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Keeping Kosher

Elementary, My Dear Game Master!

by Walt Ciechanowski
Nov 14,2003


Keeping Kosher

By: Walt Ciechanowski

Elementary, My Dear Game Master!

For me, there is no more satisfying adventure than a good mystery. Regardless of the genre, I love tantalizing the players with clues that make them hungry for the solution. There is also nothing more rewarding than to sit down for a session and discover that your players are already debating theories and courses of action based on what they learned the last session. It's a great feeling.

Fair warning, this is not a column about how to construct a mystery. While that's definitely a worthy subject, this column is about fairness in mysteries. Specifically, who gets to solve them, the player or the character? How should we, as GMs, encourage the players to appreciate their character sheets while not relying on them as a substitute for mystery-solving?

Those of you who read my last column might be a bit confused at this point. The last paragraph sounds like a contradiction to my previous advice, where I stressed the importance of sticking to dicing as opposed to player roleplay. Bear with me, and all will be revealed (if not, I'm sure I'll see a string of "hypocrisy" posts!).

Purpose of a Mystery

For you players out there, let me let you in on a little GM secret. We want you to solve our mysteries. I have never met a GM who proudly boasted that her mysteries are too tough for her gaming group to solve and that she enjoys frustrating them week after week. The whole point of designing a good mystery is to enjoy watching the players collect clues and try to figure out the solution. We want our players to follow the trail we've set for the climax. What's the point of wasting valuable time designing a mystery only to watch your players throw their hands up in frustration and admit defeat two hours into the first session?

It's been my experience, both as a player and a GM, that players enjoy discovering clues and trying to figure out where to go next or make that intuitive leap toward the solution. They derive satisfaction when they realize that they're heading in the right direction and frustration when they realize they were duped into following a red herring (even this can be satisfying, as the player has eliminated a possibility from consideration). There is nothing more satisfying for a player than to be the first to solve the mystery, especially if it seemed like a pretty tough one.

A lot of this satisfaction is lost if the players are simply led from scene to scene and dice their way through it. While I do think dice rolls are important for gathering information, I don't think a dice roll should interpret a clue for the players. It's cheating them of the satisfaction of discovering it on their own and should be discouraged, even if it means slowing down the game a bit while the players wrack their brains.

Seduction, revisited

Okay, here's the part where I differentiate mystery-solving from social roleplay. The key phrase was in the last paragraph: gathering information. Whenever a player wants to gather information, she should utilize the tools available to her. Those tools are on the character sheet. Whether she wants to search a crime scene or charm an NPC, she's trying to profit from it.

Generally speaking, there are only two purposes to ever use a social skill on an NPC. The first purpose is to gain something from her. The NPC may have knowledge that the PCs want or the NPC may be in a position to give them something they otherwise couldn't get (access to a room, a lower price on a valued object, etc). The second purpose is player satisfaction. The player simply wants to see if his character is capable of overcoming the NPC's defenses. In both cases, that's exactly what a skill roll is for, and why the player should roll the dice to determine success.

More importantly, in both cases, there was a player (not a character) decision involved. It was the player who decided to engage the NPC, not the character. The dice roll was merely the application of the tools available to determine whether the action was successful. The player is in control of his character's actions, but the character sheet determines the success or failure of those actions (not the player's skill set).

Building character

In my last column, I stressed the importance of utilizing social skills so that the player could feel that her point expenditures in those areas of her character sheet were justified. The same is true for mystery-solving skills. We want our players to feel that if they build a consulting detective, that character should be well-positioned to help the player solve mysteries. They should not be encouraged to neglect those areas of their character sheet confident that those skills can be usurped by player roleplay.

This is something of a unique challenge for GMs. We want our players to use their skills, but there is a strong argument that, if the players ask the right questions or perform the right tasks, they are entitled to the information. Otherwise, the game grinds to a screeching halt because a bad dice roll prevented a crucial clue from being gathered. Shouldn't we just give them the information if it's that important to resolving the mystery?

Well, no.

