Breadcrumbing: Part 3 – After Action Report

In Part 1, I described an investigative adventure for Urban Jungle (UJ), an anthro noir game by Sanguine. In Part 2, I dug into why I’d planned it how I did. This is the final installment – for now – of my series of posts on running investigative games.

I got to run the game a couple of weeks ago at Go Play Leeds, the monthly one-shot meetup I run in Leeds, Yorkshire. Pleasingly I managed to get signups even with the slightly niche pitch (“It’s 1930s New Orleans gangsters… you’ll be investigating an underworld murder. Oh, and you’re all anthropomorphic animals.”) I had 5 players who threw themselves into the game. It all raced along at pace, and I got positive feedback at the end of it as well.

running urban jungleWhat Seemed to Work

The RDJ Sherlock Holmes method of clue discovery worked well – each scene and it’s main discovery had some action or roleplaying attached to it; along with the unfolding breadcrumbs the PCs also explored the city and came up with some good in-party japes. We managed a brawl, a car chase, and a couple of inventive uses of skills along the way to the big shootout at the end.

Getting player investment in character by asking them who they trust the most and least in the group worked as well as it has for the last few games, and is now going to be added (along with the introductory montage) firmly to my one-shot utility belt. Asking the players to define their link to the nightclub also helped, as they fleshed out their starting situation, and the nightclub, with every answer they gave.

The general structure seemed to work well, too, with a bang of an inciting incident and then a few options that all led (with clue-heavy links) to the finale in the hotel. I used my usual finale structure of “any reasonable plan works, but not as you expect it,” and they came up with an elaborate distraction by befriending the crocodile gang to deal with some of the guards, just leaving the villain and his henchmen to defeat.

The system! I was really impressed with UJ, especially how it handles non-combat characters. By making them hard to hit but giving them options to use social skills in combat (which, crucially, are balanced against regular combat), it really captured the feeling of a noir game where guns are a last resort. I’m stoked to try out Ironclaw and even their bonkers-looking anime sci-fi, Myriad Song, now.

What I Had to Tweak

A gap in my planning (obviously, the players are going to ask about the police, even if they don’t go to them) and I had to improvise a coyote policeman being paid off by their nightclub – he gave them 24 hours to fix the case themselves before he’d have to pass it up to the station. This was so obvious an omission that I just made him up, but I will add him to the adventure now. I can’t even remember what I called him – but he definitely needs to be rolled into the prep now.

One other thing that was certain was everything was very broad brush strokes – I think that some more definition in my descriptions (senses, feelings, weather) would have helped. These things are hard for me to improvise, despite always thinking I can do it on the fly. One of my descriptions might have showed my influence a bit strongly (the nightclub, with a private room viewing the dancefloor, prompted one player to say “I’m picturing Harlem’s Paradise in Luke Cage;” I had to admit that was what I was picturing in describing it.) But maybe that’s not a bad thing.

“Would Run Again”

So as one of my 2019 plans, I’m trying to repeat-run games I’ve prepped rather than run them once and consign them to history. This will definitely get a run-out again – it’s definitely a reserve game for Seven Hills, and I’ll look for opportunities to test my anthro noir pitch in future too. Maybe even online, if I get any interest – seen as that’s something I’m trying to do more of as well.

I’m also going to be developing some more investigative games, and I’ll share them in an occasional ongoing Breadcrumbing series, so watch this space.

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.