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?

Review: Brindlewood Bay

Brindlewood Bay is a Powered By The Apocalypse (PBTA) game of cozy mysteries written by Jason Cordova and published by The Gauntlet. In it, you play elderly widows investigating murders in a quiet New England coastal town, while gradually revealing the dark mysteries of an ancient cult. It’s also a fantastic game for one-shot play, with an innovative mystery system that makes investigations improvisational and fun. I’ve run two one-shots of it so far, and will definitely be adding it to my one-shot repertoire.

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here.

The Fluff

You play elderly widows, members of a book club, solving crimes. The game’s sources are are Agatha Christie murder mysteries, 1970s-1990s TV series, very much in the ‘cozy’ tradition. In chargen, you broadly define your PC and their cozy activity (knitting, gardening, cooking, etc.) – and then, as a group, you all add items related to each others’ activities. In play, these offer a bonus to rolls, and it’s great to see players find opportunities to use, for instance, their late husband’s tiki set, in order to help their investigations.

This is not a common genre in RPGs, but it’s very recognizable from popular culture; my players had no trouble feeling the setting and tropes of the game, especially after the cozy places group activity at the start. Characters are both broadly competent and physically vulnerable – while Brindlewood Bay is a generally safe environment, shadowy figures stalk around and the suspect is still at large.

The setting is well painted in broad brush strokes, and the mysteries that are provided (with more available in a supplement, Nephews in Peril) add further details and locations to the town. Implicit in longer-term play is a metaplot about discovering the sinister cult in the town – which is perhaps the reason for there being so many murders – but this doesn’t come into play in a one-shot.

The Crunch

This is a really streamlined evolution of the PBTA engine that keeps what’s important front and centre. There are two ‘action’ moves – Day and Night, which being rolled determined by the time of day, and a Meddling Move, which is the main vector to gather clues. There are a few additional moves, but these three form the bulk of play. While MCing, I really appreciated the simplicity of this – I never had the “uhh, this seems like you’re trying to… go aggro?” moments that I often get when running PBTA games with a broader selection.

Mysteries get solved by you gathering Clues, usually by using the Meddling Move, which are snippets of information, deliberately left loose – a note writing somebody out of a will, a missing dog, signs of a struggle on the victim’s body. After some investigating, the PCs get together, decide which suspect they think was the murderer, and make a Theorize Move, adding the number of Clues gathered and subtracting the Mystery’s complexity – on a Hit, they can catch them – on other results, they may have got the wrong person, leaving the murderer free. In my two games, in one case they apprehended the butler in time – the second, with a 7-9 result, led to a car chase and the eventual escape of the killer when a PC’s cat ran out in front of their car!

The Clue / Theorize economy is amazingly elegant. I have my own issues with investigative games, and the tension between finding the right answer and playing an entertaining game irks me, and in more player-led / story-now games even more so. I discussed it during our after action report of Vaesen with the Smart Party – at a point in the session, you click from “playing my character / making a fun scene” to “solving a puzzle.” Brindlewood Bay avoids this by not needing to join the dots until the Theorize move – up until then, players can just go poking around wherever they want, and clues – if they’ve got the dice for it – will keep showing up. As MC I still felt involved in building the mystery, by choosing which clues made sense to place, and seeing the players have license to freewheel and solve the mystery themselves gave it a satisfying feeling of collaboration.

The One Shot

Although clearly ideally built – like most PBTA games – for short-run campaign play, Brindlewood Bay has so much to recommend it as a one-shot. A setting and genre that is both instantly recognisable and a fresh break from standard RPG genres, an easy-to-MC PBTA framework and a structure that genuinely supports collaborative storytelling made it a hit in both games that I ran. Indeed, although the TV series source material was often long seasons of shows, in practice before media-on-demand we watched them in snippets of individual shows out of order, so it doesn’t feel out of genre to be looking at a murder-of-the-week with protagonists who already have a past together.

I’d recommend for a one-shot not cutting down the ‘cozy place’ prep step at all – as I’ve written about previously, spending up to an hour at the start of a PBTA one-shot is always worth it to get a great setup and have the players able to really get into their characters for the rest of the session. I used Dad Overboard, one of the Mysteries included in the game, and it was a great solid plot structure for a satisfying conclusion in one session.

One thing that I’d also recommend is being really open about the collaborative nature of the mystery – on the sign up description (if you’re running at a con), at the start of the session, even a reminder during the game if you see a player start to cut out investigative channels. For some fans of investigative games, this collaborative stuff, and the MC not even knowing who did the murder, requires a real shift in approach that you need to make sure they’re up for.

In summary, this is a brilliant game, and one of my highlights of 2020 – I’m not sure if I’ve ever found MCing a PBTA game as relaxing and flat-out enjoyable as Brindlewood Bay in a long time. The simplicity – elegance even – of the moves, the wealth of pre-made Mysteries available, and the easily-grokked genre make it an absolute one-shot hit. One of my players went straight from my game to download and read the rules himself – so intrigued was he by the system – you can’t say fairer than that.