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Why are investigative games fun?

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Why are investigative games fun?

Figured I should stop misrepresenting investigative games over in the other thread and see if anyone can clear up why these games are, in fact, fun. I've played a few - Trail of Cthulhu, Cthulhu Dark, Call of Cthulhu (... people really like Cthulhu), and have run into it in a less focused manner in a bunch of other games whenever there's some preset mystery to unravel. Gumshoe systems in particular are sold as 'investigating done right' and lots of people seem enthusiastic about it, so there must be something there.

But I find the investigating part of these games utterly dull. It feels like the fun only starts after we get through the tedium of investigating and can finally use the information to go and take some concrete action - but investigating is the vast majority of the gameplay and clearly what the game is about, so ... why is this fun? What am I missing?

Do you enjoy mysteries in

Do you enjoy mysteries in other media? Like, do you enjoy detective novels or TV shows?
Much roleplaying has to do with imitating media you enjoy.

Also, it's a nice break from, or prelude to, killing.

I don't seek out mystery

I don't seek out mystery stories, but I don't dislike them either - if one happens to be on TV it can hold my interest. I do like horror where things are slowly revealed. But yes, admittedly, not one of my favourite genres.

If I was watching one of these stories as a movie though, I imagine it'd be perfectly enjoyable. Even the story as a transcript would be fun to read though - it's the gameplay experience that I don't get. The characters just kind of ... go around and examine things, and get backstory from them, that's usually read out from the module if it's important. The players might roll dice or spend resources to determine how much of that backstory gets read out, but it doesn't feel like a very meaningful interaction.

As context to killing I'm totally fine with it - sometimes you need to set up that stuff to make your killing more interesting. But these games are 80% having information drip-fed to you as you go look at and fiddle with stuff, 15% worthwhile character interaction (optional), and about 5% actually doing something meaningful with the information you've gained. These percentages can be fiddled with a bit, but the core game-loop still revolves around the easter-egg hunt for clues, and the players seem to have very little meaningful creative input there.

Am I wrong about that? Or is this setup fun despite that, for people who really appreciate mystery stories? ... or is meaningful creative input overrated?

For a lot of folks, a big

For a lot of folks, a big part of RPGs is that you are now, at the moment, playing the type of character you see in whatever genre media you enjoy, but are making the decisions, producing the dialog, etc.

If you like mystery fiction, you want to involve yourself in the investigation as your character. That's it. That's the fun.

As for creative input, you're getting it, in the portrayal of the character ( one usually created largely by yourself) and in the approach you take to the mystery at hand.

I actually think...

...that this thread is getting a lot of important details of this kind of play. Yes, a big part of is getting to enjoy this kind of fiction from a first-person perspective. Personally, I love exploring an unfamiliar world or mystery and turning stones over and learning new things - getting to see how it all fits together. There's a great sense of exploration and discovery there!

However, it's also totally true that it is SO easy to make it boring and entirely disempowering for the players. If your only job is to "solve the mystery", and all you can really do is follow the clues the GM puts in front of you... it's easy for it devolve into something that feels like a chore. ("There's a door at the back of the room that you never noticed before." "Ok, great. We go open the door...")

Things that make investigative games fun, in my experience:

* Progress through the mystery is more or less guaranteed. Every step forward gives you more information and insight. You're constantly learning new things as you play. (I learned this from Dogs in the Vineyard, and never looked back. If you look at mystery fiction, that's how it works, too: every scene reveals new information. If the GM sees their job as *protecting* the hidden information from the players, instead of excitedly *delivering it to them*, chances are the game starts to go downhill.)
* How much you know has a clear and direct impact on what happens next and what's at stake. For instance, there's a terrible monster you need to fight, and each piece of information makes you better prepared to fight it... but it's up to you when you stop collecting information and start fighting. That makes for clear and meaningful decisions every step of the way.
* There is other stuff in play, beyond just discovering stuff. Maybe it's character drama. Maybe it's combat and action. Maybe it's player-level puzzles... but, no matter which, there is interesting stuff for the players to be engaged in which doesn't depend on simply learning new information from the GM. When the only thing that can let you move forward is identifying the fingerprints on the mantle... when you can't do so, the game stalls. But, if what you really care about is seducing the other detective, then succeeding or failing (or lying about succeeding!) at identifying those fingerprints is suddenly much more interesting, and can be material for good play no matter what. (Again, look at a lot of mystery fiction and you'll see this in action.)

Those ingredients for a

Those ingredients for a successful investigative game all sound very reasonable. I think these systems handle #1 perfectly well and that's what they get a lot of praise for. #2 I think gets lost in games trying to do cosmic horror because half the time the stakes are deliberately obfuscated. That's not an intrinsic problem though.

