Role-playing reviews

Reviews related to role-playing games, with a focus on Gods & Monsters, and a bit of superhero gaming.

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Remington Steele’s Detection Lesson: The Cluedunnit

Jerry Stratton, April 5, 2013

If you have not yet seen the first-season Remington Steele episode Hearts of Steele, watch it first. This episode is a classic cluedunnit, which means that I can’t talk about it without giving away a significant part of the enjoyment of the show.

Mind you, if you enjoy cluedunnits you’ll probably pick up on the solution pretty quickly: Remington Steele’s schtick was riffing on other media, mostly movies, and the clues—at least one of them—comes from a very well-known Sherlock Holmes story. In this sense, it resembles a lot of role-playing adventures and makes a good, simple, lesson in the presentation of clues in an RPG. While abductive reasoning should always be the number one tool in any adventure where the player characters must unravel a mystery, there need to be some pre-laid clues to let them know there’s a solvable mystery in the first place.

Television shows, like RPG adventures, have a limited period in which clues must be laid in order to have a fun result. In this episode, there are two clues that should direct the player characters, in this case Remington Steele and Laura Holt, to the solution of the mystery. There was one red herring, never explained, to lead them off-track.

In the movie, someone is trying to murder divorce lawyer Malcolm Marcall. Marcall is pretty certain that it’s the wife of one of his four current clients; he only has four clients because he’s winding down his practice in preparation for a very early retirement. He doesn’t want his wife to worry, so he hires the Remington Steele Detective Agency to go undercover as a potential fifth client and find out who. Since Remington Steele and Laura Holt bicker all the time anyway, they have no trouble convincing Marcall’s wife and the four suspects that they are in fact a divorcing couple.

The murder attempts are:

  1. Someone sneaks onto his property to rig his car to go forward when reverse is engaged. Their parking lot points over a cliff, thus, when the car is put in reverse to back out of the lot it goes over the cliff. Fortunately, Marcall heard someone fiddling with the hood during the night, and called Remington Steele to check the car for explosives. Thus, it was Steele who drove over the cliff rather than Marcall.
  2. Someone drops off an herbicide-poisoned wine at his house wrapped as a gift. He shares the wine with a client who has just completed his divorce, as well as with Remington and Laura. Fortunately, Remington and Laura are bickering too much to drink the wine and Marcall doesn’t drink—it upsets his ulcer. So only the recently-divorced client dies.
  3. Someone sneaks onto his property and tries to shoot him. He manages to hide until Remington and Laura arrive.

The obvious clues are:

  1. All four of the wives of Marcall’s current clients want him dead, and say so repeatedly. One even makes a half-hearted attempt to run him down in the street outside of the courthouse.
  2. At least three of the wives have, conceivably, a connection that could assist them in making those murder attempts. One owns a liquor store chain; one was once married to a race car driver and presumably knows people who know cars; one works as a florist and has access to herbicides.

Now, the obvious conclusion is that this is a riff on Murder on the Orient Express. Remington Steele even goes around to each of the wives and attempts to woo them with a bottle of the same wine that was used in the poison attempt, saying it was a gift from Marcall. While each of the wives are very amorous toward Steele, none will drink with him.

Obviously, all four did it.

Except for two clues which, in retrospect—that is, to the game master—look pretty damn obvious:

  1. While relaxing in a golf club clubhouse in the initial scene, Marcall is drinking milk. Alcohol upsets his stomach, he says, so he never drinks. He asks Steele not to mention it to Mrs. Marcall: she enjoys their appearances at cocktail parties and he doesn’t want her to know he doesn’t enjoy them as much as she does. When his wife shows up with Laura, he switches his milk for Steele’s cocktail, as if he’s been the one drinking it.
  2. They have very loud dogs who bark at everyone. Yes, of course, straight from Silver Blaze. Only one person can keep the dogs quiet: Mrs. Marcall.

There are also clues about motive (one of them mentioned in clue number one above); what makes this an interesting Remington Steele show is that Remington Steele isn’t usually about the clues, it’s about motive and character interaction. Which helps us as viewers not recognize them as clues, because we’re not looking for them. Steele and Holt also missed them: when it later turns out that someone sent him poisoned wine, it doesn’t occur to them that he doesn’t drink. So, when they chose to follow up on Steele’s movie-inspired idea of bringing all of the suspects together, the game master pounds it into their heads: when they accuse one of the suspects of having taken part in the wine poisoning, she responds that that’s a stupid idea, everyone knows he doesn’t drink. Meanwhile, every time one of the suspects shows up, the dogs start barking like crazy just before the doorbell rings.

In the midst of the player characters—Remington Steele and Laura Holt—testing their incorrect theory, the game master is pounding on the inconsistencies. Laura Holt picks up on the dogs that didn’t bark, potentially cued by the revelation that not only does Marcall not drink, but it’s only his wife that doesn’t know this1. It makes good character sense for Laura Holt to pick up on the latter clue before Steele: while Silver Blaze was a movie in 1937, it was more often a television episode in the various Sherlock Holmes series. And it’s real detection, which is her forte.

From a role-playing game standpoint, this points out several useful tricks. First of all, clues don’t stop happening just because they’ve already been seen. The dogs bark whenever they sense someone approaching the house. This has to keep happening, or it’s not a real clue. Malcolm Marcall doesn’t drink, and he’s in a subculture that does a lot of drinking. Other people will know this fact about him. I’d argue that the game master in this case failed slightly on this point: Steele should have run across this tidbit again when he went trolling for the poisoner. One of the suspects would have mentioned it.2

But, nonetheless, the clue does come up again at another natural point, during the accusation. Clues are not just one-time/one-location things. They exist in the context of the larger world, and either they or the reason they exist affects other things and other people in the larger world. Ignoring that makes the clue not really a clue.

The other part of it is that the real clues must overpower the red herrings. Red herrings can make a boring mystery interesting, but in a limited game session, like in the limited time for a television show, they must be kept to a minimum—probably no more than one—and then they must start conflicting almost immediately with the real clues.

Clues should be repeated whenever they are relevant, their reasons should cause related clues, and their effects should affect the whole world as the player characters interact with it—not just the one location where the clue is mentioned. For this reason, I will usually try to list the clues and their reasons at the beginning of any adventure notes I create, so that I can keep them in mind as the player characters wander through the world and poke at it.

  1. Technically, Laura Holt was not present when the initial reveal of the clue was made; that was between Remington Steele and Malcolm Marcall. Movies and television have the annoying habit of assuming that no information gets shared even after days have passed for the characters. In role-playing games, no such assumption should be made by the players.

  2. They never do explain why none of the wives were willing to share wine with Remington Steele.

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