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Morality Mechanics

September 25, 2014

Morality mechanics are rules and systems designed to have play deal with morality in some way.   There’s quite a few ways to do it and with some interesting results.

Direct Morality

Direct Morality in a game is where the system explicitly lays out what is good vs. bad and enforces it along those lines.  These are actually pretty hard to do – since all of humanity’s history we’ve been still working out ethics and morality, so having a set system usually means working in a very narrow clear-cut range of ideas or something where genre tropes are simple and well established with regards to morality.

The old Marvel Superheroes RPG is an example of one that works pretty well.  It’s somewhat of a narrow path to walk to get it right.  If the game is too defined in producing a code, you can end up with situations like Legend of the Five Rings’ Honor system where you run into places where the honorable action costs you points or the dishonorable action gains you points.   If the game is too vague about the scale or actions of morality, you get the endless discussions of D&D’s alignment system.

Divergent Morality

Divergent Morality is where the game is designed such that the mechanically coded systems of value and morality are clearly not the real issue of morality – the point is to explore where they meet, and more often, where they diverge.   These work much better because nearly always we’re talking about a system where the mechanically coded “morals” are actually just pressures to constantly set up a choice between following it, breaking it, or finding ways to work around/with it towards real morality.

Polaris and Thou Art But a Warrior both use their particular codes of honor to trigger the character’s advancement along their tragic future, which, often enough, real moral choices are often strongly at odds with the code itself.  Dog Eat Dog is pretty much a game built on the scathing criticism of colonialism and it’s form of cultural genocide set up as morality code.  Poison’d has Sins, which include some things that are clearly wrong, some things which are situational, and other things like Paganism or homosexuality which simply aren’t.

Emergent Morality

Emergent Morality are games where the moral code isn’t directly given mechanics, but rather the mechanics as a whole are set up to pressure you to finding yourself having to make moral choices all the time.  These are often subtle from a read through, but brutally powerful when you play them.

Steal Away Jordan uses it’s Worth mechanic, which, naturally puts white slave owners at the top and everyone else progressively further down the scale, and when you’re closer to the bottom you are forced to make alliances, to seek help, to even align with the oppressor just to survive.  The Drifter’s Escape sets up the Drifter in a situation of horrible choices and morality emerges from that.  Trollbabe explicitly sets up where your character’s effectiveness is based in risking allies to injury or death.  Lacuna and 3:16 Carnage Among the Stars has advancement mechanics that explicitly set player goals against each other even as they’re supposed to be working together, which creates an extra level of friction.

Consequences

Procedural Consequences

Procedural consequences list out a series of actions or activities which fill or fail the moral code.  “If X then Y” which makes these often inflexible and somewhat tricky to use well.  This is most often what people think of when they think of morality mechanics – Vampire’s Humanity lists, Legend of the Five Rings’ Honor codes, etc.

Directive Based Consequences

Directive consequences involve points added/lost when an action is taken that fulfills the spirit of the value/morality code as determined primarily on the basis of a player making that judgment.  Instead of listing out a code, it primarily sits on a player (the GM, a chosen player, the group) to decide when you’ve fulfilled or violated a moral position or code.  Notice that for this to work well, the thing being judged and the basis of doing so needs some kind of guidance or clarity – or you end up with the same problem that sends people spiralling around D&D alignment arguments.

Sorcerer’s Humanity mechanic fulfills this, though Bliss Stage uses it to an even stronger degree with it’s intermission scenes.

Randomized Consequences

Randomized consequences are pretty interesting.  These can be things like rolling a die to see if you gain or lose points despite having done actions towards that effect, or it can be a roll at the end of your character’s arc to see what the effects are.

1001 Nights uses it’s Safety/Ambition/Escape tracks as gambles you take between scenes, which sometimes results in the most bastard player characters living happily despite their behavior.  Poison’d uses the Salvation roll after your character dies to see if they make it to Heaven, or fall to the depths of Hell for their deeds.

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Stakes and Outcomes

September 16, 2014

Let’s start with the easiest rule: “I say it and it happens.”

That’s the easiest rule to roleplaying and it’s used all the time.  Rules, mechanics, etc. are basically add-ons to try to create something more interesting than that.   Part of what makes roleplaying as an activity conceptually difficult is that you are doing all the things other fiction does, in terms of constructing a narrative, except you’re coordinating it between several people.  Play requires consistently answering these questions on the spot:

- What kind of events fit this game we’re playing?

