Sunday, November 19, 2023

Action Mysteries

Mystery scenarios are probably the second-most popular genre of gameplay in RPGs after dungeoncrawling. Despite this, quite frustratingly, most detective-y games don't provide much support for facilitating the actual act of investigation. Call of Cthulhu, for example, just has a skill system for resolving basic tasks, much like any game would. Same with Delta Green, same with Blade Runner, same with Liminal Horror.

But even if the most popular options dodge such a big question, there's actually a lot of existing literature on the subject of running mystery games. Tools, techniques, and advice abound (mostly in the blogosphere).

Some offer techniques for robust level design. The Justin Alexander famously has the Three Clue Rule and Node-Based Scenario Design. The disgraced Zak S wrote about Hunter/Hunted and Investigations-as-Dungeons.

Others give advice for refining the act of inspecting and uncovering information itself with smarter adjudication. Alexander also described his Matryoshka Search Technique which is a simple trick. Mindstorm wrote a post called Ransacking the Room which I find utterly brilliant. DIY & Dragons gave us Landmark, Hidden, Secret which I'm pretty sure Nintendo must have studied very closely to make the last couple of Zelda games.

Sean McCoy has argued that the answer lies in smart visual information design. Give the player a literal tool that helps them solve a mystery. I took a class in college called "intelligence analysis techniques" that had a lot of very gameable things I think could be a great foundation for a system (timelines, network diagrams, cross-impact matrices, analysis of competing hypotheses, etc.).

Still others reinvent the genre entirely by way of novel game design. Robin Laws built the GUMSHOE system to bypass the issue of players missing clues, which was further iterated on in Cthulhu Dark by adding some dice. The game Brindlewood Bay relies on "quantum mysteries" that everyone co-authors as they go along, which Prismatic Wasteland has also described.

Alice is Missing is a totally unique example because it's built around gamifying one specific mystery and set of ingredients that go into it, having players draw cards from preset decks in order to form the truth as they're discovering it.

The world of video gaming has plenty of insights, too. Game Maker's Toolkit has a really nice video identifying three types of detective challenge: investigation (uncovering and collecting information), contradiction (noticing inconsistencies and flaws in information), and deduction (interpreting available information to extrapolate new information).

These are all perfectly cromulent additions to the collective body of RPG detective theory. I am here today to offer a modest contribution of my own to that corpus. I'm going to refer to it as an Action Mystery.

Monday, November 13, 2023

Imaginary Roller Coasters

Long ago, a theorist named Wolfgang Iser writing on the subject of literary anthropology came up with a concept that's very valuable in game design: the distinction between free play and instrumental play. It's how you answer the question "why are you doing the thing you're doing?" during play. When your answer to that question is, "because I felt like it" or "because it's funny" or anything about its intrinsic appeal, then you're engaging in free play. When your answer is "because it's what I should do" or "because it's how you win" or anything about pursuing a goal, then you're engaging in instrumental play.

Picture Bob watching Alice play a video game. Alice is getting really frustrated with a hard challenge, or like, spending hours doing something monotonous and repetitive. Bob asks "why are you still playing that game if you aren't enjoying it? That's such a waste of time when you could be doing something you find fun instead." It's easy to see Bob's point. But if you've ever been an Alice, you probably understand that a person can be motivated to do something unenjoyable if it's in service to a desired outcome. The process might not be fun, but winning is fun. Or leveling up, or unlocking collectibles, or getting every ending, or whatever.

In short: this is why Minecraft has a survival mode and a sandbox mode. Some people genuinely do not understand the appeal of survival and others don't understand the appeal of sandbox.

Let's talk a bit more about this and how it ties into RPGs specifically.