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Theorize (Brindlewood Bay via Oli Jeffrey) with Victor Lane

Theorize (Brindlewood Bay via Oli Jeffrey) with Victor Lane

This week, Sam talks with Victor Lane about the Theorize move, originally from an idea by Oli Jeffrey and popularized in Brindlewood Bay by Jason Cordova. Some topics discussed include:

Games mentioned:

Movies and TV mentioned: Knives Out, Glass Onion, Murder She Wrote, Fedora Noir, Speed, Father Brown, Columbo, Poker Face, Agatha Christie

You can find Victor on TikTok and itch.io at ThisIsVictor. His website is thisisvictor.com.

You can find Sam @sdunnewold on Twitter, dice.camp, and itch.io

The Dice Exploder logo is by sporgory, and the theme song is Sunset Bridge by Purely Grey

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Sam: Hello and welcome to another episode of Dice Exploder. Each week we take a tabletop RPG mechanic and dissect it like it's the dead frog in Biology class, and we are the slightly two eager kids sitting in the back. My name is Sam ald. My pronouns are he, him, and my co-host today is Victor Lane.

Victor is less of an RPG designer, though he's certainly done some designing and more of a community leader and excellent player. We first met on an actual player for the Blades in the Dark Discord that used entirely custom playbooks from the Unusual Suspects playbooks jam. And that's right where I always imagine Victor: organizing people, playing his heart out, performing well, and enthusiastically showing off other people's work.

He's also become one of the instructors at Titter Pig Academy, an LGBTQ+ friendly Discord with the goal of helping new players get into the hobby by giving them access to help and games run by experienced GMs. I'm in there too. It's a great place to be.

Victor today brings us the theorize mechanic, originally designed as a custom move for Dungeon World by Oli Jeffrey, and recently popularized by Brindlewood Bay. Victor and I have had very different experiences with this mechanic, and that's why I was excited to have him on. I knew we'd have an exciting conversation about the history of running mysteries and tabletop RPGs, how this mechanic works and doesn't work, and another round of genre talk, and Victor did not disappoint.

This is also much more advice heavy into how to play the game well episode, specifically how to make the most of this mechanic as a gm, and I'm glad we have more of that. There's been too much design talk stinking up the place around here. Let's get into how to play these frigging games everyone won't stop making.

So here is Victor Lane with theorize.

Victor, thanks so much for being here. What is the game we're talking about today?

Brindlewood. Bay. Tell me about it.

Victor: Brindlewood Bay is a, is a murder mystery game. It's Murder She Wrote the role playing game with a dash of Cthluhu thrown in for a good measure. You play elderly women who have retired to this cozy seaside town of Brindlewood Bay. It has a higher than average number of murders, and you go through and try to solve these murders.

If you play the campaign version in the campaign mechanics, that's where the Cthluhu comes in. He turns out the reason there have been all these murders is because there's a cult. That also lives in this cozy seaside town. But for the purposes of this mechanic you know, we're just looking at each mystery individually.

So it's, it's the murder mystery role playing game.

Sam: Yeah, I, for one, have never given two shits about the Cthulhu aspect of this game. Like, I don't, I don't wanna deal with eldritch horrors. I want to be an old lady solving mysteries with my book club. So,

Victor: Same. And in, and in fact I've actually only ever run this game as one shots. I've run it a bunch as one shots. And I've ran a hack that I've written as a campaign. But my, the hack had completely got rid of the Cthulhu esque aspect. So murder mysteries, I love. Cthulhu horror not so much.

Sam: Yeah, and this is like a PBTA game, right? So when we're rolling dice in this game, you're rolling 2d6, you're adding a stat, and then typically on like a 10 plus you get a good result, seven to nine, you get kind of a mixed result, and on six or less you get a failure, right?

Victor: Exactly, exactly. If, if you've played a PBTA game before the, the dice mechanics is gonna feel really similar.

Sam: Great.

So let's read the mechanic. You wanna take this? You want me to do it?

Victor: I can take it.

So starting with the meddling move, this is how you're gonna search for clues as you're playing the game. If you want to search a body or search a room or interrogate a suspect, anything that generates information about the mystery, you're gonna roll the meddling move. And on a success, you're gonna get a fact about the mystery some, something that is definitely.

Sam: And that's called a clue. That is,

Victor: that's called a Clue. Yes. Clue with a capital C. And then once you have a certain number of these clues, then you can make the theorized roll.

You take all of your clues and you either use them to explain the mystery or you explain the clues away as a red herring, something that's not relevant to the mystery. And then you're gonna roll your theorize role. Add in the number of clues. Subtract the complexity of the mystery. On a success, your theory is correct. It's canonically true on a partial success. It's true, it's canonically true, but there's a problem. There's a complication. Something is dangerous. And then on a miss, you are wrong and the situation gets worse.

Sam: Great. All right, so you wanna talk about complexity?

