I have some shocking news, GMs. You are not Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and your players are not Sherlock Holmes. So when you run a mystery, you should save yourself, and your players, the frustration of expecting your players to just, somehow “get it”. Yes, it’s great when someone puts 2 and 2 together (that’s 22, right?), but those moments are the exception rather than rule, and can only serve to highlight good mystery planning, rather than being relied upon to drive the plot forward.
This is for the simple reason that no one can see inside your head. GMs who are in all other cases highly descriptive when it comes to hack n’ slash dungeon crawls, will all too often suddenly expect players to read their minds when it comes to a horror/mystery like Call of Cthulhu. In order for players to put together the pieces of this intricate puzzle, you have to stop holding out on giving them the pieces.
Clues As Aspects
In the Fate RPG, very few things are actually hidden from the players. Often, they know what tropes and plot points are in play at any given time, thanks to the story driving magic of Aspects. You can leverage the power of Aspects to create a breadcrumb trail for the players to follow, making the PCs look like hotshot detectives. Remember, you’re a fan of the PCs. You have to make their lives difficult, but you want them to ultimately succeed. Letting the PCs shine is kinda the whole point of Fate as a game.
When a PC is attempting an investigation roll, simply treat it as a Create Advantage action. If successful, it will put a special kind of Aspect, called a Clue Aspect, on the entire story. If they Succeed, the Aspect gets 1 Free Invoke, and if they Succeed With Style, it gets 2 Free Invokes, as normal. When the Clue would obviously aid them in their investigation, it can be Invoked on a roll. Or, you could Compel it to make their lives more troublesome.
At the start of each session, trot out all the index cards which you’ve written Clue Aspects on, and lay them in the center of the table. This lets the players see them, move them around, and think about how they connect. Never discount the role of the tactile sense in RPGs. Touching is almost as important as seeing. As well, because there is a mechanical advantage to bringing the Clues into play as Aspects (+2 on a roll for each Invoke), the Clues will come more to the forefront, exponentially increasing the likelihood that a player will connect the dots.
Example Clue Aspect: After searching the Miskatonic University library from top to bottom, an investigator stumbles upon an old, leather-bound tome (Investigation skill check, or perhaps Academics). The book, titled De Vermis Mysteriis, and clearly a mythos tome for all the strange latin within, is now a Clue Aspect. Say the investigator rolled 3 Shifts more than the Good (+3) result you required, thus Succeeding with Style. The Aspect therefore gets 2 Free Invokes, and can be used when trying to cast any spells the tome might contain, or when using the information therein to decode further mysteries relevant to the text.
Go With What They Give You
The problem of choke-points in a mystery plot stems from the mystery being too rigidly defined. GMs can have this scenario so built up in their minds, and stick to it so doggedly, that any deviation from the plot is immediately shut down. If you want to run a game like that, you’re better off writing a mystery novel. A gaming table is a Venn diagram of the GM’s, and all the player’s minds. The thing in the middle, that’s the story.
You can save yourself a lot of heartache by listening to the ideas going back and forth at the table. Player A thinks so-and-so is the culprit while Player B thinks it’s someone else because of reasons A, B, and C. Listen to their input, because sometimes a player’s wild theories about the mystery, are actually more interesting than the scenario you’ve put together. Certainly, the players are already invested in their own ideas, so you won’t have to spend any additional time leading them by the nose back to the plot you’ve decided on. For me, hearing these wild theories and suspicious accusations is one of the most enjoyable parts of the game, and I never fail to use the players’ own ideas against them.
None of this discounts surprises, or red herrings (although, I promise you do not need more of these than you already have; players will already go barking up the wrong tree without your help). All it takes is a subtle twist of the player input to throw them off guard. They think the monster’s a vampire. OK. It’s a vampire, but it’s a Star Vampire, a shambler from outside time and space.
Investigators Should Not Fail To Find A Clue
This is the driving ethos behind the Gumshoe RPG, and it works just as well in Call of Cthulhu, or in Fate. Internalize the rule that, if the Investigators are in the right place, at the right time, looking in the right way, they cannot fail to find the Clue. Their skill checks only serve to elaborate upon the Clue, or in Fate, provide more Free Invocations. You might make an exception for Clues that are of secondary importance in driving the plot forward, but if you want players to be able to miss some non-essential Clues (never let them miss an essential Clue, or the mystery will drag), you need a backup system in place. This is where the Three Clue Rule comes in.
The Three Clue Rule
This one comes from The Alexandrian, and I’ve gotten some mileage out of it. It goes like this: for each thing you want the players to realize about your mystery plot, you need three Clues that point to that realization. One suggestion: when planning your mystery, get a blank piece of paper and write down both the Clues already in play, and the Realizations you want the players (and by extension, the PCs) to come to. Now, start putting the Clues and the Realizations together. Make sure you’ve got 3 Clues for every Realization. Following the Three Clue Rule will help you avoid choke-points in the mystery that stall the investigation.
- How does your table handle clues in mystery games?
- Do you think Fate is a good system to emulate the horror genre, e.g. Call of Cthulhu?