24 Hour Crime Scene – RPG Review

A few months ago I had the great pleasure of reviewing Coffee Shop Screenwriter by William Long, so it was quite the lovely surprise to find his latest game 24 Hour Crime Scene turn up in my mail. Like his previous game, this is another RPG that can be played with just one player, but this time I decided to give it a crack with a couple of friends.

This short roleplaying game sees one or more players taking on the roles of detectives called to a location where a dead body has been found. Over 24 hours (turns) you’ll establish the environment of the crime scene, the clues found there, the background of the deceased victim, and the suspects likely responsible for the crime… if indeed any crime has been committed at all.

The major game mechanism is a sort of writing prompt form. Part of the setup is to construct a deck of 24 cards (hacked out of a regular playing deck) which generally gives a choice of two prompts for each hour. For instance, a card might give you the option of finding signs of struggle at the scene or alternatively discussing how you recognise the victim from somewhere else. After completing your prompt you’ll then get to add more details to the case, either by adding new Suspects or Clues to the Crime Scene or by expanding on those that already exist, such as connecting Suspects to Clues which then become Evidence.

By the time the deck has run out you’ll hopefully have created a dense little conundrum to resolve, packed with enough details to come to a reasonable conclusion while also containing enough confusion, contradiction, and distraction to give you room for doubt. At this stage you’ll have to decide on which Suspect you’re going to charge and with what crimes.

And how do you know if you’re successful? Well, you won’t. That isn’t really factored in, as the game quite openly states that the enjoyment is meant to be more about the journey than the destination. This is less a game about solving a case than it is about building it, and the satisfaction of being right or wrong is entirely up to you.

This can be a little unsatisfying if you’re the kind of person who likes a neat resolution. There isn’t that thrill you’ll get in something like Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective where you’ll feel so clever for having made a leap of logic that proves to be correct. Nor will you have that head-slappingly annoying moment where your whole case comes crashing down as someone walks in at the end and mentions that one piece of evidence that was right in front of you the whole time but you simply didn’t bother to factor it in. For good or ill, the ball is entirely in your court.

Which means the experience you’ll get here has a lot to do with your personal taste, which I discovered immediately with my two friends. One of them really didn’t like 24 Hour Crime Scene at all and decided to bow out partway through. He found it too vague and indirect, and if you’re looking for a challenge like a mystery to solve or a game to win then you’ll certainly not find it here.

And though it claims to be a role playing game, it isn’t the kind that most people would be accustomed to. Apart from what you bring to the table, there’s very little role to inhabit. Your detective has no agendas, drives, abilities, special moves, or other mechanisms that affect gameplay. Their background and personality may come into the game during play as prompts are answered, but these are mostly a cerebral exercise rather than a matter of personality.

But it’s not fair to keep on discussing what this game isn’t; does it succeed at what it actually is?

Our crime scene was in a carnival funhouse on Halloween where a local beauty queen was found strangled. There was also a lion which had escaped from the zoo going on which turned out to have nothing to do with the case, even though lion footprints were found at the scene.

I think it does very well in helping you make the details for a case, and it is definitely a lot of fun to make one. There could certainly be a bit more explanation on what the difference is between adding a feature and turning a feature into a Clue, and the Quick Start sheet could have made the Investigate actions a bit easier to remember, but these are easily fixed.

The card prompts are very good on the whole, and I especially like the fact that each card gives two options. We found in our game that some options were obvious choices for us, and at other times it was really fun to pick the less obvious one. Nevertheless, I really would have liked more instances like the Two of Clubs where the coroner removes the body from the Crime Scene, meaning you can’t add details to the Victim’s body any more. That kind of restriction and interference is something that could be elaborated on and greatly spice up the play.

Though there’s a solo mode, I think the game is better with at least one other person to bounce off, and though establishing connections is key to solving the case I think it’s far more interesting putting in details that complicate it, and this is easier with a second or third person whose different perspectives can twist the narrative off into muddier waters where more red herrings school. This adds a certain humour to the game, which is great, and also means that you can offer wildly different theories in the endgame, and enables you to vote on what really happened. (In our game, the player who backed out returned and acted as “The Judge” who decided which detective was right. This isn’t in the rules, but it was an addition that made our endgame pop.)

Speaking of the endgame, I mentioned that the lack of one was a disappointment in Coffee Shop Screenwriter, and though 24 Hour Crime Scene does actually have one it certainly isn’t strong. However, the game can continue with a simple and intuitive Serial Killer mode which is a very nice addition and quite workable.

In the end, I have to say that I like 24 Hour Crime Scene but don’t love it. As a writer myself I can really get behind these kind of games which take writing prompt structures and form them into narratives. But the gamer in me still wants a finish-line, and so far I’ve found the resolution to both the games I’ve read of Mr Long to be ultimately unsatisfying. The focus on journey rather than destination is fine, but at the end of the day the finale will colour the impression we take away from the experience.

And I do really, really like the journey. As one of my fellow players said, it’s a great tool which could help you build a mystery for use in another game, or to form a short story or novel around.

24 Hour Crime Scene can be obtained for a mere tenner here. There’s also a travel version which looks pretty cute.

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