Investigation Scenarios

Investigation Scenarios

Investigation scenarios in RPGs can be very difficult games to run, for quite a number of reasons. Nevertheless, they are staples of many genres, and if done well can be quite effective.

One of the major reasons that investigates are difficult to run is that investigation scenarios in RPGs differ wildly from similar investigation scenarios in other media. Take, for example, the typical detective novel. In this sort of story the detective pokes around, talks to all the usual and unusual suspects, encounters various disparate clues and reveals the solution to the mystery at the end. If the mystery novel is well-written, the reader is kept guessing as to the solution until the end itself, at which point she realizes that all the necessary clues were there all along.

In an RPG investigation, on the other hand, the audience is the investigating character(s). As such the goal isn't to keep the audience guessing, it's to deliver clues so that the audience can solve the mystery. Additionally, in a mystery novel there's a fixed linear progression of scenes, and the author has the luxury of controlling when and where they happen. In an RPG investigation, on the other hand, the players have the agency to go about and investigate as they will, and as such the set-up has to be a lot more open to playing out in different ways.

There an important distinction that also needs to be made between RPG investigation scenarios and other types of common RPG scenarios: In an investigation scenario verisimilitude is king. Let me explain what I mean here.

In many common types of RPG scenes the GM has a lot of flexibility to bend realism to fit the pacing or play of the game. For example, in a dungeon crawl why do the monsters in the next room simply wait there until you kick down the door, when in all likelihood they might be able to hear you killing their buddies a room over? Because that's part of the conceit, or because fighting half a dozen rooms of monsters at once may complicate the scene too much.

But investigation scenarios are a different beast. They have to be internally consistent, and make some sort of realistic sense. Because if they weren't, the ability to take the clues and use basic reasoning to follow them to their logical conclusion would be undermined. Basically, logical reasoning in a scenario only works if the scenario itself has an internally consistent logic to it. And at the heart of it, all an investigation scenario is, is finding clues and using reasoning to follow them to their logical conclusion.

In this sense an RPG investigation scenario is something of a mini-sandbox. There's the mystery, there's the little corner of the setting where it takes place, there's the list of suspects or other bit parts encountered there, and there are the clues. At that point then it's left to the players to play in the sandbox as they see fit, uncovering the clues and connecting the dots.

But that's really only half of it. In any scene in an RPG there are always two agendas at work: the player agenda and the GM agenda. And while these agendas are complimentary, they don't always line up in every scene. Let me give an example.

Imagine an RPG investigation scenario. The player agenda in such a scenario is possibly something like: Find a clue, find the next clue, piece the clues together to solve the mystery and then catch the killer. And the players have a lot of agency in setting their agenda and deciding how they go about pursuing that.

In the same scenario, though, the GM has a different set of agendas: A GM agenda might be to find a way to introduce the NPC who ends up being the killer, because discovering that the killer is really "random NPC X at the ski lodge who we've never even talked to" doesn't make for a very good dramatic reveal when it happens. Similarly, the GM likely has an agenda of ensuring the mystery isn't obvious in the first 30 seconds, because then the "investigation scenario" isn't really a scenario at all.

This last point is a surprisingly tricky one. There's a very fine and difficult to predict line between "too obvious" and "incredibly frustrating." This is also another point of departure between mystery novels and RPGs. In novels the real clues often come alongside lots of red herrings, and the reader is kept guessing because the real clues are mixed in among the red herrings and background details. In an RPG, though, red herrings are often problematic. If there are leads players tend to chase them, but if players spend too many hours chasing down a lead that ends up being a red herring (and thus of no use), that can be frustrating.

Typically, to solve the mystery, the players need to uncover some set of clues from which they have enough information to figure it out. Without these clues there's just not enough to go on. Obviously then the GM needs to put these clues in places where the players can find them. And there are two ways that this is typically done: using place clues, and using event clues.

Place clues are the simplest. If a PC thinks to go to some place there is a clue, they can find. This might be a physical piece of evidence they find laying around. Or it might be a nugget of information, such as information from questioning a suspect in the stereotypical locked-room murder mystery.

Event clues, on the other hand, are clues that come from some event that happens while investigating or pursuing some other activity. The GM has a lot more flexibility laying these out as reactions to the PCs' investigation, but when such events happen still needs to match the internal consistency of the investigation. Because these clues happen over the course of the investigation they are also a good way for a GM to prevent the mystery from being solved in the first 30 seconds. That is, if an event will yield a necessary clue later on, players are unlikely to solve the mystery until that event has happened. On the other hand, the GM needs to doubly-manage player frustration in this setup as well. Ambitious players may be banging their heads against the wall looking for that critical missing clue that just isn't there until the event happens.

Anyway, these are all important considerations to keep in mind when running an investigation scenario. There is a lot going on in such a game, but it's often worth it, particularly with players who like exploring and figuring things out.

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