Tricks & Treats is an ongoing project of mine that I talk about a lot. It's a game about having spooky adventures on Halloween. You roleplay as kids and teenagers celebrating the best holiday ever, taking advantage of a rare night of unsupervised freedom, navigating the complex and unforgiving social landscape of adolescence, and investigating a mysterious horror that needs to be thwarted in order to save the day.
It's built for one-shot mini-sandbox scenarios, each one revolving around a major Halloween activity (trick-or-treating, going to a haunted house, attending a costume party, etc.). They always prominently feature a cast of NPCs thoroughly stocked with conflicts, rumors, and various hooks, and a unique "puzzle monster" that can't be defeated without gathering clues and forming a clever strategy.
The way I construct the scenario involves first making a monstrous problem with lots of traits and then seeding the sandbox with opportunities to learn about those traits. I call them "puzzle monsters" because they're more substantive than just a sack of hit points you randomly bump into and then bludgeon to death. They have immunities, weaknesses, unique attacks and side effects, agents, and a whole modus operandi. Crucially, their actions will inevitably result in doom by the end of the night, creating a ticking clock.
For example, let's look at the fourth scenario, Downtown Doomsday. Here's the problem: below the city is a colony of hungry, man-sized, mutant sewer rats numbering in the hundreds. To pass an EPA inspection last week, the local power plant dumped several tons of radioactive coal waste into the sewers. Now as rats swarm the streets, they threaten to infect the populace beyond containment levels.
What are some of these rats' traits?
- They travel in swarms. Fighting even one alone is hard enough, but they appear in big groups.
- They live in the sewer system.
- They infect anyone who gets near them.
- They're foreshadowed by clouds of flies and the smell of sewage.
- They seek out candy and sugar.
- Music agitates and confuses them, drawing their attention.
From this, I extrapolate lots of clues for each trait. There are a handful of attacks that happen early on, targeting NPCs in their places of business. Curious players will investigate the aftermath and find a sewage smell, missing candy, and an unconscious victim who's come down with some illness. There are also trails of candy wrappers in some obscure locations, which lead to rat corpses if followed. Many NPCs are listening to the local radio station to participate in a radio contest, meaning that music is frequently playing out loud. So on and so forth.
Some information is easy to stumble across just in the natural course of celebrating Halloween. Some requires active probing, but the scenario has lots of rumors and indicators already pointing in the direction of interesting things to check out. As a player, you're expecting those to point towards fun Halloween-y activities. And sure, plenty of them do. But some instead lead you to evidence of monster activity. And of course, some information is learned by having an actual confrontation with the monster, which can be triggered by a random encounter roll.
As the night goes on, you gradually accumulate facts about the problem. The stakes steadily rise as the situation worsens. At some point, the party forms a plan based on everything they've learned so far and puts it into action. There's nowhere to run, there are no other NPCs capable of solving the problem, and attempting to just hide and wait will inevitably result in doom.
What makes this work so well?
- The investigation feeds into itself naturally. In a conventional mystery, the whole chain of clues is lying in wait from the moment you begin playing. The situation is inert, waiting to be discovered. You won't have access to new info until you figure out how the info you have so far can lead you to it. If the players get stuck, then most GMs will instinctively resort to the clumsy "solution" of just handing them a hint, realizing that they must not have given enough info to begin with.
But in my version, the situation is active. The rats are attacking more and more and the crisis escalates. The players want to disrupt this of course, but it also creates more and more evidence for them to learn from. The more proactive the players are, the quicker they'll learn crucial information and the more time they'll have to put it to use somehow. But if they aren't very proactive, there'll still be more and more opportunities to learn that info as the scenario goes on.
- There's no correct "order" to the clues. In a conventional mystery, there's a sequence of scenes you visit in order. One piece of evidence points to the next, which points to the next, etc. You have to hold back the big revelations for later, gating them behind smaller reveals first. If the players learn the big truths too early, your mystery falls apart!
