Burn Everything Gaming

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Custom Mystery Setting

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So today I thought I’d try something different. I’ve been working on a mystery one-shot (which can be found here) set in the early 60’s where the player characters have to solve the murder of a Private Investigator that was employing them. And since I think best by typing out my thoughts, I figured I might as well post about it.

Why Make A New System For A One-Shot Game?

Making a new system involves a lot of work, so why do all that work to invest in just a one-shot adventure? Well I’m sure some part of me is secretly hoping to expand the system into a new campaign eventually, but the real reason I want to build a new system is because the perfect system for the game I want to run does not exist.

I hope that doesn’t sound too crazy. Sure there are a LOT of good systems out there, and some of them are geared towards a good mystery game. But none of them are exactly what I am looking for. Gumshoe just does not cater well to one-shots in my experience, especially when you don’t have a lot of players. And Dresden is much more focused on supernatural mystery, which is something I wanted to avoid with this adventure.

So What Am I Looking For?

Don’t get me wrong. I love the Dresden Files Setting. And if Evil Hat Games ever puts out the Paranet Papers expansion book they have been promising for years (not bitter), I will definitely be spending my moneys on it! But I have a hard time running a good mystery when there are monsters and magic involved because I tend to default on the excuse “so a monster did it” or “they used magic” to solve the mystery.

So I figured if I can do a FATE setting without magic, it would help me learn some basics of actual mystery solving. That’s the theory anyway. Of course when I Google search anything with FATE Mystery or FATE Noir, I get nothing. Hence the do-it-yourself (DIY) approach.

The other thing I am hoping to do without, and again so that I can overcome some of my own personal weaknesses as a GM, is the Physical Stress scale. If I don’t default to monsters and magic, I default to physical combat. You probably picked that up a bit in the Dresden podcast. It’s an easy thing to fall back on: physical combat has obvious goals, and most everyone knows what their character can do in a fight.

So is it possible to make a FATE Core Mystery setting without physical stress or magic or monsters or any technology that didn’t really exist in the 60’s? Yes it is, even if I don’t succeed in my attempts.

Coming Up With Skills

Many times when I am coming up with skills, I take the base skills of FATE Core as a starting point and decide what I need to keep or change or add or get rid of. This time I decided to do something different and grow the skills from the basic trappings that every game needs. Trappings, for those of you not familiar with older FATE game lingo, are just the things your skill can do. For example Athletics would have the trappings of dodging attacks.

So basically every FATE game requires the following trappings for skills: stress capacity, inflict stress, avoid stress, examine, and interaction. Since stress covers most of those trappings, why not start by deciding what sort of stress bars I want to have in the game. Since Physical stress is out, I figure Social and Mental are good places to start.

Stress-Related Skills

For the mystery I have in mind, I figured Reputation is a good skill for Social stress capacity because when you take social consequences, they reflect that people (like the police) think that your character is the murderer! Thus the lower your Reputation is, the more quickly they will accept such a conclusion.

Mental stress should probably still be determined by Will. I like the idea that mental consequences reflect a lack of confidence in yourself or an inability to think straight, and Will should be able to help you push through that. I do not often see Will used as a defensive skill, but I think that it could cover avoiding mental stress if an NPC is invoking a consequence, and that makes sense for Reputation as well with social defense.

Primarily, however, I want stress to be avoided by success. In other words, if a player finds a clue while searching the crime scene then they succeed in that skill check. But if they fail the attempt, they take stress to their confidence based on how badly they missed the target number. My hope is that this will really push the player characters to work hard at their strengths and not roll half-hazardly for every skill check just to see if they get lucky but take no penalties for failure. I really like this idea, so I hope it works out well.

The only other skills dealing with stress are the ones that players can use to inflict stress. Just having one Provoke skill to cover all social and mental attacks makes no sense in this type of setting, so I figure I will give the players more options on how they want to inflict stress. Let’s add Intimidate and Argue to the mix, since these are probably how the players will probably be ‘attacking’ people.

