A stone’s throw away from the answer

An analogy I often come across when describing investigative games is the “trail of breadcrumbs”. That is, a linear series of clues each of which points to the next in the series. It’s an approach that reaches its apex in the Gumshoe system, which advises the GM to write a “spine” of scenes, each of which contains a core clue which is necessary to progress to the next scene. The game makes discovery of core clues automatic for any character with the relevant skill, solving a genuine problem with investigative games, which is that they can stall when the players miss an important roll.

This is not an approach I subscribe to. Notwithstanding the fact that the “trail of breadcrumbs” is rather demeaning towards the players, suggesting they are simply mindless birds pecking their way to success – well. That is exactly what they are in Gumshoe, it seems to me. The system deliberately removes any element of challenge in the process of discovering the Truth, leaving the players with the job of describing how they do it. Whether they peck at the breadcrumbs furiously or idly, I suppose.

Let me give you my own pointless metaphor for the process I follow. Imagine the villain of the piece is standing on the shore of a lake, throwing stones. The stones create ripples, which spread out in all directions and persist for a long time.

If the stones are the villain’s actions, and the ripples are the clues they leave behind, then you should start to see where my analogy is going. The players are presented initially with some information about the “ripples” – the key evidence that starts their investigation off. Now they are in a position to look for more ripples. They begin to be able to piece together where some of the stones fell. If they are watching closely perhaps they can even spot some stones landing. But I as GM don’t plan out which bits of the ripple they’re going to find, or which stones they will discover the location of. Or in other words, I don’t know which evidence they will discover or what clues they will deduce from it.

Instead, I make sure that there are plenty of stones being thrown, with a varied size of ripple, so that I can be reasonably sure that they will eventually figure out who is throwing those stones. Finally, the stones continue to be thrown as the investigation is ongoing, generating still more ripples. By which I mean:
– My villain is doing lots of stuff
– He is, therefore, leaving lots of evidence behind for the players to find
– Some of it is really obvious, some less so, so there is room for skillful play
– My villain carries on doing stuff while the investigation is going on, so the trail never goes completely cold, and (this is important) there are consequences to failure

Think about the difference between these two approaches. Under the Gumshoe approach, no matter what the players do, they will uncover the mystery, and without any role for intelligent deduction, clever investigation or even just plain good or bad luck. The game (I read Trail of Cthulhu) strenuously denies it railroads the players, but this feels like a game on rails to me. Even a standard “trail of breadcrumbs” (not Gumshoe) game will feel a lot like this.

Meanwhile under my approach the players are required to use their eyes and ears and brains to piece together what happened. They don’t get any free passes. There is scope for them to solve the mystery slower or faster, and there are consequences if they fail. It is unlikely the players will fail because there is lots of evidence and the villain doesn’t disappear off the radar, but they can still screw up properly, allowing the villain to commit more mayhem, and conversely they can score a roaring success, catching the villain early.

A trail of breadcrumbs investigation means you are roleplaying an investigation, but not actually doing one. The stones and ripples approach means you get to actually investigate, not just go through the motions.

Final thoughts: my approach is not without problems. It’s a lot of work, and it requires the GM to think on her feet about every player action and what clues it might uncover. It can mean an unpredictable game length. The GM must pay a lot of attention to whether there is enough evidence to go on (so they will probably succeed) but not too much (so it just feels like childsplay, ruining the challenge). I think these are a price worth paying to get an approach that feels like real investigation.

40 Days of Role-Playing

 

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They say it takes 40 days to form a new habit.  *They* also say 21 days, 1000 days and a lot inbetween.  But 40 Days sounds like long enough to be challenging, but short enough to be manageable.

Inspired by the 40 Days of Dating project I got to wondering what I would like to do for 40 days solid (and be public about doing it).  Well obviously the answer is role playing and I got to thinking how I would also like to spend 40 days creating and role-playing in a shared world. So along with with Admiral Rabalias and Black Rat I will be committing to a tweets worth of role-playing related content every day for 40 days from 7th September 2013.  We will be running the project over on G+ in a specially created community here.

We have drawn inspiration from games like Microscope and Archipelago II for a shared world creation system but also left ideas for character creation and scenes fluid to allow us to experiment with the format.  I have no doubt we will be using the opportunity to micro play test bits of system we have been toying with for a while. I can’t say a great deal more as we haven’t formally started yet but there are already a few posts up discussing rules and admin.

The one thing I can say is that we have chosen a genre of Star-Spanning Cyberpunk.

Please drop by, have a look at the project and read the post on public participation here.

A tweet might not seem very much and I am hoping I’ll write a lot more than that but at the moment my days are erratic, sometimes I have lots of time and sometime my laptop gets soaked in baby vomit and I have to let it dry out.

Mini-Apocalypse World hack

When you read a charged situation, roll+sharp.

On a hit, you can ask the MC questions or propose an answer of your own. If you propose an answer the MC will either agree it, agree it with a change or two, or give a different answer.

Whenever you act on one of the MC’s answers or your own answer, where the MC agreed it, take +1. On a 10+, ask or answer 3. On a 7–9, ask or answer 1:

• where’s my best escape route / way in / way past?
• which enemy is most vulnerable to me?
• which enemy is the biggest threat?
• what should I be on the lookout for?
• what’s my enemy’s true position?
• who’s in control here?

This is in response to a friend (I forget who – if it’s you, feel free to take credit in comments) who commented that Read Sitch meant the MC spoonfeeding the players tactical advice instead of them thinking for themselves. This allows players to say what they think the answers are, for the MC to correct their understanding (if needed) and for them to still get the bonus.