- What methods/actions can characters take in this game that fits with the mood/expectations/”realism”(feeling) of it?

- What kind of outcomes are reasonable?

(add in an extra hurdle for many games, which is, how do I translate this abstraction of the rules into these things?).

Anyway, beyond the simplest rule, mechanics and systems of resolution basically fold into three types:

Fiat Outcomes

A dice roll is made, a point is spent, something is done which provides some limitation on the outcome but the rest is narrated and decided by one person (in traditional games, that’s the GM, nearly always.  In narration trading games, it’s explicitly passed around.)

The positive to this side is that whoever has fiat for this has a guaranteed input into play, and their vision can get into the events in play.  The negative to this is that if the group isn’t tightly coordinated on what fits in their game (from the questions listed above), then you have all kinds of miscommunication and confusion.   “Wait, I thought the fall was like 5 feet, not 500 feet?!?” “What do you mean a failure destroys the whole kingdom?  I thought it’d only mess up the castle?” etc.

Negotiated Outcomes

Negotiated Outcomes sets up a negotiation process as part of figuring out the outcomes.  The most common example is stakes setting before dice are rolled or cards played, etc.  This lets everyone know the outcomes and players can make better choices about how much resources to spend or how important the outcome will be.  There are games like Polaris, Thou Art But a Warrior where negotiation is actually part of the process of resolution, and there are games where you negotiate after the fact (“You win the argument but you give up a concession.” etc.)

Negotiated outcomes are quite flexible, but they are also a little kludgy in many places and there has to be effort on part of the group not to spiral too deep into pre-playing the events before they actually play out, or pushing outcomes beyond the scope of the situation.

Hardcoded Outcomes

Hardcoded Outcomes appear in many places in many games, though usually they’re in combat or magic and sporadically in other types of conflicts.   A Hardcoded Outcome means that a dice roll adds a specific event into the fiction – in combat, that would be an injury or death, usually.

When done well, these make it easy to play and shape the fiction in great ways – it helps answer the 3 questions as part of the system itself and makes it so that the group doesn’t have to spend time figuring out what “feels right”.  When done poorly, it either breaks the expectations of the fictional world you’ve set up (“Wait, I can jump off a cliff and survive without much trouble?”) or it makes it very hard to translate into the fictional world.

The more modern design take on this would be things like Monsterhearts’ move sets – you roll and pick from a list of pre-set options of outcomes.

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Orienting Your Character

September 9, 2014

My friend Quinn has posted a pretty awesome article on characters and culture which highlights a key point to a lot of the games I enjoy – the idea that meaning comes out of context, and the context is very often cultural.

A Templar crusader, a samurai and a mafia hit man might all be “warriors” as far as game mechanics might be concerned, but their goals, the places they hold in societies they operate in, and the meaning when they engage in violence is very different.  Literally that context determines what kind of stories we can make in play and what conflicts make sense to even engage with.

The short to the point way of orienting characters, I pretty much summed up with the One Sentence Character Concept Generator and the Extended version as well.  The rest of this post will pretty much go into the theory side for folks who want to think about it a bit more for design or play.

Potential Conflict and 3 Questions

I’ve seen several games advocate “21 questions” style character generation, with such things like “What’s your character’s favorite color?”… needless to say, a lot of this ends up being pontificating without giving you something that is likely to come into play in a meaningful way.  Instead, I look at 3 questions with an eye to how they give you conflicts.

What is your role/place in society?

So that example I had of Templar vs. samurai vs. mafia?  That’s a key example of the differences you get – how respected is your general role, how do people treat you, what responsibilities or authority you have, and so on.

Your responsibilities and roles are key points of conflict – for example, if you’re playing a pirate, you already have trouble because you’re an outlaw.  If you’re playing a knight, you have expectations to serve a liege, you are a warrior expected to defend territory, etc.

Also notice this changes if you go to a different country or culture.  Being a respected authority in one culture might only make you more of an outsider in another culture.

What is your standing?

Even within your role, you might be doing very well in terms of influence and power, or doing terribly.   If you’re doing well, you will have rivals and enemies looking to take your influence, power and resources.  If you’re doing poorly, people take what they want from you, treat you terribly and laugh about it.

This sets up a lot of fun conflict space – within this role to other people in the same role, whether you have the power to do your job properly, whether you have too many people trying to screw you over so you can’t do your job properly, what you’re trying to do to improve your position or solidify it.

