Friday, March 11, 2016

The Smolensk Mysteries

I was asked by a contributor to my jumpstarter campaign to write a post that somehow addresses how to run an adventure where the Players solve a mystery. It was a pretty large donation, so the reader should get comfortable, settle in and expect me to write for quite a while.

This is interesting since right at the moment I'm writing a mystery - the sort that would normally be considered a thriller.  This is a format in which the main character receives information about the actions of another person or a group of persons, until the situation becomes impossible to ignore.  Sometimes the information is received very slowly, as in the case of Hitchcock's Rear Window, where the characters see many things until certain small things begin to take on considerable relevance.  Sometimes the information is received in a deluge, such as Hitchcock's North by Northwest, where the main character's first notion of the mystery is through being physically kidnapped by the bad guys (before even knowing there are bad guys).

Now, I am very sorry if the reader is unfamiliar with either of these films.  There is simply no excuse.  If we are going to create adventures and have any chance of these adventures having merit for our players, it is essential that we make ourselves aware that there is art in the world and that people have painstakingly designed patterns of content revelation that continue to stand out despite having been around 60-odd years.  I'm not going to go into detail giving the synopses for these films (available on IMDb), nor am I going to hesitate to give spoilers if need be - so just stop reading, take four and a half hours out of your life, steal the films off the internet and educate yourself.

Meanwhile, I'll continue.

Creating a valued mystery is a fine edge between how much information is given against how much information is reserved.  Retaining that balance is, I think, a lot easier in a role-playing game than it is in a novel because I can gauge how much information to give against what sort of reaction I see from the party.  If the party isn't "feeling it" then I can give another piece of information right then and there, and keep doing that until it tips the party from disinterested to "What does it all mean??!!"

This is much harder to do with a book because I have no audience in the time I'm writing.  I have to rely on my instincts to tell me whether or not I'm withholding so much that the reader is bound to get bored of the book before it starts to take off.  A novel has much more trouble with this than a film, since it demands much more time to complete than a film and it is easier to put a book down and not return to it than it is to get up and walk out of a movie theatre.  As I write, therefore, I have to carefully measure how much time I'm spending on subplots that sustain the reader's attention and I have to be very, very aware of all the little dribs and drabs of information that are placed therein that will keep the reader thinking, "Something isn't quite as it seems here."

That is a very key element.  A focused reader will pick up on the smallest clues.  Two people who have never met are introduced in the novel and there is one sentence where it says, "His face suggested that he recognized her."  If I give nothing more to that line, if I move on with the story as though that line wasn't put in the novel, the reader will nevertheless obsess on that line because I didn't explain it.  What's it doing there?  Did he recognize her?  What could that mean?  Is someone lying here?  It's been 90 pages and I still know don't why that sentence is there!

Take note, however, that the time between introducing the mystery and explaining the mystery matters.  I remember there was a web comic I read regularly called "Ctrl Alt Del" - at least until the writing became so bad because the author got famous and rich and older and Flanderized all the characters to the point where they weren't interesting any more.  One of the subplots of the comic was that no one knew what was going on behind the door of the roommate Steve, the Linux guy.  The unexplained door went on for years, being very occasionally mentioned but never opened.  After a long time I just didn't care any more.  I still don't care.  I understand the door was opened and that it was a HUGE disappointment - no wonder.  The author had built it up to the point where it was impossible to live up to the reveal.  The TV show Lost had the same problem (that and the fact that the reveal was never going to tie up all the loose ends).  I never watched Lost, but this is the sort of thing that happens all the time with bad writing.  Lots of ideas, no resolution.  The lack of a solid and meaningful resolution really soured the last two seasons of Mad Men.

Players won't wait forever - so its very important in creating a mystery for the campaign that the reveal for the mystery (or at least for some part of the mystery) comes available within a decent time frame.  Unless the reader is used to creating a long-frame mystery with lots of moving parts and dozens of mini-reveals that will keep the players going and going for years until the truth comes out, then I recommend that the time between introducing the mystery and revealing the mystery should be no more than two or three sessions.  About the length of a small module adventure.  Without experience, biting off any more than that will probably exhaust the players and produce the same feeling that most people have as a television series just drags on and on without changing anything.  They quit watching.

Let me go back, then.  What are these "pieces of information" that a DM has to have ready to reveal in order to keep the mystery going?

