Tuesday, 11 February 2020

So, you want to be a Ghost Detective?

(long and loose world- and mechanics- wireframe about how to play a detective who is trying to put ghosts to rest; more broad strokes and words than actual solutions and mechanics. Intended for one-player game, hopefully to be tried this summer)

It is a difficult job, bad hours, in shitty conditions. The only thing you'd have going for you is the knowledge you are doing some good but even this is arguable.

But you notice changes in street signs, an old paint returning to modern walls, vacant-eyes people in a few blocks radius speaking in archaic tones, smiling outdated smiles, going in routes as if half-asleep, more automatic than they usually are. You notice all that, and you realize that there is a ghost somewhere at the epicenter of all of this, a clot of death and self-delusion, and that it won't go away without taking somebody's life.

Echo Dawn didn't touch you as much as the others: you are still able to care, even about the strangers. So you go in. You go in and you try to decipher illusions and lies, to find the clues, to establish lost connections, to recover the truth from under distortion the ghost pours from within itself – so you can face the ghost and make it face this truth, and break it wide open with this truth, and then make it go away.
Hopefully in time, before the ghost kills yet again.
You don't have much time. You never have much time.

Ghola lifar and the ghost cycle
Ghola lifar, stage 5, modern times; art from "Grim Legends 3"

Ghosts bring their own twisted reality with them – the world-as-it-should-be according to their self-delusion. It starts small – a room, a basement, a building, a detail forgotten here and there, a vulnerable person acting oddly – but with current apathy it is rarely detected until it's about the size of the neighbourhood, spilling beyond closed doors and starting to be noticeable to passerby.
Such furuncle with the ghost as its spiritual centre is ghola lifar. Breaking it by 'resolving' the ghost is the main task of Ghost Detective. Failing to break it causes the ghost to become more rooted in death and self-delusion, and as a result the reality-changing effects of ghola lifar become wider-reaching, and stronger, and even more difficult to break, up to the point that beyond the fifth loop the reality of this particular piece of the world no longer can be re-established: ghola lifar ripens and both it and the ghost become permanent.

Initially ghosts are manifesting in semi-cyclical way – as they manifest, they start re-living the pieces of their life they see as important, nudging softly and, later, enforcing bluntly the re-enactment of these events on the wider and wider scale, involving more and more bystanders to act as extras in the theatre of ghost's fragmented life. Such 'performances' unavoidably lead to more death as the ghost nears the finale of their (rarely peaceful) conclusion, and, if not resolved in time, the story ends to start repeating again in a little while, only now in a stronger ghola lifar and with more and more power over people in it.

People inside of ghola lifar are sleepwalkers. When it is weak they go around doing their own business, and the only change happens when it is touches on the ghost-related matters: usually indifference, callousness, forgetfulness and general unhelpfulness. They won't call the police, they won't leave, there is no reason to worry, and with Echo Dawn touching upon almost everybody, they are half-asleep enough as they are, sticking to their own little grooves, and going their own little routes, discussing their own little news, always complacent and calm. In early stages of ghola lifar the ghost doesn't control them directly, but they adopt mannerisms and habits from related era without even being aware what they do; if this is pointed directly, they dismiss it as a quirk, defend it is a 'fashion' or ignore it altogether; a few might be shaken enough to leave, but only a few. Prepare for all kinds of excuses: people are great when explaining things they cannot really explain. At the later states they are mentally warped to the point that they obey the ghost and the 'role' the ghola lifar assigns them without a thought, becoming conceptual zombies. When ghola lifar ripens, they permanently lose their identity to become people the ghost sees them as and wishes them to be.

Along with people, the environment itself changes – on a surface level at first (calendars show a different year, tree is back after it was cut, previous shop sign returns over the new one) but it progressively becomes more and more as the world-as-it-is from the ghost's point of view. Fifth stage ghola lifar could be twisted reflection of Boston in 30s with almost no indication that the world outside is something else. A major side-effect important to Ghost Detective is that what ghost wishes not to remember or remembers wrongly, becomes more obscured as far as it can spiritually reach: archives burn, servers crash, mementos get lost, photographs fade, coffee spills on unwanted names and people forget. Initially it only affects things connected to the ghost directly, but when ghola lifar grows enough its reach becomes stronger and touches on even unrelated things, along with general change in its reality.

You would think people would care, but inside ghola lifar people won't and then can't, and outside of ghola lifar people capable to care about strangers after Echo Dawn usually have their hands full already. Ghola lifar remains relatively small in scale spatially even as it comes to full power, and, being self-absorbed on a ghost's life story, rarely Causes Troubles to those far enough outside, so if there is no complains, nobody is going to go anything. There usually no complains.

