Probing the Enemy, Anime Style

If you enjoy anime, you may have noticed that sometimes people are in a duel with one another and they spend most of their time talking. A significant portion of time will sometimes be spent with a close up on one character, while their inner monologue provides an in depth analysis of their opponent. When done effectively, this is enjoyable because it shifts the genre slightly away from action and into either drama or mystery. In an action story it is largely arbitrary who wins. If the enemy’s hidden weakness is mostly psychological the action scene ends up being shifted towards a drama, and character development becomes the means by which the combat is decided. If the enemy’s hidden weakness is part of their tools or combat style, it becomes a mystery. Many stories use both, simultaneously.

The director and writer have a difficult task in keeping the audience interested. Often the dialogue during the fight is actually about the protagonist finding sufficient motivation and obtaining sufficient status (the theater concept of status, not the sociological one) to fight without restriction. This is the kind of battle where the main participants often have philosophical discussions during the fight. Lets call this a drama-fight.

This can largely be contrasted with the “mystery fights.” Here the director and writer have the difficult task of pacing the delivery of information about an opponents fighting style, powers, and tools. The information must be relayed quickly enough that the audience can make educated guesses about how the protagonist will defeat the enemy, and the information must be relayed subtly enough that it doesn’t become overly obvious what the writer’s intent is. This is the same challenges that confront mystery movies. The role of detective in these stories tends to be replaced by a martial artist. The climax where the detective reveals what happened is replaced with the martial artist explaining how they’re defeating the opponent. This mystery-fight is resolved much more quickly than a normal mystery, as the story relies more on the spectacle of the resolution after the climax than the gradual increase in tension prior to the climax. This makes sense: martial arts stories have a lengthy and amusing martial art battle that ends the story, and mystery stories have a long and stressful investigation with a short resolution.

For extreme ways to incorporate these into games, look at these:

Less Extreme Example: My Mage Game

While initially my mage game used a lot of “trump battles,” once I decided to start incorporating damage and health values it ended up being exactly the same as standard M:tA combat. This happened largely because white wolf is a minimalist system. My mage game now uses no house rules that pertain to combat, but I turn every battle into a “mystery-fight.” This change happened largely by accident, and it is quite enjoyable.

This is accomplished by making the enemy much stronger than the players, but making it so that all their powers fit into a narrow theme. As soon as the players figure out what that theme is, they can start to turn the tide of battle. To figure out what the theme is, the players make a variety of attacks and seeing how the enemy defends themself, and analyze how the enemy attacks them.

This works because, in M:tA, magic operates under (minimal restrictions) that vary from mage to mage: paradigm and focus. These are largely narrative restrictions, and largely designate what a mage needs to be able to do magic. There are also the thematic focus I put on the magic as the GM, and the game mechanics of spheres. It might sound abstract, but that’s Mage for you. It’s a lot easier than it sounds.

The most recent example is a fight against a Void Engineer (a statement that means nothing unless you are one of the few M:tA players still out there). The more important part is that this character had the power to understand the location of people and things with a degree of precision that is positively superheroic, and manipulate them with an equal degree of precision. The theme was precision in space. Their magic was all “correspondence 3,” which means they could sense and manipulate the location of themselves and other things. Their paradigm only allowed them to use magic if it could be explained away by luck or skill, and their main foci are observation or large movement. The fight was in a cramped office.

The void engineer’s opening move was to dive over a counter and kick a display table of fliers, in such a way that the fliers spray up into a perfect wall that obscures vision perfectly for just one second. He then launches a surprise attack from behind this cover. During this moment of brief invisibility, one player used luck magic to shoot him anyway, and the other PC uses life magic to transform into some kind of hulking, bulletproof muscleman, and attempt to grab the void engineer. The void engineers second move was to dodge to the side in such a way that a PC ended up “falling” into another PCs line of fire. The PCs, having figured out that this guy was just too darn mobile, decided they needed to stop him from moving so much. One of the PCs is a time mage, so he decided to slow down time the next time the void engineer attempts one of their fancy magical maneuvers. A different PC decided it was time to try and wrestle and pin the void engineer to the ground. The void engineer was going to try and escape outside where, with a gun in hand and lots of space, he would have a significant advantage. Unfortunately, time slowed just as he attempted to make a break for it, and then he was pinned to the ground.

