Columbo was a revolutionary tv show within its genre: it brought together both the British and American detective mystery genres by putting an everyman gumshoe from the American tradition into the British setting of murder amongst the privileged, and it flipped the regular murder mystery structure by revealing the culprit at the beginning and turning each episode from a Whodunnit? into a Howcatchem?
My question is: where is our Columbo in roleplaying games? I’m going to write about this in two senses: a narrow and a broad.
In a narrow sense: what Columbo did was more than just flip the traditional murder mystery structure so that the audience knew who the murderer was at the start, rather it also shifted the focus of the story. Going back to Auguste Dupin and Sherlock Holmes and carried forward in both British and American traditions with Poirot and Sam Spade, the focus of the story is on the detective. We see the detective beforehand, we see how they learned of the murder and we follow them through the investigation, all to make the puzzle ‘fair’ on the reader. In Columbo, the central character in each episode is the murderer. It is them we see before the murder, long before the detective is introduced; and even once the investigation begins, their scenes are given relatively equal weight with the detectives as they first try to continue their life as normal and then, increasingly desperately, try to conceal the loose ends they left before the detective finds them.
My question in its narrow sense is: where is that game? A game where the players play the culprit trying to hide the evidence of their crime from a relentless detective?
In a broader sense, though: the impact of the structural flip was greater than just shifting the focus of the story, it also made the genre far more accessible. Classic British detective fiction was a puzzle for the reader and so appealed to readers who liked puzzles. But, as puzzles, this fiction requested from the reader a greater level of concentration and to read the fiction from the start to make sense of it. This was no concern for novels or even movies, but that changed with television. When watching television we multi-task more so than when we read a book or go to the movies. We’re more likely to start watching a tv show part-way through, especially if we’re joining someone else already watching it, than with novels or movies. Murder mysteries were just less accessible on television than their previous media.
Not so with Columbo. Because both the culprit and the detective were identified from the start, I can join an episode of Columbo part way through and still enjoy it. While there is still the puzzle of Howcatchem? in each episode, the true satisfaction I take from the show is in the interactions between the culprit and the detective with the knowledge that the culprit’s arrogance and sense of privilege will ultimately lead to their downfall. I don’t need to watch an episode from the start because I’m not in it for the puzzle, I’m in it for that satisfaction. But I can only get that satisfaction because I know who’s the culprit, who’s the detective and what must happen in the end.
Applying this to rpgs, I can join any individual session of an rpg part-way through; other players can summarise what’s happened so far and, if there is a GM, then they can work to include my character (GMless sessions struggle with this more). But some games are better than others at handling players dropping in after a session has already started and still providing them a satisfying experience.
So, my question in a broader sense is: what games out there (both GMed and Gmless) do you think are best at providing a satisfying experience to players who drop in mid-session?