Monday, August 31, 2020


Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective was released in 1982, apparently to great critical acclaim. I’ve been thinking about it recently because while I play it cooperatively, I think it would be a fine solo game, and solo gaming is having a bit of a moment. It’s also inspired many imitators.

Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective (SHCD)

The game itself is very simple once you get the hang of it, and it only has a few components:

  1. A case book, which has the initial details of the case in read-aloud short story form. Then, it has details of what you find at every relevant address in the city, sorted by address (you aren’t meant to just read this part).
  2. A directory. Functionally, it’s like a phone book for addresses: you look up a name and find an “address” to follow-up in the case book. You can also look up businesses by type. (Because there are fewer locations than names and businesses, what is at a given address can change from case to case.) There are some Easter eggs in the names, so you can, for example, drop in on Charles Dodgson and see what he's up to.
  3. A newspaper “archive”. Largely for flavor, but the newspaper will give you some other leads to follow-up on or side-mysteries to solve. Older newspapers stay available and relevant as you go to later cases, so you can spot patterns in them.
  4. A list of “regulars”, addresses you can always try if you’re lost or stuck.
  5. A solution book. For each case, this booklet will have a “quiz” section, but you don’t know the questions until you think you’re ready to attempt it. There are some number of bonus questions in each case also, which can include unrelated mysteries, subtler details, or loose ends from previous cases. Finally, it will tell you how Sherlock solved the mystery in very few steps, typically by following huge unexpected leaps of logic like “obviously our killer was born, so we start at the registry of births and deaths…”).
  6. A map. Theoretically, every address can be found on the map, and travel times between them computed (to reconstruct the movements of a suspect, for example). However, this is not usually worthwhile.

Nominally there is some kind of scoring and a competitive element. None of this is necessary in practice because most of the fun is simply in interacting with the game.

The game spawned several expansions and many fan-made cases (largely in French and Italian). These used to be hard to track down, but Space Cowboys has been doing really nice slipcase collections of the original cases, the expansions, and some new cases (they’re all standalone, so you can start with any particular box). They have a free case available online, and the fan-made cases all seem to be available on BoardGameGeek. Some blessed obsessives have sorted all the cases they could find into a huge spreadsheet.


The original authors of SCHD also made a noir game set in 1940’s San Francisco. I haven’t played this and it’s hard to find, but from what I can tell it adds some kind of fingerprinting mechanic and instead of a series of loosely linked cases it’s only one big case that takes multiple sessions to solve.

The Martian Investigations

A fan of the original SHCD wrote their own from scratch, in the form of a pair of investigations in a Martian mining colony. They’re a couple bucks as print-and-play and skillfully executed. We had fun with them.

Arkham Investigator/Mythos Tales

The obligatory Lovecraft adaptation, Arkham Investigator, was initially released as a pair of free print-and-play cases (the downloads don’t seem to work anymore). Later there was obviously a crowdfunding campaign to expand this to ~10 cases and the name changed to Mythos Tales. These are pretty fun though, and they introduce a few new mechanics:

  • Time tracking. Each clue you follow up on takes a chunk of time, and you can find different things at the same address depending on time of day. For example, you won’t find a vampire during the day. There’s also a time-limit before bad things happen.
  • Inventory. Some locations will give you an “item card”, and then later locations will rely on that item. This is a rudimentary way to ensure you don’t accidentally solve a mystery by going to the right location for the “wrong” reason.
  • Choose-your-own-adventure elements. Sometimes you will have to decide (for example) to pursue a suspect or not after you find them. On the one hand, this can yield further clues, but on the other hand, you can “lose” if you wander blindly into danger.

It’s fun to see variations on the form, but on the whole I think they feel like attempts to reign in the emergent chaos of the original SHCD and discourage exploration and hunches.

NCIS: The Board Game, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine Game, T.I.M.E. Stories

People looking for similar games are often recommended these. I don’t think any of them plays exactly the same as SHCD, but they clearly all share a lot of DNA. T.I.M.E. Stories in particular is also from Space Cowboys.

Video Games

When playing any Sherlockalike, I am frequently impressed by how much it feels like playing an open-world video game, but a full decade before such a thing could even have been be attempted. It even has the same failure modes! In 1991, someone ported the game to a computer with live-action acting, and apparently this also has been well-received. Somewhat more mystifyingly, someone has ported Arkham Investigator to Tabletop Simulator (I guess so you can all see the same books?).