Victor: Yes. So complexity is an, is an arbitrary number. It basically is a timer mechanic, right? So what the game doesn't want is the game doesn't want you to get three clues and then say, okay, we can solve it based on three clues. So instead of just rolling, plus the number of clues, you roll plus the number of clues minus the complexity and it, it just is a mechanic to make you gather a bit more clues and to draw the mystery out to a more exciting length and to give the players more clues to work with.

Sam: Yeah, so if the mystery has complexity four, then you're probably searching for like six total clues. So you can get plus six minus the complexity four. So a plus two on your roll, you did a pretty good job, probably you'll succeed.

Victor: Exactly.

Sam: Yeah. All right. So before we actually get too deep into the mechanics of this particular move, I wanna talk a little bit about the history of running mysteries in RPGs at large, like running investigations, because I think there's a lot of context there that's kind of important to talking about this.

So jump in anytime you feel like I'm getting this wrong, Victor, but my understanding is like way back in the day, the way you'd run your like Dungeons and Dragons murder mystery in town is someone's been killed, and I, the GM, am gonna just railroad you through the adventure until you have all the clues and then either you won't understand what I'm trying to tell you and the game will fall flat because I'm frustrated with you for not understanding my cool, mystery. Or I eventually just kind of tell you what happened and that's not satisfying for you cuz you didn't actually do anything to figure it out.

Victor: Right, exactly. And that's like that's like running a mystery, like a dungeon crawl. Right? When you run a dungeon crawl, you have a map and the players explore the map until they have explored the complete dungeon, and then they win. Right, and this is the same way that you have a map that is the story of what happened in the mystery, and the players hopefully explore what happened and come to the correct conclusion.

Sam: Yeah, and I think everyone understood basically immediately that this was bad and not fun. Like it was, it was historically a problem to run mysteries in RPGs cuz they didn't work great. And I think the first major development here that I remember is on, I'm looking at it right now, May 8th, 2008. The Alexandrian, which is this blog about RPG, is put out this article this post called The Three Clue Rule, which basically said, Hey GMs, when you are trying to do that railroad-y mystery, what you should do is always make sure there are at least three clues, three different ways that your players could figure out how to get to the next like step of the mystery.

Victor: And again, like that is like designing a good dungeon, right? Like a good dungeon should have multiple routes to the big boss. If it's just a straight line to the big boss, it's gonna feel boring. So it's the same. It's taking that idea of having multiple routes to the end goal and just applying it to mysteries.

Sam: Yeah. And there was another piece going on here where in like classic Dungeons and Dragons, like the way you would, it made sense in the rules to like do a mystery is like, okay, I get to the crime scene. Now I better like roll a perception check to see what I get out of investigating the crime scene, and if I fail that, fuck. Like, like the whole game, just like runs into a brick wall.

Like if I don't find the secret door to move forward through the dungeon. But the only way through the dungeon is to enter the secret door like we have a problem. And the Alexandrian piece, the three clue rule was trying to really solve that particular problem of "Hey: there should be at least three ways forward."

So if someone fucks one of them up, like if you don't find clue A, at least maybe you can get in through Clue B. So the next major evolution I believe, was in a game called Gumshoe which was explicitly an investigation game and core philosophy was like, that's stupid. You shouldn't have like to make checks to get clues because what if, you know, even if there's three clues to find, what if you fail all three perception checks? Like that's miserable. What you should do as the GM is just always give people the clues. Just always give them the clues. Give them the clues. It's not fun if they don't have the clues and it, it was a diceless system is my understanding. I've read it. It's just been a while. Where basically you'd always get the first clue and then depending on what traits you have, you might be able to pick up a second and or third clue.

Yeah? Does that all sound right?

Victor: Yep. And that fits with. Investigation like, like murder mystery television shows where the problem usually is not finding the clues, it's understanding the clues, right? The detective walks in and immediately sees the blood splatter on the floor, but what does it mean? Whose blood is it?

Sam: Yeah, exactly. And like even after you analyze the blood, you know, it's like old man Jenkins blood. Was he the victim? Was he the perpetrator? Like how did it end up on the ceiling? Like all of that kind of stuff. So finally we get to the like theorize, meddling move kind of thing that we're talking about today. And this actually didn't start in Brindlewood Bay, right? What? It started somewhere.

Victor: Yeah, it started in uh, uh, the Gauntlet Codex, which is uh, a magazine from the Gauntlet role playing game community. And there was an article in one of the magazines by Oli Jeffries who is the author of the role playing game, Extreme Meat Punks Forever.

And he was trying to solve the question of, of, you know, investigation and mysteries in really in Dungeon World, like in dungeon settings. And so he had this idea of ask a general mystery question. Give the players clues and then the players use those clues to tell you, the gm, what the solution to the mystery is.

Sam: And this is a really radical change to how to do mysteries like the idea you're no longer trying to solve the GMs like puzzle mystery. You are going through the mystery, like a story, like we're, we're, we're doing that writer's room kind of approach to even a mystery to find out who did it? That's really radical. That is a really brilliant idea.

Victor: Yeah, exactly. And at the same time, I think it's the logical conclusion of play to find out. Right? So you have the, the, the powered by the apocalypse has the core philosophy of play to find out. There's no pre-written story. The story is what happens at the table, not what the GM wrote beforehand. And so now you're taking that idea of, of play to find out and being like, well, we're gonna apply that to the mystery. We're gonna play to find out who actually done it.

Sam: Yeah. Yeah. And this mechanic has been really successful. You know, so Jason Cordova really popularized it with Brindlewood Bay, which is the version of the mechanic that we are looking at here. But it's also used in Apocalypse Keys, very successful, popular game kickstarted last fall and just being released as we record this.

And, you know, a bunch of other hacks have come out using this mechanic off of the success of Brindlewood Bay.

Victor: Yeah. And I think was worth mentioning the between, with Jason Cord's other game that he wanted it to be a mystery game. He got stuck on the mystery mechanic, so he shelved it, wrote Brindlewood Bay, was like, oh, this is how you run mysteries. And then went back and published The Between.

Sam: Yeah. So. Let's talk about why I don't like this mechanic.

Victor: Wonderful. Well, yeah. Great. Let's get into it.

Sam: Yeah, let's just get right into it. So I've played like three sessions of Brindle Wood Bay and one full mystery of Apocalypse Keys or so, and I should say up front, I've never played with this mechanic in the context of a GM who like really has it down pat.

I think I played with you once when you were first learning how to run the game. I've run it once, but I'm still kind of figuring it out. You know, the Apocalypse Keys one was a similar situation. And every time I've played, I have just kind of run up against nothing feels like real and concrete to me as I'm playing in this kind of situation.

There's, you know, you, you go in as a maven, as an investigator, Hellboy or whoever you are, and you get all your clues and you, you're like, oh, what does this clue mean? I wonder what the meaning behind this is? And for me, for some reason in the back of my head, like knowing there is no meaning.

Like there is no answer here. Like it's only gonna be whatever we make up, like. Takes away the joy I get from watching Glass Onion or Knives Out, you know, or watching any sort of classic investigation show like Murder She Wrote, where I'm really excited to have the thing revealed to me. I'm really excited to find out what the solution was and instead, like this ends up just feeling really hollow to me.

But I know you really like it. So tell me, tell me why it has been so successful for you.

Victor: I think I really like it because it's, it doesn't really capture the feel of watching Murder She Wrote, it captures the feel of writing Murder she Wrote. Right. And it's the, it's, it's what we, I think we mentioned this before as it's the feeling of of players as writer's room, right. All writing a story.

Sam: Yeah, it's really interesting you say that. I, this isn't in our outline even, but I think the, my problem is that this... like I am a screenwriter, like a thing I am doing right now is writing a murder mystery movie. This also doesn't capture the experience of writing a mystery for me because the joy of writing a mystery for me is about having like a really cool slick kind of solution and then slowly setting it up and like building the almost like clockwork of the mystery that's going to drive to that inevitable obvious like, "oh, why didn't I think of that?" like kind of solution and my experience playing this game is so much more about we're gonna put together... it's almost like a, a comedy moment when you're doing that theorizing at the end that you put together some sort of often pretty ridiculous, entertainingly ridiculous theory that ties everything together for you.

Victor: I've definitely had sessions where that, that it felt like a comedy, right? Where the, the theory that you put together is, is so outrageous, but then you roll a full success and you're like, well, I guess that outrageous thing happened. But, but then I've also had sessions where, you know, it's more serious.

And I've also had sessions where we worked forward from the clues, right? So we take the clues and we say, what is, what do these clues mean? And I've had sessions where we worked backwards where we said, we really want it to be this suspect. Right? I really think the Butler did it. So how can we put the clues together in such a way so that the Butler did it?

Sam: Yeah. I think that's, that's part of the thing that is unsatisfying to me. The sort of like, how, what, okay, how can we put these clues together towards like a coherent theory that that version of this experience doesn't trip me up as much. It's the, it's the, I have a liberal arts degree and I can tell you whatever you want.

Like I, I know how to bullshit my way through whatever solution we want to get to. It feels like an exercise in that kind of bullshit putting a theory together for me playing this game, as opposed to exploring the story.

Victor: And I think, I think a lot of that comes down to this is version one of the mechanic. Right. Like it's a, it's a great game. It's a great mechanic. I love it. I think there's a lot of room for improvement. I know we're gonna talk about complexity later. I'll foreshadow it by saying that needs improvement.

So there are, there are definitely elements that I think can be improved upon, and I think you could restructure the concept into a mechanic that is much more putting the puzzle pieces together of like we know it was this person. Like we've done something previously in the mechanics and we're sure the butler did it, but now we have to prove that the Butler did it.

And that to me sounds even better than, well, we have a pile of clues. Let's see what sticks.

Sam: Yeah. I want to, I wanna take a step back and talk about my other, sort of, the specific manifestation of a lot of this for me is in what I've been thinking of as like quantum villains in Brindlewood Bay, where every, it could have been anyone that you meet. And so whenever you're having a conversation with, you are simultaneously thinking as a player about like the version of this story, where they did it and the version of this story where they didn't, and it ends up to me feeling like all those interactions become, I'm not, I'm not able to emotionally invest in those interactions with NPCs in the way that I would like to because I don't know what their deal is exactly.

And that feels like I'm the one in the wrong for two reasons. The first is, it's kind of true all the time. Like even if you're not playing a mystery game, right, like the GM could absolutely make it that, like the woman I fell in love with, like in the, the Dungeon World campaign, like ends up being a traitor and like, you know, being a cop or something and like it goes terribly.

Or on the flip side of things, like in this genre, of course every suspect like is suspicious and could have done it. Like if you look at Knives Out, if you look at Glass Onion, like every single suspect had a reason to do the thing. Like, like, like every Agatha Christie mystery, it's like, yeah, you don't want to trust that guy over there. Like all of these people are like suspicious as hell. Like just because one of them happened to do the murder doesn't mean they all weren't planning on it. Sometimes, literally.

And so it feels unfair to the game for me that I feel the way that I do about it, like given the genre, and yet here we are.

Victor: Sure. So what I, I, I've written a number of my own mysteries for this style of game. And when I, when I'm coming up with my suspect list, with my NPC list, I want every NPC to either have a really a really strong motivation or to really communicate innocence. Right, like no middle ground, right?

Like either you are the, the son who was written out of the will at the last minute, or you are the, the lovable caretaker who everyone likes and the audience falls in love with. Right? To, to, to use the first Knives Out. Movie. Movie. And that way. I think that that gives the players the option then when they're theorizing to either be like, yes, it was the terrible person, or it was the person we love and now we're all heartbroken about it.

Sam: Yeah.

Victor: But I totally understand how that like quantum not knowing, right, that it's like Schrodinger's murderer,

Sam: Yeah, exactly. Yeah.

Victor: Every NPC is a terrible murderer or not. And you don't know until, you know, the quantum state unravels when you do the theorized role.

Sam: Yeah.

Victor: The other thing I will say about this question is I think this does, like you said, this does hold very true in all PBTA games.

I've had plenty of situations where a wonderful lovable NPC that everyone likes, they're only one six minus, they're only one miss away from betraying the entire party, you know? And I didn't know that. I didn't know that until you were like, oh, I got four. And I'm like, well, I guess that means your girlfriend is a cop.

Sam: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. Okay. So going off of what you just said is your advice for GMs to, to really like, make sure that NPCs are fitting into one that like extremely suspicious or extremely innocent kind of buckets, like across the board then? Because I, I feel like I have often ended up in the spot as a Gm for this, of like having one of those innocent characters and being like, ah, but I feel like I'm supposed to like, find a way to make it so that they could have done it and like maybe I should try to like lean into that a little bit.

Is that wrong?

Victor: I think, I think that every NPC should have an interesting connection to the mystery, right? And that interesting connection can be like guilty or innocent or some other connection, but they should, you know, tie directly into the mystery and then.

The other side of that is both with NPCs and with clues you want to think about what direction your players are going, because your players will do the theorize role, the mechanics of the theorize role, but they're going to be coming up with theories the entire session, right? And they're gonna be chasing down leads. And so a large part of the GM's role for pacing in this style of game is to encourage your players and say, yes, you're going the right direction, this is interesting. Or if it feels like they're getting too far down, too close to a suspect, things are too easy and you still have an hour of play time left, then point them in a different direction. Either you could point them towards a specific other suspect, or you could just give them a clue that says that their current suspect is innocent.


Sam: That feels like great advice.

Victor: Know Yes. Yeah. And so a lot of, a lot of giving out clues and portraying NPCs. Actually, let me go back a step.

The clues in Brindlewood Bay, when you are, when you're coming up with them, there's, there's a list that you can use, but of course you can come up with your own or you can write your own mystery.

And writing clues is really fun for me as a Gm because you want clues that are evocative but not directional, right? So you can say a bloody knife, right? Or you can say a will with the names crossed out, or you can say a half burned love letter. All of those are, are good clues that, that lead in interesting directions.

But you don't want to say a gun with the butler's fingerprints found in the butler's room, right? Like you don't want to be pointing in a specific direction, and then when you're handing out clues, you can also add to or obfuscate the clues to keep the story interesting, right? So if, if players are, are really laser focused and they think the butler did it, then you can you can put in a love letter from the butler to the murdered person, right to, to say that they were in love and now you've complicated the player's lives and you've made the story more interesting

Sam: Yeah. Then you gotta go run off and find out who the deceased had an affair with.

Victor: Right. Exactly. Exactly. And there's, there's an element, there's a pacing element to this where early on as they're giving clues, it's fun to spread the clues out and make things more interesting. And then as the session is coming to the close, Either give them clues that reinforce what they already know or give them clues that complicate what they already know.