Ghola lifar is also a place of the great comfort for the ghost. However horrific and distorted it might be to the detective, it is still a protective blanket of the world-as-it-should be for the ghost itself. This is why initially the ghost is calm and concerned only with playing out their own story, regarding you as just one of the sleepwalkers. This is why as the investigation escalates and you start digging into things left buried, the ghost becomes more and more aware of what you doing, and thus, more and more aggravated: whatever self-delusion it built for itself, you are taking it apart with your questions and your discoveries, you break into the grand performance of its own Life Where Everything Is Right and toss proverbial rotten tomatoes on the stage. No ghost ever takes it kindly. Before they are able to face the truth, it will always come to pain.

The hostage
Amidst sleepwalkers there is usually a hostage: a living human who is kidnapped by the ghost and is forced to be the centerpiece in the dramatic re-enactment, playing a role of a lover, or a victim, or sworn enemy. The hostage might be related to the past events – directly, tangentially or as a few-generations-later relative – or they just might look vaguely similar to the important somebody, or they might be just a random person, as it is often true in late-stage 'performances'. Point is, they are most aware person in the whole situation – wide awake in the ghost realm, heck, even in the apathetic world itself – but are controlled and confined by the ghost into doing its bidding.

They die at the end. Hostages always die at the end, and ghost goes away for a little while but soon returns with ghola lifar grown even more powerful, more reaching, more ripe than before. This is how such place propagates: on death and enforcement of false memory. For all your remaining compassion, however difficult it is to do, you have to save the hostage. For their sake but also yours.

You were a hostage once too. You remember all too well how it is to be utterly alone, helpless and terrified by something you have no understanding of, forced into a role that is not your cause or fault. Somebody – a stranger – pulled you out of it, risking their life. This is how it all started. Play it forward.

Power within power; art from 'Magnetic Rose'
As ghola lifar grows and festers, people become what the ghost wants them to be: unaware actors on the stage, fully dedicated to the unfolding performance. If the ghost concentrates, it can control some amounts of zombies as their physical arms, into doing things in the physical world, but these people are still living humans and do as living humans do; the worst harm they can do is a gun or with fire, with known human means. They are still no smarter than humans are, and can be fooled. They can be harmed as humans can be harmed as well, but each death makes ghola lifar stronger, so better to go with fooling.

Mirror-wrights appear as the situation escalates to the conclusion (or from the start on forth and fifth stages) to guard the ghost's most precious truths, each one as their own little guard dog king in their own little guard dog kingdom. They are fully aware what is going on, but adopt the roles of people the ghost wants them to be with enthusiastic dedication – usually the one of ghost's trusted friends and wise advisors, cohorts and authoritarian figures (or, occasionally, monsters, executors or boogeyman), molding and mirroring themselves to move the grand performance forward as required.

Their reach is mercifully short – a building, a scene, a cell – and they cannot move far from their place, but like boil within boil their powers are amplified to the point they may establish their own laws drastically different from what the reality is, even taking into account the whole mess of ghola lifar itself. From flames that cannot be extinguished and locks that cannot be broken, to words that can only express the past or a riddle, to the extra moon moving along with hands of the clock.
Mirror-wrights have supernatural powers and are most dangerous opponents: facing them unprepared means death or a terrible, unending curse. What they are and where they come from is difficult to know – their minds are twisted, their tongues are mocking – but just before being banished they occasionally sigh for the 'Black Sea below', and this is all that is known.

Resolving a ghost
The violence is rarely an option. You are outnumbered by sleepwalkers, and overpowered by mirror-wrights, and there is no outside help. Occasionally you can enlist a help of another person who is similarly awake, but they are going to be on a verge of exhaustion from their own work, and, while they can offer a pair of eyes and a good advice, they rarely can come to help guns blazing. And guns don't help against ghosts or mirror-wrights anyway.

You can interrupt the 'performance' on a wide scale, usually by causing a huge fire or another calamity grand enough to endanger many of sleepwalkers' lives; in direct and immediate danger they will awake enough to flee and maybe break free entirely. It can halt the performance and even revert first- or second-stage ghola lifar. But hostage is usually unable to leave and dies, and on latter stages conceptual zombies don't care much about their well-being, with their will subverted so much they will keep finding excuses to remain in burning building but not to break 'the role' if this suits the ghost. Aside of collateral damage, such tactic and the following death toll usually escalates the ghola lifar into fifth stage immediately, or, rarely, even beyond that.

So your only reasonable solution is to hit the weakest spot – the ghost itself, the spiritual anchor of this whole mess – by discovering what really happened, and connecting all the clues, and eliminating all contradictions, and asking all painfully uncomfortable questions nobody wants to hear. If ghost remembers their life as it actually was and are unable to wiggle away into some other explanation, they break open, and are resolved, and pass on to whatever place they have to go, and the ghola lifar heals back into reality with people usually none of the wiser to what just happened.

