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Clues in the Dark

Last fall I watched a lot of the TV series Marple with my wife, and there are few better inspirations for writing good mystery than Agatha Christie, who spins quite a ball of yarn only to unravel it with perfect logic just when all seemed lost. It gave me a lot of respect for mystery novelists (a genre I have only a passing interest in, which is strange considering my interest in mysteries), especially good ones who can build layer upon layer of dramatic intrigue and obtuse clues.

There is little difference between writing a mystery novel and writing a good investigative story (whether for the Cthulhu Mythos genre or more specifically for a RPG system like Gumshoe), because, ultimately, you’re building a series of clues for the characters (PCs) to uncover, discuss, and follow to the next scene/clue. Investigative RPGs are my favorite to both write and play because of that clue trail – building an interesting and original set of clues for the PCs to follow is hard, but so ultimately satisfying if done right.

For the longest time, Call of Cthulhu (COC) was my favorite investigative game, though not as a system so much as for the atmosphere and breadth of materials available for it. But over the past few years, multiple new takes on the Mythos investigative game have cropped up, highlighting both the breadth of the market as well as the need for a new take on how RPGs investigations are run.

Cthulhu Dark (a rules-light system by Graham Walmsley) is now my favorite Cthulhu RPG for one simple reason – the rules never get in the way of the story. Ever. I never have to stare down a bad roll and try to figure out how to make it work – it’s all positive creativity. In COC, I am always trying to figure out how to make a bad roll fit into making sure the story moves forward. Even Trail of Cthulhu, which is based on Gumshoe and aims to always make core clues available, can get bogged down in some of the illogical bookkeeping that goes into spending points to expand the clues.

When I play Cthulhu Dark (CD), though, I can use the die rolls (including my own house rules for skill rolls) to judge the varying degrees of success the PCs face when finding clues. This, in turn, puts the onus on the scenario writer to develop an intriguing set of clues for the PCs to follow, which then makes it easy to turn a die roll (whether high or low, as success is guaranteed) into figuring out the best manner for the story to play out. You can use the randomness to add flavor to the story, not determine whether or not the PCs actually succeed.

I know there are still plenty of old-school COC players who live and die by what the dice tell you, and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that providing your players are having fun, which is the ultimate litmus test for a game’s success. But why make interpreting the dice easy (pass/fail) while making interpreting the clues (where do we go next) the hard part? Nothing good comes for free, and the challenge for how to interpret rolls is what makes playing CD fun. The PCs are going to get the clues regardless – what comes next is the degrees of success that follow the roll.

And there’s no reason to make it binary, saying pass or fail – again, make the die rolls interesting and fun to understand. The die rolls are a spectrum to work from, letting you interpret a high, medium, or low roll however the story best needs it, at that moment. Yes, that’s hard, but, again, that’s what makes it fun.

As part of He Who Laughs Last, I’ve written some house rules for using skills in the game. Funnily enough, the rules and skill list mirror the skills listed by Graham in his other book, Stealing Cthulhu (starting page 52 – go get it from the shelf, I’ll wait). In a nutshell, I’ve found that people like the boundaries of having a limited list of skills to choose from. We then use three dice (color coded green, blue, and red) to represent the three types of rolls: general, skills, and insanity. So there’s still some crunch (rules) to the game, but it never gets bogged down in figuring out rules to keep the game going.

Then, if the rules are easy and transparent to the game, the story becomes the platform to run the game, not the other way around. Your job then, as scenario writer, is to write the most interesting, intriguing, and dangerous set of clues your story demands. The trail of clues and how your players follow that trail then becomes the most critical component of your game. Something I’m sure Miss Marple would appreciate.