What are your feelings about it?

With both of those above, what does your character feel about this whole situation?  Are they determined to succeed?  To change their lot in life?  Are they despondent and desperate?  What are their motivations and what are they likely to do with it?

The above three questions give us context to a character and their role.  Even if the conflict is primarily external (“I am a knight, I want to stop the dragon from destroying the city I want to protect”) we have some idea of what kind of character position you have to various NPCs, the other PCs and some ideas on what motivates or drives you.

Some games pre-establish much of these ideas for you.  Some put a bit of the answers into things like political splats with vampire clans or such.   But most games leave this as a thing without any procedure and skipping this can often leave you with this weird disjunction in play between players and the fiction and how these things interact back and forth.

Further Character Building from Orienting

There’s a couple other key ideas that often get overlooked.  Part of this is that games either leave it up to the GM to make the call and most GM’s simply forget these things could matter, or else they make it a thing of splitting up skill points and players find these things much less reliable than better defined combat skills in terms of usefulness.

Regardless, if you’re going to orient your character to the fiction, it’s a good idea to also think of these as well:

Connections

Who does your character know?  Who can you give commands or orders to?  Who can you ask help from?  Who gives you commands or orders?  Who might you be friends with?  Who might you be enemies or rivals with?

Connections are often left underutilized in games for the simple reason that a lot of games are still jumping the hurdle of dungeoncrawling – where access to help “short circuits” the challenge of the hoops you’re supposed to jump through to solve the puzzles/scenario.

In games where the conflict is not set up in a series of pre-set problems, you can use these to much effect – you build relationships, you can solve some problems but have those characters also introduce problems as well.  This is actually part of the reason your character’s standing is important – within this world, who can you call on for help?  Who is out to get you? etc.

Knowledge and Outlook

What kinds of information is your character familiar with? What kinds of rumors or things should they simply just know?  “Sure, the Northerners always come through the city, but never in the fall.  I’m wondering if it’s someone simply dressing up as one in some kind of disguise because he’s got the colors all wrong.”

Knowledge and outlook about how you see the world can matter a lot.  The hardened soldier and the elite noble see the same room very differently – about how it’s laid out, who is important for what reasons, and what kinds of attitudes people have.

Tying it all together

The key to all of the above is that it can fit into a short paragraph about your character – it shouldn’t need to be a huge backstory or anything.  You just need enough to give a good idea of who your character is and where they stand with the setting and their motivations.

In doing so, you can also build something the other players can play off of very well in relation to your character and vice versa.

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1001 Nights by Meguey Baker

September 8, 2014

I went camping this weekend, and brought along my copy of The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden which is one of the best fantasy books I recommend to all my friends, which uses a lot of the structure of “story within a story” of the classic Arabian Nights.

It reminded me of one of my favorite GM-less RPGs, 1001 Nights.

1001 Nights is a game where you play as servants in the Sultan’s Court.  The court is not a safe place- it is rife with danger and intrigue.  As a servant, you are vying for power here, and you are all playing petty power games… which, taken too far might incur the Sultan’s wrath and get you beheaded.

To play out your insults and intrigues, you tell stories.  You tell stories of magical creatures and noble princes, of lost siblings and giant djinn… and you put the other characters into these stories to insult or uplift each other.   “The evil tyrant was a tall man, much like our good Captain of the Guard, with broad jaw like his as well… they were alike in many ways…  but the tyrant, yes, the tyrant had many illicit affairs, not like our virtuous Captain, and certainly not with a princess, no never…”

Each player takes a turn telling a story like this.  While telling the story, each of the other players can ask questions about the story (“But surely the Tyrant had at least one good noble quality? Yes?”) and they place forth a die on the table.  When the questions get answered, the dice are rolled and the die is either awarded to the current storyteller, or to the question asker.

These dice fuel the Court drama – you use them to protect yourself from the threat of death, to fulfill your character’s ambition, or, to flee the Court altogether.

Depending on the characters you create, the ambitions they hold, and how they treat each other… you may have protagonists who are quite terrible people fighting for power, or hapless folks caught in a terrible situation.  I had a slave musician boy, whose ambition was simply to get to play one of his OWN songs.

The mechanics are light, they flow well, and as far as GM-shifting games, it highlights some pretty great game design ideas:

- Player participation is not tied to character participation

- Player input by questions

- Fictional positioning/story capital driven play.

