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We tried to organize an investigation-based campaign, and we used the D&D engine. Unfortunately, this engine is not suited for investigation. The Call of Cthulhu engine is better, but it's deeply oriented towards the Lovecraftian setting.

For a more Victorian setting, with investigation as a central theme, what would you suggest?

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up vote 11 down vote accepted

GUMSHOE. This game is probably the best investigative game out there. It's resource based mechanics are perfect for most any type of investigative game. I've used it for Sherlock Holmes-style great detectives to House style games. Trail of Cthulhu would work well, just ignore all the mythos material. Which doesn't seem to be a problem if you thought of Call.

A second option, a little more difficult but better rooted in the era may be Castle Falkenstein, but I have no idea if it is still available in any way.

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Castle Falkenstein is available at… in PDF. – aramis Nov 24 '10 at 6:03

The Gumshoe System from Pelgrane Press.

It's light, flexible and targeted directly at investigation/mystery scenarios.

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This. GUMSHOE is the only system I know of which was explicitly created from the ground up with the explicit intention of being used for investigative games. It's also an excellent system on its own merits, with a lot of excellent design ideas that are really quite cutting-edge. – Burrito Al Pastor Oct 4 '10 at 22:27

I know the question already has an accepted answer (out of several great ones) and that you found the Call of Cthulhu too Lovecraft-oriented for "Sherlockian" adventuring, yet I think Cthulhu by Gaslight (or Call of Cthulhu: Gaslight) deserves at least passing mention. This old sourcebook contains a wealth of relatively brief, to the point, concise information about Holmes' London, from locations through customs to character archetypes, castes and "classes." I'd highly recommend it to all those who need a thorough yet far from encyclopedic introduction to the world of Sherlock Holmes (and just leave the tentacled stuff out. :))

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+1 because a lot of people would not realise this. Bill Barton, who wrote the 1st edition, is an avid Holmes enthusiast, and it shows! The next edition (3rd) is going to have less Holmes material, and more historical stuff, so arguably if you want it for this purpose, you should look for the earlier editions. – Dave Hallett Nov 16 '10 at 20:31
wow, there was a second edition? :-o i've missed that, thanks for the info! – OpaCitiZen Nov 16 '10 at 20:57
Yes, but there wasn't a lot of difference between the 1st and 2nd editions, other than putting it all into one book, rather than having a boxed set. See discussion here for details. – Dave Hallett Nov 18 '10 at 20:50

I don't know Gumshoe so I can't comment. But I suggest Forgotten Futures for a lot of background and nice ideas, especially if you want to stray a bit from pure Sherlockian canon and want to add some steampunk and paranormal elements (e.g. Karnacki).

Forgotten Futures is the labor of love of a very talented UK author and has been "in print" (i.e. available in electronic format, starting with floppies sent by snail mail) for decades, so you can expect a lot of stuff, and quite affordable (most if not all can be downloaded for free, I think).

On the other hand, if you want to stick to Sherlockiana, see if you can find a copy of Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective on eBay. It will give plenty if ideas (and nice props) for adventures.

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Forgotten Future books are a great purchase. The depth of love for the setting and the insight it gives makes them a very useful addition to one's shelf. – anon186 Aug 27 '10 at 15:06

Others are recommending Gumshoe or Trail of Cthulhu. What it has going for it is that all the necessary clues are there and your players have the opportunity to keep digging until they get them all; this is in contrast to Call of Cthulhu, where you have a standard roll and either find the clue or not. I wouldnt be taken aback by Trail of Cthulhu (there is also Pelgrane's lesser known Fear Itself system) focus on HPL - thats easy enough to strip out.

But I think you can use almost any system for this kind of play provided one of the following -

  • You have a skill system that supports investigative play (languages, lores, cultures, etc)


  • You let the players play out non-combat encounters and use their own role playing skills to mine for information

I am running a very investigation focused OGL/3.5 game focused on a millennial plot. All characters have, if not "lore" type skills, also interpersonal skills (Bluff, etc) or perceptual skills that support it. As long as you have skills to roll, you can set the tone. But I think some who play using the engine will be predisposed towards typical themes so maybe its worth looking elsewhere.

The recently opened d6 system is very skills focused - you can usually "try" just about anything. Im currently working on a rules set based on it for a possible steampunk (non-fantasy) campaign. You can download the d6 Adventure rules from for free.

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-1 for "system doesn't matter" argument, even with your skill system caveat. – Adam Dray Oct 6 '10 at 20:21
How is "system doesn't matter" a negative? I'm genuinely curious. – sprenge777 Nov 23 '10 at 19:34
Because the question is being asked by a person who explicitly states he is having a problem with rules. When someone asks "What would you suggest?", "Anything that does this is fine." is a vague and unhelpful answer. I did not give a -1 because Open d6 is an excellent suggestion. It's so easy and flexible that my friends and I have used it for exciting chases on foot to catch a suspect or racking up enough success to notice something hidden in a ledger. – Sheikh Jahbooty Nov 26 '10 at 15:15

I would, as always, recommend the excellent GURPS Mysteries RPGGeek book, by Lisa J. Steele. Typical of GURPS sourcebooks, it's got a lot of information on the genre in question. However, I found it particularly useful for its discussion of how mysteries in RPGs must differ from literary mysteries. Have fun!

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If you like CoC's mechanics, just use Chaosium's Basic Role Playing. It's the same engine, made generic.

Or, simpler, just ignore the SAN rules and the mythos based skills, and use CoC. (Which is, in essence, exactly the same thing as using BRP.)

And the issue of failed spot can be handled by a borrowed bit of advice out of Burning Wheel:
A failed roll is not a failed task, but a task that succeeds after some difficulty.

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