Many people have attempted to write their own mysteries in the same vein as SHCD, and it’s easy to see the appeal. How might we go about doing this?

First, we can see what people have done before. There is advice on the construction of a mystery from the writer of some official cases and also from the writer of a notable fan case.

The community around the game has collected some tools you can use to set your mystery in the London of SHCD, like a reverse-engineered directory. And while the domain has lapsed, the Internet Archive has captured the remains of a community collection of other settings and scenarios.

Finally, we can take tools from mystery writing in other contexts, especially RPGs, to be sure we cover every angle. Fate reminds us that every suspect should have both a motive and an alibi. And the three-clue rule is pretty good for free-form RPG investigations, but it’s perfect for building the more constrained scenario of a Sherlockalike.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Links, Aug 2020



On The Media

OTM recently “rebroadcast” a past favorite episode of mine about post-apocalyptic literature. Interviews are with Jeff Vandermeer, Claire Vaye Watkins, and Kim Stanley Robinson discussing the nature of horror.

Here Be Monsters

An endless source of mood pieces and ruminations, HBM is parting ways with KCRW and seeking alternative funding. While they acknowledge this could mean a Patreon, they’re trying to get listeners to sponsor the podcast first. So that’s a potential avenue for promotions, shout-outs, or stranger ideas if you’re interested.

The Dungeon Economic Model

I heavily favor shorter podcasts, and these 10-minute faux PSAs about dungeon ecology with inexplicable running gags are really working for me.

Dead Club Podcast

Tunng is a long-time favorite band of mine and they’re releasing a podcast to accompany their new album.


Game Jams has a big problem with navigability. Some kind soul has made a dynamic page that lists all ongoing physical game jams. So if you’re in a slump, maybe try one of these.

Understanding Monsters

Dan at Throne of Salt, my unrequited blogging rival, has a really good post on monsters. It neatly articulated some ideas I hadn’t been able to pin down, and I know I’ll be referring back to it.

Drawing Maps

Anne at DIY & Dragons has done another comprehensive dive into a single game mechanic, this time examining map-drawing-for-advancement. It’s really good and thought provoking, and might give you ideas about “fixing” the ranger class or running more cut-throat rivals.

Sword Ferns & Salmon Flesh

Linden at Lapidary Ossuary reached out to me a while ago about hacking PALACE RUN for their own ends1, and now has a more finished game to show for it. I’ve really enjoyed seeing what elements they chose to keep and scrap, and what elements were added to the game (it has a lot more now). I’m eager to hear how it plays some time.

There is no logic to these images, the post just felt naked.

1 Please do! You don’t need my permission (writing on this blog is CC-BY-SA 4.0 and the 200 word RPG entries are all CC-BY 4.0), but you have it.back

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Automatic Tables

In 2012, I was (and still am) fascinated by the random table. A random table presents an exponential number of ideas in a linear space. Recombinant elements play in the gap between improv and rationalization, making each idea potentially unique and interesting. At the same time, raw probability can be leveraged against this massive scale to emphasize recurring themes or elements, building up a world solely through repeated use and implication.

So I took this fascination and built a bunch of tables that required rolling lots of dice to arrive at vaguely “fine?” results (if we’re feeling generous). Now I have the technology to easily automate these things, and I have done so. They might be more useful this way but mostly it was just fun to revisit them.

Snake Oil

“Doc, get me some more of that bottle…”

Sage Names

“All this we know from the writings of…”

Pulp Materials

“You’ll never stop it! It’s made of solid…”

Pub Names

“Not here! Meet me at…”

Holiday Crises

“I’ve called you all here because the holiday season is under threat!”

Monday, August 3, 2020

Notes on Three Systems

I’ve had the pleasure to run three new systems in the last year or so, and I’ve collected some notes here.


Mothership is a Science Fiction horror game in the vein of Alien or Event Horizon. The Player's Survival Guide is available from Tuesday Knight Games in print or from DriveThruRPG as a free PDF.

