Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Storytelling Corner: Detective Mysteries

After we recently talked about the Hunter Aspect and the Heroes with it who are natural detectives with Tracking last Sunday, we got a couple questions from the question box - or really, more like complaints. The common theme was that detective mysteries are really hard to design in roleplaying games, and they were right! Detective mysteries can be a pain in the ass to design in RPGs. Your pain is felt here at HJ headquarters.

Mysteries - really compelling ones that last more than five minutes - are hard in RPGs, no joke. For one thing, you have to come up with a mystery that the players won't figure out OOC before the characters do IC; nothing is going to bore and frustrate them more than knowing the answer but not being allowed to act like they do because they couldn't make a roll. Of course, sometimes it's fun to throw up your hands and say, "My character has lard where their brains should be, sorry, they're going to hilariously Scooby Doo their way through this situation because they don't have any prayer of figuring it out," but that's not fun every time, and it's especially not fun sometimes for players whose characters are designed to be good at a mystery and just failed their roll this time. If the players and their characters both haven't figured out the solution to the mystery yet, they can continue to try to find out together, which can be exhilarating; and if the character finds out first, and Destiny imparts their knowledge to the player, they get the glow of learning the answer because their character is great; but the character roadblocking their own player usually doesn't feel very good.

So the first hurdle, as a GM, is coming up with a mystery that is clever and difficult enough that the players won't figure it out before you're ready for them to - they have to be interested and want to find the answer, but not be able to just find the answer within the first ten minutes of your session.

And speaking of rolls, where do you call for them? There are a lot of ways clues could be gathered that might tell the Heroes something about the answer, and you as the GM have to know which ones they're good at and what clues will add to the big picture without giving the whole mystery away. Maybe there are NPCs who know some things who the Heroes might get information out of with Lover or Leader rolls; maybe there's evidence lying around that a Hero with Hunter might be able to collect, or maybe there's some nonsense a Hero with Sage could perform to pull enough contextual information out of thin air to help them out, and of course they might be the best at putting all the pieces together later. Since HJ has a puzzle subsystem for figuring out obtuse codes and riddles, you could sprinkle some of those around for the Sages as well. But these are the easy parts of designing a mystery, honestly - things that might give clues that lead toward the answer, hopefully not all at once or too easy, and that hopefully give a few different possibilities before the final hour.

So you have a mystery you think is compelling, and you know what rolls your Heroes could make to try to find out about it. But somehow, even though those are theoretically the only things you need, half the mystery attempts in RPGs fall flat anyway. So what's missing?

In a world like HJ, part of the problem is that this is a mythic world full of magic and possibilities that don't normally occur in the real world - and that interferes with one of the basic rules of mysteries. When you're writing a mystery, whether for fiction, film, or an RPG, one of the basic rules is that you have to provide the readers/viewers/players with all the information they could need to solve the mystery on their own; if they figure it out, it should be because it was logical rather than because they were guessing, and if they don't, they should see how it made sense after it's explained to them. But this depends on the players knowing the "rules" of the world - things like, for example in a traditional detective mystery, the fact that touching things with bare fingers leaves fingerprints, or that a camera pointed in a window will record what happened in there, or that firing a gun leaves powder behind. They can use this knowledge about the world to follow to useful clues like "someone must have stolen the tape, who would have done that" or "there's a powder burn on this person's sleeve, which is incriminating". If your mystery did a right turn and said "oh, it was really this other person, and there were no fingerprints because they have a rare genetic disorder where they don't secrete oil and this was never mentioned or hinted at before the end", your readers would be annoyed, because you broke the rule that they should be able to depend on the rules of the world to find the answer - they never really had a chance, so the mystery is unsatisfying and feels like the author springing a "gotcha" that the reader could never have seen coming.

So you can see the problem in a setting like HJ - the players by default don't know the rules of the world. Magic and divine energy and enchantment are running rampant. They can't be sure if the security footage doesn't show anything because there was nothing to show, or because something happened that doesn't show up on camera Because Magic. They can't be sure if the murder was committed by something with hands at all Because Magic, so they can't be sure the lack of fingerprints means anything. Because Magic is messing up that whole relying-on-the-rules-of-the-world basic rule of mysteries.

So one of the first things you have to do is give the characters (and through them their players) those basic rules, and then stick to them. If the culprits are vampires and can't be seen in mirrors, and this is relevant because a witness who was looking into a mirror thinks they were alone, make sure they know that rule - Sages are great conduits for this sort of thing, because you can call for Knowledge rolls and hand off details when the subject comes up, illustrating them remembering or having previously researched something that might help shed some light on the situation. If the mystery revolves around a magical door they can't figure out how to open, and some of the rules include that certain people were required to do a ritual, let the Hunter find clues about how many people have been there or what they were like, or let your more socially-oriented Heroes ask around and get a picture of who was in the area so they learn these things. And above all, don't change your mind mid-stream - if suddenly one vampire shows up who does have a reflection for , the players will rightfully be mad at you for changing the rules on them and making it impossible for them to figure this out.

The exception to this rule is if the players are beating you at your own Destiny game (which doesn't happen often, but it's awesome when it does, so be excited about it!). Sometimes a character comes up with a theory that is wrong, but both plausible and amazing - maybe they completely missed a clue about the actual culprit, a local dwarf who stole something from the museum for their own forging purposes, but they instead put together a bunch of clues, some of which were just incidental information, to come up with a brilliant theory about how this particular artifact, which was from a now-lost site in the Fertile Crescent, was used as a focus for a summoning ritual for the ancient demon Pazuzu and my gods, team, there's no time to lose! As a GM, it's not just okay but actually important sometimes to recognize when the players are writing a better story than the one you had planned, and decide to go with it. If you find yourself thinking, "Wow, I wish that were true, that's way more interesting/epic/complex than what I planned out," the great news is that you don't have to wish it; you're the metaplot boss, so you can just declare that true and weave it into the larger story of the Saga however you like. Now that dwarf stole the relic for the cult, who paid him to do so, and if you don't find them in time to stop them, there are going to be so many more hurricane problems in the area than anyone planned for.

So there's your setup for an RPG mystery: 1) Write the mystery, 2) Figure out how the players can solve it, 3) Make sure you give them the "rules" of how things work so they can participate, 4) Be ready to hand out clues as rolls dictate, and 5) Be flexible if the story takes off without you.

By the way, all this design stuff is really talking about the "whodunnit" style of mystery, where X thing happened and everyone has to find out who did it and/or why, usually while the perpetrator is trying to stop them or at the very least avoid notice. But the whodunnit's related cousin, the howcatchem, is the style of mystery where the Heroes know who did it, but have to instead figure out how to find or trap them, or even know right where they are but need proof or information about how they did what they did before they can bring them to whatever form of justice is appropriate. If the whodunnit is being difficult, due to relying so much on clues and information and figuring out a secret at a possibly inopportune moment, howcatchems can be a useful alternative that sometimes works better in an RPG setting, since it gives the players very clear action-oriented goals but still allows them to do investigative detective work to achieve them. (And if the whodunnit collapses early because someone figured something out at the wrong time or the clues didn't line up, you can always segue right into a howcatchem instead to keep that mystery feel rolling!)

A lot of the crafting rules of RPG stories closely mirror those of writing a story for page or screen; after all, those stories are familiar to your players, too, and HJ is a game where they are literally envisioning themselves as part of stories like that. Often, if you're just feeling your way through, asking, "Would this work in a book/TV show?" can get you pointed in the right direction.


  1. If we are asking for companion pieces for the Aspects, how about one on Crafting in HJ, to go with the Creator post? :)