For years, I’ve been picking up the odd indie game here and there, trying to find (among other things) one that seems like it could be a great mystery game. I haven’t really found a promising option.
Generally, they fall into two categories. The first is exemplified by a teen detective game called Bubblegumshoe, by Emily Care Boss (among others) and published by Evil Hat Games. Bubblegumshoe uses the GUMSHOE game system which, despite the name, I’ve usually seen in horror games. GUMSHOE separates “abilities” into two categories. First are General Abilities, which let you roll against them and you succeed or fail in the ordinary way.
Second are Investigative Abilities. If there’s a core clue that you need to solve the mystery, and a PC is on hand with the Investigative Ability that would acquire the clue, it’s acquired automatically. GUMSHOE doesn’t let a game stall or derail because a bad die roll, or a series of them, prevents the characters from snapping up a necessary clue. That’s an essential mechanic for horror games, because the antagonists are supposed to be overwhelmingly powerful compared to the PCs. That’s part of what makes it horror. There’s usually a very narrow path to victory for the players, and if they’re denied the information they need to find that path, the game is an automatic failure and not much fun.
Like I said, it’s a clever mechanic. But to use it in a mystery story, you also need a GM who is capable of setting up a mystery plot, full of red herrings, fake but seemingly unbreakable alibis, and all the other tropes of the genre. And take it from me, a guy that’s tried his hand at mystery more than once, that’s a challenging skill set to acquire.
Alternately, we have the cozy mystery/cosmic horror game Brindlewood Bay, a Powered by the Apocalypse system by Jason Cordova and published by The Gauntlet. In this game, the PCs are elderly members of a local mystery book club in a small, coastal New England town. Individual adventures are cases, like an episode of Murder, She Wrote in which mystery readers nose around crime scenes, solving murders.
Except PbtA is a “Play to find out” system. The GM doesn’t create a clue trail. That’s actively discouraged. Instead, they create a story prompt and a list of generic clues like “an unsigned will” or “a photograph of the victim”. During play, the players themselves add the necessary details that will separate the clue trail from the red herrings, then roll dice to see if this is the solution.
Which is fine, but it doesn’t give the player the experience of solving a mystery. It puts them into the role of creating the mystery.
I had a similar issue with a Forged in the Dark game I actually got to play some time ago. The game was called Hack the Planet (written by Fraser Simons and published by Samjoko Publishing). It was cli-fi mixed with cyberpunk, and while I can be lukewarm on cyberpunk in general, this was a cool setting. Maybe the most interesting expression of cyberpunk I’ve ever come across.
But I was very interested in trying out the system. FitD games were the new hotness at the time (and maybe they’re still the current hotness, I wouldn’t know) because they let people role play heist plots.
Personally, I love a good heist film. And when someone creates a heist-oriented fantasy game that not only wins awards and gets raves all over the internet, it spawns a number of clones in other genres, well, I’m interested. I really wanted to try that.
Except once we started playing the game, it turned out that the thing that makes heist plots most appealing to me—that unexpected twist where the moment everything is going wrong turns out to be part of the plan all along, and how did I miss the scattered clues that would have prepared me for that twist—is utterly neutered. The surprise of that moment is replaced by a player saying “I spend two stress.” No surprise. No thrill.
And it sort of has to be. How else can you play out this sort of story in this medium? And the fact that I stupidly held out hope that the game could replicate the feeling of the movie has to be yet another triumph of hope over experience. I should have kept my expectations low.
For me, without that surprise, the game was all tension and no thrill.
I can see why people like that system. Not only does it have some cool ideas, it’s very fussy and is full of little boxes to check. It’s a game for the bullet journal/to-do list crowd. To me, it seemed underpowered and all that fussiness made it feel like a resource management game, which I hate. Cool setting, but that ruleset was actively unpleasant on several axes.
Which is a shame. I like heists, almost as much as I like mysteries. If I could figure out a way to capture the essential parts of them in a way that felt manageable in a game, I’d be pretty happy about that game.
But I’m not holding my breath. Not every genre works in every medium.
By the way, I have two new Twenty Palaces novels out: