The Assassins Lamp
This is an an idea for a slightly different pattern of Investigation Adventure, which I will probably never have the time to flesh out into a real thing so here you go.
It was provoked a little by listening to that FoaBD podcast episode about Death on the Reik and by thinking about Investigations in games generally and the challenging polarity of creating a network of clues which both presents a meaningful challenge but which also doesn't leave the investigators trapped and sprawling.
This would suit an Arabian Nights-style setting in which the Genie would be an actual Genie,
but could probably be adapted to a variety of settings.
This is how it goes;
- Someone is doing murders around the city (this would probably have to take place in a city, town or even more closely connected community).
- These murders are, in some sense, impossible. Either locked-door mysteries, victim killed with some unlikely substance (i.e. a sword of cheese), or in some other unlikely way.
- The PCs work out that a Genie is responsible for the deaths.
- The Genie is too powerful for anyone in town to defeat it directly or easily.
- However. The Genie is being ordered to commit these crimes by whoever has its lamp. And the Genie does not want to be doing these things.
- But it has to obey the directly-given orders of its lamp-holder.
- So the Genie will keep killing people as ordered. But it will do so in such a way that it actively tries to leave clues, inferences and details which will help the Investigators (the PC's) find their way to the holder of its Lamp.
- If the Lamp-Holder works out the Genie is doing this, they will;
First, give specific orders for the Genie to not do the things it has previously been doing, meaning the nature of its clues will shift each time its actions are discovered, becoming more and more distantly contextual.
Second, order the Genie to kill the PCs.
So the PCs will have to investigate in such a way that the successes of their investigation are near-invisible, at least so the Lamp-Holder cannot tell the PCs are on their trail. And they will have to wait until they are absolutely certain before they pounce.
This is essentially a kind of Death Note game of wits situation, except that the Shiginami is actually trying to help the detectives.
Its meant to get over the 'searching for clues' part of the Investigation without resorting to too much world-bending fluffiness because the PCs know there are going to be clues because they know the Genie is trying to leave them. They just don't know in which form the clue will exist.
And hopefully the 'Game of Wits' thing where the PCs realise they have to disguise their investigation as something else would just emerge naturally from play.
NEEDFUL THINGS TO BE DEVELOPED
List of Victims.
The first few victims of the Lamp Holder may provide the strongest initial indicators to their identity. At this stage they may not have fully processed that they were going to be investigated and could have chosen people based on more personal factors.
As time goes by they will probably try to obscure their trail by killing random or semi-randomly chosen people. They will have to kill people who are on their trail, and will have to kill more so those particular murders are lost in the pattern or ignored completely.
So the list would actually only be a 'list' for the first few murders. After that it would be a series of randomisers and possible methods of concealing murders.
Limits of the Lamp
The more limits are placed on the use of the Lamp (if it is a lamp) and the more contextual and specific they are, the easier the investigation will be.
Specifically, if there is some limit on the number of murders. If they can only kill once per night then the Lamp Holder may have to restrain themselves in order to defend their own safety. If there are only specific ways that someone can be killed (i.e. never the same method twice or never the same wish twice), that places a harness on their (and your) imagination and makes the PCs safer the more deaths they fail to prevent.
Safe zones. Maybe the Lamp can't be used during the day, or during a certain festival or when loud music is playing, maybe it is recharged by the moon, maybe the Genie can't enter certain sacred spaces or has to do something to get in, like be invited, or knock.
Tracing the Lamp. Tracking the Lamp itself has to be one of the best ways to find the killer and the more specifics there are to the nature of the killings the easier its will be to trace.
Investigating the Lamp could also reveal a specific secret weakness that maybe even the Lamp Holder doesn't know about, allowing the PCs to pull a last-minute emergency deactivation during the final scene and engaging Genie Vengeance.
Patterning of the Clues
The more the Lamp Holder realises they are being traced, the more specific will be the orders they give the Genie, restricting its actions and what it can reveal.
Of course if the Lamp Holder gives orders of overwhelming restriction then those risk allowing the Genie to prevent the murder, or to do something the Lamp Holder really doesn't want as, with mutually-impossible overriding instructions, there is a risk the Genie could just make something up that fits.
So the patterning of clues has to begin in a way that's clearly legible to the PCs. But once they follow up the initial clues, the patterning has to change, and change again each time they make a visible successful assumption.
So the opening encounter could be something as simple as them witnessing a terrible murder, maybe of a child or woman. Then they try to stop it. The Genie easily defeats them (but doesn't kill them as it hasn't specifically been ordered to do so.
But the Genie can actually talk to them (because it hasn't been ordered not to yet). It can't give away any details of its owner, but it can effectively tell the PCs it doesn't want to be doing this. Maybe it can tell them that it cannot by any word or omission reveal the identity of its master.
But it could leave something behind, an object, something moved in the room, the location of the murder, the methods used, the murder weapon....
The local cops need to be that strange combination of investigation stories, clearly competent and well-meaning enough to interact with, but also so generally derpy that only the PCs ever really get anywhere.
Or you can go for a darker feel in which the Cops or city authorities are somehow 'in on it' or just generally corrupt and bad. In this case maybe the PCs are the only ones who know or believe their theory about the Genie.
Even then you would need a Jim Gordon figure to bring them info about the case.
