Thursday 4 April 2013

A Hardboiled Detective Game

I've been thinking a lot about how run a mystery game.  When I ran Polish Resistance, there was a lot of mystery and intrigue around the cause of the zombie outbreak.  But that was in the background--there was a lot of other stuff to do, that had to be done, related to everyday survival.  That kept most of the sessions exciting, but not due so much to the mystery.

On the other hand, the Shadows over Bogenhaffen campaign I'm playing in is starting-off really slow.  There's been only a single combat so far over 4 sessions.  Mostly it's talking to people, each of them with their own angle, and trying to figure out what's going on.  So here the mystery is at the center, but it's a bit boring.

So are mystery games inherently boring(at least to my gaming group)?  I don't think so.  I think that one issue is the pacing.  When a mystery is spread over many sessions, so the individual sessions don't feel rewarding.  At the end of the session, the players don't feel like they've accomplished anything.  On the other hand, if there are shorter-term goals being accomplished, then it's okay that I didn't solve the mystery yet.

But I've been thinking about a third option: short mysteries that can be completed in a single session.  Or an overarching mystery with smaller, somewhat self-contained parts.  That way the game can be about the mystery, but the pacing won't be too slow.  I'm still not sure how to incorporate this into an existing RPG, so here's a stand-alone game I came up with as a first step.  You can think of this as Hardboiled Clue.

Pulp Detective Game

Character Creation

Players create a character and pick a profession: PI, Cop, Bouncer, Doctor, Boxer, Wrestler, etc.

DM Preparation

Since the DM will have to improvise a lot, it might be helpful to prepare with a bit of setting info.  For myself, this would mean making a short list of NPC names and descriptions, as well as a few locations around town.  This list will likely need to expand during gameplay.

Roll a Mystery

The game begins with the DM rolling up some of the facts of the mystery.  He will have to improvise the details himself over the course of the game.

Who got Killed and Who did it(2 rolls):

  1. Mobster
  2. Petty Criminal
  3. Dirty Cop
  4. Escort
  5. Relative
  6. Pimp
  7. Con-man
  8. Bookie
  9. Lover
  10. Business Man


  1. Shot
  2. Stabbed
  3. Beaten to death
  4. Hit by car
  5. Poisoned
  6. Strangled
  7. Pushed from height
  8. Hired a killer

  1. Money
  2. Jealousy
  3. Hush them up
  4. Revenge

Did they do something to Avoid Getting Caught?
  1. No
  2. Hid the body
  3. Made it look like an accident
  4. Made it look like a suicide
  5. Made it look like they took a trip
  6. Frame someone else
  7. Left Town
  8. Faked own death

Running the Game

Start out by rolling up the Hook on the table below.  Then describe to the players how their characters are introduced to the mystery.  The Hook might be only given to one character, who then calls his buddies for backup.  The PCs can turn down a mystery they aren't interested in.

Mystery Hooks(How the PCs find out about the case)

  1. Client hires you to investigate something
  2. Acquaintance asks you to look into something as a favour
  3. Overheard conversation in Bar
  4. Crime witnessed in street

Mystery Sandbox

As with running an RPG Adventure Sandbox, the goal here isn't to lead the PCs through a predetermined list of scenes in sequence.  It's also not to pre-determine a list of events at specific times/places for the PCs to discover, as in Shadows Over Bogenhaffen.  Rather, it's to get the players to come up with intelligent and unique ideas of how to investigate and to shape the facts around that.

This is so that the game will be about creative problem solving, rather than the often aggravating "guess what I'm thinking".

As such, if the players decide to investigate a location, there should be some sort of clue or relevant character there.  But the characters will need to discover it either by player skill or character ability checks.

You can invent a clue that makes sense for the location or you can use a clue generator to determine what clue will be available at a given location.

Clue Generator

  1. The Killer left something here
  2. Accomplice left something here
  3. Person who knows something
  4. Records that shed light on the case
  5. Item that sheds light on the case
  6. Red Herring(false clue that send detectives in the wrong direction)
  7. Body
  8. The Killer
  9. Accomplice
  10. Rival Investigator

PC Skill Checks

When PCs want to perform an action that requires skill(combat, find clues, interrogate an NPC, dive to avoid a bullet...) then should roll a D6.  Results are as per Ghost Echo:
  • 1-2 Failure and opportunity is lost
  • 3-4 Goal is partially achieved and opportunity remains
  • 5-6 Goal is achieved
PCs performing an action for which their profession gives them an advantage(PI searching for clues, Cop shooting, Boxer punching) can roll two dice and take the highest value.  Very difficult checks can similarly use two dice, taking the lowest value.

Concluding a Mystery

The mystery is over when the PCs solve it and catch the guilty party, when the guilty party escapes, or when the PCs give up on solving it.

World Building

Players should keep track of significant NPCs and Venues, which may help them in future mysteries.  Similarly the GM should write down material that he may re-use.

And one more for the road...


  1. "I think that one issue is the pacing. When a mystery is spread over many sessions, so the individual sessions don't feel rewarding. At the end of the session, the players don't feel like they've accomplished anything."

    I'll add - short of railroading, a DM is not in control (though he or she can influence) pacing. Mystery novels/dramas work because the author has control over the order, manner and timing of each reveal. If the PCs have freedom - i.e., if it is a role-playing game - they might well stumble across the truth within ten minutes of session one. Or they might never discover the truth. Of course, you might create 'quantum clues' that are revealed in order no matter the choices of the players, and have NPCs pop up to provide crucial exposition, but that all takes away the players' freedom to have their characters act - the world is shifting not in response to their actions (as a world would) but in order to make their actions irrelevant.

    If I ran Shadows Over Bogenhafen again - and we enjoyed it the first time round - I'd stretch out the plot to reduce the time pressure, and my Bogenhafen would become more fantastical, busier, something more like a city from Titan (the Fighting Fantasy world), which would ensure that there was plenty for the PCs to do *as well as* trying to solve the mystery.

    We enjoyed it, but I wasn't satisfied:

    1. Cheers on the link to your Bogenhaffen retrospective.

      It sounds like you had similar conclusions to mine. But still, the questions bothers me: how do I run a mystery and have it be interesting and engaging.

      You make the good point that the players need a stake in it--why are they going through such effort to investigate?

      While I agree that the players need to be setting the pace, the GM has a lot of control. As the arbiter of the game world, the clues he reveals determine if the PCs will stumble across the truth in 10 minutes or in 10 sessions.

      I could imagine designing a mystery with a fairly easy to solve murder, which could easily be completed in one sessions, but it leads to a greater conspiracy and on and on. So far, however, wherever our PCs probe turns out to be a dead end i.e. it seems to be solve the whole thing or nothing

  2. I like this. And I like the idea of using GHOST/ECHO's mechanics for resolution. I've been thinking about using them for other games recently, and they are perfect for one-shots.

    I've been thinking for a while about a different mystery genre, the Poirot story; while looking through my archives recently I came across a post I wrote last year and that's started me thinking about it again.

    1. I think Zak S wrote a post about clues and a possible non-railroading structure a few months back; I'm sure you commented at the time, but it jumped to mind just now.

    2. Nice, thanks for the link.

      Yeah, I love those simple mechanics. I haven't actually run much GHOST/ECHO, but I think it inspired me to come up with Doggie Game, which I've run quite a few times.