Friday, December 29, 2017

Advanced GMing stuff: Getting Cozy

One of the most fun things in games, but one of the things it's most difficult to give solid advice about, is campaign-specific, slow-burn plot twists. Like: Leia is Luke's sister in Jedi.

Game products and game bloggers thrive on modular ideas that can be plugged into any old game with specific characteristics (You got a desert? I got a scorpion cult! etc). But in order to get a really good, really slow-twist you have to know that specific campaign really well.

So the best you can do is dance around it, but I'm gonna dance around this one: The Cozy.
i don't know who drew this

The Cozy

The Cozy is--, in murder-fiction lingo, the counterpart of the hard-boiled detective story. Murder She Wrote, Agatha Christie, etc Typically:

  • It happens in an isolated, pleasant community instead of in a city.
  • The murder isn't a part of a larger theme of corruption, it's some specific old grudge.
  • The tone is light.
  • Not a lot of action.
  • Lots of ladies, often elderly, often kicking ass.
  • Tone is light, not a lot of sex and violence.
  • Bringing the suspect in is largely a matter of puzzle-solving.
  • A relatively clear list of suspects, like in Clue.
  • All of them are interesting, eccentric people, many friendly and pleasant.
The last three are the ones I want to focus on here as essential: the action of figuring out whodunit from a list of suspects. The rest is relatively easy to do (or not do) in any game.

Properly done, this can destabilize your campaign worse than Death Frost Doom or Broodmother Sky Fortress.

While there is no doubt at this moment a child being born who will stitch together a hyperfocused cozy-specific one-shot system, I am more interested in the cozy murder as an emergent revelation late in your game. OSR-style, this isn't about reproducing a story in which a cozy murder happens, it's about reproducing what a cozy murder and subsequent investigation would be like from the pov of the characters.

That is: you play for months or years, the players get truly comfortable and cozy and then, all of a sudden, a murder. And this brings on a revelation in the campaign.


The first thing you need, which requires mostly patience, is at least 4 NPCs. You don't need or want to create them all at once.

These need to be long-running NPCs that are organically in the campaign. There will inevitably be some, but this is easier in systems where friendly NPCs are part of the mechanics of the game, like FASERIP or Night's Black Agents (or Demon City, which made me think to write this post)--my years-long D&D game has maybe 2 at the moment, going on the your NPCs suck and are going to die principle. 

They have to be NPCs that the players remember. 

If you don't have four yet, you'll have to slowly introduce them over the course of several sessions. This may take time. How? I cannot tell you that, that's why this is 'Advanced GM Shit' it depends on where your campaign is at.

Second thing is: one of them is a victim. Now this doesn't necessarily mean you have to off them, it could just mean that they have to be the victim of something, it could just be someone clearly threatening to murder them, like sending messages, etc.  

They do have to be an NPC that you could let die if the PCs don't do something. Unlike the step above, this is easier in systems where friendly NPCs aren't part of the mechanics of the game--because then you're not taking away a resource a player "paid" for. In that case the NPC definitely needs to be threatened rather than outright dead.

Third thing is: another one of them is the murderer. Just as the victim needs to be someone the campaign could do without, this needs to be someone you could see being bad (or, conversely, it turns out the victim was bad). 

They do not have to obviously be related right now.

Fourth thing is: seed the grudge into the game. You may not even have to--it may already be in there. Players tend to disregard the inner lives and desires of NPCs--all you need is a reason for one to dislike the other. A competition for someone's affection (a PC?), an opportunity lost to a rival, a potential opportunity snatched away, whatever.

Seed the grudge during a session about a different thing, long before the players even expect a murder coming on. This is advanced GM stuff--it requires patience.

The more the grudge relates to a revelation about past events in the campaign, the better. Like if you find out the tavern where the PCs kept getting hired was secretly feeding secrets to the evil lichpriest all along.

Fifth thing:
 give all the non-victim NPCs plausible motives for murder and reasons to act suspicious. Give them things they want to do and don't want anyone else to know about, give them reasons to mistrust the PC investigators.

Sixth thing: isolate the suspects and victim. Create a situation where only the 4 NPC suspects--or the suspects and PCs--are present. You know the kind of thing: a quiet island, a dinner party, a wedding, whatever. All the NPCs--possibly from disparate backgrounds--will need to be there, it may be the first time they every appear in the same place at the same time.

Magic and superpowers make this a little hinky--there are ways to kill people from across a continent. If your campaign has these features, find a psychic or wizard who can assure PCs that the killer is in this room. Or something.

The dense social atmosphere and the contained nature of the problem are what distinguish the cozy from the typical noir murder--once the murderer could be any number of unknown people then you've created a much more open-ended problem which requires more procedural solutions to identify and eliminate suspects. By guaranteeing the murderer is someone on the island, you clearly cut the players' work out for them.

Last thing: enact the crime and give the players a reason to solve it. The reason can be that they are the prime suspects otherwise.

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