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Roleplaying investigations Part 1

Anyone who has played in or watched one of my games knows that I love investigations. I thrive on making characters interact with their environment and with creating NPCs who register as people to talk to, get to know, love and hate.

This will be an introduction in using investigative tactics in your game, whether you just want to dabble or to leap in with both feet. In later posts I’ll show you how I build clue trees, populate the environment with useful (or unhelpful but memorable) NPCs and how to adapt when it all goes sideways. For starters, let’s have a look at what investigations can bring to your game.

A good mystery can serve so many functions in different games; in Trail or Call of Cthulhu it’s an integral part of play, it’s expected. In a more combat orientated game like Pathfinder or D&D an investigation can serve to break up the bashing and bring characters and skills to the fore that might be overshadowed in more martial game sessions. When you make violence counter-productive as an opening move it means the characters have to think their way around problems rather than just turning them into sushi.

Whole books exist on how to write mysteries – they are incredibly popular in literarature – but the structure for running an investigative game is a little different and holds its own challenges.

Unless you’re planning an entire campaign of investigations you don’t have the time to take the novel-length approach. Simply because players don’t work to the co-operative standards of literary detectives; they don’t have the skills or experience (normally) and will get sidetracked away from the nice clear (to you) path from A to B. You might be running one session a week, or a month and with a convoluted mystery your players will need epic “previously on..” and copious notes to keep track and keep the momentum up.

Think short story instead. Keep it contained. Limit the cast and the number of clues. If your players are new to this style of gaming you can slip a self-contained little mystery in as a taster to see how they get on with them – and to get them in the right mindset for a full-blown investigation to come.

At its simplest level, a mystery is:

ACTOR performed ACTION on TARGET because MOTIVE

Someone did something to someone else for a reason. Start by filling each of those slots and the plot will form around them. Make sure you incorporate a reason by which the party will benefit from completing said investigation (monetary, informational or personal rewards) and you’re ready to take the next step; making it solvable. Which will be Part 2.

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1 Comment

  1. Druttercup

    Part 2: Clues and Where to Find Them coming soon.

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