Told you this wasn't a very rewarding job – barely anybody remembers anything to say thanks.
But the world is slightly less twisted at the end, and true dawn maybe slightly closer.

Barebones mechanics
1) Decide on your appearance, name and such.

2) Your stats are curiosity, compassion, courage and constitution. Unless modified by background, you assumed to be of average human physical capabilities.

Curiosity helps you to find the truth, to get to the answers faster. Compassion, the gift of open heart, helps to make connections easier. You need courage to make progress, and good constitution helps to endure the pain when events, inevitably, come to pain.

Roll 4d6 discard the lowest four times, in order. You can either reroll one stat, or switch two of them.

Your Life equals to your Constitution score; when Life is zero, you are either dead or worse.
Your Vitality, the resilience to all kinds of pain and hardships, equals to Courage + Compassion; when Vitality is zero, the pain is too much and you start losing Life. You can lose Life directly as well.
Vitality heals overnight fully or, in lesser way, by passing time.
Life heals only in hospitals, usually in days if not months. If you have to heal Life in the middle of the investigation, you usually lose too much time to save the hostage.

3) Roll or chose your background (>possible backgrounds) and personal items or connections to help you along the way (>more tables).
4) Optionally: roll or chose an office (>possible offices) as means of downtime research and recovery.

Principles I
The dungeon is ghola lifar: rooms are buildings or areas of interest, hallways are streets; although it is more point-crawl than a dungeon, on a scale of the neighbourhood or a city.

True memories, hard facts, unearthed secrets are treasures. In the world of distortions they are very valuable to resolve the ghost. Outside research is never clear and complete due to the nature of the ghost; it might be still helpful but it also takes time to conduct.
There is no Intelligence or Perception stat to roll, so all conclusions and observations has to be done by the player(s).

Truth also serve as defense – the more facts are established the higher the figurative AC is, although some facts could be used for defense only limited amount of time(s).

Some items found within ghola lifar work as one-use spells-or-potions to help you progress.

Detective attacks with questions – and all important questions use their own Vitality so player has to think about what they ask (like in "Speaking with dead" spell, which in a way, it is), but if the question catches on contradiction, exposes the fact or otherwise pieces through obfuscation, the next question is free (similar to Persona 5 attack into a weakness, and somewhat similar to Phoenix Wright court procedures). Technically you can ask as many questions as you want but without imbue of Vitality they are unable to break sleepwalkers' stasis and you get some platitude of no-answers.

(I think it is possible to re-purpose Feint-Block-Evade-Attack-Lunge and similar fighting techniques for interrogation)

Principles II
Investigations are on clock – time passes, usually in 10 min intervals for such actions as to search the room through or to change the location noticeably. It is 3+1d4 days until the ghost 'performance' is over and the hostage is dead. To recover Vitality fully you need at least 6 hours of sleep or 4 hours of sleep with a hit to one random stat. Taking short breaks restores a bit here and there. Some items might help too.

There is an escalation mechanics (re-purposed Chaos Index): the ghost starts in a calm state and the more disturbance to them and their cozy ghola world there is, the more it is aware and aggressive. It cannot do much on its own but it can direct zombies, influence sleepwalkers and assign mirror-wrights. Ghost isn't as much of a stand-alone monster as an environment or a weather that comes to hate the intruder detective.

It is possible to de-escalate the ghost or to learn more about their life by playing along with its performance up to certain degree but the risk here is losing yourself or running out of time.

Final confrontation:
- Assemble evidence
- Bear through ghost's rage
- Present your case
- If successful, bid final farewell
- Go home and get some rest

Possible campai(g)n
All these words are, technically, for one-shot game but, equally technically, Ghost Detective could level up on a number of ghosts successfully resolved and maybe gets some powers, connections or insights on their own up to some helpful magical familiar or actual arcanoi powers of their own.

For the added grimness and darkness, track the number of ghosts not successfully resolved as a separate 'levelling' progression of World Is Getting Worse.

There might be actual treasure unearthed to help to pay the rent, but probably nothing beyond ordinary lifestyle.

XP is used to point-buy more mundane abilities, one-shot preparations (treat as spells/gear) and/or raise stats, similar to World of Darkness. On a longer run, each year Ghost Detective loses a point from (randomly chosen) Compassion, Curiosity and Courage, just like the rest of the world does, until such stats hit the minimum of 7, the world average. The world isn't a good place right now. Maybe it can be resolved?

Examples and variations
Any sufficiently progressed ghola lifar (stage 4 and 5) merges into playing a dungeon as a travel through a mind or dungeon as a travel through a dream, as such place bleeds so much of the ghost's preferences, memories and perspective (all distorted) into the real world it becomes difficult to tell them apart.

