Breadcrumbing: Part 2 – Design Principles

In Part 1, I introduced my plans to run more investigative games, and shared my notes for an Urban Jungle (UJ) adventure, Round About Midnight (RAM). In this part I’ll discuss the principles that informed that prep, and what I’m hoping to achieve with them.

magnifying glassIn general, I want all the usual stuff from good one-shot play to be present in an investigative scenario. I want pace, in-fiction investment from the players, and a tight start that force the players into action. In all of the disappointing investigative games of my past, these are what have been missing. I also want to avoid any clueless wandering. This isn’t restricted to investigative games, but it is a common trap to fall into in games like Call of Cthulhu – where a lack of obvious leads (or ones that the PCs have noticed) can leave the PCs aimlessly waiting for another NPC to die and hopefully supply them with clues. Here are the principles I’m applying to my investigative prep.

Clues are Obvious

In order to facilitate this, I want clues to be obvious and clear when the PCs find them. If they go to a location, they might find a challenge (either a social challenge, a puzzle, or a fight) but after that, I want the relevant information to appear to them clearly. Red herrings should be obvious too -and obviously false leads. In play, there will be plenty of time for the players to come up with their own theories without me needing to plan and encourage this.

In RAM, there are three obvious leads after the starting incident, I’ve tried to make it easy to deduce that the set up (that either the nightclub owner’s brother or his lover shot him) just doesn’t add up – the attack on the nightclub is an obvious distraction tactic, and there must be more behind that coincidence.

Player Character Investment

One thing I’m doing in all my games is building in some bonds-style world-building into the pregens. All the players need to have a link to the starting situation and each other, and it’s much more interesting to let them come up with those links themselves. In my adventure, I’ve put trigger questions (described in this post) onto the pregen sheets, but I’ll also be asking them to give three details about the nightclub and its patrons, and hoping that those patrons can reappear later in the adventure.

(As an aside, if you want to see examples of this light-touch player-led worldbuilding in play, the new Campaign podcast uses this in almost every episode – it’s also a great example of how a fairly trad game can be ‘indied up’ by giving players additional agency and responsibility for the plot.

Action! Pace! Men with guns!

I think the main inspiration for my investigation games is the RDJ Sherlock Holmes movies. In these, for every clue discovered, there’s challenge – a chase, a tense negotiation, a fight – to be won. I’ve tried to mirror this approach in a few games – and a range of approaches is usually a good way to run it. There’s nothing to stop the PCs hitting the internet or the library to find out more about what’s going on, but I don’t consider that an actual scene in the adventure – that’s just an advantage gained for the following scene, or a final confirmation of the crime or perpetrator. Nothing gets solved without pounding the streets – or the faces of some thugs.

In UJ, this is fairly easy to enforce – it’s a lawless 1920s noir setting where the police are unlikely to help you if you have any ties to the underworld without favours and negotiation (and it’s during prohibition, so you could do without investigation from the police around a nightclub). I think I still need to develop what the police do / don’t do in RAM, but they are clearly set up as not being the main allies in the game, and searching the city archives is an unlikely course of action to take when there are clear suspects and leads to follow up in the city.

Everything Else Applies

Like any one-shots, I think the usual points about structure – a tight open, a loose middle and a tight finale usually suit this sort of game really well. I’m a big fan of “The Swell” as a one-shot structure, and I follow it for most of my one-shots with traditional prep structures.

In the next instalment I’ll talk about good examples of investigative one-shots I’ve seen and how they manage to structure play effectively. Anything to add? Comment below.

One Comment

  1. Thank you for considering Urban Jungle. We wanted to make the game very friendly for players to enjoy, especially in one-shots.
    • Fast character generation. Pick three choices and we’re already in the right mode, with “Wolf Hard-Boiled Detective” or “Fox Sultry Entertainer” or “Badger Young Daredevil.” Upgrades can come later.
    • Non-combat combat. I’m glad you and your players picked up on tools like “Panic Save” and “Noncombatant” and other things that gave you bonuses to avoiding harm. The noir genre is full of peril, but too many games fall into the traps of “more offense is your best defense” and “bullet sponge”. UJ has strong character designs built around getting through a fight, even if you’re not winning it.
    • Familiar but also limiting. The early-20th century is still recent enough that players can understand it, ,while also being remote enough to offer challenges that a 21st-century technological breakthrough wouldn’t have.

    Investigative games are a challenge for precisely the reasons you mention, and one-shots require brisk pacing from the game host. UJ’s “How to Host a Game” chapter has significant advice on pacing adventures for one session vs. multiple sessions, and we’d love to hear your thoughts on how we presented it, and what more we could add to help future hosts.

    Thanks again for choosing Sanguine!

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