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I'm just starting to get into tabletop RPGs, and specifically I've been playing some Savage Worlds, which I REALLY enjoy. I was wondering, has anyone run a mystery game with SW? I've been thinking an RPG would be a cool venue for a noir-detective kind of story, given that the players can go in any direction and follow any lead, as opposed to a video game (like LA Noire) where it is necessarily more regimented and linear for programming reasons.

That being said, my (small) experience with Savage Worlds is that it really shines in combat, allowing for quick enemy creation and speedy fights against large crowds. Has anyone run a more cerebral, clue-following game in SW? If so, how did it go? And if not, do you think it would be well-suited to the concept?

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4 Answers 4

up vote 8 down vote accepted

Absolutely, Savage Worlds can run that type of game. There's even an official published setting that might do what you need it to...

Its called Deadlands Noir, a Raymond Chandleresque mashup with horror and magic elements, and contains additional rules for various things that you might find in a mystery game, including:

  • Detective work (split between Hitting the Books and Legwork)
  • Interrogation
  • Patter (an extended type of persuasion used to defuse tense situations)
  • Tailing

The default geographic location is New Orleans in the 1930s, and there is a detailed background with districts, individual locations and characters from the city. It's a well supported setting, with a recent companion book that widens its scope to other cities at the time, and there are a number of published adventures.

I've run a couple of mystery based adventures using the setting, where the PCs played Private Investigators, and they went down extremely well.

The only caveat to Deadlands Noir is that it is predictably set in the Deadlands universe, and as such has quite a lot of fluff that you might not want if you want to run a more generic Noir setting. However, it would be pretty straightforward to remove anything you deem unnecessary.

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Just a quick comment - you might want to leave it a couple of days before accepting an answer. It can take that long for those who might want to respond to read the question, and you might find a much better one than this :o) –  Phil Dec 17 '13 at 22:30

Can Savage Worlds handle a mystery game? Absolutely. Is it the best system for a mystery game? Maybe, maybe not.

As you pointed out, Savage Worlds shines the most in combat (which makes sense given that the first iteration of the rules was a simple, fast miniatures wargame). That's where most of the rules for Savage Worlds are. Rules for clue-following, interrogations, and trailing a person are possible using generic skills like Notice, Investigation, Persuasion, and Stealth, but more mechanically defined rules simply don't exist in the core.

Over the last few years I've run a handful of investigative games in Savage Worlds (mostly in the Deadlands setting) and honestly most of the investigation has been handled by storytelling, rather than the rules because rules for facilitating investigations didn't exist. Players might use Notice to spot a clue, but after that, the players decide how they are going to interpret the clue or follow up on a suspect. If they were interrogating a subject, we almost always did it with narrative storytelling than dice-rolling.

In other words, we weren't so much playing Savage Worlds as we were doing group storytelling. We could have been using the rules from GURPS, Doctor Who, or even Dungeons & Dragons and I doubt we would have noticed. Although players who were more into role-playing were fine with this, in my experience the players who like rolling dice tended to get a little bored because the key aspects of Savage Worlds simply weren't being used.

If you want a system that has rules laid out for running investigations and does not emphasize combat (like say a CSI game), I'd suggest looking at another system that is designed to support it. In fact, the only reason I might recommend Savage Worlds for an investigative campaign is if combat was going to be an important part of the game and you wanted to preserve the "fast, furious, fun" style, which may not be appropriate for every type of investigation.

Now there is the newly published Deadlands Noir, which adds new rules to support an investigative game, such as rules for interrogations and trailing suspects. This does fill in the gap for the lack of rules to facilitate an investigation and helps keep the die-rolling players happy. However, combat is still an important part of the setting because it is in the noir genre (where a bullet equals justice) and there are a fair number of monsters you can fight.

So to sum it all up: an investigative game in the core Savage Worlds is basically group storytelling due to a lack of rules which, in my experience, can be boring for players who like rolling dice. Deadlands Noir adds some rules for it, which can be stolen if you don't want to play in the setting. Either way, I think you need combat to be an important part of the game or you're better off looking for another system to handle your mystery game.

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I have been looking at Savage Worlds as a system (I haven't run any games yet) so take what I am about to say with a grain of salt.

But I have listened to a few actual play podcasts for Savage Worlds and one in particular is about the "LA Branch of the Ghostbusters" solving a mystery. Yes, there is some combat, but because of the fast-paced nature of Savage Worlds combat it is quick and over with quickly and so it doesn't distract from the mystery much (and in my opinion just adds a level of danger to the player's actions).

The whole session is not all that long and its only a one-shot but it might be worth a listen to see how one person handles a mystery in Savage Worlds.

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Good link, thanks! –  Alexander Winn Dec 18 '13 at 18:28

The hurdle to investigative games is making sure players get the information they need to bring a story to a satisfying conclusion. If you decide that a skill check or other roll is necessary for characters to gather this vital data, make sure that failure does not mean something gets withheld. Rather, have failed rolls call for other complications like personal injury, damage to the clue (you found prints but bungled the connection so it won't hold up in court), angry witnesses (the thug now holds a grudge against you for the rough questioning), or other problems (a nervous neighbor called the cops when she saw you snooping).

Also, note that I used the words "information" and "data" instead of clues. A lot of people subscribe to the three clue rule - which holds that there should be three things that create a link in the investigation. That works fine, but rather than brainstorming thrice as hard for each clue, think in terms of facts forging these links, and the clues will follow logically. Even better, let the players dream up the clues they are looking for and they do part of the dirty work! If the killer was present at scene A and the characters search there for footprints, then let them find footprints. Same with fingerprints, or evidence of a jimmied door, or whatever the players think of, if it suits the plot (the only times this wouldn't be automatic is when the specific kind of evidence named would not be present, because there is something unique about the scene, suspect, or crime that makes this stick out).

That said, I find that Savage Worlds adventures tend to provide the right amount of detail for mystery scenes.

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