Note how all the actions were pretty normal combat actions for a game of Mage, but by providing a powerful but narrow theme to the enemy’s magic it was possible to treat it like a mystery to solve. Once the players figure it out, the problem is really easy to solve. This makes it quite different to play than a “trump battle,” where it plays more like a puzzle.

Dragons and Detectives: Thrillers

Psychological thrillers are a lot like mysteries. They both engage the reasoning ability of their audience, and have plots that are principally about uncovering “the truth.” The key difference, however, is that thrillers aim to create a mood of doubt and paranoia. This is accomplished by making the characters and audience question the integrity of the investigation. Questioning the integrity of the investigation changes the mystery of the story substantially: instead of discovering “who committed this crime?” the question becomes “what is wrong with this investigation?”

This post assumes familiarity with the other “Dragons and Detectives” posts.

Integrity of the Investigation

By the “integrity of the investigation” I mean the phenomena where all people and institutions supporting the investigation are acting in good faith and aim to help uncover the truth. Thrillers challenge this notion, and in so doing create a sense of paranoia. Here is a (non-exhaustive) list of ways to challenge the integrity of the investigation:

  1. A detective is either highly immoral or has a tenuous grasp on reality.

  2. The organization that supports the detective (the police department, a P.I.’s network, etc.) contains some traitors, saboteurs, or otherwise corrupt individuals.

  3. The moral or legal authority of the organization that supports the detectives is drawn into question, or they withdraw their support.

The first and second one are the most commonly used in psychological thriller movies. Think of any thriller you’ve seen where a friendly secondary character becomes progressively more sinister as the movie goes on. Meanwhile, the main character’s behaviour becomes increasingly more erratic and bizarre.

Events for Psychological Thrillers: Sabotage and Lies

The events in a psychological thriller involve clues changing or going missing, initially for no readily apparent reason. The evidence is misplaced, or an interviewee denies that they ever spoke to the players. This sabotage of the investigation rapidly escalates to threats and “indirect” attempts on a person’s life (like lighting their house on fire). Only near the end will there be a “direct” violent engagement.

This changes the way the players will re-examine their theories, because they need to start thinking about who has the opportunity to sabotage their investigation. This will usually seem beyond any of their suspects, and will result in all kinds of paranoid speculation. It is possible, of course, that the person sabotaging the crime has a motive that is completely removed from the original investigation. In psychological thrillers, however, this does not happen because there are no coincidences. In a psychological thriller everything is connected.

PvP and Sabotage

What will make the players feel a lot more secure in their theories is that they principally interact with each other. When an interviewee says “I never spoke to those guys” all the PCs say “yes you did; we we’re all there!” The way around this is to make the PCs distrust each other.

Here is what I suggest: at the end of the first socratic session in a mystery, have each player write the GM a secret note. In it, the player writes down how their character could manipulate the investigation in a manner that benefits them. Examples could include framing a professional rival, rushing through the investigation irresponsibly to “juke the stats,” or turning the investigation into a propaganda campaign for the local police department. The GM puts a check mark on each proposal that seems plausible, and an x on each proposal that is not. If the player gets a check mark, they may choose to pursue the investigation honestly or they may choose to sabotage it. A player who got an x must investigate honestly.

I would suggest letting each player take one action secretly between each socratic seminar and event. Honest investigators can use this action to try and track down the saboteur. Manipulators can use this to fabricate evidence.

Now the game could go in a few possible directions. It could be an honest investigation if everyone chooses to solve the mystery. It could be an intrigue game if everyone is sabotaging the investigation. It’s a thriller if some are manipulating the investigation, and some are pursuing it honestly.

The manipulators would need to get the biggest reward if they can manipulate the investigation just enough to get their objectives met, the honest investigators still catch the right criminal. Of course, if the manipulator gets caught and must be punished, odds are good the character will wind up in jail or dead.

In order for the honest investigators to be able to secretly investigate their colleagues, I would want to have each player identify at least one skill or ability that they keep secret, and one part of their background that they keep secret. Presumably, this part of their background is related to how they plan to benefit from corruption. By clearly identifying these to the GM at the beginning of a campaign, the GM knows what to reveal to PCs when they investigate each other. The background provides psycho-social clues, and the skills provide opportune clues.