In Rear Window, it begins with knowing that the film is about a murder, which every person entering the theater in 1954 already knew from the advertising and the fact that it was an Alfred Hitchcock film.  Hitchcock knows this, so as he introduces all the subplots that are witnessed out the main character's window, he's dropping little clues in that make it seem that any of the windows could end in murder.  The woman with all her lovers, the newlyweds, the struggling artist, the old couple sleeping on the stoop in the hot weather, the desperate spinster . . . and of course the main character and his girlfriend.  There's nothing that says Jimmy Stewart isn't going to kill Grace Kelly (or vice versa) before this movie ends.  So everyone in the theater is on edge, waiting for a clue.  Every line that is said, every word spoken, could be important.

This is how we're doing it, too, in a campaign.  The characters enter a town.  This is D&D.  Something is going to happen.  We already know this.  It isn't necessary to have a fellow with a big drum marching down the square talking about the dragon that needs to be killed.  That's how most DMs do it, with some heavy handed and stupid effort to produce a bartender with a 'rumor' that tells about the dragon with diagrams and pictures and so on like a bad 1930s crime novel where the woman walks into the office and reveals half the exposition for the film in three short speeches.

(Now, this works in the Maltese Falcon, but only because everything the woman says is a lie)

Part of the reason DMs do this is because players often have a "Get on with it" attitude towards the game.  They're not willing to spend the first twenty minutes of a movie getting to know the setting and the characters therein.  Like Riddick, they want blood and mayhem right now, without all the tedious waiting.  All the more reason to begin the characters at the dungeon door instead of in town; if they're going to the dungeon anyway, cut out the town, the bartender and the rumor and just put the characters at the actual beginning.  There is far, far too much build-up to a great many bad books and films (and game modules) and for that reason it's important to begin at the real beginning, where the details matter.

This doesn't say there can't be build-up.  Great Expectations starts with Pip as a young boy and it takes 30,000 words before the plot undergoes a significant shift.  Yet what happens in the first five pages of the book is really, really important and that's why the book starts there.  If starting at the tavern is really, really important to what happens in the dungeon, then by all means we should start at the tavern; but if what happens at the tavern has jack-shit to do with what's going on at the dungeon, then start at the dungeon's front door and save time.

So our first problem is what matters.  For the unknowing players this is potentially everything, such as at the beginning of Rear Window . . . but when we see the strange sight of the salesman repeatedly going out into the rain at three in the morning, what matters begins to tip.  Now we find ourselves trying to remember from all the details we got before what we first saw when the salesman - wasn't he arguing with his wife?  Wasn't he rude to a neighbor?  Can we remember clearly or at all?  This is the point where other people have to point these things out to us because we weren't paying attention before because it didn't seem important.  However, now that we know he may have murdered his wife and hauled her body out of the house in multiple suitcase trips in the deep dark of the morning, we care that he argued with his wife.

It is a considerable talent to be able to introduce bits of information like this that don't seem important at first - but whoa, is it ever a great feeling for the reader or the audience to recall such bits of information when the bigger stuff comes along.  It is a huge dopamine hit to solve riddles like this and a good mystery just loads that dopamine to the maximum.  Most writers, however, fail to realize that the big hit doesn't come from the big scary thing that makes the moment seem really exciting - it is remembering some tiny detail from before and going, "AHA!  Now I get it!"

Agatha Christie (and the platoon of crappy mystery writers who followed her) failed miserably at this, I felt.  Her novels (and most television mystery shows) are a walking parade of facts delivered with all the imagination and immersion of a chat room feed, pretty much like a check-list that the writer goes through to be sure that all the information is there.  And with Christie it never is; because she always withholds the one critical piece of information until the very last scene when Poirot or Marple gives the last important and absolutely critical piece of the puzzle a page before revealing the murderer.  She's famous for this, so famous that it's lampooned in Neil Simon's brilliant Murder by Death - which bitch-slaps a cavalcade of second-rate mystery novelists.  Of course if we had known that the murderer was also the ex-lover of the victim's sister who owed the victim $2,000,000, that might have told us who the murderer was.  This is just the reason that fact isn't revealed until the end.

Most DMs are not going to do as well as Agatha Christie, much less better . . . mostly because for most DMs literature with as many words as Christie uses is a distant planet that bears little similarity to the number of words spoken by Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back.  It is really hard to keep words in one's head; most DMs simply can't be bothered.

But it has to be understood, like taking the time to see a couple of Alfred Hitchcock movies, that there is absolutely zero chance of a DM creating a viable mystery framework for a campaign if they haven't any idea how even a bad mystery novel works.  But let's continue.