But in my version, the clues are merely sprinkled throughout the sandbox all over the place. Find them in whatever order, I don't care. They can all be disconnected from one another. My players found a lone dead rat first. By they just as easily could have checked out the closed construction site and come across the open sewer pipe with all of its radioactive waste barrels visible. Or they could've talked to the nice lady at the city mission and found out how many homeless people have recently been hospitalized. Any order is valid and no information could "spoil" the mystery by being learned.
- There are still layers to the investigation despite this. It's true that many of the clues are tied to a very practical benefit. Answering "how will this help us solve the problem?' is the main purpose for most clues. Learning that the rats want candy or that they're agitated by music are both directly applicable when formulating a strategy.
But in my experience, the first half of the "investigation" is usually just a matter of figuring out what the hell is even going on. You're minding your own business and trying to celebrate the holiday, after all. When weird stuff starts happening, it takes awhile to get a handle on the situation.
Thus, early on you're only picking up on basics. "There are attacks happening," and "there are giant rats" and "a lot of people are getting really sick." Early on in the scenario, a biohazard barrier is erected in a perimeter around the entire downtown area, which players could stumble onto and get a hint that something funny is going on. That's still helpful to getting them closer to solving the problem, even if you can't "exploit" that information exactly. This means you can still have plenty of clues that aren't entirely solution-oriented. Answering "what exactly even is the problem?" can also be a good purpose for a clue to serve.
- The players don't need to learn everything. In a conventional mystery, you want your players to follow all the clues and assemble the whole puzzle. That's how you "solve" it. If you're missing a major detail, then you haven't fully answered the question.
But in my version, I don't care how much you learn. There's no "minimum" amount of information you're required to uncover before you can win the game. I suppose there is technically a "maximum" amount of information to learn, if you take your time to be thorough and investigate every last nook and cranny. But that's also usually unnecessary, and could even be detrimental!
This is the key: you only need as much as info as it takes you to beat the monster. Hypothetically, the more investigating you've done, the more robust your strategy will end up being. But the clock is always ticking. You have to decide for yourself when you're ready for action. When you've gathered enough intelligence to make a strong plan.
- Despite all this, investigating clues is the core action defining the game. It's entirely possible, albeit unlikely, to speed run the scenario and go straight to the monster without taking the time or care to probe anything for answers. But how likely are you to succeed if you do that? And as previously mentioned, you still probably need to do a good amount of investigation even during a "speed run" anyway. You can't rush straight to the monster if you don't know what the monster is or where to find it. You'll always have to first go through the early stage of "what exactly even is the problem?"
In a conventional mystery, the main thing you're asking yourself in every scene is, "how do I find the next clue?" or maybe "where is this clue trying to lead me?" You feel like you're supposed to be following a thread that's been left out for you, because you literally are.
But in my version, your driving question is "how do we fix this crisis?" It's up to you to decide what kinds of answers would be helpful to have in the pursuit of that goal, and then infer logically where you'd get such answers. It's fascinating how much easier it is to focus on finding information when your goal is to use information.
- Get a handle on the scenario. Just establishing the basic facts is itself an important part of early gameplay. Instead of handing the PCs a case file of this known serial killer, start off with a mysterious death followed soon after by another. Both are weird and they have a compelling connection. This category of clue would be the kinds of things that are only there to show "these people were murdered" and "they were murdered by the same person" and "they weren't murdered because of, like, a personal crime of passion or a gang beef or any other 'mundane' reason people get murdered."
- Arrest the killer. Where is the killer located? Are they on the move? Can you anticipate their next move? Do they know you're tracking them? How will they respond if you confront them? What will it take to capture them without getting killed yourself?
- Prosecute the killer. You also have the extra burden of building a case against them. This is more difficult than if the solution could just be "kill the killer" like with a werewolf or something. So you should collect evidence that tells the story of their crimes, exposing their actions. How did they commit the murders? When? Where? Why? How can you prove all that?
- A cult is trying to summon Cthulhu with human sacrifices.
- A house has become haunted and is tormenting its residents.
- Agency operations keep getting expertly sabotaged by an enemy spy.
- A series of heists are targeting... uh... I dunno, something more meaningful than just bank vaults. Maybe museum artifacts. I think that's easier for most regular people to feel invested in thwarting. Or, like, dogs.