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Keeping Kosher

The Magical Mystery Tour

by Walt Ciechanowski
Jan 13,2004


Keeping Kosher

By: Walt Ciechanowski

The Magical Mystery Tour

I hope you and yours had an excellent holiday season! My wife and I had the pleasure of spending a week in London (we're Americans), and the good fortune to see the longest running play, the Mousetrap, at St. Martin's Theatre on New Year's Eve. It's a wonderful play, and as we walked back to Piccadilly Station I found myself inspired to infuse more mystery into my campaigns.

It's been my experience that everyone loves a good mystery, and gamers are no exception. Even those players who prefer their characters crunchy and to face down their foes on the field of battle enjoy a little mystery-solving every once in a while. Good mysteries don't need to be intricate or convoluted. They simply need to provide a problem with no immediately obvious solution and a clue or two to lead the players in the right direction. It's very satisfying to piece the clues together and solve a mystery, especially if your initial hunches turn out to be correct.

Mysteries rely on the players to gather clues and draw a rational conclusion from them. I highlighted some of the potential problems with this in "Elementary, my dear Game Master!" and I'm not going to retread that ground. In this article, I want to focus on a different problem: How can you create rational mysteries in an irrational world?

Magic (used here as a general term for anything outside of the mundane) can often throw a monkey wrench into a good mystery if it's not properly accommodated. You don't want to plot out a murder mystery that you expect to run a couple of sessions only for a PC to get to the scene of the crime and announce "okay, let's summon the victim's spirit and ask him who murdered him" or "my character closes her eyes and uses retro-cognition to replay the events of last night." You also don't want to smugly tell your players who the true assassin was after they failed only to have them cry "how the heck were we supposed to know he used magic to commit the crime? I thought we were supposed to be hard-boiled Chicago detectives!" Hopefully, this article will give you some tips on how to handle magic in mystery games. I learned many of them the hard way.

Accommodate your player characters

In most magical investigations, you are going to have PC investigators who have some experience with magic. Some of them may even be mages themselves. This can seem daunting at times; one of my longest-running campaigns included both a psychic and a medium. You can imagine the headaches that caused when trying to brainstorm new mysteries!

One knee-jerk reaction that I'd heartily discourage is the "power frustration" route. This is a circumstance where the GM merely frustrates the use of a PC power rather than have it steamroll his mystery. I speak from painful experience when I tell you that players do not appreciate this! In most cases, they paid valuable character generation points to acquire those powers. Those powers are an integral part of their characters. By frustrating their usefulness, you've lessened that particular player's contribution to the game. To use a dungeon-crawling example, it's like stripping a fighter of his arms and armor just before the big combat scene.

With this in mind, try to ensure that any appropriate use of a player's power will yield something that will aid in the investigation. For example, if the PC medium goes to the scene of the crime and summons the victim's spirit, don't stonewall the player by having a properly summoned spirit fail to appear or simply fail to give any information. Instead, have the spirit ranting and raving in a semi-crazed state that he bets its Mr. X who killed him over some past slight. Even if the medium fails to talk some sense into the spirit, the party now has a suspect and an incident to look into that they hadn't before.

Another example is retro-cognition. In my WitchCraft campaign, I made the grave mistake of treating glimpses into the past as if they were on DVD. Even when I limited the PC's perspective, her visions still yielded so much information that the attacker's method (and in some cases his identity) was obvious. I didn't realize my error until well into the campaign, and it's really difficult to tell a player that all of those crystal clear visions she used to get will now be replaced by abstract brain teasers. If you allow "ret-cog" PCs in your game, be sure to establish from the start that their visions are useful enough to warrant clues, but abstract enough not to give away the whole mystery. They may also create a number of false leads. For example, a vision may yield a sleeping victim in the desert being bit in the neck by a venomous snake. This may lead the PCs to (correctly) conclude that the victim was poisoned. It may also lead them to believe (incorrectly) that he was sleeping at the time the poison was administered (he was actually poisoned by his wife during dinner; the vision reflected that his defenses were down, not that he was literally asleep). Used in this manner, the power supports the investigation rather than short-circuits it.

The Mind Probe Problem

Mind probing is another GM bugbear. If a PC has access to Mind Probe powers, she'll be able to easily establish the guilt or innocence of a suspect the moment they get in range. Unfortunately, there is no easy way to get around this problem in a realistic setting other than to outlaw it entirely or to establish limitations. Limiting the probe to emotions will enable the PC to glean clues without immediately highlighting the criminal. Limiting the probe to surface thoughts will also limit the power, but even a simple question from the PC will bring the criminal's guilt to the fore. Enforcing a considerable fatigue cost on the PC for the power's use is another way to limit it. If you do place limits on the power that the game system you are using does not, be sure that the player is aware of the changes and adjust the cost of the power if necessary.