We have to address the problem of what details matter.  Moreover, we need more than a few.  We need lots - and the more we have (that ultimately come together to make sense), the better the mystery can be.  Of course, we have to be careful not to get so much information together that the final result is a bloody mess on the order of the recent Gone Girl, of which I could write a thesis on all the inconsistencies and irrational plot holes inherent in the goo that was finally cobbled together by what must have been a very tired and underpaid editor.  What we want are a lot of details that dovetail together, so that as each is revealed they steadily build a cohesive whole.

Returning to Rear Window.  During the salesman's trips with the suitcase, the rain is important - it tells us he's willing to suffer in order to get done whatever he's doing.  The time of night is important - if he took several trips in the middle of the day, that wouldn't seem strange enough to notice.  The dog poking at the flowers matters - which isn't explained until it is noticed there is something wrong with the flowers.  We watch the salesman clean his case and carefully replace all the jewelry samples - so we know he didn't go out to do a sale.  Why is he rolling up a saw in a newspaper?  Where is his wife?

Why didn't the salesman go to work?  Why has he avoided his wife's bedroom?  His wife is an invalid.  Why is a man who always dressed in a shirt and jacket now going out in his undershirt?  Now he's carrying a rope?  Why, oh why, is he using a rope to tie up a crate - as he checks and checks the ropes to make sure they're tight.  Where is his wife?

Now, there's a lot more going on with the film than that - there's how the protagonist knows this information, how he has the right job that gives him a handy telephoto lens and how his broken leg keeps him up at night and how he himself is arguing with his girlfriend, etcetera.  Signs of a consummately made film, because there isn't just one detail that adds up to the protagonist being ahead of everyone else but detail after detail after detail, hammered into the script with a very tiny hammer that doesn't leave big indents.

Writers are generally much lazier than this, preferring a good sledge to send the message that yes, John Wick knows how to use a gun.  With perfect aim.  Except when the target is covered with magic writer dust.

To get the mystery going it is necessary to pile up these details, one upon the other, until steadily the players are interested and they can easily spend half the session just going over what they've already been told - just as the protagonist obsesses in Rear Window.  Here's something that most DMs simply fail to grasp . . . that it is entirely possible to get the players so worked up with the mystery that it isn't necessary to give them any more information.  In fact, they'd really prefer if they could just sit for an hour or so, just like a character in a film, piecing it all together, making suppositions, proposing theories, knocking down other people's theories and having a great time doing it.  I mean, having a GREAT TIME.  I am tempted to put that into even larger letters . . . 

. . . because the DM often isn't getting anything out of it.  That doesn't describe me - I glory in getting a party going like this.  It's all candy and chocolates for me: I've done my job, I've got the party in the adventure and I can just sit back, drink my coffee and concentrate on not letting my face twitch or smile at some theory the party supposes (unless I want to fake a twitch at the wrong theory, which is wonderful and evil fun).

Like the marshmallow test, DMs can't wait.  The hardest thing about having created a mystery - particularly a really clever mystery - is keeping our mouths shut.  I relate well to this.  The last session, without intending to, I referred to a stairwell behind a door that the characters hadn't opened yet.  I felt bad about that.  I knew perfectly well about the stairs and it just slipped out.  That's how it can go with performance - if we're not on top of our presentation, a few words can reveal everything.

This is something that's particularly difficult with an RPG . . . and moreso with good things that you know are around the corner, because of the number of hours that we're sitting and running in a single session.  We get tired.

If the reader has ever been in a situation where they had to wait until the end of the week to fire someone, in some ways it is made easier because it's bad news that's being given.  Depending on the person being fired, too, it can be easier to wait.  But the players are our friends (I hope) and with something that's good in their future it is very hard to withhold that.  Pile on the understanding that there's going to be compliments and excitement when the mystery is solved - and like the marshmallow, waiting can grow aggravating.

Watching a group of players sitting at a table going around in a circle can, for some, become a sort of torture.  That marshmallow has to be eaten now - or else everyone is going to have to wait another week and the DM will have to keep that secret.  Some people have trouble keeping secrets.  Some people are DMs.

Nevertheless, the party obsessing time makes for a running of profound and memorable momentum - even if nothing actually happens.  As long as the players are talking excitedly and trying to solve it on their own, there's no reason for them to learn another detail.  Details are for when the party's gas begins to run out.

This brings us to the next important sequence in mystery solving in an RPG: travel.

