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The Inquiry System

We've always intend Canterbury Games Studio to be more than FATE worlds, no matter how fun they are to write. So even though we are gearing up for a new FATE related kickstarter I thought I would share bits of a new project. The Inquiry system, is an RPG system based around social investigation. I asked our chief designer on the project to summarise the project and its thinking.

The Inquiry System

Investigation mechanics in RPGs are nothing new, but it is something that usually has to take a back seat, especially in the more action focused games. The Inquiry System has been designed to change that focus and address a few questions about how best to deal with more complex elements of crime solving in an Agatha Christe style ‘whodunnit’.

If a GM wants to include investigation elements to a normal game it is usually simple enough, by employing observation and communication type skills, but it often boils down to a very linear set of moments. The crime scene gives a clue to send you to one person, or if you miss the clue there you hunt around until something else points you to them. Then they send you to the next person or, if you fail skill checks interacting with them, find another way to get sent to the following link. Then, when you’re done fumbling along the trail of breadcrumbs, you find the villain and your final dramatic action sequence can commence.

While part of this problem is that non-linear storylines are more work and less intuitive to put in, especially if this is only for a small part of the game, the nature of skills that can fail don’t work well for investigating. As the picture of what’s happening needs lots of little clues to build up, if you fail to get these clues then you can end up getting very stuck looping round until you find a test you can pass that gives you the same info you could have had ages ago if it weren’t for a bad roll. This can cause each step to become a bit of a trudge and make the linear nature feel all the more prevalent.

So, how best to tackle this problem?

The answer that most of you are probably familiar with, at least if you’re interested in investigation RPGs, will be the one provided by Gumshoe. In this system there are a set of skills that the group require to have between them that simply provide the information you need when you arrive at wherever it can be found. While you can pick up additional information by use of rolls, the key steps in your investigation are a guarantee. It’s an elegant way to deal with the problem, but what if you still want to work for that answer?

This is where the Inquiry System comes in...

Each player has a set of skills (currently six in play testing) that cover the necessary interactions and ways to acquire information. They have a level of focus in each which represents how much effort/persistence/time they’re able to put into getting the answers they can get from the skill.

Each person they deal with will have an inscrutability. This is the difficulty of tests made against them. This will be several dice (often of different denominations) which the player will roll. If the sum of the rolled dice is higher than the player’s skill then they fail and loose 1 focus. If it’s lower than their skill they can choose to either spend as much focus as was rolled to succeed or to fail at no cost.

As with all good mysteries, the NPCs (at least all potential suspects) will be quite inscrutable. This means that to get answers will either use up a large amount of players’ focus or they will have to accept that, for now, they aren’t able to get the answers they want.

This leads us to leverage. To get to the bottom of what is happening, players are going to have to find ways to get people to be a little more open with them. This could mean finding out secrets of theirs, evidence of a hole in their alibi or earning their trust. By coming back to them with some leverage, players will change the inscrutability of the NPC. This means the dice will be easier to roll low with and make dealing with the NPC easier. This process can be repeated and, as the investigation goes on and more is learnt about what is happening, it should be natural to find ways to apply leverage to those you need to talk to.

The players know who to talk to at the start and rather than having to hunt for new sources of steps each time they fail a test, they only need to keep understanding the case and learning more. As their focus is a limited resource though, they will have to decide just how far they can lean on people before having to make an effort to just get answers in order to move on in the investigation.

While each character has skills and will be engaging in tests that can fail, there are a few principles that make this a little different. Firstly, failure never provides false information. You either know what you want or know that you couldn’t work it out. Secondly, you can always come back and retry your interactions as soon as you have one or more pieces of leverage to apply. Any number of players can try a test, but it must be declared before and not one at a time.

There are more subtleties to the system, but these are the the broad way in which the system tries to address the problems that can come from investigation games.