It’s definitely one of the games I recommend nearly everyone play just to see how far rpg mechanics can go outside of the standard GM/Players with one Character each traditional set up that forms most rpgs.

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The Destiny Diaries – A Magical Girl Setting for Sorcerer

September 5, 2014

The Destiny Diaries

A collection of biographies of 8 women from the Tokugawa period, all collected by a single author only known as “Mirror”.  Each account ends in a final chapter where the calligraphy becomes entirely illegible, and it has been a massive mystery that has spawned several conspiracy theories as to what happened.  The actual writing is fairly captivating, and has left more questions than answers.

Introduction

The Destiny Diaries is a setting idea for Sorcerer for the Magical Girl anime/manga genre.  The protagonists are all young women who have spent a lot of time studying, thinking about, and obsessing over the Destiny Diaries – until they finally get to see them in person at a museum… and then they acquire their Destiny Powers, and find their lives changed forever.

Theme Statements

Adolescent girls in Tokyo, caught between self discovery and social pressures… and now sorcery.

Sorcery is bright light, stars and animal motifs and sigils and tarot cards.  The world is shaped by “Calamity Spirits” which change the luck and thoughts and feelings of non-sorcerers.

Humanity

Destiny Diaries uses two definitions for Humanity:

Self Esteem – character’s ability to feel good about themselves and their expression of their feelings, and being supported in it.  Humanity checks are places where you swallow down your feelings due to social pressures.  Humanity gains are when you do something that makes you feel better about yourself.

Friendship – character’s supporting their friends, with both emotional support and actions/resources.  Humanity checks are where you have to break commitments, or leave a friend in a lurch, cause a loss of trust.  Humanity gains are when you help support, protect, and show good feelings to your friends.

Humanity 0 – at humanity 0 the character gives up being one of the Destined.  She has to pass her Destined Light (bound demon) to another character and simply leaves the scenario – her family moves, she transfers to a distant school, etc.

When non-Sorcerer characters hit Humanity 0, they say an ugly truth about how they see things going in the future… and a Calamity Demon is born.

Lore

Lore is actually about destiny and karma.  How to shape the future.  That said, the entry point for the heroines is over-studying the Destiny Diaries, forming theories about it’s secrets, and so on.

Demons

There are two kinds of demons in this setting.

The Destined Lights

“The Destined Lights” are also sometimes called “Lucky Stars” which are bound to the protagonists.  Each Destined Light is a form of magical energy imbued into the heroines, and allows them to transform into their magical girl form.   The Destined Lights often communicate with the heroines by having them “think strange thoughts”.  They’re not antagonistic, but they do have their wants and Needs and will apply pressure where they can.

Type: Parasites (magical energy auras)

Telltales: Magical girls end up with a small “birthmark” looking like a silouette of an animal, a star, moon, etc.

Needs: Battle a Calamity Demon

Desires: The 8 Desires listed in Sorcerer work just fine.  Four of these are easier to apply to the classic heroic types (Mayhem, Creation, Competition, Knowledge) and four work well for “anti” Magical Girls (Corruption, Mischief, Power, Sensual Gratification) at least as far as the usual genre expectations go.

Power: Most are in the 4-8 range of Power.

Typical Abilities:

Special Perception

Every Destined Light has a unique Perception.  This has to do with people’s destinies or inner feelings.  “People destined to be unlucky in love”  “People destined to do something great”, “People destined to face ruin, soon.” etc.  The GM should totally use these to set up an additional set  of potential plot issues by what the heroines find out and decide to do to deal with these things.

Vitality – The healing power of Vitality is applied only at the beginning of a tranformation into a Magical Girl.

Damage/attack powers: All damage powers are non-lethal damage against humans.

Calamity Spirits

When a non-Sorcerer hits 0 Humanity, a Calamity Spirit comes into being.  These things look like garish versions of Tarot card images, and they secretly shape the events of the area around them – to a dark, sad destiny.  You can basically say their Power level is the logrithmic power of 10 in how much population they affect – Power 3 means about 1000 people, power 7 means 10,000,000…

Calamity Spirits cannot be Bound and do not lose Power from having their Need go unmet.

Type: Inconspicuous

Telltale: Glass in the area mysterious forms cracks, often.

Needs: Cause the area to fall further into ruin/sorrow

Desire: Suffering

Power: usually equal to the maximum Humanity of the person who caused it to come into being.

