What follows is an account of my thought processes and experience designing Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective: The Baker Street Irregulars, a game in the Consulting Detective line. It has been designed as an introduction to Consulting Detective for those who have never played before, while also giving experienced players something new.The Case of the Missing Mysteries
It was a clear winter's day in 2013 when I was shown into the rooms of the world's most famous detective. He was standing at the fireplace, pipe in hand; his brow furrowed. I had no doubt he was tackling some fiendish puzzle of great importance on which, perhaps, the fate of the entire country depended.
"Holmes", I ventured, timidly, "sorry to disturb you, but I am here to ask for your help."
"Ah, Mr. Neale", he said, looking up. "I was just wondering what to have for lunch. Pray, join me — the table is laid for two."
"You expected me?"
"But how could you possibly..."
"Elementary, Mr. Neale. I noted that after you last helped me solve a case, you seemed restless. You have spent much of your time perusing the works of my good friend, John Watson, and although your countenance indicated you did so with pleasure, there was also an air of despondency. It was as if you felt something was missing. Clearly, you were facing an interminable problem." He moved to the window and gazed out at the passers-by, then added, "And when people have problems, they come to me."
I nodded, and took a seat at the table. "It is as you say, Holmes. Some time ago, I discovered an old copy of Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective and fell in love with the game. I eagerly sought out all of the expansions and played those, too. It is a game that perfectly captures the atmosphere of your adventures, drawing the players into the world of Victorian London with compelling and inventive mysteries. And it is an elegant system. First, you read the introduction, consult the map, newspaper and London Directory, and decide where to go to investigate the mystery. After reading the entry for your chosen destination, you repeat the process until you think you have solved the case. At that point, you answer the questions and read the solution. But now, I have played the last of the mysteries and I am bereft. My mind rebels at stagnation. I crave for mental exaltation."
"Very well put — particularly those last two statements", said Holmes, thoughtfully. "I'll remember them. And yours is a position I thoroughly appreciate. But there are no more mysteries. You know that. Even to a brain as astute as mine, no solution can present itself. It is simply..." He paused, and I detected a glimmer in his eyes.
"What is it, Holmes?"
"Well, Mr. Neale. There is one possibility. But it is so outlandish, so extraordinary, that I do not feel you should give it any serious consideration."
"Let me be the judge of that, Holmes."
The great detective raised his eyebrows. "Very well. There are no more mysteries. So why don't you create some yourself? You have written stories all your life, have you not? You have been reading Watson's works since you were eight. Correct me if I am wrong, but I recall that you even composed and performed plays featuring yours truly, for the other children in your school. Now would seem an opportune time to resume such literary endeavors."
"Yes, Holmes", I said. "You are right. I think I could even create a whole series of cases... I will begin at once. Thank you."
I began to stand, but Holmes said, "Hold on, Mr. Neale. Do not be so hasty. There is much to consider before you begin."
"Such as the process of creating a case. Such as whether you will modify or extend the rules. Such as how you will ensure the wonder of my unrivaled intellect is as prominent as it is in the original cases."
"Some say you cheated in those cases."
"I never cheat! It is true that I make a lucky guess on occasion, but unless you are good at guessing it is not much use being a detective, as someone once said. I forget who it was."
"Still, perhaps we should minimize the guessing."
"Meaning I will expound a clear thread of impeccable logic that shows how I reached the solution? Very well. I can do that. In fact, some might say it is my raison d'etre."
"Quite. That's what I'll aim for, anyway. And at the same time, I may update the rules to address some other concerns players had with the original cases. I mean, it is an excellent game — still, perhaps, my favorite — and was a trailblazer in its time, bringing co-operative storytelling to the table long before it became the industry-wide phenomenon it is today, but it's now over thirty years old. Games have changed a lot since then, and players have had ample time to voice their likes and dislikes. For example, many players find it too hard."
"Too hard?" Holmes cried. "But Mr. Neale, the mysteries practically solve themselves!"
"For you, Holmes, but not for most people. In my first few games, we were happy when we got a score above zero. Out of 100."
"Perhaps it could be a touch easier, but many people adore a challenge."
"You're right, so I feel the cases should also cater to those people, but I can't do both, can I?"
"Yes, you can. It is all about the peripheral clues, Mr. Neale. Have a direct path that leads to a solution — the one which I follow, of course — but ensure that for players who wander from that path, there are some encounters that generate further clues, pushing them gently back in the right direction. Thus, those who crave a significant challenge can attempt to follow my path exactly, while those who find it too difficult will gain help by visiting the other locations. To some extent, the game will adapt to the ability of the players."
"That makes sense." I thought for a moment then added, "Although in some cases I have in mind that will be hard to do because there could be one specific thing players have to do to progress."