In fantastic settings, this is less of a problem. Most NPCs will have some sort of psychic defenses, and the PC investigator will rarely have the authority to force them to lower their defenses. In some settings, the PCs may be able to get an order from a court to probe a suspect if they've gathered enough evidence, and in other settings mind probes may be outlawed, with severe punishments for proven infractions.

One interesting but challenging way to handle a mind-probing PC is to establish a Columbo style premise. The PC can quickly figure out who the criminal is, but must spend the adventure trying to gather enough evidence to establish his guilt or trick him into confessing. In such a game, the PC has a reputation for solving crimes (since her power enables her to quickly solve a large number of cases), but the actual "roleplayed" adventures involve powerful criminals who have taken appropriate precautions to cover their involvement enough to satisfy a court. The PC is then drawn into a game of cat and mouse with the criminal. This is especially rewarding in "secret magic" campaigns, where magical evidence is not even believed, much less admissible.

Living in a magical world

If you're running a game in a magical universe, you need to understand how magic relates to investigative skills. In a world where magic is commonplace, it is not necessary for PCs to purchase separate skills to investigate magic. A police detective or private investigator would automatically be trained to look for magical clues. A typical Forensics skill would uncover magical as well as mundane causes of death. It would not be necessary for the PC to know how to cast the spell in question in order to identify its use in a crime. A Security Systems skill would cover magical wards and protections as well as electronic and mechanical locks.

In a secret magic campaign, it makes more sense to divorce skills into mundane and magical skill areas. No matter how much a PC knows about magic, the skills he gains from the police academy won't help him investigate it. He'll need a separate skill for that (unless your players are taught in a secret occult academy). Also, even magically-aware PCs who intend on bringing criminals to justice need to be able to gather evidence in such a way to satisfy a court of law ("Your Honor, I know it was Johnny Cultist who murdered Sally Sacrifice because I read his essence signature on the knife! Excuse me, your Honor? Finger prints? Um...oops"). This assumes that the PCs have some reasonable expectation that the mundane prison system will be able to handle the criminal. If the players are expected to dispense with the criminal on their own (such as exorcising a demon) or hand him over to a magical organization, then it is unnecessary to establish a mundane evidence trail.

Investigating a magical world

I promised earlier not to retread my previous article, but I do need to invoke it here. I'll quote the relevant part:

Remember, when gathering information, it's important to test the character's skill, not the player's. A police detective knows how to search a scene for evidence; his postal worker player probably does not. "I search the room" is enough of a player prompt for the GM to request all of the relevant dice rolls (or make them himself). The player should not have to describe her character's search methods in great detail in order to discover relevant information.

Even in a secret magic campaign, magically-aware PCs can be assumed to look for magical clues while investigating a crime scene. "I search the room" is enough to assume that the PC is looking for wards, magic symbols, or even magical essence patterns as well as mundane evidence, assuming she has the appropriate skills or abilities.

It is especially important to feed the players conclusions that their PCs would naturally reach by the evidence at the scene. Things might not be so obvious to a player when magic is involved. For example, telling a player that the electronic security system wasn't tripped would lead the player to assume that either the victim invited his killer in or that the killer knew how to bypass the system. The player might not assume that the range of a Suffocation spell allowed the killer to cast the spell without getting close enough to sound the alarm, even though that would be a consideration in the mind of his PC.

The PC would also be aware of the strengths and limitations of common magical defenses. If a PC investigator enters a victim's home and notices a chalk blessing above the door, he would be aware of what that means in the particular setting. He would know whether it is an absolute ban on evil spirits or demons entering the home, or whether it only bans harm to Roman Catholics, or whether it only bans harm to faithful Roman Catholics, or whether it is no more effective than a "keep out" sign. The player shouldn't have to guess which particular angle you've chosen. At the very least, the PC investigator would make a note to research it when he got the chance, and you should remind the player of that lead.

(Incidentally, the above example could make an interesting mystery. If you decide that the chalk blessing is an absolute ban on vampires entering a home, but only if the blessing was scrawled by a Roman Catholic priest, you could have a rash of seemingly unrelated demon attacks within a single Roman Catholic community. It seems that one of the priests is actually a fugitive from the law, and a demon has learned his secret. Since the fugitive's blessings are ineffective, the demon is feeding on the residents of houses he's blessed. As an added twist, the "evil spirit" may be causing no permanent harm to the victims; he's actually a victim of the fugitive and this is his way of "outing" his killer).

Keeping Kosher

Hopefully, I've given you some ideas to incorporate and accommodate magic into your campaigns. I've learned many of these the hard way myself, so I hope I've helped some of you avoid the pitfalls. The critical point is to reward players for using their abilities while keeping your mysteries fresh and interesting.

Good gaming!

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