This is why I can't write this post only about Rear Window; it is fine for explaining the clues but it doesn't have the necessary RPG element of exploration that's there in North by Northwest.  This latter is a beautiful RPG construction.  The party is surprised by a bunch of bad guys who inadvertently give out a bunch of important exposition (mystery details) before they're hacked to pieces or, like in the movie, they escape.  Next, they're running off to another venue where they witness a murder close up, only to be mistaken as the murderers, putting them on the run.  While fleeing an angry town, they meet another participant in the mystery who gives them no information but who nevertheless offers help . . . at least until putting the party in danger again in a way that promises to get them hacked to death in a cornfield in Illinois, er, Gondor.  Miraculously the party escapes, yet finds a way to trail the bad people to the Mountain of Many Faces where a thrilling hack and slash fest takes place on the nose of some unknown yet brilliant wizard from the dark past.

Along the way the party meets people who introduce themselves and who pass along more details that reveal more and more about what is going on.  There are a lot of RPG campaigns like this because they are somewhat easy to run.  At many places in North by Northwest the clues are given in exactly the heavy-handed way I described - taking note that up until that time it was very rare to have that kind of exposition at all.  Hitchcock had experimented with it in The Man Who Knew Too Much three years before and Graham Greene had been brilliantly experimenting with it in novels like The Third Man and more recently in 1958's Our Man in Havana.  I'm sure that Hitchcock had an overworked copy of the latter in his pocket while filming 1959's North by Northwest.  'Course, we see this sort of exposition done constantly in films now, usually badly but not always so.

One trap that a writer or DM can fall into is failing to realize that the confrontations in North by Northwest are far more interesting and profound than the fight scenes.  RPGs are all fight scenes.  Rarely does the party find it practical to engage in an argument with a DM's NPC because the dialogue usually goes like this:

Player: Tell us where the diamonds are.
DM: No.
Player: I warn you, tell us where the diamonds are or we'll kill you.

NPC draws weapon, fight starts.

Compare this to North by Northwest, where the villain and protagonist relate to each other like human beings who don't really expect answers from the other side:

Vandamm: Good evening Mr. Kaplan.
Thornhill: Before we start calling each other names, perhaps you better tell me yours.  I haven't had the pleasure.
Vandamm: You disappoint me, Sir.
Thornhill:  I was just going to say that to her (the traitress sitting on Vandamm's right)
Vandamm:  I judged you were a pretty shrewd fellow on the job. What possessed you to come blundering in here like this?  Could it be an overpowering interest in art?
Thornhill: Yes, the art of survival.

Now, the reader may find these words a little flowery, a little too cute, but that isn't the point.  Note how the villain actually cares what the protagonist thinks and about his motives?  DMs don't do that because they already know a player's motives - and they don't think to go there.  Note how Vandamm doesn't just say no, he mocks the good guy; and the good guy, in turn, mocks him back.

This kind of dialogue can go farther and has the benefit of potentially letting the player learn something without having to actually fight.  Moreover, as in the film, the dialogue happens in a public place where either side would have to be stupid to make a scene.  Players often don't understand this because DMs nearly always put the bad guy in some high tower or behind fifty guards so that the meeting can take place in private.  Private is the worst place to build momentum and curiosity.  That's why film directors set discussions at the race track, in the busy street, in the middle of a festival and so on - because all around there are other things that are happening and there is a potential for witnessing something new that will change the stakes.

In a mystery it is less important that the DM use the NPC as a combative obstacle than as an information dispensing machine.  Why shouldn't the NPC say where the diamonds are?  Aren't the diamonds protected, or in someone's care, or in a place where they can't be gotten, or not real or any of a hundred other possibilities that make the scene far more interesting with new information to give than just another combat?  It is nice when both can happen but letting the players get the information they want easily and directly is like throwing a curve ball.

The easier the information is received, the less likely the players will be to believe it.  They've been trained to think good information is HARD to get and lies are easy to get.  All the more reason not to lie.  Heard of Poe's The Purloined Letter?  Better read that one too.

It is important to have some notion of how others will want to communicate information to the party and it is always of the greatest importance to remember that our purpose as a DM is to GIVE, not withhold.  Withholding information strangles the campaign and bores the player as there is nothing new to think about.  We can't think very long about the last combat we had but we can spend a week thinking about what might be in the letter being used by a government official to blackmail a prostitute - because this is the way our brains work.  A mystery is something where we have enough information to imagine a solution even if we don't actually know what the solution is.  It inspires us to be creative - even people who are not ordinarily creative.  It inspires us because we want to know.