"Ah, like these 'escape room' games I hear have become rather popular."
"Indeed. And those games help stuck players by using a hints system, so I could do the same. I'll give stuck players help on those cases by making you more useful."
Holmes muttered, "I beg your pardon?"
"Sorry, I meant useful to the players. Some have pointed out that in the original game the rules say they can visit you if they get stuck, but the hints you give often aren't very helpful."
"I didn't want to spoil it for them."
"If they've got to the point where they come to you for help, they want some of it spoiled. They want useful hints."
"A three-pipe problem, indeed," I replied. "But perhaps I can deal with it in the same way I intend to tackle another problem."
"Sometimes, in the original cases, players would visit a location and the entry they read would not make much sense, referring to people and events they knew nothing about. The writers thought the players would go somewhere else first, and so the entry assumed they had knowledge they did not actually have. And I've realized that can be fixed that quite simply, using a tracking system. I will give the game a memory. At some points it will instruct players to circle a letter of the alphabet — for example, if you learn about a stolen wheelbarrow, it may say 'circle the letter H'. Then, when you go to the wheelbarrow shop, you will read one thing if H is circled, and something else if it is not."
"I'm not sure wheelbarrow shops exist."
"That's not the point, Holmes. The point is that the game will 'know' where players have been and what they know. And that means that if they come to you for help, they can read a different hint depending on which letters they have circled. They will get help related to where they are in the case."
"Excellent, Mr. Neale. I believe you are on to something. It also means that during a case, players could acquire useful crime-fighting items, such as a magnifying glass or a deerstalker hat."
"Yes," I replied, and then suddenly, my mind was racing. "And this means that some cases could have objectives! Rather than play until you think you've solved it, maybe you need to rescue someone or find something. And the final case could have multiple possible endings...and perhaps it is a sort of climactic finale like the last episode of a TV series, bringing hidden threads together, weaving them into an unexpected but..."
"Enough!" Holmes interrupted. "I suggested only players could find a hat, and you turn it into War and Peace. By all means, attempt these grand schemes if you are so inclined, but you haven't written one word yet, Mr. Neale, and I fear you are getting a little ahead of yourself." I nodded, suitably abashed. Holmes continued, "Instead, let's move to more immediate concerns — how will you go about devising these mysteries? If I may, I would like to make two suggestions."
"By all means, Holmes."
"It strikes me that one can approach this from the start or the end. If from the end, you create a series of events that lead to a crime, then devise a way of making them appear uncommon and mysterious. Conversely, approaching it from the start, you invent a perplexing mystery — something you find bizarre and cannot explain — and then devise a solution."
"Hmm, I see", I said, mulling this over. "I think I will use both. But I particularly like the second option — in a sense, it means I'd be solving the mystery myself. For example..." I paused to glance around the room, and my eyes settled on the table laid for lunch. "A man is at a restaurant dining with a friend. He leaves the room for a moment part way through the meal, and when he returns the friend is gone. No note, no word, there was no argument or anything he can think of to explain the disappearance. He has not seen his friend since. That seems like an intriguing beginning, so now I just need to think of an explanation that makes logical sense."
"More than one explanation, Mr. Neale. The first one you devise is likely to be the one most players will settle on first, and it will be more interesting if that is not the actual solution. So reject your first solution, and find another."
"Find two logical solutions for an apparently inexplicable series of events?"
"Indeed. Or maybe three or even…"
"I'll stick with two, thank you."
There was a moment of silence, then Holmes suddenly let out a sharp laugh and exclaimed, "Capital!"
Seeing the look of bafflement on my face, he said, "Apologies. An idea just occurred to me that would be highly amusing. As I have often said to Watson..." He paused a moment. "I feel if I spoke this aloud it could constitute what you call a 'spoiler'."
"Perhaps you should whisper it."
Holmes nodded, leaned forward, and whispered seven words in my ear.
I laughed and said, "Yes, I will use that. I think I can make it work."
"Excellent," Holmes replied, with a smile. "Now, Mr. Neale, the game is truly afoot."
Writing the cases was a long, difficult, but rewarding process, and a lot of playtesting was required. And as all designers know, people never do what you expect them to do. I remember some of my first playtests, when, after creating what I felt was a perfectly crafted case, I would watch with growing surprise as the players latched on to viable theories I had never considered, tried to follow up clues I had never intended to be there, and missed clues I had feared were far too obvious. Sometimes, entire rewrites were required. Slowly, from 2013 to 2017, I created ten cases. Thankfully, I found the process became a lot faster and easier as I progressed; I was learning how to anticipate players' decisions and thought processes far more accurately.
