We Are Detective

Our friends all think we’re MAD!
But we know better ’cause the spy is BAD!

I suspect the first investigation genre RPG was not Call of Cthulhu but TSR’s Top Secret (by a whole year). Top Secret’s USP is enabling players and GM to set up their own espionage settings, but with the PCs lumped into Bureaus (the TS analogy to character class, I guess) that include Investigation, some detective element is implied.

Admiral Rabalias of the Black Armada has written about the investigation genre before, partly in reference to the Gumshoe system and its trail-of-breadcrumb approach.

I’m on his side regarding the railroading nature of Gumshoe’s approach to investigation design, although the counter-argument is that it cannot be avoided; the investigation must involve clues and the players following up on those clues.

Let’s think about the design needs of a RPG. You need some kind of structured framework in which to “tell the story” (storygame appropriation of that phrase aside, it works for me); you need a system of adjudicating dramatic scenes (i.e. when to roll the dice); and you need some kind of reward that gets the players to keep on playing.

Rewards in Call of Cthulhu are a little screwed up, by design. The paltry SAN regains for seeing cosmic evil thwarted rarely offset the losses suffered during the investigation, and the skill improvement gains really aren’t necessary with CoC’s point-buy system1. Gaining spells and % in Cthulhu Mythos (with associated SAN decline) often becomes the distinguishing feature of long-term CoC investigators, and for some players that’s the reward (it is for me).

Now, the reason most of us play RPGs longer than one session is to see our characters develop. But if gaining power isn’t a primary motivation for investigative games, what do we consider “character development” in an investigator?

First there’s world experience. The PC has “seen things” as defined by their skills and experience. This is what might motivate a player to develop their PC’s Cthulhu Mythos skill, even though it’s ultimately detrimental.

Then there’s a series of accomplishments, which is “world experience” itemised into adventures. The journal of adventures is what places the character in world context. It’s no less important for, say, a fantasy adventurer; but for a fantasy character this tends to be a chronicle of a rise to power, whereas for the investigator it’s a gradual ordering of facts into some kind of objective sense of the world.

Let’s consider that second point more closely. In a fantasy game, PCs are climbing the ladder to power. In some cases that journey will (perhaps should) involve making some difficult choices. Few adventurers keep their hands clean on their ascent, even if their slaughter is legitimised by the things they kill being “evil”.

This is almost the complete opposite of what investigators do. Sure, they may also get their hands dirty, and the will probably face peril. But their job is to uncover the dark deeds of other agencies on the ascent, to bring them to some kind of “justice” even if it’s only holding a candle up to show the world just how nasty they are.

Furthermore if you view the fantasy hero’s rise it often looks like indiscriminate chaos, where the character hops from one location to the next killing their opposition and seizing power, and this is pretty much the behaviour that investigators are against.

So, if you want to construct your investigation with motivated villains who (as the Black Armada suggests) cause ripples that give rise to the investigation, you could do worse than to consider those villainous agencies as just another group of PCs. And like any competent PC party these characters won’t hang around to be “triggered” by the investigation.

I like to manage my investigation games sandbox-fashion. Players are given clues and must follow up on them as they see fit. But it’s not enough to have each location as an isolated “dungeon” waiting for the PCs to explore. At some point the trail will go dry and the PCs will suddenly be twiddling their thumbs, unsure of where to look next. This is the time the GM must be prepared for, so as not to be suddenly on the back foot regarding their campaign. Being able to fall back on the motivations of the enemy, creating new ripples is what will keep the trail alive and at the same time consistent with the rest of the investigation.

In summary, the art of the investigation game isn’t the clues. It’s the constant flow of information, and it’s giving the players the sense that they can choose which leads to follow. That information flows from agencies that are not static; they are in motion, and they are motivated. And if you want a good model for an evil agency, fantasy “murder hobos” aren’t a bad start.

For a real example, one of the best investigation games I played in was Dawn’s “ICESP” (the acronym escapes me now). The schtick was the familiar “an agency, looking into paranormal activity”. What made the game work was the way we received our information; we were presented with a series of case files (as actual handouts) and were left to manage the case files in the priority we saw fit. Every session the GM piled on more pressure with new case files. Not only did this mean we were never short of something to do, we also had the satisfaction in closing individual case files. It was a near-perfect example of an investigation reward structure, with the constant flow of new files as our proactive enemy.

  1. It would be a different story if CoC investigators started off mediocre in almost everything like RQIII’s adventurers, of course.