#3 is an issue, I think. Character drama, action, and puzzles don't really connect with the core gameplay loop for most of these games. A lot of them have character drama built into the scenario, but in the games I've played either the character drama takes over the game, or the character drama is set aside so we can actually get on and solve the mystery. I've played the same module (Arkham 1692 for Cthulhu Dark) both ways and the first was infinitely more entertaining, but we did very little actual investigating and learnt very little about the backstory - we were far too busy murdering people with witchcraft. The investigative mechanics still worked well though in adding some depth to the scenario, but it wasn't front-and-centre. The second time we focused on working out what was going on, which involved a lot of reading diary entries and methodically walking up-and-down a timeslipped staircase, and while all the character tensions were there they didn't have much weight - if they did we wouldn't have been bothering with the stairs...

Murdering people with witchcraft... a perfect example of my third bullet point. I don't know the module or your group, so I don't know how it came about, but having other exciting priorities in play is what made that game really work, it sounds like. You cared about stuff that went beyond simply solving the mystery (which can feel disempowering, unless it's explicitly set up as a set of puzzles to challenge the *players*).

(Players, not characters! That's important.)

Mm - well, yeah

Mm - well, yeah. My understanding was that these games are meant to be played the other way though. Maybe I'm wrong about that, or maybe the people who really like these games don't actually play them that way. If that's the case - great! Next time one of these games finds its way to my gaming table, I'll just approach it like a standard, goal-driven character advocacy game and ignore the mystery-following except insofar as it coincides with the character's direct goals.

If that just-works, I'll feel pretty silly after all those boring-arse mystery-following games where we chased clues because "that's what you do in a mystery game"...

"Ignoring" is perhaps the wrong word

Rather than "ignoring", I would say to look for ways to connect the characters' personal motives to the mystery, and to make sure they work together in some interesting way.

If you look at just about any interesting "mystery" fiction (outside of a pure whodunnit, perhaps), you'll see a central mystery but also driven characters with goals and desires. The mystery and the characters' motives then work together in interesting ways: finding out that things are not what they seem is far more interesting when there are other things at stake. Finding out that the bad guy was once married to your mother and might, in fact, be your true father is pretty cool and all, but it's when there's a subplot about your love affair with the other investigator, whose sister was brutally murdered by that same man, that things get really interesting.

So, perhaps not "ignore" but "intertwine".

I wrote about this a bit... this old Story Games thread, when I was thinking about what to do with a pretty lousy CoC module I won at a convention:

Hopefully you can see how the mystery content, rather shabby on its own, becomes interesting when it gets intertwined with the PCs' interests and/or the themes of the story.

Guaranteed success is boring

I find it boring to "solve" a mystery if it has already been determined that I will succeed. Why bother?

However, if there is a real risk of failure, that is, solving the mystery is a challenge, then it is interesting. A consequence is that one might fail. It is usually bad design to make failure a dead end in the game, but luckily there are two well-tested ways around the problem:

  1. Sandbox, in the sense that there are many mysteries to solve and perhaps many ways to solve them. "Many" means "too many to actually solve", so one has actual choices.
  2. Consequences for failure in a dynamic situation, which means that if the mystery is not solved promptly, something (usually bad) will happen, which will reveal more about the mystery. There might be a limit to the number of attempts at solution one has, so that a definite and final failure is a possibility.

Of course, there are also all the ways of making the mystery a side dish in another context, as mentioned by others here.

The investigations I prefer

The investigations I prefer don't have a goal of solving the mystery but of doing something about it. Like in Chthulluh games if you see setting, you're probably going to die from it. Or in noir, corrupt authorities burry the case. And only the audience is left with the knowledge (but then aren't they being shadowed) Game systems have regularly missed the point that could be tackled with : drawing/photographing skills in CoC, dying and crazing moves in PbtA.

Those are valid goals...

but I think even the hardcore challenge angle has not been covered very well. OSR has the exploration play covered, but a fiction-based challenge game of noir genre - one where you know that what the corrupt authorities are likely to do, and what are going to do about it, and if something, is it going to work?

It has dramatic potential - which case is worth it to engage with, of your full heart, knowing the price will almost certainly be high? And, if it is a refereed challenge-focused game, the high probable price is actually there, not merely a background genre convention but actually something likely to happen in play. It also has the interesting social problem solving angle and the mystery solving angles, of course.

The same with unspeakable horros of Kutunluu and many other investigative genres.

If the solution to the

If the solution to the mystery is predetermined and known to the GM, and most of the scenes are interview scenes where clues are doled out like saline in an IV drip, it can get very dull.
Not all investigation games work that way, though. Maybe there are 3 suspects, and even the GM doesn't know which one is the bad guy, except it's always the third one the players interview. Or maybe the players come up with the clues and determine the solution, and the GM just sets up the mystery and facilitates.
You can also spice up an investigation with a chase scene, a warm-up fight with minions, a rival group trying to solve the mystery or derail the players, or the PCs being hunted by the bad guy. There should be stakes to the mystery beyond "Here, solve this..." Timers with consequences for the characters, their loved ones, or their home can also add tension.
The fun part of a mystery is when you have an AHA! moment: "Wait, the bank teller's name was Mary Michaelson? Wasn't that the name of the mother of the missing girl? What the..."

Can you get an "aha!" moment

Can you get an "aha!" moment in all configurations? In any case, you don't wait for it to happen by sheer luck : it's a collaborative effort.

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