Investigating investigation

Due to popular demand (well, Blackrat demand), I am going to write a bit more about investigation and how it can be systematised.

Fundamentally, investigation in roleplaying is about searching for and discovering clues which can be used to draw conclusions about something happening in the fictional world of the game. If you over-mechanicise searching for clues (for example by making discovery automatic, as with Trail of Cthulhu) then you end up with something that feels like railroading. If you elide the discovery of clues and drawing of conclusions (something it’s easy for a GM worried about whether the players will be up to the task of deducing what is going on) then you end up with exposition rather than true investigation.

We can break it down further
– Following leads to direct the search for clues towards particular people, places, groups, events and so on.
– Finding the imprint left by the events one is investigating, especially if it is concealed (fingerprints, footprints, CCTV footage, a statement by a witness…)
– Identifying a pattern, an anomaly within a pattern or a definite lack of pattern (for instance, all the victims belonged to the same religion)
– Interpreting the imprints and patterns found so far to draw conclusions about what might have happened
– Making the link between an imprint, pattern or conclusion and a new lead, widening the investigation (a person whose fingerprints, footprints, etc were left at the scene; the local temple of the religious group being victimised, etc)
– Drawing a solid enough conclusion to allow a confrontation of some sort (arrest the murderer, grab the lost artifact, reunite the father with his lost daughter)

Each of these can in principle be broken down into appropriate skills or abilities (forensics, interrogation and so on), if the game system wishes, but most game systems don’t really use the above breakdown. Most systems concentrate almost exclusively on the second bullet: finding the imprint through awareness tests, while some that are more focused on investigation also move on to the third and fourth bullets, allowing skill use to draw conclusions such as “these footprints were made by a very large man”.

To me, at the heart of an investigation game is how you move through these steps, and how the elements highlighted in bold get you from one step to the next. What makes an investigation game enjoyable for me as a player (and vicariously as a GM) is taking those steps myself, not having the system do it all for me; but of course, since I am not in fact a forensics expert or arch-interrogator or whatnot, it must give me just enough information to make it possible for me to draw conclusions and decide on appropriate leads myself, rather than spoon feeding me.

Authorial boundaries

Many story games widen the scope of authorship beyond traditional boundaries. In Apocalypse World, the MC can turn responsibility for decision-making over to the players, asking them questions in a reversal of the more usual approach. In Microscope there is a highly defined process through which everyone playing the game can author almost any element in the fiction. But it is quite common to take a far less structured approach, leaving everyone to invent everything as and when they feel like it, and often blurring the lines between In and Out of character speech.

So for example, in a game of Fiasco I could start a scene by having my wannabe gangster tell his cronies “The plan is to knock off the Royal Bank of Scotland on Spencer Street.” Right there, I created a bank and a street – I didn’t need to tell the group about it Out of Character in the way that a GM might, my IC speech made it so. (Someone might reply “but there is no bank on Spencer Street”, which would confuse matters – improv actors would call this “blocking”, which is not a good thing at all.)

But my experience has been that when things are left unstructured and informal, not everyone will have the same ideas about where authorial boundaries lie. For instance, say I’m playing a character named Fred, in a scene with one other character, Lucy, while the third player character, Alf, is absent from the scene. I say “it’s such a shame about Alf’s drug abuse, he really is going off the rails”. Lucy might reply “yes, and that business with the prostitutes was unfortunate as well.” Maybe Alf’s player was expecting to play a rather puritanical, moral sort of guy. Now he has to decide whether to “block” these suggestions (which, because they were delivered In Character, means implying that Fred and Lucy are liars or mad or misinformed) or roll with it and change his character. Alf’s player will probably roll with it, but may not feel too happy at having his character – not his character’s situation, but the character himself – unilaterally and arbitarily changed from the character he had in mind.

Is this reasonable? There is no right answer. It comes down to violated expectations, something which is to be avoided. Story games thrive on the ability to introduce unexpected, unplanned fictional elements which each player can build on and riff off; but having a clear understanding of what we can and can’t do is vital to enabling everyone to participate fully in the authorial jam session. Your regular group probably has built up just such an understanding, through a mix of formal discussion and informal convention, and you may not even realise it until a new player joins or you play with a different group.

Some games provide useful ways to register an objection to content you aren’t happy with; Archipelago has its ritual phrases, Witch has “the alarm”. That goes some way to helping, and is a necessary tool in my view, but can be quite jarring (and in my experience not everyone likes having their creativity shat on in this way, either). For my money nothing beats having expectations clarified up front.

So what are the boundary questions we need to answer?
– Who can create fictional elements like characters, locations, objects?
– Who can make changes and elaborations to existing fictional elements? Is it only the person who created them, or anyone?
– To what extent can we author retroactive events e.g. “cut to a hill outside the city, which is now a nuclear waste” without us seeing the nuke get fired.
– Are any fictional elements privileged in the way that Player Characters are in a traditional game? Are there any limits on authorship?
– Who can set scenes, and within what parameters?
– How are the above done? Can we author stuff in-scene, or during set-up?
– What do I do if I don’t like what someone else authored? Do I have to roll with it, or can I challenge? How are disputes settled?
– Whose role is it to enforce the answers to the above questions?

In my experience a lot of games elide these questions, leaving it to you to decide. In turn, a lot of groups elide the decisions, leaving it to be settled through play – “let’s just start playing and we’ll work it out as we go”. Maybe I’m just stuffy and over-formal, but I find it helpful to have these questions clear in advance.

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



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.