By Jessica Hammer
For the past twelve years, my partner and I have been exploring play techniques in our one-on-one games. These one-on-one games are a terrific laboratory for experimentation and practice. Here’s why:
- Permission to innovate. It’s easier to get buy-in to try something new when there are only two opinions to take into account. It also takes much less time and mental energy to change the formal or informal rules of the game when only two players have to get up to speed.
- Game focus. With two players, there’s no such thing as being in the back seat. You’re always in the spotlight, so you get more active practice per game session.
- Short feedback cycles. The more players you have, the harder it is to schedule a session. My partner and I play every day, even if it’s only for ten or fifteen minutes. That means we very quickly find out whether what we’re doing is effective and fun.
Today I’d like to share one technique that we use regularly in our one-on-one play and show how you can apply it in a larger group.
I call this technique “Anomaly Finding.” It helps deepen no- or low-prep investigation plots by turning the clue generation process into a brief improvisational game. You can use it just once if you’re stuck on creating a clue, or use it repeatedly to manage an entire investigation.
Anomaly Finding, One-on-One
In a one-on-one game, this technique requires two roles: an investigator and a responder. It assumes that both participants want the investigator to discover a clue, but that simply handing the investigator the clue is not much fun for either party. Instead of creating interest around whether the investigator will uncover a clue, this technique allows both investigator and responder to play with what the clue will be.
The investigator role is taken by a player whose character who is trying to find something out. That player should begin by naming what they are trying to discover. This initiates the investigative interaction.
The dangerous rogue Sasha has gotten hold of a nuclear weapon. Jessica’s character Nicole is attempting to track the weapon down. Jessica says, “Nicole wants to figure out where the weapon is being kept.” This statement frames the investigation.
Next, the investigator asks a question of the responder. This question constrains the type of clue being created; by definition, there will be a clue in the answer to the question, even if neither player yet knows what the clue is. The question must allow for at least three different responses, and must be different from the thing the player is trying to discover.
Jessica asks, “Who are Sasha’s three closest allies?” This means that something about Sasha’s allies will lead Nicole to the weapon’s location.
The responder then creates three responses. Each should be brief (no more than one sentence) and clearly distinguish itself from the other two. An easy way to do this is to come up with two underlying concepts. One choice is has a lot of concept A and not much concept B; the second is the reverse; the third has some of each. The investigator can even help choose the concepts if the responder is having trouble!
Chris responds, “Mikhail, a prominent lawyer, is Sasha’s oldest friend. The data pirate Naya shared a jail cell with Sasha for six months. Bix and Sasha have never met in person, but the two recently collaborated to drive a rival arms dealer out of business.”
The two axes here are ‘personal closeness’ and ‘degree of criminal involvement.’ Mikhail has no obvious criminal involvement, but is a close personal confidante of Sasha. Bix has no personal relationship with Sasha (at least on the surface!) but has a highly relevant criminal connection. Naya has both a personal and a criminal connection, but the former is not as strong as Mikhail’s personal connection and the latter is not as relevant as Bix’s criminal connection.
Finally, the investigator identifies an anomaly in one of the three answers. Usually this will mean explaining what about the answer is surprising. This anomaly is the clue – and it points toward the next scene of the game.
Jessica says, “It’s strange that Mikhail and Sasha have remained friends, when she’s actively cut ties with everyone else she knew from her former life. He’s the anomaly.” Mikhail is now a clue to the location of the bomb. The next scene will explore Mikhail’s relationship with Sasha in some way that advances the investigation.
Anomaly Finding in Groups
When using this technique with a group of more than two players, it is important to make sure that some players don’t end up twiddling their thumbs while others do all the clue generation. The players who participate end up defining a lot of things about the investigation and the game world, and all players should have the opportunity to do that.
Here are three ways your group can adapt this technique:
- Take turns. Have each player take a turn at being the investigator. Each player’s question should follow from the scene framed by the previous investigator. The investigation does not resolve until every player has had a turn.
- The group as investigator. Let all players whose characters are involved in the investigation decide, together, what question to ask. After the responder offers choices, the investigating players must agree on which one is the anomaly.
- Distribute responses. When one player asks an investigating question, every other player gets to make up one response. The investigator then chooses which response is the anomalous one. The player who invented that response frames the next scene.
Tips and Tricks
Investigators should practice coming up with good questions. A good question is a factual question that has multiple possible answers. “What three unusual objects are in this person’s house?” This can include social facts, such as “What are the three most common rumors about the lost city?” If you get stuck, try creating a question that relates to a skill your character has. For example, if your character has police connections, you might ask about three unsolved crimes that relate to the one your character is investigating now.
Avoid questions that relate too closely to the investigative goal. For example, if you’re trying to find the bandits’ secret hideout, don’t ask “In what three places have the bandits been seen lately?” Also, stick to questions you can imagine your character answering. For example, unless your character is a telepath, it’s probably best not to ask about a person’s deepest inner motivations. If the responder asks you to try a different question, don’t take it personally. No matter what question you end up asking, you’ll end up with a fun clue that you helped create!
Responders, don’t over-think your answers. It’s much more important to give the investigator concrete choices than creative ones. In fact, a simple answer is often the best kind, because it leaves the investigator room to decide what an interesting anomaly might be. If you’re too specific with your answers, the investigator won’t get a chance to build on what you invented. You can always get deeper into the chosen answer in the ensuing scene.
Also, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Other group members – even the investigator! – can help you come up with underlying axes for your three answers, or can suggest answers for you to include. If you’re having real trouble with a question, you can always ask the investigator to try asking something different. Just remember that once the investigator has picked an answer, the anomaly they identify must be true in the game’s fiction, and must lead them to a clue.
As your group practices Anomaly Finding, the roles of investigator and responder will become more fluid. The investigator might suggest responses, and the responder might help identify the anomaly. You might chain together multiple Anomaly Finding games before you run a scene, or use it outside a strictly investigative context. (“Who are the three most dangerous people at this party?”)
Another advanced technique is to reincorporate non-anomalous answers later in play. For example, Nicole might have to go to Bix for weaponry later in the Sasha investigation. If you jot down a few key words from each answer, you’ll be able to jog your memory with them later on. The opposite technique also works well – use existing game elements as answers. Naya is an even more effective choice if she has stolen data from the investigating characters before.