So you're keeping it still involved with the story that they've been working on, but you are either helping or complicating them depending on, on how um, mischievous you feel of like being as a Gm.

Sam: Yeah.

Victor: And Part of G Ming. This is, there's uppercase clues and lowercase clues. Uppercase clues are things that are in the mechanics. Lowercase clues are just normal things. Normal role play, normal G Ming stuff that points the players in a different direction, right?

If, if they are sure the butler did it, you could have a scene with the butler where the butler is in tears and distraught that the the murderer was killed. That's not mechanical. It doesn't, it doesn't change the mechanics of the mystery, but it might sway the players into, oh, maybe the butler didn't do it. Now I'm having second thoughts.

Sam: That's really interesting. Yeah. Yeah.

Going back to the idea of playing Brindlewood Bay versus watching Murder She Wrote, another, I think, really big distinction is how all of those murder of the week TV shows basically have one protagonist or maybe like a duo at the center on a show like maybe Castle or something. Whereas the classic RPG group and probably what you'll have going on when you're running Brindlewood Bay, is like three or four people, like friends becoming a found family kind of situation regardless of what activity they are doing. And I think there's something not great about the form of RPGs for doing murder mysteries in the way that like the, there's not an opportunity in all of this finding clues and theorizing for player on player emotional, intimate kinds of scenes that you'd get in like a lot of story games.

And Brindlewood Bay is a game in a lot of these games, like Apocalypse Keeps especially, has like a lot of mechanics for facilitating that kind of scene and for finding space for that kind of scene. But that all feels kind of secondary to, or outside or separate from the scope of the solving of the mystery. Do you agree with that?

Victor: I, I completely agree with that. And I think it, it's the like, sacrifices to genre that you have to make to play a game with multiple people. Right? There's maybe with the magic of editing, you can drop the name in here because I can't remember it,

Sam: That game is called Fedora Noir by Caroline Hobbs of Less Than Three games.

Victor: but there's a role playing game where you have one detective, multiple players, and the other players like play the detective's hat. Right? And so you're, what you're doing is you're playing the emotions of the detective. So you get the, you get the one hard boiled private eye. But with, but you get to have multiple players.

Sam: You're doing the, the Bluebeard's Bride or the Everyone Is John thing.

Victor: Exactly. Exactly. And so I, I, I do think that the, the points where Brindlewood Bay feels the least, like Murder She Wrote or Father Brown, which is one of my favorite murder mystery shows, is when you have the players talking to each other, scenes with themselves, or scenes with when they're all together.

And I actually, when I'm running Brindle Wood Bay, do encourage a phase where everyone splits up, right? So we, we usually will have the mystery. The players split up either individually or into pairs, and they each go off and do investigations. And so you get more of that feeling of, I'm the detective doing the classic solo detective thing, and then you all come back, you have some scenes together, and then depending on the pacing, you either split up again or you go from there to the finale where you're, you know, trying to track down the murderer.

Sam: Yeah. And that splitting up also allows you to get into like one person having to come rescue another, which is sort of a, a fun, like the best version in this genre of the like. Interpersonal two player scene, the highest drama kind of version of it.

Victor: Yes, definitely.

Sam: All right, so another thing I know you wanted to talk about was structured surprise versus emergent surprise. So tell me about that.

Victor: Yeah, totally. So so structured surprise is, is when someone, this is classic surprise, right? This is what we all think of when you tell me something that I do not know, and I am surprised by the fact. And this is what you see. This is the feeling you get watching a murder mystery show. You are surprised when the murderer is revealed because you didn't know that, you know, if you hadn't figured it out.

Emergent surprise is much more what you get in cooperative role playing games. I first thought of this concept when I was playing belonging outside belonging co-op games. And we had we were playing sleepaway. There's a, there's a terrible monster stalking kids at summer camp. And we discovered at the end of this cooperative game that the cute pet rabbit had been the terrible monster entire time. And somebody, one of the players, she goes, what if it was the rabbit the entire time? And everyone else went, oh, that's so good. That's emergent surprise, right? We're like coming up with these ideas and we're all surprising ourselves.

Even the person who came up with the idea is surprised and then we backfill in that truth to our memories, right? We have memories of this story we just told and now we backfill that fact that the cute, cuddly rabbit was the terrible monster. We backfilled that into the story we told, and it makes sense,


Sam: It's, like the difference between something being revealed to you and having a cool idea.

Victor: Yes, exactly. And a cool idea that is like an unexpected idea where you like you get that that light bulb moment is kind of emergent surprise.

Sam: Almost, it's like a cool idea. I think it's most often a cool idea that happens to tie a bunch of things together.

Victor: Exactly, exactly. You have, you have a bunch of story elements and you say, wait, this is the key. This makes it all click together and then everyone in in the room goes, ah, you're right. Yeah, that makes sense. Right? And so emergent surprise. That's when the theorize move works. That's the feeling you get. You take all of these clues, you put them together and everyone goes, yeah, that's the story. And you are surprised that this story has emerged out of the facts you've accumulated over the session.