As such, few other ideas could be re-skinned for ghost investigation:

> Tower of High Art: Ghola lifar presents itself as a magical tower which keeps the world from apocalypse by sacrifice of the chosen few individuals to keep the magical seal on Evil intact; each sacrifice's life then become a floor in a growing tower, immortalizing their contribution with pictures and significant items. In reality, the ghost is a serial killer and the 'tower' is their crime string, with their victims being sacrifices, and seal is their realization of their own nature.

> Garden of Magnetic Rose: based upon extremely good short SF animated story (somehow not yet adapted for Mothership) it might utilize depth mechanics to emulate the environment, and ghost to take place of AI.

> Dark Ashen Souls: "Dark Souls 3"-like land as an extreme example of distorted grieving. It is less about detective work through questioning, but more about detective work through connecting what is already there from treasure found and sights seen (as so much of actual lore-hunting in DS-games does). Areas serve as monsters, with their "attacks" taking form of separate creatures which die in one hit (for example, something like Undead Settlement will have first attack as 'dogs rush at you', second as 'few gaunts with touches lunge at you', third attack "evangelists breathes fire at you" and so on); defeating such 'monster' means that the character made progress through the area and mastered it enough so it isn't a problem on subsequent run through. Mirror-wrights take place of bosses.

> Options: for more than a single player game there might be classes; there might be options of no downtime available for harsher play or no clock/no hostage for softer play; or being a wright themselves for more of WoD Oblivion inclination.

I used to have a very low opinion on Hidden Object Games: they are glittery, they are saccharine, they are shallow, simple, cliche, full of repetitive simple puzzles, badly made characters and threadbare story. And they still all of those things but occasionally there are interesting moments in them (such as mirror-wrights and tower that grows floors from sacrifices) that it is currently my favourite place to discover some unexpected interesting details, some interesting shadow-settings.

And if to think about it, the world in such games is the world where people regularly meet all kind of supernatural – which _supposed_ to be previously unknown supernatural, the first ever confirmation in the history that supernatural actually exists – but nobody cares or even wonders about it at all, which gives that impression that the world takes a look at what is going on and then goes back to sleep, not caring in the slightest. As if bystander effect taken up to extreme apathy. As if Echo Dawn.

Aside of multitude of HOGs, this post is also inspired by "Blackwell" series, anime series "Mononoke" and "Mushishi", abovementioned "Magnetic Rose" and "Wraith: the Oblivion" to some small measure. 


  1. ugh this is so. good.

    brings disco elysium to mind (a game that I have yet to and will probably never get around to play) - where the detective can speak directly to the city itself as if it were a witness, suspect aso.

    1. Thank you, I am glad you liked it.

      In Disco Elysium (which I recommend to buy on sale, if you can/it, actually, isn't that long of a game) there is amazing skill(?) called Shivers, which is kind of ability to sense the soul of the city. This was one of few things I really liked about the game, despite that in Play by Apocalypse there is a similar ability to open mind to psychic maelstrom. I think the best writing in the game went into the text for Shivers.

  2. This is so dense. So chewy! But I will read. I will absorb! (what i've read is cool)

    1. This is here for reading, so feel free to read. Glad if you find it useful.

  3. You really managed to pack A LOT of vibe into this (I don't know if "vibe" really is the correct word to use, but you're really painting scenes in my brain with these words). Great work, really inspiring.

    I don't know why this needs to be one shots, but I may have missed something (I don't know if this is written for an existing RPG framework, or if it is of your own creation). I can definitely see the concepts in this (the ghola lifar, resolving it, etc.) being system agnostic, e.g. for use in "regular" D&D when you want to turn things around - what if a ghoal lifar manifested in your players most favourite little town?

    I really liked this!

    1. Thank you, glad you liked it.

      As for running in other systems, consider this:
      – in any system with Intelligence and/or Knowledge skill the player might ask DM for the roll to know something instantly instead of doing a research or thinking with their own brains;
      – in any system with any kind of math equivalent of senses the player can also ask to 'roll for Perception' instead of doing using their own brains and doing the search;
      – in any system with Charisma or similar social skills player can ask to roll the dice instead of actually talking to people;
      – character uses their own HP to ask meaningful questions (as attacks) - therefore, for a system with small amount of HP and/or slow HP recovery this has to be adjusted; in the worst case scenario attacking questions are free, and players, again, don't have to think about what questions they ask, effectively bruteforcing the issue.
      - in any system with more or less developed magic, players are just going to turn undead or combat the ghost directly, without bothering with detective work;

      I wrote this framework (however barebones it is) to avoid this kinds of scenarios, which makes DM work much harder (as everything in the dungeon needs to be thought about without plotholes and the information has to be presented fairly).