Typical Abilities:

Perception: Bad Feelings
Ranged + Taint – causes people in the area to say terrible things, do their darkest feelings, lash out
Warp – often used to sabotage things, cause accidents, etc.

Descriptors

Stamina:
Athlete – Maybe you’re a track star, or a judoka.  You’re pretty fit.
Genki Girl! – It’s less physical fitness and more cheery hyperactivity.
Goof off – Skipping class to go out and have fun has you running a lot more than you’d think.
Scrapper – you grew up with the tough girls and you can toss punches.
Worker – you do stuff like lift things, bike delivery, etc.  Makes you more active than many!
Bookworm (Stamina 1)  – or maybe gamer.  you don’t go out much or do a lot.

Will:
Aristocratic – Social grace, popular.  People want to be you or your best friend.
Caretaker – Helping and working with others is where you’re at your best
Contrary – You push people away and act cold, but you’re really their friend.
Hedonist – Sleep.  Food.  Sleep. Wonderful.
Prodigy – You’re on track to going to a great school with success ahead of you.
Tough Girl – Aggressive, in your face, what are you going to do about it?

Lore:
Naive – “Destined Lights? Calamity Spirits?!? What?”
Apprentice – Another Magical Girl is helping mentor you
Full Fledged Magical Girl – You get the basic gist of how this goes
Theorist – You’ve dived deep into the theories, developed your own and you have insights.
Close to the Veil – You’ve always been naturally attuned to the weird, this seems instinctive for you

Appropriate Kickers and Relationships

There’s pretty much 3 easy ways to set up your sorcerer and get her into a fun place of conflict:

Keeping Things The Same

You want things to stay the same – but everything is changing.  Friends are leaving, or changing in personality.  Family is breaking up.  Your neighborhood is changing under your feet.  How much will you use your Sorcery to avoid change?

A Direction or Any Future At All

You’re not really sure which direct to go, or, if anything, you’re stuck in a routine.  You can’t see a future for yourself.  How much will you use your power to force the world to change, and will you do it thoughtfully or just lashing out?

Who I want to be vs. what the world wants me to be

Your family has pretty clear ideas on what you should do with your life.  But they’re very different than what you want to do.  And it’s crushing you.  Slowly.  What’s the way out?  What do you do to keep your sense of self in the face of pressure?

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Writing Setting for Play

August 18, 2014

Setting is tricky – it’s what you’re using as a group to create the story, so it’s helpful to have some of it for context.  Enough gets everyone aligned on what to create.  On the other hand, too much becomes homework or a specialized subject – you end up with some players who are experts and other players who barely know it – and instead of bringing your group together, they come apart because their understanding is completely different.

Narrow your Focus

First, most RPGs are…. more like series bibles or like massive lore encyclopedias – things that hardcore fans would get into, but not necessarily useful as a starting point.  Normally you point someone to a book, or a story arc in a TV series, or a comic book arc, or some kind of place that sets up a good introduction if it were another form of media.  

In this regard, it makes sense to narrow your focus SHARPLY for most rpgs.  A single city or region of local cultures is a good way to go.  Even if it’s very cosmopolitan, pick some kind of common factor (“Third rate nobles, desperate for real power”, “The underworld of gangs in the city”, etc.) so you can keep things simple. 

If your game uses some kind of class or splat system, consider cutting down the options and describing how they fit into the specific situation and setting. 

Focus on the Cool Stuff EARLY

One pitfall I see people do is many gamers want to do the “farmers to heroes” story.  What happens is the end up wasting several sessions on podunk stuff that’s not actually the meat of the story. 

To be sure, Tolkien spent a lot of time talking about people walking long distances, but I don’t think most people found that to be the fun part of the stories.  In fact, if you compare the other geek gold standard, Star Wars, you see we don’t spend a very long time on Luke’s farm – in fact, the movie starts with the real focus: the rebels. 

The point of having a “viewpoint” character who introduces the audience to the strange fantastic world is usually an excuse for having exposition about said world, but when players can simply ask, “What does my character know?” or have spent time reading about the setting, it’s not as useful of a tool.

Quicksheets

As much as having a quicksheet of a single page (front and back) of important rules is useful, it’s also helpful to have one of the setting bits.  It gives players something to look at and read at the table without being a massive amount of information.  The nice part about a Quicksheet of setting is you can add more, one by one, as the sessions continue, so as to not overload the players with reading homework.

