Investigative Abilities as Scenario Springboards

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

There is no one way to construct a mystery scenario. Accordingly, the GUMSHOE line presents various possible structures. These we key either to a genre (as in Ashen Stars) or a specific campaign implementation (such as The Armitage Files.)

Here’s another way to do it, one that recognizes that character sheets operate as order forms, informing you of the sorts of obstacles the players most want to see their investigators overcome.

Start by referring to your Investigative Ability Worksheet. If you haven’t done so already, circle the investigative abilities the players have rated at more than one point.

To grab the worksheet from my recent Ashen Stars series, I see that the players have placed a high value on the following abilities:

Player Character Abilities
Chris Hk-Ck Intimidation, Forensic Anthropology
Justin Mug Church History (Human), Flattery, Impersonate, Reassurance, Astronomy
Rob Le Cuisinier Cybe Culture, Bullshit Detector, Inspiration, Bio Signatures
Paul Kabius Forensic Engineering, Industrial Design
Corey Puvad Anthropology, Forensic Psychology, History (Combine),  Respect

Although you could theoretically start with the abilities and generate a plot springboard from there, it’s much easier to start with a premise and then weave the major scenes around the abilities.

For our example springboard, I’m going to jump off from a recent pop science article. It indicates that the blackouts associated from binge drinking are not caused, as has long been assumed, when alcohol kills brain cells. Instead, it temporarily suppresses some of the receptors used in memory formation.

If alcohol can suppress memory formation receptors, then presumably fantastic space opera technology could do the same. This thought inspires a scenario premise: the lasers are hired by a victim of induced amnesia to find out who suppressed his memories during a crucial period, and to bring to justice any criminal wrongdoers who victimized him in the process. Let’s decide that the victim-slash-patron offering the contract is a cybe courier named, literally enough, Messenger. Famed through the Bleed for his high-priced professionalism, Messenger has bigcreds to spend—and much to lose if his missing package is not safely and confidentially delivered to his clients. Because who would steal the memories of a courier, if not to cover up the theft of a package?

Now we consult the list of abilities above. We want to create at least one scene per character, in which one of the listed abilities provides a core clue. Ideally the five abilities we select will spread more or less evenly between the three investigative categories: Academic, Interpersonal, and Technical. This provides a variety of action, as characters solve key problems by knowing facts, talking to people, and performing practical actions.

Paul, who plays the ship’s wrench (engineer) has emphasized appropriately techy abilities. He’ll move the story forward by doing what engineers do in space opera: figuring out a futuristic device. That tells us that one scene will revolve around his Forensic Engineering. The stolen item must be a piece of tech, or the plans for same. In one scene, the crew will then find it. Figuring it out will serve as a core clue, leading them to the next sequence. Let’s label this as follows:

Studying the Package (Paul, Kabius, Forensic Engineering)

Analysis of the item could lead to a likely purchaser. Impersonate, a key ability for Justin, might get that suspected purchaser to admit that they’re awaiting the purloined package, wrapping up the mystery and leading to the action-oriented apprehension sequence that concludes the scenario. You assume that Mug poses as the as-yet-undefined industrial spy, but leave open the possibility that Justin and group think of an equally plausible and entertaining way to do this.

A Damning Admission (Justin, Mug, Impersonate)

Now we have what will likely be our final two sequences. They imply that the group has already captured, or at least identified, the spy who stole the Messenger’s memory and package. So we’d better slot in a scene that leads them to him.

Let’s kill two birds with one stone and get an Academic ability into the mix. Messenger is a cybe, as is Le Cuisinier. If we play that up, we can add a third bird—possible character development for Rob’s PC. So his Cybe Culture ability ought to come into play here. Cybe Culture reveals that subtle adornments worn by Messenger identify him as a practitioner of 3rdGender, a sexual activity accomplished not through biological contact but via electrical connections. If Messenger got close enough to someone to be dosed with a memory suppression cocktail, it might have been through such an assignation. From there it’s an easy step to discover that CrossWired, a club catering to 3rdGender enthusiasts operates on the space station where Messenger woke up sans memory and package.

3rdGender (Rob, Le Cuisinier, Cybe Culture)

Members of a subculture are notoriously resistant to outside inquiries. Once at CrossWired, Puvad might use his Respect ability to show that the team deserves to be trusted and will bring thirders to no ill repute. This prompts a witness to confirm that Messenger was at the club with another unfamiliar individual, and that they he overcame Messenger’s initial resistance to leave wired together. Thirders hate users: people who exploit the subculture for outside gain. Once the owner  concludes that the unknown suspect was a user, he hands over security tape providing a clear image of the suspect.

CrossWired (Corey, Puvad, Respect)

That leaves us with one character to cover the jump from a picture of the suspect to having the suspect in custody. We don’t have anything for Chris yet. Ideally, we would connect the dots with  a Academic or Technical ability, as we’ve already used Interpersonal twice. On the other hand, simplicity is a virtue in mystery plotting, and it’s hard to see, given what we’ve established already, would lead to the examination of a corpse, and from there to finding the spy. With Forensic Anthropology too much of a stretch, that leaves us with Intimidation. Fortunately, this is an ability Chris enjoys playing, so we’re sacrificing neatness for entertainment value.

When the PCs show the photo around, perhaps at the spaceport, a witness visibly blanches when he sees it. Intimidation gets him to reveal the suspect’s location, which he’s been paid off to conceal. The lasers can then roust the suspect, who proves to be Djimon Metal, wanted for treason after allegedly working for the Mohilar during the war. The Bogey Conundrum prevents all such cases from being prosecuted, but this fresh crime places him in the legal crosshairs again. He surrenders the package but insists, in what Bullshit Detector reveals to be a truthful statement, that he doesn’t know who the end recipient is. He’s been awaiting contact. Now he thinks the buyer has been tipped to the team’s investigation and gone to ground.

Djimon Metal’s Photo (Chris, Hk-Ck, Intimidation)

Ordered chronologically, your scenario spine looks like this:

  • Messenger’s Lost Evening (Opener)
  • CrossWired (Corey, Puvad, Respect)
  • 3rdGender (Rob, Le Cuisinier, Cybe Culture)
  • Djimon Metal’s Photo (Chris, Hk-Ck, Intimidation)
  • Studying the Package (Paul, Kabius, Forensic Engineering)
  • A Damning Admission (Justin, Mug, Impersonate)

You can then flesh this out, advance or on the fly, with antagonist reactions, alternate scenes, and an action conclusion, as you would with any other spine.

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