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Monday, March 31

Mysteries: Step by Step Instructions

An excellent thread on how to construct mysteris in any role-playing game. It points to the flaws that riddle so many Call of Cthulhu scenarios, which essentially lay out the framework for a mystery but never any of the steps. So at best, the PCs are left to dither as they struggle to find certain clues (in extremis, the game grinds to a halt, which resulted in someone developing Trail of Cthulhu in response) at worst there's no actual arc of clues to find and thus the GM has no framework to guide the PCs.


Nemo Solus Sapit is a great example, which we just completed. I rewrote it completely, giving it a narrative arc, but took out much of the mystery for a couple reasons: 1) the mystery isn't relevant to the story because I didn't have any of my PCs replaced by an impostor, and 2) the climactic conclusion ultimately leads to an encounter with Azathoth, which turns the scenario from investigative to survival horror. In fact, the scenario makes it clear that although the summoning of Azathoth can be avoided (and award the PCs Sanity for doing so), many of the clues and statistics lead the PCs to the encounter.

Or in other words, if the PCs are actually effective in solving the mystery, there's no big payoff. This seems to be a problem with a lot of CoC scenarios -- by being a good investigator, you're in essence robbing the PCs of an exciting conclusion. In fact, many of the CoC scenarios are conflicted as to how they would like to be resolved, providing multiple options as if they were all equally legitimate conclusions, when in reality there's a strong bias towards one particular conclusion.

There are too many mysteries to count in Nemo Solus Sapit, but here's a few:
* What happened to the PC who was committed to the Van Dyson Center?
* What happened to Petrov Van Dyson's wife, Candice Lee?
* What's wrong with Damon Newcomb?
* What's wrong with Petrov Van Dyson?
* What happened to Mr. Kuhn?
* Why does Damon want his cane so badly?

As you can see, the scenario is all over the bloody place. I co-opted the script from Gothika to fix a lot of these problems, primarily by stripping them out. This resulted in the following:
* We know what happened to the PC, but not WHY he's there. I genuinely tried to convince the PC that he's nuts by shifting his reality several times. Thus, less of a mystery as to what happened to him and more why he's back in an insane asylum.
* In Gothika, the deus ex machina is a ghost. I used the same solution here. So it's not just that Candice Lee is dead (she's introduced immediately), but who is she and why is she so angry that she came back as a ghost? The ghost wasn't originally in the story at all, but I felt it was a necessary element to keep the scenario moving since the villain's tracks are practically undetectable.
* What happens to Damon is witnessed during the scenario, rather than after the fact. Again, less mystery, more excitment in the revelation.
* I chose to reveal what went on with Dyson through a series of audio tapes revealed throughout the session. This created its own narrative arc that happened independent of what the players did, since I just played them in order.
* Investigating what happens to Kuhn was one of the few active investigations, which was for the agents "on the outside" to discover. Even then, Candice Lee's ghost led the investigation from clue to clue.
* The cane required a much longer backstory, which I provided to one of the PCs prior to starting the scenario. In fact, the cane was a MAJOR part of the scenario but isn't valued nearly as much, to the point that the author doesn't even explain where it's hidden. Given the cane is such a big deal, I felt it should be a mystery unto itself.

In short, I took the scenario from six mysteries down to two or three. I thought it was better for it. You'll have to wait until the story hour is published to see if you agree!


posted by Michael Tresca at 1:50 PM

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