Mystery vs Investigation

In the latest episode I talked about the difference between an investigation and a mystery game.

One: Investigation vs Mystery games

By “mystery game” I think of a very specific kind of minimal system game we played in the 90s (for example Over the Edge).

The basic argument (which I’m not sure I conveyed so well in the episode):

  1. an investigation is concerned with a group effort to uncover some truth that applies to everyone. It’s much more mission focused (which makes it better suited to one-shots).
  2. A mystery on the other hand is about a situation that a group of people find themselves in, and the single, unifying truth is secondary to (or at least not more important than) the individual personal goals.

This is totally artificial and real-world games exist somewhere on that spectrum. But there are a few general distinctions. First, the focus on getting to a single Truth in investigation game is underscored by the mechanics of investigation games, which often punish the investigators (through SAN or insight mechanics) for getting closer to the Truth. Mystery games don’t punish in this way, despite being just as weird and horrific.

Second, the investigation, being focused on getting to a fundamental truth, is often active in how it engages with PCs (e.g. it prompts their action and attention with narrative beats). Compare to the ambient weirdness of the mystery which is more passive, in that it comes to the front if the PCs want to engage with it.

So investigation games are really good for pacing whereas mystery games can be really unreliable for pacing and one-shots and hit their stride only after a number of sessions. Also (something I didn’t consider in the episode) they can be more at the mercy of the dynamic in the play group (great if you’re all on the same page; possibly disastrous if you’re not).

But… why?

Two: Sorcerer

I looked into Ron Edwards’ Sorcerer, where he discusses four ways to organise play (in Chapter 4, under Organising a Game).

  1. the “dungeon” way, where a bunch of characters come together to overcome evil, find treasure, etc.
    • the characters are all there for their own reasons
    • after the initial success, for some reason they stay together
  2. the “squad” way, where a bunch of characters are bound together by an organisation (like the FBI) and do the kinds of
    • Edwards says this format is boring, and I sort of see why if your players choose to limit the PCs’ curiosity and proactiveness to whatever the organisation does and otherwise says “not my circus, not my monkeys”
    • OTOH I would be inclined to treat this as a sandbox, and I’ve played plenty of games (like Department V, the Men in Brown corduroy) where diversity wasn’t a problem. I think this is only an issue if you view the game as exclusively a mission and nothing else
  3. the “dumb” way
    • a game where the characters have nothing in common, no shared backstory and their interactions with the plot and with each other are coincidental; for this reason they fall apart
    • Edwards called it dumb back in the original Sorcerer, but in the annotations he’s changed his position and he acknowledges that many games that look like this are actually way more subtle and not as unfocused as they seem. In fact he says that Sorcerer actually works fine like this
    • this is my template for the mystery game. Follow the PCs around and go where they take you. This is how we played OtE, and Mage and other WoD games
    • it’s also a standard of session zero PbtA (the Forge-made-good poster child) to follow the PCs around.
  4. the “hard” way
    • this is a way of linking the characters together with no shared background
    • the GM subtly includes everyone in the overarching plot and draws them together through manipulation of individual plots and backstories
    • Edwards’ annotations make it clear that what was written isn’t what he really meant, which was that backstory is all well and good but expecting everyone to come together isn’t.

I recommend reading Sorcerer if you can get a copy. Everything is worthy of criticism but this section on why players play and how they’re organised is not something you see in many RPGs at all… in fact I’d go so far as to say it’s slightly risky for an author to write down because it goes beyond options and into the realm of opinion. But it’s much more concise than the essays I used to wade through in the early Vampire supplements (well meant as they were).

Anyway… I put these four ways into a diagram

  • On the East-West axis you have Mode, which is either Pack or Solitary1
    • Pack means everyone focused on the same goal; usually these are tackled sequentially as missions. This is typical of Dungeon and Squad games.
    • Solitary means parallel individual/personal arcs, that may or may not be tied into the Threat. The Dumb and Hard games are focused on individuals rather than the pack.
  • For North-South you have Threat which runs from Explicit to Absent
    • Explicit = there is a problem, an enemy, something to expose or investigate
    • Absent = there is no obvious over-arching problem (although there may be session-to-session trials)
    • This variable passes through “implied” which sits between no Threat and a known Threat.

So in this context, I’d say the ur-Investigation game is North-West; it’s about Pack organisation and explicit Threat. The Mystery game is South-East, concerned with individual arcs with no obvious Threat. The North-East and South-West quadrants are variations on those two poles (the Squad is more about an organisation investigating a thing, and the Hard Way is about the GM doing all the hard work in bringing disparate characters together to a single narrative).

All of these modes are fine, preference, and games will probably drift around the diagram during play over sessions (like alignment). This is not really how Ron Edwards writes in Sorcerer; he’s implying some kind of exclusive choice. But mostly the point I’m making is that the structure in the OA is mystery rather than investigation, and it’s a play style I have a lot of love for.

  1. I took these terms from Jaron Lanier’s book Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now 

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