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 

88: the OA

88: the OA

The OA: crossing dimensions and living alternate versions of your life, Investigation vs. Mystery, exotic matter and general relativity via intepretive dance


Intro 00:07 // Synopsis 02:15 // Themes 10:52 // mystery vs investigation, Ron Edwards’ Sorcerer, alternate timelines, pressure of dimensional travel, small changes in the remixed world, how to cross dimensions through interpretive dance with robots, Einstein-Rosen Bridges and exotic matter // Media 27:48 // Flatliners, Dark, Odyssey 5, Zenith, The Everness Series, The Longest Journey, The Nomad Soul

Music credits

Music is by Chris Zabriskie: // bandcamp // free music archive

Samples: “Is that you or are you you?” from Reappear // “Take off and shoot a zero” from Stunt Island // “But enough about me, Bill Paxton” and “I don’t see the branches, I see the leaves” from Direct to Video // “Another version of you” from Thoughtless

Art credit

Featured image is fan art created by user @dowdpro (instagram)

86: StormHack!

86: StormHack!

In this short episode I’ll pitch the game StormHack!, available for download.


Other games:

The Black Hack
Beyond the Wall

Music Credits

Music is by Chris Zabriskie: // bandcamp // free music archive

Samples: “Is that you or are you you?” from Reappear // “Another version of you” from Thoughtless

What I really think about D&D (and Dishonoured 2)

When Dirk the Dice asked me for my First, Last and Everything on episode 43 of the Grognard Files I had no idea it was going to be about D&D. D&D isn’t my First, Last, or Everything but I nonetheless expressed opinions about it, one of which is

I don’t think any game treats starting characters with as much contempt as D&D

by which I mean it normalises low level characters being weak and dying frequently (so normalised that Dungeon Crawl Classics parodies this with the Funnel).

The advocates of “zero to hero” tend to fall into two camps:

  1. Those who think that characters should always be weak, and dungeoneering should be frightening and fraught with danger
  2. Those who think high levels should be earned, not granted.

OSR style play is often portrayed as the first example (although that’s an argument in itself). I’m fine with this in principle, I just wonder if you are going to play a game with such fragile characters, why even bother including levels? (I think James Raggi planned to revise the LotFP system to exclude levels in both PCs and spells, which is a fine idea; obviously it hasn’t emerged yet).

This ethos was adopted in Sage Latorra’s 1 HP game jam and you can listen about that on the Another Question podcast.

As for the second… this is more of an impression I get from reading Dragon magazine in the 80s. I don’t think I’ve ever heard it from a real person (outside hyperbolic flame wars on the worst RPG forums)1.

Hyperbole or not, this position still makes the argument that levels are there to be suffered, not enjoyed. No-one actually likes levels. Levelling up, sure; but no-one likes to be reminded in such an artificial way that your PC is weak, that you’re part of a hierarchy whose upper eschelons you’re unlikely to see. We play RPGs to get away from that.

And as I said in the podcast the problem with levels is they make characters who are supposed to be risk-takers and heroes into conservative bean-counters, focusing on the future and not on the now2. More to the point, WotC knows the low level lethality is at odds with the aspirational nature of videogame-like mainstream D&D. This is why generation after generation of this game has made lower levels more survivable.

OK, what does this have to do with Dishonoured, you may ask?

So… the franchise has DNA in the original Thief and sequel3, probably my all-time favourite games. The first Dishonoured game didn’t have a no-powers option, but Dishonoured 2 has the option to refuse the mark of the Outsider entirely and play without powers. This is far and away the most satisfying way I’ve found of playing the game; it harks back to those original Thief games with the same kind of sandboxed levels and exploration in three dimensions rather than just teleporting around the city hunting the objective markers.

To make this work the designers had to make the maps almost completely accessible to a character with no powers. Playing this way feels a lot like you’re back playing Garrett mantling his way around the City’s rooftops. It also means you don’t need powers to complete the game (OK, there is still a bit of levelling up as you upgrade equipment with coin, but levelling powers with runes is gone). Emily is no less competent for her lack of supernatural ability; in fact you might argue that since she’s rejected the help of the Outsider and chosen to resolve things her own way, she has more agency and is more interesting.

In this situation powers are an aesthetic choice. They offer new ways to complete the game (including some spectacular ways to kill people) but they don’t define the character in the way that D&D’s class/levelling does (in particular 3e4).

Although to be clear I’m not against exotic powers — and if you want to make your PC’s powers the one special thing that defines them, go for it. But I think Dishonoured 2 has a useful lesson: build your character independent of the supernatural and they will be more interesting. This has sort of been my credo for StormHack; character is independent of demon. Character’s don’t level up, demons do. Of course that game does have levels after a fashion; but ascending levels isn’t a boon, it’s a trade off.

Of course any sensible play group will treat the characters equally, and levels and powers will be irrelevant to spotlight time. But that implied hierarchy is there, deep down in the lizard brain. Better to engineer out those biases entirely. Take the example of my “everything” game from the grogpod. Everway has no levelling up, no experience mechanism. You are the characters you start as. What you get instead are boons which come directly from the adventure and are therefore truly experiential (as opposed to artificial experience tiers).

Incidentally that’s why 1st edition Vampire was such a revelation. People point to the personal horror and the edgy gothic-ness but the thing that struck me the most was the complete de-emphasis of anything resembling levels and classes. Probably not remarkable to most people given how much choice we have today with better, lighter game designs, but it was pretty cool at the time, before they ruined it with the second edition.

  1. martial arts on the other hand… but that’s another story 

  2. I’m not knocking people who want to plan a trajectory for their PC and then see it through over months or years. I’ve enjoyed a lot of Diablo II myself 

  3. pre Deadly Shadows. And don’t even start me on the 2014 reboot 

  4. to be fair, I played 3e once, and I enjoyed it for what it was. Well, I say enjoyed it, I tolerated it. Well, I say I tolerated it, I stayed awake between rounds by grasping my lower lip and pulling it over the top of my head. Then I smeared my body with chilli jam and bovril before skiing through a cactus forest into a pit of starved honey badgers. Whilst listening to the unabridged audiobook of Fifty Shades of Grey read by Nigel Farage. That said, the gelatinous cube encounter was quite emotional.