Sam: Can you talk about in Brindlewood Bay when you're making a theorize role, I was once running this game and had the exact moment of an emergent surprise that we were just talking about, and then the players failed the role.

Victor: Yes. Yes.


Sam: So what happens then?

Victor: When, when you fail the roll what I like to do is to have something. Drastic that that proves the theory completely wrong. The, the best example of this is you are convinced the butler did it. You go to the butler's room, the door is open and the butler is dead. Right? And so it's, it's the classic, like if, if you want any example of what to do on a failed theorized role, go find a two-parter murder mystery television show because it's what happens at the end of the first episode, always right?

There's always like, they are sure, they are sure about a fact, whatever that fact is, they are confident of it. And then the, the episode ends with that fact being proven completely and utterly.

Sam: Yeah. And, and Brindlewood Bay also specifically has a mechanic where you can kind of declare you can, you can recon stuff. You can, right? And so if you really fuck up and you're like, well, but I don't want you to ruin that incredible moment of emergent surprise I just had, then you can use this kind of reconning mechanic to make it so it was right.

And like maybe something really bad happens to you, but like, cool, bad stuff's happening to me. Well, let's freaking go.

Victor: Exactly. Yeah. That's, that's the other half of, of the, the other main mechanic in Brindlewood Bay is that, is, there's a, there's a lot of player agency to say no, that doesn't happen. And you can do that on a theorize role. You, you know, you, if you miss the theorize role, you can upgrade that to a success if everyone is on board with that.

Sam: Yeah, yeah. So take me through how this, these varieties of surprise also play into suspense, the technical term.

Victor: Yeah, so, we have these two different kinds of surprise and then there's also the idea of surprise versus suspense. And there there's a long quote from Hitchcock, which I will, I will summarize as suspense is when the audience. Sees a bomb under a chair and you know the bomb is gonna go off, but you're the audience. You can't talk to the actor. So there's nothing you can do about it. That feeling of knowing something is going to happen, but being unable to do anything about it, that's suspense. When the bomb just suddenly goes off with no warning, that surprise and what Hitchcock says is that, that surprise you'll last a couple seconds, and suspense lasts for, you know, five minutes. The entire time that see the bomb there.

Sam: You're really good, it lasts the entire duration of the movie.

Victor: right, exactly. Exactly.

Sam: actually a bad example because the characters also know the bomb is there, but you know what I mean.

Victor: Yeah, that's, yeah, yeah, yeah. But there is like, is it gonna go off or not? Right. I think there's, there's, there's suspense there. So Brindlewood Bay, because it has this emergent surprise, the theorize mechanic doesn't do suspense. Like this is not a suspenseful game. You're, you're not sitting here being, I know what's going to happen, but I can't do anything about it cuz you don't know what's gonna happen.

You don't know what's gonna, who the murderer is until you get to the theorized role. There are, there are other mechanics that do produce suspense in Brindlewood Bay. The what, the ability to upgrade your role. There's some suspense to that, but that's separate. That's unrelated. So

Sam: that's also. The root of what I don't like about this mechanic, again, for me personally, which is I'm coming to the murder mystery genre for that sense of suspense. And like a little bit of surprise like on the reveal. I do want to like that. That's, it's fun to see how the thing was done, but there's also the, like the greatest moment of suspense in like a Poirot mystery is like waiting for him to reveal how it was.

Victor: Yes,

Sam: you never get that.

Victor: right and like, I love Father Brown. Every, almost every episode of Father Brown opens where you see the murder happen. But the murderer's face is obscured because it's a television show. And then the rest of the episode is Father Brown getting to that point, recreating what the audience already saw.

Right. And again, that's suspense. We know there was a murderer. We have this idea of what happened and then we're waiting for Father Brown to get to, to get there as well. But that, that's not how Brindlewood Bay works.

Sam: Yeah. I think it's also, I was gonna kind of save this for later, but I think it's also worth mentioning shows like Colombo or Poker Face recently, where they actually just show. Who did it right away. And then the suspense is much more about like, okay, but how is the detective? How is Colombo going to catch the criminal?

And that's something that this definitely doesn't do. That's a very, very different discussion. But I would love to see someone make that game also for a reference just throwing down that gauntlet, figure out how to.

Victor: Yeah, I, I think there's like, there's totally room for a version of this mechanic where the players narrate a scene where someone is murdered and then the rest of this session is their characters figuring out, figuring that out, right?

Sam: Interesting.

Victor: I'm gonna think about that more later.

Sam: All right.

Victor: We should talk about complexity.

Sam: Yeah. All right.

Victor: so we mentioned complexity earlier, and I love Brindlewood Bay except for complexity. Because complexity is, is an arbitrary number that just exists to extend the mystery. You know, powered by the apocalypse is all about fiction first, rooted in the fiction. You identify the, the what's happening in the story, and then you use the mechanics to match that.

