Unconventional Mysteries – One-Shot Carved From Brindlewood Games

I hope you’re all familiar with a new subset of PBTA games, the Carved From Brindlewood (CfB) stable. These, all from the Gauntlet, involve player-created clue interpretation and offer something genuinely different to investigative games. Through the game, you collect Clues (often open-ended and with multiple interpretations, like “a diary mentioning forbidden love,” or “a sequence of numbers in an unusual place.”) The players then try to interpret these to provide a previously-unknown solution to the Mystery. They’re fantastic games, if you enjoy that sort of premise, and offer a new perspective on the investigative genre. 

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There’s Brindlewood Bay, where you play elderly mavens in the titular town, investigating murders and gradually revealing a sinister cult. I reviewed Brindlewood Bay here, if you want to hear what I thought of it when I player the pre-kickstarter version. Following that The Between is a bit more baroque – you’re monster hunters in Victorian London solving cases and pursuing a mastermind. And most recently, Public Access, where your young investigators explore creepypasta urban legends on the trail of a vanished cable TV station. All of them are excellent, and all are hard-wired for campaign play of 4-8 sessions. 

But, as regular readers will know, I’m firmly of the opinion that you can run anything as a one-shot – and I’ve brought these to several conventions and run in single-sessions slots. They do take a bit of tweaking to get right – so here are my thoughts on running these as one-shots.

Be Up-Front About The Game

Firstly, you need to advertise carefully. In these games the mystery solution comes from the players, so you need to advertise that so that there are no surprised players who are expecting a more traditional experience. Some players butt up hard against creating their own solution to the mystery, and you need to make sure in the con pitch you’ve been explicit.

I’d also share that it’s a specifically one-shot experience, and it’ll likely feel like the pilot episode of a show – they shouldn’t expect everything to be resolved necessarily. Manage expectations and be clear that as much narration is in the hands of the players as you – and you should be fine.

Do the Regular Chargen and Prep

Even in a 3-hour slot, I’d advise going through the inter-player bits of character generation at the table. I get players to pick Playbooks (The Between) or Special Moves (Public Access or Brindlewood Bay) ahead of time if I can, but do the bits where they describe one another’s cosy place / corner of the house at the table. It can feel like this is eating into playing time, but it’ll mean you can hit the ground running well when you start. Think of it as time invested, and it’ll give your players lots to do with each other once you begin play.

Adjust Complexity

A mystery or question with Complexity 4 or 5, with one clear question to answer,  is about right for a one-shot session. It gives them a good shot at resolution and means they can gather enough clues quickly. If the mystery you’re running has a higher Complexity, just change it – you’ll alter the focus of it a little, but nothing will break. 

Think About Structure

In Brindlewood Bay, you can just play through a mystery as normal. For Public Access / The Between, I’d suggest the following:

short Day phase / Night phase / Day Phase (start by answering the question)

Start the first Day Phase in late afternoon and give the players just enough time to pursue a few leads before it’s dusk and they have to plan their Night phase. Assuming they aren’t watching an Odyssey tape (in Public Access), the Night phase can be primarily investigative, and should give them enough clues to try and answer the question the following Day – they might or might not be able to resolve it – if needed just montage them taking the action needed. If you have time for another Night Phase, by all means do it – but don’t try and squeeze it into ten minutes if that’s all the time you have.

As an aside, and even when you’re not running these as one-shots, I still like to pace the Day Phase pretty tightly. It’s up to the players to pursue leads and choose where they go, but that doesn’t mean they have unlimited time. About one short investigation / move for the morning and afternoon is about right, and as GM you can certainly cut to other scenes once a Clue is discovered. 

Use the Starter Mysteries – or Don’t

All the games come with a mystery that it’s recommended you start with. These provide a great intro into a short campaign and are nice and straightforward to run, but for a one-shot feel free to run different ones. You might need to think about how the players might split up or what approaches they might take to make it work, and some Mysteries have gated strings of Questions that won’t fit into a one-shot in a satisfactory way, but I’d be flexible with this after you’ve first run Dad Overboard / The House on Escondido Street / The St James’s Street Ghost. They’re all great ways to teach the game (and it’s very appreciated that the games offer these) but after you’ve tried them once you can always try something else.

Show Them All The Stuff – But Don’t Use All The Stuff

Mysteries have been designed to have plenty of NPCs to interact with. Try to bring these onto the stage fairly early on, but don’t worry if your players don’t end up interacting with them. The way the game works, they don’t need to talk to the nosy neighbour, or the families relative – all of them are just floating clue dispensers for the long list of options that you can dole out to solve the mystery. Aim instead to give a few exciting / obvious options for investigation, and make the players feel like whatever they pick they’ll find stuff out – which is, in fairness, exactly how the game works.

So, I’m still planning on bringing some more of these to conventions in the future – and there are more Carved From Brindlewood games in the works that look exciting. Have you tried running these games in a one-shot setting? What worked or didn’t work?

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