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Friday, 8 May 2020


Did you ever read any Ellery Queen? I’m thinking of the early novels such as The Roman Hat Mystery. I’d get one from the library on Friday afternoon after school, then having done my homework I’d read as far as the point where the challenge to the reader was issued: ‘You now have all the clues. Can you solve the mystery?’ Then the next morning, after finishing the rest of my homework, I’d decide on my solution and then read the final chapter to see if I’d got it right.

Ellery always figured out the answer, of course, and pretty often I did too; the fun of the game was standing or falling by my own reasoning. But those classic puzzle whodunits are a very artificial genre. Life isn’t like that, any more than most problems in dynamics can be solved as neatly as the applied maths questions I was doing for homework at the time.

I continued reading crime novels into my teens, but not the Cluedo variety. I was more interested in the why than the who. Ellery Queen’s later novels were more like that. On TV we had Columbo, shabby raincoated embodiment of the criminals’ guilt, who hounded them like Nemesis until he prodded them into making a fatal mistake. In comparison, puzzle whodunits concocted for the little grey cells felt as outmoded as cloche hats and the Charleston. And that branch of the crime fiction family tree survives up to the present day, as author Anthony McGowan points out:

It’s curious, then, that investigative role-playing scenarios often feel like they’re stuck in that primordial era of crime stories when a paper trail of clues would lead an infallible detective to the culprit. The unexamined goal of the scenario often seems to be to cast the player-characters in the role of Sherlock Holmes (how often in a fantasy context are we expected to match the feats of a Conan or Elric? more often we're the luckless foot soldiers who hope never to meet them) and the job then is to make sure they don’t miss the clues they’ll need to reach the correct conclusion.

Justin Alexander addresses that with his three-clue rule. In brief, it supplies the players with three different ways to figure out the next set-piece in the storyline. Certainly I think that if you’re going to have clues, you shouldn’t usually be getting the players to roll Spot Hidden or Search rolls to find them, because there are few ways in which simply not finding a clue leads to more interesting outcomes than finding a clue and drawing the wrong conclusion.

But as Robin Laws points out here, ‘The trail of clues, or bread crumb plot, is not the story, and does not constitute a pre-scripted experience. What the PCs choose to do, and how they interact with each other as they solve the mystery, is the story.’

Indeed, it’s also the story if they signally fail to solve the mystery. In “Murder Your Darlings” my players got totally the wrong end of the stick. And so what if they did? Sometimes the dog meows in the night-time. Unsolved crimes are just as interesting as the ones that get neatly wrapped up. Miscarriages of justice are more dramatic than tidy endings.

That said, I’d recommend anyone planning on running (or just playing in) an investigative scenario to try Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective. You’re chasing around Victorian London, maybe seeing the whole of the picture, maybe seeing a part of the whole, or possibly cooking up a theory that’s entirely different from the truth. Crazy explanations are also fun, and at the end the Great Detective ties it all up with a bow for you. That’s a boardgame, and I wouldn’t enjoy any roleplaying session that felt so constrained, but it's a useful experience for thinking about mystery scenarios.

Or if you’re more into the thankless, foot-slogging reality of policework, why not try "Keeping the Peace", a mini-campaign I wrote a couple of decades back? It’s designed for Tekumel, but with a little tweaking you could fit it to any urban game setting.


  1. I'm always more a fan of Raymond Chandler/Mickey Spillane sort of mystery, where the solution lies less with an encyclopedic knowledge of exotic tobacco and more with knowing who to question and maybe punch in the kidneys.
    Old Dragnet is like that too. No celebration of genius sleuthing, just dogged determination and lots of legwork.
    I do ask for spot hidden rolls, but it's usually for short cuts and side details, most of the story of the crime lies with people, talking to them and comparing what they say

  2. Dragnet! There's a real blast from the past. The original radio episodes are ripe for re-release online now that we all find ourselves with plenty of time for listening.

    Hardboiled is a good template for investigative roleplaying, for sure -- although I'd put Chandler at the opposite pole of the hardboiled genre from Spillane. (Interesting piece about Chandler here btw: .)