Systems for Investigative RPGs

One of the things for which I’m always on the lookout is new and interesting RPG systems.  Especially when these RPG systems have free basic rules or open systems.  That way I get to take a closer look at them before investing a lot of time and money into a system that I don’t know if I’ll enjoy or not.

A lot of RPG systems spend a lot of time focusing on combat.  Don’t get me wrong, I love combat.  It’s exciting!  Trying to strategize, work as a team, sneak up on an enemy, deliver massive amounts of damage.  Those are all loads of fun.  But, what if you really want to play a session or campaign designed around puzzles, mysteries, and investigation?

So far, I’ve run across a couple of systems that deal with these Sherlock Holmes-esque games in interesting ways:

I’ve enjoyed how Cypher System tends to have a nice balance between combat and social skills, but it still seems more combat-focused.  Plus CS isn’t an open system, though they do offer free previews and inexpensive PDF downloads for a quick look at how it works.

I’ve also gotten to play Call of Cthulhu (based on the Basic Roleplaying system from Chaosium), which has a set of free basic rules, adventures, and character sheets to get you started.  CoC tends to focus more on being ordinary human beings, but with some training or skills in various areas (fighting, research, library use, flying/driving, mythology, archaeology, anthropology, science, etc.).  I enjoyed how we weren’t half men, half gods.  I love D&D, but sometimes it feels like we’re so much more than just adventurers.  In CoC, you play investigators.  Ordinary, everyday people.  And there’s plenty of investigation and looking for clues, talking with people, gathering evidence, and trying to track down the evildoers.  I really like C0C for investigative gameplay.  And because it deals with the Cthulhu mythos, it also includes rules for the mental game.  Sanity points.  Will you lose your mind as you discover the horrors of H.P. Lovecraft’s imagination?  This system is, at least partially, designed for these styles of horror games.  And it works out beautifully. But it can be implemented with plenty of other game styles, as well.  It’s also a difficult game.  If you can’t find the clues, how can you move forward?  And this game requires the investigators to uncover the clues before moving forward, or else you’re basically stuck until you do.  But, that’s a fairly realistic aspect to CoC.  It also handles damage during fights or combat, and the damage is significant.  Taking a bullet hurts.  It doesn’t take that much to kill you in this system, so you need to be cautious.

I also just ran across another RPG system that’s geared toward investigation called GUMSHOE.  I actually stumbled onto GUMSHOE by noticing an adventure for the Trail of Cthulu RPG, which runs on GUMSHOE.  I love the idea of investigating and solving mysteries/puzzles.  But, it really sucks when you have no idea how to move forward because you missed that one really important clue.  With GUMSHOE, if you end up heading to the right spot or looking in the right location, they assume that you know how to find things.  How to search a room.  How to read a book.  How to check a phone for call logs.  Etc., etc., etc…. And so, if you end up in the right spot or do the right thing, the system assumes you find the items you were looking for.  It keeps the story moving forward.  No more failed skill rolls while searching for clues.  As they mention right in the GUMSHOE rules, failing to find a clue rarely ever results in something interesting happening.  It simply frustrates the players.  GUMSHOE avoids that situation entirely.  There are still plenty of other areas to fail, so the system doesn’t just hand you everything on a silver platter.  But it caters to storytelling.  Since the basic ruleset is free and open (CC and OGL versions are available here), it’s definitely worth taking a look to see if it intrigues you enough to try a session or two.  If you use GUMSHOE, you will need to create all of your own materials, as it’s only a ruleset, not a campaign setting.  But, then you can apply these rules to any setting you want.  Be it adventuring in an Indiana Jones-style world, a CSI investigation, or any other setting you want, it should help facilitate all of the social, mental, and physical aspects you might need.  If you want to try it out without creating everything on your own, check out the other RPGs that run on GUMSHOE to see if they appeal to you.

A few others I ran across during my research, but have not had any experience with yet are:

  • Ghostories (supernatural/paranormal) or Mean Streets (film noir) are both based on the same genreDiversion i 2d6 ruleset
  • GURPS Mysteries works in tandem with the GURPS system to facilitate investigative stories/games.
  • Justice, Inc., which works on the HERO system, if you can find it (published in 1984), or Pulp Hero which superseded it.  (film noir, ’20’s/’30’s detectives)
  • Top Secret/SI, created by TSR of D&D fame (spy/espionage)

I’m sure there are many others out there, but those are the ones I ran across.  There are also variations or adventures built for RPG’s that add rules for investigation.  You can find these for D&D, Pathfinder, Savage Worlds, Fate, etc.

Lastly, you can use just about any system to construct an investigative scenario, session, or campaign.  Even D&D or Pathfinder.  The best advice for doing so is to follow the Three Clue Rule, as outlined here.  (On a side note, I’ve found The Alexandrian blog to be extremely helpful with regards to various RPG systems, adventures, and DM’ing advice.  I’ve even referenced them before in my Numenera/The Strange adventure reviews.)  Don’t forget, you can also pull rule bits from various other systems and implement them as house rules, too.  Don’t be afraid to customize things a bit.  Unless you’re running official organized play, there’s nothing stopping you from doing this.

Hopefully this helps point some of you in a good direction for playing or creating investigative RPGs.  If you have any other suggestions for systems or advice, feel free to let me know in the comments!


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