Doing this does break the genre convention of making everything connected. However, it allows a group to run multiple mysteries that are very close to psychological thrillers without everything becoming overly predictable.

Surprise Endings

For movies, the benefit of a constant mood of doubt and paranoia is that it keeps the “feeling” of mystery alive in the absence of reasoning. It can stimulate emotional responses from the audience in place of rational responses. Thriller movies tend to aim for a surprise-ending, so they rely on the audience not having any time to reason about the films except at the very beginning and the very end. The very beginning sets up the detectives initial, non-paranoid expectations. Then everyone gets paranoid for 1.5 hours. Then there’s a dialogue wherein the detective and the audience are walked through all the reasoning needed to discover “The Truth.” It’s a big surprise ending and everyone is awed.

To pull this off in an RPG, the GM will need to keep interrupting the players socratic seminars with threatening action scenes, distracting rp scenes, and dangerous threats best avoided with neat puzzles. They get one socratic seminar at the beginning, then the GM interrupts them until they have all the clues they need, and then the GM lets them have a socratic seminar again. They put it all together, and it’s a big surprise ending.

The group would probably need to finish this whole plot in one session, because if the players have free time in the middle of the plot they might just put it all together too soon.

The Inquistion: a Campaign I Would Want to Run

If I was to run a thriller campaign, I’d want to set it in a low-fantasy version of europe and make the players work for that world’s version of the inquisition. This makes the players into investigators, of a sort, but instead of looking for breaches of the law they are looking for breaches of morality. They aren’t even looking for breaches of public morality; they are ferreting out “corruption” in people’s private lives. They are certainly allowed to enforce public morality if they want, and it is through enforcing public morality that the players end up dealing with high-profile murder mysteries.

This means, right from the beginning, the integrity of the organization that supports the PCs is cast in doubt. The inquisition will obviously abuse its power. Some of it’s more ruthless agents will punish people for “moral crimes” that shouldn’t be crimes in the first place. Others (like the PCs, I hope) use the scope of their authority to try and benefit people by removing corrupting influences, and supporting nurturing ones.

In the course of removing “corrupting influences,” the players (and other inquisitors), would have the authority to be as fascistic, xenophobic, arbitrary, and generally evil as they want to be. This enables, but does not require, the players to threaten the integrity of the detectives (themselves). When some of the clues take the form of forced confessions, and some of the reasoning involves obvious bigotry (“if he’s a heretic, he must be a murderer too!”), the players may begin to doubt their own ability to find the real criminal.

Finally, if bishops and nobles are frequently prideful, conceited, and deceitful, the PCs will almost certainly not trust the integrity of the people “above” them. Other inquisitors can be prone to obvious bigotry and corruption, and political clout can be used to shield the powerful from investigation. Paranoia will natural ensue.

Depending on players experience with bigotry in real life, this game could be very upsetting for them. I’ve had some unpleasant encounters with neo-nazis in my lifetime, but they were few and far between. Many people have had it much, much worse. Also, if people have been abused by police in any way this game might be really unpleasant. This could also be a really heavy game for people because of how concepts of public and private morality can be severely impacted by gender or sexual orientation. If you want to use this idea, be careful; it could make a lot of people really uncomfortable.

Dragons and Detectives: Clues and Events

In a straightforward detective story, the clues necessary to reach the correct explanation of the crime are presented at the beginning of the story. The problem is that these clues can be used to create multiple theories. Then the story progresses, and the detectives find more information. This information is communicated through events, and it allows some interpretations to be disproved. Sometimes, an event occurs that changes a key assumption about the case, forcing all theories to be re-evaluated.

So, for creating a mystery game, we’ll look at clues and events. I’m going to assume that the players are using some kind of socratic seminar-style discussion to come to conclusions about the mystery.

The Clues

For the sake of games, I think it’s useful to divide clues into three categories: physical, psychosocial, and opportune. Physical clues establish what actually happened at a scene of a crime. A bottle of poison at the scene of a murder is a good example. Psychosocial clues are used to determine who would have a motive to commit the crime. They are largely gathered by interviews and observation of people, and reveal properties of a person’s personality and relationships. Examples might include that the victim was having an affair, and their significant other had just learned of the affair. Opportune clues are clues about the opportunity to commit a crime. They include where a person was at the time the crime was being permitted, or skills or ability required to commit the crime.

