Dynamism In Investigative Scenario Design

A discussion on Facebook prompted a textwall from me about investigative scenario design. I’ve banged on about some of these ideas on here before, but I thought I may as well also post this here for referring back to.

For my purposes the key things I think about when designing an investigative scenario are:

  • How do the players first become aware of this mystery?
  • What is at the heart of the mystery, and how can that be meaningfully interacted with?
  • What is dynamic about this mystery?

The last bit is key. 99% of mystery scenarios need some sort of dynamism to them, by which I mean there needs to be stuff happening independent of the PCs, and which will keep happening unless the PCs actually stop it or prompt it to change course.

Unless you are very keen to tell a linear narrative leading to a predetermined climax, rather than presenting a sandbox where the PCs can approach the solution from a range of different angles, you don’t actually need to hardwire in a specific route to the final solution so long as your mystery has at least one dynamic element to it, because by its very nature those dynamic elements will keep generating clues until the PCs get to the heart of the thing.

As a result, and contra to the game design assumptions underpinning GUMSHOE (until Pelgrane wised up and realised that what they had was better at being a pacing mechanic or presenting the experience of watching detective fiction rather than the experience of actually detective-ing), there is absolutely nothing wrong with the players missing clues so long as you have a dynamic element to the mystery, because that dynamic element will keep doing its shit and generating more clues which will point in broadly the same directions as the clues they missed – or suddenly make the clues they picked up on but fail to interpret make way more sense.

Serial killers are the classic example of this; the tension of whether the investigators are going to be able to catch the killer before they strike again, or whether they need the killer to strike again in order to get the crucial clues they need to piece it all together – that’s very, very much part of that sort of story, and ironically something which GUMSHOE-esque “always give the players the clues they need” rules, followed dogmatically, robs your table of the chance to experience.

The absolute dogshit worst investigative scenarios out there fall into one of two traps:

  • There is no dynamic element which will produce new clues, so if the PCs miss sufficient clues the investigation grinds to a screeching halt.
  • The dynamic element goes from “not doing anything” to “ends the world” without any steps in between, so as soon as it swings into action the PCs are turbofucked and there is nothing they can do about it.

That is not a game system issue, that is a scenario design issue, and you get around it by making sure that a) you have that dynamic element which is doing shit and b) the first move that dynamic element takes is not “win irrevocably”.

Very, very occasionally it can be worth putting in a non-dynamic mystery – something which will just sit there until the players finally take action. A buried idol which is entirely dormant until it is dug up from the burial mound it was interred in, the true reason why the ghost of the old rector is always seen crawling around in the orchard on Midsummer Night, etc.

But even then it makes sense to make it a side investigation – something which can keep bubbling and the PCs can come back to when inspiration hits them while they follow up on more active cases.

In an ambitious mode you can have multiple different mysteries with multiple dynamic elements being pursued at once. Maybe the Moorland Killer’s trail has gone cold, and the PCs have nothing to do but wait for them to strike again, but in the meantime things have perked up with their occasional observation of Sludge Industries’ mysterious drilling operation.

5 thoughts on “Dynamism In Investigative Scenario Design

    1. GUMSHOE is very good at what it does! But what it does is not quite the flavour of investigative RPG I tend to prioritise.

      John Tynes has a pretty good article about this – http://www.johntynes.com/2018/07/21/narrative-sandboxes-delta-green-the-labyrinth-coc-and-gumshoe/ – but essentially what GUMSHOE is good at is giving you the feeling that your PC is the star of an investigative TV show you are watching, it’s less about the actual challenge of the players actually making investigative deductions for themselves.

  1. Excellent post. I can think of several Call of Cthulhu scenarios that fall over because of those two cardinal errors making their core mystery impenetrable to players who can’t roll the right numbers. That is itself a third issue I think, gatekeeping the clue behind pass/fail skill checks instead of making the fail-state “yes, but the killer strikes again before you work it out” or something like that. I think that’s what GUMSHOE is trying to step around, on the assumption that because it involves rolls it’s a system/refereeing problem, which (as you say) it’s really not.

    1. Though the point I am trying to make is that so long as you have this dynamic element at work you have much more liberty to say “No, you don’t find the clue this time” – because the dynamic element to the mystery will keep producing more clues which amount to more or less the same information as it continues to act. That means that any one pass/fail almost certainly is not gatekeeping unique information that is absolutely necessary to bring the scenario to a conclusion (albeit perhaps not the conclusion the PCs want), the information is potentially behind a string of pass/fail checks that gets longer and longer the more the dynamic element gets to act, and if the PCs are failing *each and every one of those checks* then you either have kind of a horrible system (like Principia Malefix and its absolutely horrible starting stats for PCs) or your players are rolling *so* horribly that it feels more acceptable for the characters to have this run of rotten luck because, hey, if we aren’t amenable to the PCs suffering bad fortune we wouldn’t call for rolls in the first place.

  2. Pingback: Delta Green’s Garden of Forking Paths – Refereeing and Reflection

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