Wanting to ensure as far as possible that the logic of the cases was strong, I set myself the benchmark that until at least six groups in succession — all composed of strangers — said they found no problems with Sherlock's solution or the plausibility of it, I would not consider that case for inclusion in the set. A couple of cases never reached this point and were dropped. Those that did reach that point entered another round of testing and were then sent to the publisher (who did more testing).
Early on, I decided I wanted my set to have some kind of coherent theme. In the original Consulting Detective, you are told that you are members of the Baker Street Irregulars, but I felt that, apart from their leader, Wiggins, they never felt that present in the game. I realized that putting them under the magnifying glass was a great way to connect a series of cases and make players feel more invested in the game world as part of a team of recognizable characters.
To this end, the first case in my set is the first full case the Baker Street Irregulars ever worked on, and the following three cases each center around a different member of the Irregulars. After that comes a series of six cases telling the story of a particular year and the arrival of a new Irregular. When Space Cowboys asked me to write a free introductory case, the narrative was complete. Starting with the short demo, An Irregular Meeting, and playing through to the final case in my set, Death of a Detective, players can now follow a story that spans a decade. They will witness the beginnings of the Baker Street Irregulars, learn more about the lives of some of the members, then experience the dramatic and emotional conclusion of one of their most challenging years.
It wasn't until 2016 that I learned my cases would be published. I had sent the first case, The Curzon Street Kidnapping, to Ystari Games in 2014, then sent another two cases in 2015, but various factors meant a long delay before I received a response (mainly the merging of Ystari with Space Cowboys, and internal decisions about what they wanted to do with the line). But I was understandably thrilled when, eventually, they emailed to say they wanted me to create an entire set, and I am forever indebted to Thomas Cauët for championing my cause and persuading the Space Cowboys team of the quality of my work.
And that was only the start of my journey. While writing my cases, I discovered the excellent Playtest UK and met designers Brett Gilbert and Matthew Dunstan, among others, at the Cambridge group. I went to SPIEL, which is now an annual trip (bar 2020, of course), where I pitched new narrative games to publishers and was offered more contracts. When Space Cowboys asked me to visit them in Paris in 2018, I came up with an idea for a Sherlock Holmes Unlock! scenario, which I pitched to them, and they published.
In sum, writing that first Consulting Detective case was the spark that ignited my game design career — a small project that completely changed my life. And it was a meaningful moment for me in 2017 when I was put in contact with one of the original designers, Suzanne Goldberg, and was able to tell her that.
Slowly, I entered the room. Holmes was once again at the fireplace, but this time he looked entirely relaxed. A gentle smile played at his lips.
"I imagine", he continued, "you are hesitating because you feel a sense of guilt for not having visited me in so long."
"Yes", I replied. "I am sorry not to have called, but what we talked about last time — it's all come together, better than I could have imagined. And it's occupied my time, I've been..."
"Solving tantalising mysteries."
"Lost in the gaslit fog of Victorian London."
"Re-reading Watson's works with a new appreciation; noticing things you never noticed before."
I realized there was no point in speaking. I just nodded.
"In short", he continued, "you have been engaged in all the things you were searching for when you last came to me. Your absence has been proof of my success — do not feel guilty for it. My only question is, why have you come to me now?"
I shifted uneasily. "Because I have an idea. Well, more than one, actually." As I spoke, I handed him a file with some sheets of paper: sketches, names, plot outlines, diagrams...
He spent a minute or two looking over them, and I noticed him grin when he saw a familiar face. Then he said, "I see. You are concerned that in writing mysteries where I am not the central figure I may feel resentment; that perhaps in some way you would be betraying me. Well, I can assure you that is not the case at all, Mr. Neale. I may be the greatest detective, but I know I am not the only detective. This simply shows your problem will not return for some time yet, if ever. You have found a way to keep mysteries at the heart of your life, and there are so many stories to tell. Go and tell them, with my blessing."
"Thank you, Holmes."
As I moved towards the door, he said, "I have also had an idea."
"This set of cases you have written. What if there was more for players to discover?"
"What do you mean?"
"Ha!" He exclaimed, his eyes sparkling with excitement. "I am aware this may be another 'spoiler', so I have taken the liberty of writing it down for you." He passed me an envelope, which I pocketed.
"I will be sure to include it," I said.
"Excellent. And remember, whenever you need me, I am here." He gave a small bow, then walked over to the armchair.
Outside, I paused to look up at the window where he sat. He had lit his pipe and was letting the smoke drift and curl around him as he gazed over Baker Street, bathed in the last of the evening light. Seeing his meditative expression, I suddenly realized it reflected his confidence that there will always be more problems to solve, and that the world will never fail to present new and intriguing mysteries to those who go looking for them.
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04 Aug 2020
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