It is important to always include at least one clue in each category that has nothing to do with the crime. This is important for increasing the number of possible theories the players will come up with, and it makes using events later easier. It also rewards players who are particularly good critical thinkers, who might figure out what is a coincidence and what is not with their own wits. It is also common to have a forensic clue of some kind that needs to be analyzed. If the players have the appropriate skills themselves, they can get this information effectively immediately, but otherwise they need to wait. This waiting allows the GM to introduce information later in an Event that will result in the players making new theories.

Physical clues tend to be the first one’s analyzed. This is important for when the GM is planning events, but at this precise moment it doesn’t matter. Analyzing physical clues will mostly be used for determining supporting psychosocial and opportune clues.

Imagine the site of a murder has furniture knocked over, an empty bottle of poison, a broken window, and a bunch of blood splattered on the table. There are also no cuts or visible wounds on the victim. A player may deduce from this that the person was poisoned, thrashed while dying (knocking over the furniture), and then someone broke the window and took something from the table. A different player might imagine a scenario where the victim was poisoned with the murderer in the room, who then gloated, and the victim attacked the murderer in a rage (knocking over furniture and spilling blood on the table in the process).

Acquiring psycho-social clues is done through interviews, so the players need a way to learn about important people from the victim’s life. Once that is done, they can interview them. The goal is to be able to understand the victim’s place in other people’s lives, so that the players might figure out who would murder them. Since the murderer presumably had a motive, the victim is presumably not quite a saint. This is often represented by at least one person coming right out and saying “I didn’t kill him, but I wish I did!” One of the interviewees will withhold information that they find embarrassing. This is important for later in the investigation, as it will make a person suddenly seem much more suspicious regardless of whether they fit a player’s theory or not. A third type of interviewee will be missing, refuse to be interviewed, or postpone the interview until later. This will allow the GM to feed the PCs information later on in the investigation if the players are completely on the wrong track, and if they are on the right track the interview in the future would constitute an Event. The list of people who are important in the victim’s life can be narrowed down substantially with a bit of common sense thinking about opportunity. This means the players shouldn’t be provided with or make a list of every single person the victim knew, but should instead make a list of people with whom the victim had contact recently.

Opportune clues are the last kind, and rely on the players already having a theory about what happened. It is by finding (or not finding) opportune clues that they can support or weaken the various theories that they came up with. It will often be up to the players to ask questions like “where were you on the night of january 7th between seven and eight in the morning?” to get this evidence. It is largely up to the players to ask the right questions and look for the right kind of evidence. To make this easier, if a player asks a broad question like “I look around the room for clues” the GM can ask them to narrow it down. For example, if the character wants to know if the person is fit enough to overpower the victim, they might clarify that they want to determine how physically powerful the character is. The GM can then respond easily with “the suspect has a cane in the corner of the room” or “the suspect has anabolic steroids in their medicine cabinet, and many boxing trophies.” However, the GM will most likely want to plan future events so that they release more evidence about the opportunity to commit the crime.

Opportune clues are therefore used mostly to disprove theories.

To help with this, here is a table you may use.







(Hates the victim)

(Withholds information)


(In event 1)

(In event 2)

(In event 3)


There are two very different kinds of events: events that introduce new clues and events that change existing clues. An example of the former is when some hired goons show up to threaten the detective, and (after beating the tar out of the goons) the detective learns they hang out at Miss Kitty’s Gentleman’s Club. An example of the latter is when a forensic scientist calls the detective and says “You won’t believe this! The bullet casings weren’t from the same pistol found at the scene of the crime.”

There’s another purpose to events, though. It breaks up the scenes of role-playing (interviews) and reasoning (out-of-character or in-character Socratic sessions) with other types of play. The sudden arrival of hired goons tends to lead to combat. A new but uncooperative interviewee might need to be caught in a chase scene. Perhaps the victim’s loved ones are being uncooperative, so the detectives decide to sneak into their home and look for more clues.

