Saturday, January 19, 2013

Episode 2: Space and Time, Lessons from a Sci-Fi Mystery

I’ve had a game in the back of my head for a little over a decade now. Something modern, disturbing, and detailed enough to leave the players wondering, how much of this is actually made up? Something with downloaded police reports, stained manila folders, and gory images from the bowels of the internet. Something with gruesome murders, a big map of a city, and links to real websites. The sort of game that ends with the takeaway “I’m so glad I’m not really a cop.”

I haven’t run it, despite having a number of the handouts made, because I know it’s going to take a lot of effort to create and a significant amount of time to run. And after this week’s game, maybe even longer than I thought.

I set up my Pathfinder/Mass Effect game as a mystery, and a pretty linear one at that. The clues in low-numbered areas fed into clues in high-numbered areas, the first floor’s mysteries got deeper on the second floor, room 2 doesn’t necessarily reveal the secrets of room 1, but it’s not far from that. Things went really well and the party gobbled up and digested the majority of the first course's clues before heading into later levels' second course.

But it was definitely a bigger meal then I’d anticipated.

The way this Mass Effect game panned out taught me two related lessons, which I figured I'd share with anyone planning on running mystery RPGs (for any game system).

Lesson One: Simpler Mysteries
But not for the reason I usually give professional adventure authors. I’ve seen plenty of adventures collapse under the weight of their own elaborateness—and I was definitely wary of mine veering onto that course. When a mystery adventure demands the players find every clue—or worse, find every clue in a rigidly specific order—it’s easy to frustrate players. They know there’s pieces of a thousand puzzles scattered before them, but without the GM's guidance they have no idea what sort of picture they’re trying to put together. Directionless players quickly find themselves asking, why bother? Additionally, if clues prove contradictory—whether purposefully or through a GM mistake—it’s easy for players to dismiss the mystery as either beyond them (usually in interest, not intellect) or impossible.

For me, I try to think of clues as the steady I.V. drip keeping the mystery alive. In the case of this Mass Effect game, the mystery was one of “What happened?” not, whodunit. This simple sort of mystery is pretty easy to keep rolling, as the clues become a series of handouts and cut-scenes, revealing more of the story behind the story. Normally I wouldn’t consider doling out background details piecemeal a mystery, but when it’s treated like a puzzle, when it reveals the reason behind unexplained set pieces, and—most importantly—once the players start theorizing, it becomes a mystery. In our game, the clues seemed to keep the players engaged and I was pleased both that their theories were typically on the right path and that their revisions constantly strengthened their previous assumptions. If they were totally off base, that would have been much more my fault then theirs. 

In this case, I’m advocating simplicity because mysteries balloon—big time. The content I generated for night one spilled well into the third session. The finale I planned to conclude the adventure on night two we only got to two-thirds of the way through last night’s third session. This meant that in the last hour I was having to throw in some pretty heavy handed guideposts (“Did anyone look at THIS”), flubbed at least one clue, and had to cut or skim through sections entirely.

Had I to do the whole game over, I would have made things simpler, as the script far exceeded the stage time we had. Much of the group seemed to really enjoy examining the clues and amending their theories, which was great, but this more than anything took time. As much as that sort of investment is worth encouraging (I'd say it’s even one of the main points of running an RPG) it’s also worth accounting for timewise. This wouldn’t be a big deal if we were a bi-weekly group getting together to play, but with limited time and availability it created a problem. The end result was that, even after going into overtime, the final session turned into a race for details and the expected big reveal to tie everything up. As this happened less naturally then the slow build of the rest of the adventure, the horror was drained out of the final revelation, transforming the climax into just a big set-piece fight. I wouldn’t say the end was ruined, but the compacted timeline gave it the feel of a long-running series forced to wrap-up prematurely. Spending another session on the ending would of solved much of this, but that solution would have exacerbated another problem (see Lesson Two).   

Ultimately, the lesson here is that if you’re going to run a mystery adventure, make sure you have the time to run it all the way to its conclusion. You want to give the PCs the time to feel like sleuths, and  definitely want to make sure the adventure comes to satisfactory reveal and conclusion. If you’re worried about the time that might take, go for a simpler mystery. A good simple mystery that feels like a mystery beats an elaborate mystery with a forced climax.

Lesson Two: Timing is Relevance
Cliffhangers are the perfect way to keep up tension between game sessions, but anyone left hanging too long falls.

There were five months between sessions one and two of this Mass Effect game, then four months between two and three. Even after a detailed recap, there were plenty of “I think…” and “Remember you thought this…” moments. When the GM is reminding you of your awesome theory from four months ago, it doesn’t really feel like your awesome theory anymore. In this game, the long pauses between sessions caused several nuances to fade and even I, holding all of the notes, lost a few threads. Apparently RPG mysteries share something in common actual detective work: too much time between new discoveries causes the trail to go cold.

If you’re going to run a mystery, make sure it remains relevant to your players. Everyone in this game seemed to honestly enjoy playing, but with more than half a year passing in the interim, the urgency worked up during an individual game didn’t transmit to the next one. There’s bound to be some of that with any break (it’s one reason why televison series do weekly recaps), but after a month—maybe even after two weeks—the GM isn’t just fighting to spark the player’s memories, he’s fighting to spark their senses of relevance and interest. Additionally, if the main plot has to fight for significance, the players’ connection to their characters suffers even more, causing nuances, character quirks, and personal goals to shift or evaporate entirely between episodes.

My big take away here is to schedule every session of a short series at once. It would have been better to push back the first game and find multiple weeks the players could devote to playing rather than fight schedules for a year, ultimately to the game’s detriment. I plan on taking this as a lesson for all my games from here on out, especially when it comes to more complex adventures that rely on pacing and revelation.

Next Time
Those are my takeaways from our Pathfinder/Mass Effect game, but my next post is going to be all about your takeaways. I’ll be putting up all of my notes, handouts, maps, and the Mass Effect races I created using the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game: Advanced Race Guide for anyone who wants to run this adventure or tell their own stories in the Mass Effect galaxy.

And who knows, if I ever get the time and a group able to commit a whole weekend to playing it, maybe in the next year or two you'll see that dark detective game I've been plotting show up right here.

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