  • Character creation is as easy as the character sheet makes it look. It was great for new players and they picked up the percentile system quickly.
  • It is much harder to GM than it looks and I don’t think I did it justice. Coming from dungeon crawling games, I made a few mistakes:
    • You can’t foreshadow every encounter. Combat can start before players have a chance to run, without them necessarily doing anything “wrong”.
    • Remember to ask for saves. In a “normal” game, the players find a body and roll for loot. In Mothership they find a body and roll a save.
    • Familiarize yourself with the players’ tools or be ready to improvise. When players scan behind for signs of life, do undead show up? Do androids? Insects? Big insects? In D&D, I’m familiar enough to know what detect magic can and can’t do (or I can look it up for a whole page of detail depending on edition), but Mothership suffers doubly from being a genre I’m less familiar with and from still having such a brief rulebook.
    • The game has no “fallback” mechanic. If an action isn’t covered by stats, saves, or skills, then you have to come up with a consistent resolution on your own, and it’s just light enough that this is likely. If a character hides, you can have a negotiation about it or roll under the enemy’s instinct stat, but it would be nice if the game gave you some guidance.1
  • Make snacks. Figs can be quartered with a honey sauce to make xenomorph eggs, and green jalapeño jelly on chèvre looks “biological”. We had some more mundane snacks also, and for dessert, a chocolate olive oil cake with green matcha frosting.
  • Impromptu reviews of Oneohtrixpointnever included “I feel like the music is attacking me.” Ambient sounds were more constructive.

The players all said they had fun, so I’d try it again, but it definitely still feels like it’s in beta.


Troika! is some weird shit. You can get it from a few places, and there is also a free "demo" PDF on (it does not include the sample adventure Blancmange & Thistle).

  • Character creation is quick, but some players were a little miffed at their backgrounds. (We had to really emphasize that gremlins are purely malicious.)
  • Free form skills are a lot of fun, because they encourage players to really try anything and not worry about what they’re “good” at. Skills learned in the first session included jar fighting and high-fiving.
  • Free form skills also distract from existing skills that players might not know about. For example, none of the players had etiquette already, so it didn’t occur to them that they could rely on the skill instead of their role-playing when they were stuck. A list of skills can equally serve as a generator for ideas and a limitation.
  • Blancmange & Thistle is a nice little adventure that showcases Troika! very well, but the direction is loose. My players ascended the hotel and heard some calls to adventure at the rooftop feast, but there’s not a lot of momentum towards any of them.
  • Troikan initiative is a lot of fun in practice. For playing online, there is Dave Schiuridan’s tool and a Discord bot, or you can list the initiative tokens in a numbered list and roll an arbitrary die (shrinking it by one side after every roll).

D&D 5e

Dungeons & Dragons is a BFD. The fifth edition has a few starting points, but weirdly, it doesn’t look like you can buy the Player’s Handbook as a PDF.

Fifth edition is the easiest game to get a group together for. Because of this exposure, I’m sure I won’t say anything groundbreaking here.

  • If you don’t limit character choices before players start making characters then they will use anything they can find, and they can find a lot. Our party has a warforged, a tabaxi, and an artificer, so I'm mostly just letting them tell me how their characters work. The artificer was difficult because it's not always clear to a new player when things you find online are homebrew.
  • I had been warned about the power level and amount of magic, and while these things are higher than previous editions, I don’t think they’re game-breaking. It just gives everyone lots of different tools to interact with the environment and stronger assurances that they probably won’t die.
  • Some things that make sense to me (coming from older editions), and look fine at first glance, do not make sense at all to new players:
    • The step-by-step “building a character” section only works for that character. For more complicated characters, you will need to do the steps out-of-order and jump back and forth and add steps. When you’re finished, only about half the character sheet has been filled-in.
    • A lot of terminology is not explained. An “ability modifier” does not modify your ability score, but a “racial modifier” does, and then can indirectly change your “ability modifier”. When I write sixth edition, I will call the modifier a “bonus”, and scrap the score altogether.
    • Similarly, levels and spell levels have always been confusing. It’s not helped by every class having its own casting rules. I will call them “spell circles” when I am benevolent dictator of the next edition, as in “magic missile is a first-circle spell”.
  • The index is awful. In the space that it takes for “temporary hit points” to direct me to “hit points, temporary”, it could have given me the page number. The whole thing is like someone copied the style of an index without understanding it.
  • I think the GM tools are probably lacking, but I borrow liberally from everywhere, so it’s hard for me to judge.

There’s a lot of fun to be had with 5e, but I’m never sure how much is just the inherent fun of RPGs. Still, I think it’s got an undeserved reputation in some places.

1 There is a Warden’s (GM’s) guide planned, in the future. I hold out hope that book does for the GM what the survival guide does for players, but I’m less sure given the Twitter thread. There was definitely room to own that some parts of the rules were just less finished than others, but also everyone says dumb stuff on Twitter.back