A particularly useful exercise is to consider for ANY given piece of information you’re going to cover on a part of setting is “What is the general, one sentence summary I would write about this?”   Start there.  It’s good to write everything up that way and then see if there’s any parts you absolutely need to do write more about that cannot be covered in play.

“What your character knows is that…”

A lot of setting can be established in play.  I really like to give setting based on character concept – the noble knows the power structure of the city, the criminal knows who’s been economically hurting lately, the soldier can say a bit about wars brewing and people from faraway lands…

If the game has specific knowledge skills you can simply give information based on that. 

“You’ve got Starship Engineer 5? Oh, yeah, you’ve seen these – X4-82’s.  They flooded the market as luxury cruisers, but sold poorly, ending up being popular on the secondary market once everyone figured out they could be modified for high speed smuggling.”

When it comes to setting – simplify your focus like a movie, but give out setting in play like a book – from the character’s knowledge, background and judgment.

Scarcity and Specialization

A useful thing to do is consider where your game is happening.  Is it a particular city?  A star system?  A particular valley?  Then, consider what kinds of characters make sense for that area – in terms of skills, classes, culture, etc.  Now look at the game system you’re using – decide which classes/skills/splats/abilities might fit or not fit.  For a given group/culture in this area, limit what they can pick from.

The scarcity provides context.  A lot of games become weird mishmash settings because there’s no context as to how/why these particular groups are interacting or relative common/rarity of these things.  If wizards only live in the Misty Islands across the water, everyone knows something is up when someone casts magic.  If only the Night Guard of the King use two handed swords, the minute someone shows up one with one, carries much more meaning than the sword itself.

You can do this easily with settings you create, but you can also do this with established settings by considering a location/place and events that may have happened recently to it.  “Yes, normally there would be Templars in this city, but all but the few who are no longer able to fight left when the orders came in.  That was 2 months ago, and no one has heard from them since…”

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Investigations

August 2, 2014

I try not to do investigations in games because I think they’re generally a poor fit for roleplaying games given current design in general.  That is, I’m sure we can develop some better tools, but mostly games are pretty bad at it, yet it remains something people try to build a lot of campaigns on.

In other media

Let’s start by considering movies, books, tv shows, etc. that work on investigation.  A lot of things happen here which we don’t see transferred well to roleplaying games.

Source rule #1: You always learn something

First off, what makes investigations entertaining is a combination of tight editing to keep the pacing rolling, and good characterization.  Either you’re seeing all the fun parts where someone learns something neat about the plot, or it reveals something interesting about the characters involved.

Source rule #2: Information THROWS itself at the protagonists

If you do end up reading/watching a lot of investigation stories, you find that there’s a lot of contrived and implausible things that happen.   The protagonists just happen to stumble upon things by accident, overhear the conversation that makes you suspicious of the right people, accidentally find the hidden note, etc.    Even half the time they come across something completely unrelated that reminds them of an important thing they already knew that puts the whole situation into context.

The one RPG I’ve seen do this well is Dogs in the Vineyard – the problems are all about people, and the rule in the game is that everyone wants to tell the PCs something, and that something is usually only part of the truth best biased in their favor.  Or, if they out and out lie, the GM should tell the players, “They’re lying! You can tell they’re lying…”

Source rule #3: Protagonists are ALSO a source of information

Good investigation stories build on how a protagonist thinks and contextualizes the world.  How they get a read on a character, and how it fits in to the setting as a whole.

“This was a clean murder.  A cold one.  Mr. Govey’s shouting and shoving was a pretty good indication this wasn’t the kind of guy to do the murder.  Well, to murder like that, anyway.   The problem when you’ve got people who know some dirt, is they always assume you’re looking for their dirt, and it makes it a giant hassle to learn anything.   And everyone knew the docks had a long history of dirt.

‘Govey! Do I look like I’m here from the feds? My Uncle Carlos was friends with Jim, and he’s just trying to make sure it wasn’t his gambling that got to him.  Carlos owes money to the same people and he has to know if its time to leave town.’   Sound like you, too, are trying to cover your ass, then watch them spill the dirt.  Nothing like comrades in crime.”

The “Not-Really-An-Investigation” story

There’s a lot of action stories which use the idea of investigation, or clue trails, as props to tie together fight sequences.  These aren’t real investigation stories, and so, they’re even more contrived and shaky as far as clue logic goes.

