This post originally appeared on between 2004 and 2007.

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Click here for part I of the “Fear of Structure”

Last time we looked at the paradox inherent in running investigative scenarios, whether in GUMSHOE games like The Esoterrorists, or with other systems: structure is essential to the mystery genre, but players have learned to fear it, equating it with railroading or so-called “bread crumb trail” plotting.

What’s important is not whether the players really are following a set of scenes in a predefined order, but whether they feel like they have freedom of choice and are important participants in determining the direction and outcome of the narrative. They can feel straightjacketed when you improvise wildly, or think that they’re steering the narrative when you’re in fact running scenes in a flat-out linear order.

The simplest structure for a mystery scenario is, indeed, linear. All of the scenes occur in a predetermined order; at each scene, the PCs find a clue leading them to the next scene. During the climactic scene, they acquire the final clues. These allow them to piece together the solution to the mystery, resolving it. Diagrammed out, a purely linear scene structure might look like this:

More complex structures allow the PCs greater choice regarding the order in which they assemble the clues and move through the scenes. One scene might offer several clues, each leading to a different scene. The players decide where to investigate next.

Here, by creating multiple lead-outs from various scenes into others, we see that the same events can can occur in at least six different orders. Especially clever player choices may confer advantages; it may be, for example, that it’s easier to withstand the awful revelations of the Bag Of Hands sequence if the characters are prepared for it by what they learn of Mr. Pike’s Dilemma. Riskier choices may result in more hair-raising but faster play, as the investigators leapfrog over particular scenes. Maybe it’s smart to avoid the hazards of the Wood Chipper; on the other hand, maybe it provides an essential opportunity to regain precious mental stability.

There are as many possible structures as mathematical permutations of scenes. The more you rely on improvisation and rough notes, the easier it is to generate new connections between scenes on the fly. This is much easier to do as you go than to notate for someone else who’ll be running the adventure. Not only are alternate sequences of events difficult to convey clearly to the reader of a published adventure, but they chew up limited word count like crazy.

You could arrange your lead-outs so that the climactic confrontation could occur during any one of three scenes:


Here the climax can occur during the Wood Chipper, Fear Club or Ghost River scenes, whichever the PCs happen upon last. This also gives you the option to skip one of the three end scenes either for pacing purposes, or to reward the team for clever clue interpretation.

Players may create their own routes through your map of possible scenes, rather like Billy from those horrible Family Circus cartoons where you see his circuitous route through the neighborhood. They might return to a previous scene to scour it for clues they didn’t look for the first time around. You may deliberately introduce callbacks-for example, Mr. Pike may be only partially forthcoming the first time around, revealing a final bit of information only when confronted with evidence found near the Wood Chipper:

Although I’ve used a linear structure in the above diagram for clarity’s sake, callbacks can just as easily be done in a branching structure.

However robust your branching structure, there is still the matter of player perception to contend with. No matter how many possible sequences of events your scenario offers, the players wind up with only one. Like I said last time, scenarios may or may not be linear, but all remotely narrative RPG adventures are linear as played. To repeat a diagram, the possible structure may look like this:

But your story as played will look like this:

Or this:

Or this:

Or whatever.

In other words, one of your tasks as GM of an investigative game is to make the adventure feel like it presents a multiplicity of choice and a complex structure-which is not the same as ensuring that it actually possesses those qualities.

Do this by salting your scenario with disruptive events unrelated to the collection of clues. The Esoterrorists ensures that PCs get the clues they need to interpret the mystery, but offers no similar guarantee that they won’t be dismembered by ichor-dripping beasties from the Outer Dark. Disruptive events can include action sequences, including fights, chases, evasions, and infiltrations. These can be instigated by the players, or by antagonists reacting to their investigation. In a more low-key but possibly more memorable mode, disruptive events can also include scenes of drama or character development that evoke an emotional response in players. Maybe they confront a moral dilemma, having to sacrifice one good to attain another, before moving on to the next investigative scene.

Disruptive events may be triggered by actions undertaken in investigative scenes. Or they can be free floating, to deploy as pacing demands. Since their entire purpose is to add choice and uncertainty to what might otherwise feel like a linear storyline, ensure that player choice reigns supreme in these sequences. Each must allow for a full range of success or failure. If they get to chase an antagonist, they must have a chance (perhaps slim) of catching him. Moral dilemmas should offer no easy cop-outs, and so on. In GUMSHOE, resolutions of disruptive events can confer advantages in investigative sequences, but cannot rule out the collection of core clues.

(In games with traditional clue gathering techniques, where you make ability rolls to gain information essential to investigation, failed rolls have served as faux-disruptive events. They disguise the basic linearity of the mystery genre, but they do it by introducing unnecessary additional scenes in which the GM frantically improvises workarounds to get the PCs the info they should have gleaned the first time around. Ironically, the traditional paradigm in effect uses failure and frustration to create the illusion of infinite choice and possibility. What it really provides is annoying extra padding.)

With the addition of disruptive events, your final branching structure might look something like this:

Hmm. Maybe we should have a contest and award a prize who can tell us who Mr. Pike is, what he has to do with the bag of hands, and what dread fate awaits him at the Fear Club…