Since a mystery game will already have frequent opportunity for acting and role-playing, there’s no need to try and introduce more of this with events. Feel free to make new NPCs uncooperative to the point of violence, to include more combat. It also will include a large amount of in-universe reasoning, so there’s not really a need to include more really open-ended puzzles. If any puzzles come up, they should be more about spatial reasoning than logical reasoning. They would thus apply more to sneaking around.

Often, the players will be choosing what events are going to happen based on their attempts to prove/disprove their theories. The GM has a responsibility to make sure the events will provide the information needed to disprove wrong theories. If the players have largely failed to create a theory that correctly explains the crime, the GM should make sure to introduce clues that will help steer them in that direction. Often, this will occur because the players are over-focused on a single clue, so use the event to change that clue a little bit.

The GMs goal with events is twofold: give the players enough to think about that more socratic seminars are meaningful, and slowly steer the players towards the correct solution. This isn’t to say that the PCs are guaranteed to reach the correct solution eventually; it’s simply a reminder that the GM needs to make sure that the PCs have a good enough chance for the game to be “fair.”

The Red Herring

The red herring is the theory that is wrong, yet still as plausible as the correct theory for most the story. The players will almost certainly create their own red herring during the socratic seminars. However, it is important to not immediately disprove the Red Herring with events. Instead, make sure that new clues support the correct theory, without disproving the red herring. As such, only players who are particularly apt critical thinkers will notice that they have better reason to believe the correct theory than the red herring. If the GM is particularly good, there will be a period near the end of the mystery where the players divided between just the red herring and the correct theory, and both theories will seem very reasonable. One last piece of evidence will end up proving which theory is correct,

The Correct Theory

The funny thing about a mystery is that the GM doesn’t actually need to decide what actually happened. I suggest the GM decides about half the time what actually happened. The rest of the time, the GM just creates the clues and improvises some events that will support or disprove some of the PCs theories. Then the GM picks one of the PCs theories and decides to make that theory the correct one. If the GM is feeling a little bit perverse, the GM can wait until the PCs end up deciding between two plausible theories, and the GM makes whichever one the party chooses the Red Herring. This is contrive a particular type of climatic encounter: the PCs accuse a person, that person is innocent, and then the real criminal reveals themselves and tries to kill everybody. In theory, the real criminal does this because the detectives “are too close” and “it’s only a matter of time.”

Making it so that half the time the correct theory has been decided in advance makes for fair play. Choosing a theory from among the players’ theories will make tend to make the players feel more smart, because the investigation will go unusually smoothly. This gives the GM and players more time to focus on role-playing and the action scenes. The perverse way is good if the players start getting a little bit full of themselves; just don’t tell them about it. If the GM is good at making play fair when they make the theory in advance, the players should be successful at least 50% of the time. If the players are successful more than 75% of the time, consider using the perverse method to make it so they must fail some of the time. They’ll probably be happy and more engaged in later sessions, so long as they don’t know that the GM decided to make it impossible for them that one time. It’s a dirty trick, but it works.

Dragons and Detectives: Making Reasoning Part of Play

English: The School of Athens (detail). Fresco...

English: The School of Athens (detail). Fresco, Stanza della Segnatura, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Arthur: You have said very negative things about mysteries in RPGs, mr. B4n4n4h4mm0ck. I can find no fault in your condemnations, so will you please offer advice.

B4n4n4h4mm0ck: I certainly will, good friend Arthur. Are you familiar with Socrates?

Arthur: I cannot say I am.

B4n4n4h4mm0ck: Then allow me to instruct you. Socrates was a philosopher, and there is much historical evidence that he existed, but we can never know much about him. Plato used him as a character in his dialogues, and in those dialogues all we can really know is that Socrates represented Plato’s ideas.

Arthur: If that is true, then why do we speak of Socrates at all? And what does this have to do with mysteries in RPGs?

B4n4n4h4mm0ck: There is one answer for both of your questions: the Socratic Seminar. A Socratic seminar is a discussion between multiple people, wherein a question is raised. The members of the discussion then provide answers and challenge each others answers, in the hopes that they will all come to a better understanding together. This is how Socrates behaves in Plato’s dialogues (at least the so called “early dialogues”).