The unfortunate part is, a lot of RPGs tend to borrow from this kind of fiction and this is where a lot of investigations in RPGs fall down, completely.  If this is the kind of story you want to run, there really shouldn’t be any dice rolls around the clues at all, or any question of finding them – they’re basically signposts to the next fight.  Don’t waste your group’s time, or your own, by making them into challenges that can only really block the point of your game.

Bringing it to your game

Assume Competence, Give information

I always like to assume the characters are competent as some things, and they have angles, leads or ideas to start with, based on what they observe.  Giving those to players is a good way to feed context and often “Do I know about…?” kinds of questions can have you suggest some leads.

“The body was hit hard enough that it slid several feet on the floor, you can tell by the blood smear.  Whatever attacked him was very strong.  Nothing else in the house has been damaged or disturbed, which says this thing was intelligent.   So that rules out the werewolf theory…  you can poke around the house to look for more clues, or maybe check with the Old Man and see if he’s got any suggestions.  Or you can try to convince Lacey to use her psychometry to read the room, but you still owe her from the last job…”

So it’s about feeding some information based on things the characters are already good at, and pointing at obvious paths to go from there.  If the players have other suggestions, try to go with those, too, and unless it’s completely weird or unfitting, try to make sure some useful information can be found that way.  If it is totally off track, then try to simply summarize in a short sentence, “You spend an hour looking around, but you realize this is a dead trail.” and move on.

Stakes and Dice Rolls

The other half of the problem is what do we roll for?  If you roll to see if you know something, or if you learn something, the obvious answers are “You do” or “You don’t”.  If you do, then how much of the mystery is solved?  If you don’t, where do you go from there?  These are both kind of unsatisfactory outcomes, which makes setting up conflicts and tests based on this, a terrible thing.  Instead, consider these options for when and how to make investigation rolls:

Outside Expertise

When the character is trying to learn something outside their personal expertise, the roll is more to see if they know who to go to, and where to look for more information.  Success means they know “just the person!” to seek out, whereas failure means they know who to go to, but dealing with that person is a pain or they owe them something.

Leaving Clues in Return

Are there people who would look unkindly upon this investigation?  Failed rolls mean you are spotted, you ask questions in a tactless, obvious way, or otherwise, leave clues that you’re involved.  Folks may take action to scare you away, attack your reputation, or otherwise stop you.  Notice that this doesn’t have to be the villains – it can be other authorities who don’t like or trust you.

Devil’s Deal

People who will give you info, or access to something to learn what you need to learn… for a price.   It’s rarely money or goods – often it’s favors in return.  These favors may be risky, or implicate your into other kinds of trouble.

Do friends use friends?

“Look, I’ve done you too many favors already.  I can’t do this, this time.  I’ve got too much else going on.” “Please, this is really important.”  “You can’t ask this of me.” “C’mon man.”  “You know what? If I do this, everything from before? You can forget it.  This is the last time.”  “…ok.”

Failure means losing the respect of a friend, family, mentor, or contact.

Clues put together… too late

You roll the dice ONLY at the moment of truth.  “You failed the die roll?  You just realized the vampire would only recognize the Eastern Orthodox Church as holy ground – this church doesn’t count.  None of you are safe here.”

This is a lot of fun, but there’s two things you have to do when you do this trick.  First, you have to give bonuses if the players have taken good precautions and made intelligent research beforehand.  Second, if the roll is failed, there needs to be a way to get to success nearby and that needs to be set up as the goal once this roll is failed.

If it’s a monster of the week, the key to defeating it’s weakness might be across the street – if you can get there.  If it’s finding out who the murderer is, it’s trying to catch them in a chase scene, etc.

Player Input

One of the best games for investigations is Inspectres.  Inspectres is one of the first games to really focus on narration trading as a key mechanic, and it works well for investigations.  Instead of the GM having a set of clues hidden for the players to discover, successful rolls mean the players make up, on the spot, what the clues are and what they point to.

Naturally, this means as a GM you can’t have a hidden solution, or a full backstory worked up, since the players might take it in a completely different direction – on the other hand, it also means you don’t have to prep much.  Just take the clues the players give you and run with it.

A lot more investigation games can work like this, though it changes the experience from “uncovering” a puzzle, to one of creating a story as you go.  It means any success will always produce something one of the players found interesting and it also means that there’s not a lot of time wasted poking at dead ends.   The thing to be careful about is having everyone in the group on the same page about what fits for genre expectations as to what kinds of motivations/types of mysteries make sense.

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