And you would need some element to make the PCs Investigators. Maybe they get a special badge from the Arabic Feds, like the Caliph gives them a scroll but he's gotta go out of town. Maybe there are some complex inter-ethnic or fantasy-ethnic fractures in the city so this group of high-status, or unknown-status outsiders (the PCs) are the only ones who can cross those lines and talk to everyone.
Probably what I would go for, in my usual style, is an actual opening scene with the Caliph themselves.
Say there's a murder of some vulnerable person and the PCs witness this and/or get wrapped up in it *as it happens*.
Hopefully they are heroic about it and at least try to be useful.
Then we have a big Robin Hood/Lionheart reveal scene, because one of the people who witnessed this was in fact THE CALIPH IN DISGUISE (as subtly suggested some time near the beginning of the scene).
So the Caliph, in full regalia (as the cloak is thrown back). The Caliph is a noble dude, like a Disney dad, he's regal, but he cares about his people. And he's old, or maybe he's got a wasting disease or something (which he bears with nobly), or maybe he's a kid.
But the Caliph knows the PCs are good guys, and knows about the situation with the Genie, and obviously understands that their investigation must remain secret, but, as honourable outsiders "You are the only people I can trust, will you help me my friends?". Also he's getting the fuck out of town till this invisible assassin situation is resolved. Here's my seal, good luck.
So we have the avengers of social wrong motivation with the murder of some innocent, and the agents of righteous authority motivation with the "Guys, the Caliph needs you." So if you don't get 90% of players with both of those at the same time then I have no idea what to do.
Oh, also there's a reward and its that thing you were looking for, social position and/or a bunch of cash. There, now 99% of players.
Probably you would want some helpful dork to come along and tell the players, or at least suggest to the players, basic concepts they should have already gotten in their heads but which are utterly necessary to the investigation. In Silent Titans the Ouzel played this role, maybe here you could have some Blind Fakir or wandering Holy Man who just happens to be around to offer good advice. A Genie expert or Lamp salesman. (Who can also be a possible suspect).
Obvious Methods of Concealment
Hopefully the players rapidly get the idea that they should be concealing their advances (and possibly emphasising their failures) to stop the Lamp Holder realising what is going on.
So it would be helpful if the city in question thronged with opportunities for concealment or invisible action. Maybe there are groups with masks or who go around in long robes. A festival where everyone dresses up. Geography or a built environment that makes concealment and secret movement possible (rooftops, sewers, multi-exit homes, areas divided by screens, hanging cloths or passable obstacles of some kind, ethno-social position uniforms or ID-fashions of some kind that make it relatively easy to 'swap costume'.
In another murder story these would be ways for the killers to escape detection, but here the Genie can do that easily so they are meant to prompt the PCs to find ways to hide what they are up to, because...
The Baddy is Getting Closer
In classic Death Note style, since all of the other cops are Derplords, the Lamp Holder is going to realise that the PCs are their main enemy, and they are going to try to find ways to get close to the investigation.
The more they can find out about the PCs the better they can combat them, but the more vulnerable they become.
So this provides both opportunity and threat to the PCs as, if the Lamp Holder finds out a lot about them, they can just take them out, but as they are getting closer they are more and more likely to make a mistake themselves and to become vulnerable in some way.
There would need to be some kind of mechanism. No, it wouldn't need to be a mechanic, but some suggested routes or paths for the Lamp Holder to use to get close to the PC's, like threatening the family of this one guard, worming their way into the affections of the bureaucratic overseer, becoming a housemaid and cleaner to the PCs, creeping around in the sewers etc.
Whats the Motive
Is it like a Death Note thing where they are bringing JUSTICE to the world and stopping them is a matter of philosophy more than anything? Are they a killer with a point? Or a mad Anarchist like the Joker who is trying to pull the skin off the face of the social world? Does this one go "right to the top" and there is a head of department or Vizier who is trying to make some kind of point? Or maybe they are a very small, very ignored person like a housewife or beggar who has stumbled into unexpected power and is now getting a chance to use their previously un-demanded intelligence?
Since the motive and relative social position (and access to information it provides) is going to be the major constraining factor on the choice of victim, probably best to work that out first.
And then what about High Level Play?
The Goddamn high-level investigation and magical tracing spells. Fucking mystery-killing fuckers.
We can maybe get around this somewhat by making the Genie, or Demon or whatever, either very high-level or from outside the socio-cultural context of the PCs. So maybe its this thing or entity they have never seen before, so their dispels and trackers won't work on it.
That's a half-bullshit explanation but whatever.
So far as tracing the lamp, well, who's to say its actually a Lamp? Or what it is? All you really know about it is whatever you can learn from the circumstances of its use.
The Speak with Dead stuff actually isn't that bad, as the murderer didn't do the killing themselves the most useful things that can be found out are stuff that might place the victim in the pattern of people who came into the notice of the Lamp Holder. So the PCs would still need to 'investigate' by asking the spirit questions.
Really the most dangerous stuff is the meta-magical spells that would dispel, trap or kill the 'Genie' or compel it to truth right away. Not sure what to do about those other than nerf them. Its a bit of a basic bitch answer I know.
So, there you go. With about a month of work you could probably get the simple version where there is one set killer in a specified social network and a specific lamp with particular rules.
With maybe a year of work you could get the full Ennie-bait version where all that stuff is broken down into tables and the killer, motivation and nature of the Lamp are different each time.
Instead you get this.