I'll go into this in greater detail below, but for the purposes of character generation we don't want our players to devalue the importance of mystery-solving skills. We don't want them to think "hmmm, if the clues are really important then the GM will hand them to us, so I'm going to dump all my points in combat skills." We want them to think "hmmm, in order to be successful I'd better pump up this search skill. It'd probably be a good idea to spend points on library research and questioning as well." You get the point. If the player is frustrated that she keeps coming up with good decisions but her character is incompetent at following through, then she might remember that when the time comes to spend experience points.

Searching the scene

Obviously, when our players arrive at a scene, we're hoping that they collect the clues that we've left for them (whether they're good clues or red herrings). Sometimes, the clues are blatantly obvious. These should be freely given without a dice roll. No one is going to miss the smoking gun lying on the floor next to the victim's body because of a failed search roll. However, a forensics roll would be necessary to determine that, based on the position and size of the victim's wound, there was no way that it was self-inflicted.

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.

Also, what's logical to us as a GM might not be logical to our players. We might think that a typical police investigation would not involve pulling up the carpet or checking behind the pictures on the wall but do the players think that as well? In those cases, it's better to assume that a typical investigation would cover it and offer those clues in the initial search rolls, rather than leave it out unless the players specifically draw attention to it (I can't tell you the number of times I've done exactly this, and then have my players later cry foul because they thought their search roll had covered that).

Be aware of knowledge skills. If a player stumbles across a statuette of the goddess Kali, and he has the Hindu Mythology skill, he shouldn't need to ask for a skill roll to identify it. The GM should prompt him. This is a pretty obvious example, but there are times when a player doesn't realize he needs to ask for a roll (you don't want to get into an argument later over the fact that the player assumed it wasn't Kali because you didn't ask for the skill roll).

Finally, remember to give modifiers when warranted. An investigator who spends three hours at a crime scene has a much better chance of finding clues than one who spends ten minutes. Many rules systems allow some skills to enhance others (e.g. a character who has seduced an NPC has a much better chance of questioning her).

Where do we go next?

Once the players have collected clues from a scene it is up to them to determine the quality of those clues and what direction, if any, to continue investigating. This area of the adventure is entirely the province of the players, not the characters. The players make the decisions, and they should not be allowed to dice it. If they do, it robs the players of the satisfaction that they chose the right path. Besides, if they choose the wrong path, it won't belong before they realize that they're chasing a red herring, and they may actually learn something in the process.

So what happens when the players get stumped and the frustration level is building? Some rules systems provide a mechanical solution (e.g. intuition or luck advantages, drama points) but this is a dangerous crutch if used lightly (it simply becomes "dicing" wearing different clothes). In the case of stumped players, I've found that the simple solution is to go over the clues with them, and ask them how they think the pieces fit. Oftentimes a player overlooks a connection because someone else wrote the clue down or they're getting too clouded by their own (false) theory. I have one player in particular who has a chronic problem with this. He develops a theory early on and holds to it, disregarding any clues that don't fit. He then finds himself flat-footed when something happens that dissolves his theory. In his case, I would gently remind him of the clues that didn't fit whenever he touted his theory out loud.

Also, keep in mind that the players can always go back and try to collect clues they missed the first time around, if feasible. Just because Mr. Jones was unhelpful the first time around doesn't mean he won't talk a second time, especially if the investigator confronts him with new information. If the player missed the bullet hole the first time around, a return to the scene might garner the information. Perhaps an NPC colleague noticed the clue and decided to share. Talking through the clues the players have gathered may prompt them that they missed something the first time around (be as subtle or not as subtle as you want; my players usually refer to my coaxing as "throwing the brick"). As an aside, if a player missed a skill roll the first time around, and floundered on a false theory until he revisited the scene to net it, he'll probably be encouraged to spend his experience enhancing the skill, rather than learn that cool new martial arts maneuver.

Keeping Kosher

Whether it be pursuing the Maltese Falcon or just trying to figure out how to defeat the plaid dragon of Polyester Mountain, it is the players who make the decisions. The characters are merely the tools that help them get there, and the onus is on the player to ensure that his character is well-rounded enough to succeed on the course the player sets. While the GM should always craft his adventures with the character's abilities in mind, he should not hand the players things they didn't earn. The campaign would only suffer in the long term.

Good gaming!

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