Examination and Interaction Skills

I suppose the attack skills could be considered interaction skills, but I certainly don’t want to limit my game to confrontation. Players need ways to interact with NPCs and objects without being harmful or malicious.

For NPCs, I would say a Charm skill would be good for making friends while an Empathy skill would allow players to get a passive read on NPCs. Perhaps an Allies skill would also allow players to establish NPCs as preexisting contacts that are already wanting to be helpful.

For objects and environments, I imagine that examination and interaction should be covered by the same skill. So maybe an Artistry skill to appreciate and even create art and appraise valuables, a Sleuth skill to determine what might be a clue at a crime scene and what its significance is, and a Detect skill to give you a chance to notice something that you are not actually looking for.

So far this gives us 11 skills.

Non-essential Trappings

There are other trappings that you can use skills for that are not really necessary to the mechanics of a game but add a lot of flavor to the style you are going for: movement, avoiding interaction, expertise, resources, and manipulating the environment. For me some of these are not necessary for a mystery game, especially one that does not focus on physical conflict. But with only 11 skills so far, I think it makes sense to add some flavor options.

Really now that I look at Artistry, it seems like more of an expertise or resource skill that happens to have an interactive trapping, but I’m ok with that so I will keep it on the list. I’d also like to add a Pocketing as a useful skill for someone that wants to pick pocket or secure some evidence before the police notice them. I don’t think a full Burglary skill is necessary, but perhaps between Pocketing, Deft, and Flexible we could cover every less-than-lawful expertise that a detective might need.

Actually Flexible is too open to interpretation, so I’m going to go with Acrobatic instead. That way it implies more agility and graceful movements than say Athletics would. I should probably put a Sneak skill in, just as another skill to avoid interaction. And really should have a Trickery skill, just because what would a good mystery be if everyone had to be honest?

I don’t want the characters to be able to rely on resources they roll for so much as I want the players to be resourceful. Movement will not be very important except for what Acrobatics can cover. I think Reputation works well with Sneak for avoiding interactions, and I don’t much care for the party manipulating the environment so much as just interacting with it. That just leaves expertise trappings.

Stunts for the Game

To me having expertise, by which I mean training in an application of a skill, makes more sense as a stunt for this game. I don’t really want to have a Scholarship skill that someone can use for all sorts of academic knowledge (medicine, poisons, law, cooking, etc.). Instead I would rather have stunts that represent training as applications of a skill.

So if you have a stunt of MEDICAL TRAINING it might allow you to know more about wounds and diseases and even use Empathy to examine a patient. Or you could choose between a FORMER BURGLER or SKILLED SEAMSTRESS stunts to decide if your Deft skill is better for picking locks or making disguises.

Aside from Stunts giving a +2 for a specific area of expertise, I think they would also be good for allowing a trapping that the skill normally doesn’t cover. A ONE TRACK MIND may allow you to use Will to avoid social interactions while DANGEROUS BEAUTY may allow someone to use Charm as a social attack.

Final Thoughts

Obviously there is a lot more that’s going to have to get done for the game to be playable, even for a one-shot. At least 2 stunt options for each skill would be a good idea, and some basic testing to make sure I know where to set the difficulty level for my adventure will make the actual one-shot go a lot smoother.

But I think I have a good basic framework to go with here. The skills should work well with any situation that could be expected from a 1960’s mystery. And if a troublesome player wants to carry a gun, I’m pretty sure it can still be an effective Intimidate tool. If things don’t work out, I could always try that Scooby Doo fan version of Fate Accelerated.

If you would like to listen to the results of this project, we will be posting the podcast of an actual adventure with this setting soon. Feel free to offer feedback or questions before and after you listen to the one-shot.


Author: Burn Everything Gaming

Website that mostly produces Actual Play Podcast as well as game reviews and other musings on the topic. Hope you enjoy.

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