Complexity is not that Complexity is just an arbitrary number. Oh, it's the hit points of the mystery. Right. And I don't like that. I think it's, I think it's a, it's a heavy handed solution to a problem. The problem being, well, we want people to get more than three clues.

Sam: Yeah.

Victor: The solution being, well, you make them get three plus X where X is the number of complexity. I think there are some interesting other ways of handling this problem in a, a game that I'm working on called Kid Detectives, which is inspired by Harriet the Spy and Encyclopedia Brown stories. It uses a similar mechanic, but you do things piecemeal, right? So you take three clues and use that to solve a part of them, a, a chunk of the mystery.

And then you use another three clues to solve another chunk, and then three clues to solve a third chunk, and then your final roll uses those little bits you've solved already, not the individual clues.

Sam: Yeah. Yeah. You're sort of like breaking this down into a pyramid scheme.

Victor: Exactly. Exactly. And I think that Apocalypse Keys tried to do something similar with the facets, where you tie each clue to a facet of the mystery which is really similar to what I was thinking. They just didn't go quite as far.

Sam: They didn't actually take complexity out. Yeah.

Victor: Exactly. Yeah, exactly.

Sam: Yeah, like I know you've mentioned like having a national treasure inspired like version of this mechanic too, which I think would be really neat.

Where instead of who did the thing, it's like, where is the treasure hidden or what have you.

Victor: And actually that's something straight from The Between Jason Cordova, another game that uses this mechanic. The Between is a mystery game, not a murder mystery game. In Brindlewood Bay the question is always "who did the murder?" That's, that's explicit.

Explicit to each mystery is just who did the murder. In The Between. Each mystery has a unique question, and actually some mysteries have multiple questions. And so you could do one theorize role of where is the monster hiding, and then a second one that says, how do we kill the monster? And then a third one would be the, the kind of the top level mystery of can we find the monster?

Right? Like, can we track down?

Sam: Yeah, interesting. I've been, I've been thinking about trying to do a Star Trek version of the game, which is much more sort of environmental mysteries, like what is going on and how can we solve the problem as opposed to who did the thing. I think that would also solve a lot of my problems with the mechanic.

Like I think The Between is a game it sounds like I should check out because when you take out that quantum NPC kind of problem, or at least put it back in the sort of traditional state that it lives in in other powered by the apocalypse games, I think I'm much more sort of on board for mysteries as opposed to murders.

Victor: Right, and honestly like to go back to the origin of this concept, that's how Oli Jeffrey wrote it, that the, the original present a mystery move says "at the start of a session, the mc presents a mystery to be solved."

Sam: Yeah.

Victor: And that mystery can be anything. The, the examples in the, in the next paragraph are "the mc presents the mysteries opening the dead body, the stolen uranium, the kid missing from class," right?

And so you can take this, you could put this move into just about any PBTA game that uses kind of the, the, the quote unquote standard PBTA framework and run a mystery in this.

Sam: Yeah, and probably even outside the PBTA A framework too. Do we want to talk a little bit about how you might apply this kind of thing to other games?

Victor: Totally. Like at the most top level, you can just apply the philosophy of a puzzle with no true answer to just about any game. This is actually how I run puzzles in, in Blades in the Dark and PBTA games, right? I will describe some complex puzzle with lots of widgets and doodads that is interesting and then let the players try to tell me how they're gonna solve it. And if they roll, well enough, they have solved the puzzle. They've, they've opened the lock, they've bypassed the trap, whatever the puzzle is. And that's just taking the same idea of there's a mystery with no true answer and applying it to lots of other stuff.

So that's the, the philosophical side of things. And then you can mechanize it, right? If you're playing a, a PBTA game, you can, you know, just translate these moves into your PBTA game. If you're playing Blades in the Dark you could do it with a clock, right? And you give out clues every time they check a segment on the clock.

Sam: Yeah. Clues, equal clock segments.

Victor: Exactly. Exactly. And then you could do, you could have them roll a theorize roll at the end, or honestly, you could even just say, ah, you've completed the clock. Tell me what the clues mean.

Sam: Yeah. Yeah, totally.

Victor: And even in like the new Avatar Legends game you know, it includes this idea of, of mystery with no true answer. They don't mechanize it. There's no rolls for it. But instead the GM advice is, here's a mystery, here are some suspects. As the players investigate, they will hone in on one. Whichever suspect they decide on, they're right.

Sam: Because that's more fun. You don't wanna be wrong.

Victor: Right. Exactly. Exactly. And maybe you know, you can do fun stuff where they start honing in on a suspect. You're halfway through the session, someone rolls a miss you throw in some evidence that proves their, their theory wrong.

Sam: Yeah, yeah. Like we were talking about before.