This brings us - finally - to the reveal.  How is it handled?

Take our two prime examples.  In North by Northwest, Thornhill learns the truth about the situation because someone else tells him - and then he steps forward to solve the problem even though he has been given a way out. He goes back after he could walk away, because he can't walk away.  This isn't going to work very well for a typical RPG campaign, since the players are always up for it and aren't looking for a way out.  However, it could be reworked that after knowing what's going to happen, the players gird up and get ready to get nasty - and this is very much the standard expectation for games.

In Rear Window, the final solution is a marvelous two-way reveal: not only does the protagonist Jeffries finally establish that the salesman really is a killer, the salesman simultaneously discovers that Jeffries knows and turns the table by coming to kill Jeffries.  This hardly ever happens in an RPG campaign.  The big bad, like in a video game, conveniently waits there for the party to return to town, heal up, then come back for the last push.  I like really intelligent villains because there's always the chance that in the last moment the big bad will abandon the lair and come into the town to lay waste there - coming after the players, forcing them to defend themselves rather than being the attackers.

This turnabout is very common in books and films.  Spats is right behind the 'girls' in Some Like it Hot, Grocer and the agents trap Blank in the house in Gross Pointe Blank, the Rustlers kill Wil Andersen (John Wayne) in The Cowboys, Caesar keeps getting the drop again and again on Violet and Corky in Bound and the Bolivians finally end it all for Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid (only two characters but it is still a TPK).  Oh, and it's Thornhill and Eve Kendall that are running away when Leonard traps them against the Rushmore Monument in North by Northwest.

Each involves mystery elements that eventually force a confrontation - but in every case, on the antagonists' instigation.  Yes, the protagonists do things that make them viable candidates for getting attacked - but what player party in a game doesn't?

It is better when the reveal doesn't give the players an advantage.  It's all nice for television when Poirot can call the police and name the killer without having to get his hands dirty - but it's a really bad formula for RPGs.  If at all possible, however, the reveal should just be enough information to bring the players up to speed and nothing more.  It makes them viable.  It doesn't - and shouldn't - guarantee them the win.

I trust this has been in some way helpful.  The players shouldn't be put into a situation where they're trying to figure out what the DM is thinking because the DM is pouring knowledge all over the players like syrup over pancakes. The game then becomes, how does all this information fit together?  Nor should the players be in this mess of "Where did we forget to look?"  This, too, is a trope that is intended to withhold information (video game thinking); telling the players where to look does nothing to damage the game's momentum, it increases it . . . for as the players rush to go look in the next place, they have adventures and more fun getting there and piecing together the problem than they would ever have trying to name the brick in the room they didn't search behind.

Another point that I hadn't addressed is the problem of the DM putting the next clue in the next place the player's look, making them feel like they're on a railroad.  The solution to this is to make it clear that there is going to be a 'clue' in every place the players look, yes - but not all of those clues will be important to the mystery.  This is the red herring theory.  Embrace it.

That's going to be it.  If I think of something else or if something needs clarification, I'll manage it in the comments below.

As of today I have 20 days before I have to abandon my home.  As I said, I got a big donation - and more than just one donation, as I have had others step forward as well - and it really is going to help terrifically.  It feels like I might find a way to rustle up my rent by the end of the month.  The clouds broke  and let some sun in.  I want to emphasize that it only takes a very small donation from many people to pull me out of this tailspin.  Please consider making a $25 donation to my Jumpstarter campaign, using the donate button near the top of the sidebar.

Donations to date have been $1,758.


Maxwell Joslyn said...


Maxwell Joslyn said...

I meant the "Congratulations" to be on the 2000 posts post. Sorry.

As for this post: I'm gonna go hunt the movies down and watch them since I never have, so I can read this. Thanks for giving me some homework :)

Silberman said...

Thanks for writing this Alexis. It's got plenty of immediately-applicable ideas and, seeing as I'm a huge Hitchcock fan, the detailed movie analyses really work for me.

I especially like the point about preempting the confrontation with the villain by bringing the fight to the players instead.

I suppose another advantage the DM has over the author in plotting a mystery is that if, while scratching their heads, the players come up with a novel theory that leaves me saying, "Damn! I wish I'd thought of that," I can shift gears and incorporate elements of their brainstorming into the solution, albeit at the risk of screwing things up if I'm not careful about it.

LTW said...

Excellent Post