#RPGaDay2021 – Day 24 – Solve 

For #RPGaDay2021 Day 24 the four prompts are Translate, Share, Ancient, and Solve. I have been eyeing Ancient for weeks, but after some conversations and sessions during the past few days, I find myself choosing Solve.  It is no mystery for those who are familiar with me that mysteries are sort of my center of gravity as a gamer, so as a point to celebrate, the solve prompt is the right place for me to launch this response from.

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Looking back through the mists of time recorded via tricorder through the portal of the City on the Edge of Forever, I find a nexus of three aspects surrounding a long-running campaign that cemented my understanding that I had found something that I wanted to focus on as a GM. This would lead to greater revelations as I transitioned to running Call of Cthulhu, but looking back it was this that set me on the path.

The first aspect was recognizing that a lengthy Palladium Fantasy campaign had taken a turn toward the dark, but no consequences for the growing villainy had yet returned to the nest to roost in the flesh of the perpetrators. This wasn’t a problem, per se, but it got me thinking about how the group, which had been travelling mostly in frontier and wilderness areas and was now headed into some heavily populated parts of Western Timiro, might be perceived by the locals they were bound to meet. Due to the ongoing influence of a priestess of darkness that had ingratiated herself into the group, more than one infernal pact had been secretly struck by the warriors under her influence. Over the course of the campaign, the group had come to see themselves as heroic and as serving a greater good, but over the course of the campaign their perspective on what was good had been eroding bit by bit. That was the first or foundational aspect of play which I suddenly saw as this line of reflection took shape. I had been supplying and reinforcing situations which raised questions about the nature of good, but for the most part that aspect of play had been too subtle for most of the players (9 people) to wonder about. I found myself in need of a decision. Should I keep on with that level of subtlety, or should I start moving to more overt moral questions?

As I considered this background, long-term question, I still had to answer the more pressing question of how to portray the townsfolk that would need to be roleplayed in a few sessions’ time. I suddenly realized that what I didn’t want was some sort of ‘gotcha’ moment where the good people of the town noticed that someone had a witch’s mark and broke out the pitchfork and torches. What I wanted was for the question of good to be a part of play and to matter.

The third aspect was that I had Call of Cthulhu sitting on my desk and it was whispering to me about investigations and mysteries and clues and such things, It was making me question if I could devise and run a mystery that was A) interesting to solve, B) challenging to solve, and C) relevant to the group. The prevailing wisdom in my circle of gamers at the time was that mysteries were very hard to run, and examples of railroading and other emergency measures were rolled out as benchmarks for just how hard they were.

With those three aspects influencing my thoughts, everything suddenly came together.

First, a good way to cause introspection is to find a way to show a person’s behavior to themselves. Second, the town had as much to hide from the group as the group had to hide from the town. What was missing was a link that would make both sides get involved with and care about the opinions or possible actions of the other.

A mystery could be that link.

With that idea in mind, I set about to frame a situation of a murder which could have a large number of suspects initially, but that investigation could quickly narrow. That suspect pool would at first exclude the group, but they would be in close proximity to the victim and the victim’s family. This, I hoped, would give them reason to be interested or if I were very lucky, to choose to involve themselves.

The final piece of the preparation puzzle was to make the murderer someone just like themselves. The idea was that they could learn of the crime and be as dismayed as everyone else, but as they learned more, they could begin to understand the motivations of the killer and perhaps even empathize with them. They could see the crime as horrible, but also come to see themselves doing the exact same thing if they had been in the killer’s situation.

Play was great. The players were interested in the mystery, and they were curious enough to investigate on their own. They were useful in the investigation and were formally asked to participate. The more they learned, the more concerned they got.

There were a lot of in-character and out-of-character secrets in the campaign and players began to wonder if maybe one of them really had committed the murder. When they realized that the killer was probably a witch, this narrowed the field of suspects considerably and made those in the party who had agreed to infernal pacts of their own both more suspicious and more worried. These feelings compelled them to investigate harder.

Of course, the killer was not idle during these days of investigation and discovery.

As they investigated the crime, the murderer was investigating them.

When they learned that one of the elves in the group bore an infernal mark, a plan presented itself to the killer. The city had a large population of dwarves with no love lost on elves of any sort, least of all those allied to infernal powers. By accusing the elf of being both a witch and the killer, the real killer stirred up a storm of emotion which might lead to the justice of the noose taking precedent over the blind justice of the court.

Now the group had serious and personal choices: let the elf hang, escape from the city with or without him, or find the real killer and proof.

I got lucky, I think, but either way, they went for the latter idea and sought the killer and real evidence that they were truly the guilty party. Of course, one of the warriors, a wolfen with an infernal mark of his own, had also engineered a plan to free the elf in return for a hefty price and a weighty oath, but it didn’t come to that.

After the smoke cleared and the campaign had moved on to other adventures, it occurred to me with a great deal of pleasure that I had run my very first mystery, and that the players had enjoyed solving it at least as much as I enjoyed seeing them do it.

That success also solved the nagging problem of would I or wouldn’t I run Call of Cthulhu and when, but that is a tale for another day.

In Our Play

An example where the mystery is solved!
One where it isn’t!
4 Responses to “#RPGaDay2021 – Day 24 – Solve ”
  1. I have the same concerns of running mysteries, and reading this is able to give some perspective. Sometimes the greatest mysteries for players, is the characters they play. I think I’m understanding better the mystery of our last Star Trek Adventures mission.

  2. Actions have consequences. Love it. This is one reason tabletop play beats computer games.

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