Arthur: You need not explain any more, B4n4n4h4mm0ck. I can see how this would apply to a mystery. As the role of the detective must be played by a group of players in an RPG, all reasoning about the clues and mystery must be done socially if it is to include everyone. It is, of course, good and right for an RPG to allow all players to participate. As such, the reasoning must be done out-loud. Having the detective like reasoning take the form of a Socratic Seminar makes this possible. However, I can imagine some shortcomings.

B4n4n4h4mm0ck: Do continue, Arthur.

Arthur: I can imagine players will often become highly argumentative or protective of their pet theories.

B4n4n4h4mm0ck: Screw you, you ignorant peacock!

Arthur: Just like you just did, my good friend B4n4n4h4mm0ck.

B4n4n4h4mm0ck: I apologize, Arthur. Perhaps we can find a way around this?

Socratic Seminars in RPGs

To make reasoning a social activity at the gaming table, the GM will need to set aside some time for in-character reasoning. To do this, the players will need to already have all the clues they need to begin making hypotheses. Then, they have an in-character discussion where they raise multiple hypotheses. A hypothesis is an explanation for all the clues. Ideally, there will be as many hypotheses as players.

The second step is to start crossing off hypotheses that are inconsistent with certain clues or just seem highly implausible. This is accomplished by players challenging each others hypotheses. In the end, the remaining hypotheses are assumed to be true, in order to make more research or investigation possible.

A very undesirable outcome would be if players hold on to their pet theories after they’ve been effectively disproved. Any readers of my blog may be able to guess at how I’d prevent this: a structured reward system! I will show you how I come up with one.

The Game System

The targeted behaviour is that players are too attached to their own theories. A targeted behaviour is the behaviour that I am aiming to alter in some way. In this case, I want to decrease the frequency and intensity of the behaviour.

My chosen way to use a reward system is to reward the absence of the targeted behaviour. To make this easier, we’re going to use another strategy from therapy: increasing the number of opportunities to exhibit the desired absence of behaviour.

The first step, then, is to create this opportunity by making as many hypotheses that are easily disprovable as possible. This will be easy. Players get five minutes to brainstorm, and each player needs to write their own ideas. This might be too much time, it might not be enough. The specific amount of time will need to be adjusted for the game group. This might be more successful the players express this out of character.

Now our goal is to reward the player who gets the most ideas disproved, but only if they also embrace one of the working theories. This means the players now go talk amongst themselves, and attempt to disprove their various ideas. When the dust has settled, each player may announce which of the remaining hypotheses they feel is most plausible. In many cases this may be the hypotheses that is the least implausible, but that’s good enough. Once a player has chosen which of the remaining hypotheses they prefer to pursue, the player counts how many of their hypotheses have been disproved. The player who has counted the most disproved hypotheses earns a reward.

It strikes me that earning uses of serendipity (the GURPS advantage) seems appropriate, because making the most of serendipity requires lots of in-universe logic. This creates a mechanical award that works with the same kind of thinking that rewards good brainstorming and participation in the dialogue. However, a reward more like good luck (a different GURPS advantage) has a more straightforward mechanical benefit that requires less creativity, which would make it more motivating for players who find it hard to participate in the socratic seminar.

More Discussion

Arthur: It seems that your ideas will be effective for making reasoning part of play. However, this is all a little abstract.

B4n4n4h4mm0ck: That is a fair criticism. I think it seems abstract only because, without clues to analyze, we are talking only about a general process.

Arthur: Perhaps you would consider instructing me on what kind of clues, and how to pace it out over the course of a campaign session.

B4n4n4h4mm0ck: Perhaps I will, but not today. It is time for us to retire to the garden.

Dragons and Detectives: Mysteries in RPGs

I’ve played a lot of games of D&D where the GM has described the game as a mystery.  In every game, the players (myself included) showed a remarkable disinterest in the mystery.  We were instead interested in other things, like overcoming traps, killing monsters, or role-playing scenes.  Sometimes the GM lamented that we didn’t care about the plot.  In other campaigns the GM attempted to integrate their plot into what we were interested in.  The latter approach was able to save the game, so good on those GMs, but that’s not what I’m concerned about today.  I am trying to understand why this has happened in every single mystery game that I’ve had the opportunity to play in.