I want to broaden this out a little bit to, to talking about custom moves at large. Because I think this particular framework remains really interesting. Like I, even if I have not enjoyed my time playing with this particular mechanic as much as I would've liked, I'm really compelled by the concept of it. And I, I would really encourage people running games at home to take swings this big with custom moves and custom mechanics that they're bringing to any of their games. In the same way that like, I think it's really fun to in like fifth edition D&D, you know, you you make a battle with a particularly interesting set piece and you, you know, like we're on a bunch of orbs floating in space and we're gonna hop from orb to orb or something. And you, maybe you're, we're coming up with special rules for that.

Like that big set piece works not just in a combat scenario. Like you can have a big set piece, like a mystery, like a missing person or like a chase sequence or like anything else where you come up with interesting, big rules for everyone to play with just for a little while to get through this episode of this story.

I think that's a really, really fun thing that people can do. You can bring in like special rules for the specific thing you are doing, whether or not it's a mystery.

Victor: Yes. Definitely. And I, I think one of the things that's, that is emphasized in a lot of powered by the apocalypse games, and I, I think, honestly, would be helpful in, in more games, is that idea of like home brewing mechanics specifically to what's happening in your story. Uh, I, I ran a thirsty Sword lesbians game that was set on a, a planet where there were massive trees and the, and the cities were built into trees.

And so I wrote a move that was like when you leap from tree branch to tree branch specifically because I wanted this, I had this vision in my head of the characters leaping from tree branch to tree branch in this massive city. And to incentivize that action, I was like, here's a mechanic for it. It is no different from any of the other mechanics, but I'm calling it out as something interesting that you can do. And I think that is, that's like a, a, a, a GM philosophy that I think a lot of games could benefit from of if you want something cool to happen, mechanize it and incentivize it in the game, and just you hand it to the players and you say, here's a cool little bit of mechanic that I made just for you, just for today.

Go wild.

Sam: Yeah, yeah. It's almost pulling from more of like an OSR or FKR for those re really dirty people of the audience kind of philosophy. Where th those games run in those philosophies are much more about sort of grab bagging in whatever rules system you happen to need that's gonna improve your table's experience.

And bringing that two story games with a bundle of mechanics like this theorize roll or whatever you come up with for like your cool chase sequence or you know what, what are the swinging from tree ranch to tree ranch or whatever the rules are for, you know, the day when all the spirit wardens in Duskwall are busy with the prison break that's going on and the, there are no cops in the streets. What are the special rules that day? Like, tell us about it.

Victor: Right. Exactly. Exactly.

Sam: Well

Victor: That's all I got.

Sam: yeah, Victor, thanks for being on Dice Exploder.

Victor: Thank you so much for having me. This was a blast.

Sam: But wait, don't leave just yet! I've got a bit more to say about the theorize move here because after Victor and I recorded this, I was telling next week's co-host Ema Acosta about this conversation, and we found two other really interesting bits that I wanted to mention.

Em noted that the theorize role as it exists in Brindlewood Bay is one of those moves where there's this clear, most interesting outcome because a failure can feel really bad. We just did all that work for nothing. And success can kind of feel anti-climactic like "It was the butler! Take 'em away! And that's it. Great job everyone."

But a partial success gives you the satisfaction of being right while also setting up the butler to get away with it. In the cool car chase, we've gotta have to catch him.

And it made me wonder if there's a dice list version of the theorize move where you always end up with that partial success or alternate versions of a full success and failure.

Now, you just heard Victor talk about some good G Ming techniques for handling the failure and the full success outcomes, but that brings me the second thing that Em and I talked about, which is this mechanic does feel really great when you have a GM as good as Victor running it, and I feel like there's room for some of the suggestions that he makes in here and good instincts he has for the mechanic to be better baked into the mechanic itself. We talked about that in the show a little bit, but even if we are sticking with "a murder's been committed" as the mystery that needs solving, I'm not sure how.

And given my lack of affinity for the mechanic, I don't think I'm the person to figure it out, but I'm throwing down the gauntlet. I would love to see people take a crack at polishing this mechanic up and instead of just sticking this thing into a new genre, ask: how can you improve the flow of the thing itself?

On that note, you can find all things Victor at thisisvictor.com, including a link to the Titter Pig Discord, where he's an instructor. He's also on TikTok @ThisIsVictor.

You can find Brindlewood Bay on Twitter at Brindlewood Bay or just Google it and find it. There's a link to an article about Oli Jeffrey's original mechanic in the show notes. As for myself, you can find me @sdunnewold on Twitter and dice.camp and itch.io. Our logo was designed by sporgory, and our theme song is Sunset Bridge by Purely Gray.

Dice Exploder is a production of the Fiction First network on actual play and podcast production co-op based outta the Blades in the Dark discord. Come on by and join us. We would love to see you there.

And thanks as always to you for listening. See you next time.

Dice Exploder
Dice Exploder
A show about tabletop RPG design. Each episode we bring you a single mechanic and break it down as deep as we possibly can. Co-hosted by Sam Dunnewold and a rotating roster of designers.