions that might not occur to the player as well.

    1. He didn't just use the Batcomputer. Let's look above...

      "he would attempt to use the Batcomputer, his own knowledge and experience with Gotham's criminal element, and his contacts with Commissioner Gordon..."

      One needn't be a detective to play a detective, if they aren't being asked to do detective work.

      If you are, well, good luck I guess.

      I personally dislike having the players able to say, "I roll my 'The-Die-Can-Be-Smart-So-I-Don't-Have-To-Be' Skill. In nearly every game I run, regardless of genre, setting, or system, if you want to make a skill check involving Deduction, Investigation, Intimidation or other such skills that border between being Perception and Social/Charisma based, the player needs to give me, the GM, something to go on. Something. You can not roll for answers in a Barking Alien game.

      This simple rule is why I build my mysteries the way I do. It inspires the player to think, not just the character.

  4. "The typical format is to have four or five short missions during our roughly 4 to 4 1/2 hour sessions."

    Just a drive-by comment: That sounds like a really excellent way to do it, btw. Variety, an automatic cure for encounter slog (or even scenario slog), and a time limit. I love it!

    1. It is an excellent way to do it, but with one caveat. It is an excellent way to do this. This one thing here. It fits perfectly.

      If you are running a campaign of a more or less traditional nature however, the format we're using doesn't work as well. It doesn't really afford the GM or players enough time to develop the world or the characters. Things often feel a bit rushed if we have to go into great detail about anything.

  5. Why not just have the too-loyal-to-Catwoman PCs be wrong? They go after and presumably throw down with the wrong target (a comics tradition, after all)--and then Catwoman sends 'em a thank-you (or shows up to gloat/steal/run), purrfectly delighted about the "help" they've provided. Motivation to go after Catwoman next week!

    1. You could. As a matter of fact that's a great idea. It's not exactly very Batman like though (I'll get to this in a moment).

      I have not been addressing what happens if the players fail to solve the mystery. The main reason is, if that is how you're playing your game, then fine. That works. Granted, from a standard RPG stand point, PCs may simple not be able to deduce the answer to the relevant conundrum.

      What I've been talking about in these last two posts, is what happens when you want the PCs to solve the mystery, even need them to, and they can't because, again traditionally, the dynamic for having the PCs solve the mystery doesn't really facilitate that happening (in my experience).