I think the answer is simple: those campaigns weren’t actually mysteries.

A mystery novel is an intellectual sport.  It is a race between the detective and the reader, where the reader attempts to piece all the clues together before the detective does.  The authors job is to pace out the information and the detective’s progress in such a way that it is a fair competition.  Ideally, the reader will figure out what really happened mere sentences before it is revealed explicitly in the text.  The key feature of a mystery is not the need to acquire information, but the act of reasoning using the information that is provided.

Integrating the act of reasoning into a game actually takes a substantial amount of working to make it part of play.  It’s much more difficult than it sounds, and I haven’t played in a game that succeeded in changing a game session sufficiently to accomplish this goal.  However, I’ve also never played in a game where the GM actually set out to accomplish this.

Fake Mysteries

The campaigns I played in that were “mysteries” were a lot like most computer RPGs.  The players needed to acquire a piece of information to advance the plot, but did not need to do much reasoning about it.  The information is a maguffin, and the PCs pursue it because they have to.  To call that approach a “mystery” is like calling Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade a mystery.

Lets take a look at Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade a bit more closely, in case you don’t remember the plot (spoilers):

  1. Indiana’s dad is missing, apparently kidnapped.  He was researching the holy grail in italy at the time.
  2. Indiana goes to italy, and meets people.  He finds out that his father either found or was very close to finding the name of a city on a map in a hidden crypt.
  3. Indiana gets attacked by a dude from a secret society.  It turns out the dude is actually a good guy, and, upon learning that Indiana is not a bad guy, tells him where his dad is.
  4. Indiana rescues his dad.  His dad wants his diary, but nazis have it.
  5. Indiana gets the diary.  In the diary is a map with no names.  Indiana found the names in Italy.  Now they can go find the holy grail.
  6. They go get the Holy Grail, and they fight Nazis all the way.

Although the need that drove the plot forward is the need to acquire various pieces of information (except for step 6), there is never any need to reason about that information.  It is the same in computer RPGs that use a “mystery” as a way to drive the plot forward.  It is the same in the “mystery” campaigns I played in.

This is not to say that using information as a Maguffin in an RPG is bad.  It is a staple of adventure fiction (like the Indiana Jones stories), and I am quite fond of that genre.  It is, however, not a mystery story.  I also quite enjoy some police procedurals, like The Wire, but they are also not mysteries.  The main problem comes from GMs mistakenly believing that they are making an engaging mystery game, when all they are doing is making an adventure game where acquiring some information is one step on the plot.  Players might enjoy the plot, but they cannot be engaged with something they can barely interact with.

Expecting players to care about a Maguffin is really silly.  Imagine there is a demon rampaging across the countryside, and the demon can only be defeated by The Legendary Sword of Supreme Holiness.  A ragtag group of heroes (the PCs) embark on a great quest to find The Sword.  Presumably the players don’t care about the sword (although their characters do).  The players care about the quest, and everything they get to do on the quest.

Now, compare that to this story: A terrible demon that can only be defeated if the PCs discover who performed the terrible magickal ritual that summoned it.  The PCs are a bunch of ragtag heroes who go on a quest to learn the name of that person.  You will note that these stories are almost exactly the same!  Replacing The Sword with a piece of information doesn’t provide any more opportunity to the players to be engaged by the plot.  The plot isn’t what needs to change to make a mystery; the play needs to change.

Real Mysteries are Hard

The point to draw from all this is that a mystery game isn’t about having a story where the players need to discover a bunch of information.  A mystery game is a game where the players need to reason, theorize, hypothesize, predict, and test.  It requires giving the players large amounts of agency, red herrings to investigate, and clues that can be tied together with multiple cogent theories.  The plot is about presenting new information and events that allow the players to disprove some theories, make slight modifications to others, and even create some brand new ones.  This all needs to happen as an interactive part of play, and progress at a sufficient pace to maintain excitement.  It is very difficult to do.

There are two kinds of stories that are usually mysteries that I want to analyze for use in roleplaying: Detective Fiction and Thrillers.  I’ll write more on those soon.  I plan on coming up with some easily replicable patterns to make mystery-play easier.