Designer Diary: Unlock! Heroic Adventures: Sherlock Holmes, or A Study in Story

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by Dave Neale

Okay, I thought. I guess that’s a no.

I just couldn’t think of a way to do it. The key issue I had to tackle if I wanted this Unlock! scenario to work — namely, the translation of a detailed mystery solution into abstract mechanisms — seemed impossible. Can I do this? I asked myself, and the answer seemed to be negative. But there was some part of me convinced that I could eliminate the impossible, and then a way to do it, however improbable, must come soon.

A few days earlier, I had sat down at the table and picked up a deck of blank cards. I was meeting with Space Cowboys in just over two weeks to discuss my box set for Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective (due out before the end of 2019), and had suddenly been gripped with the idea that a Sherlock Holmes scenario for Unlock! could be an awesome thing. What’s more, the skeleton of a murder plot had presented itself to me almost immediately, and I knew I had to see whether this vague notion might actually have legs.

At heart, I’m a storyteller, so I asked myself: How can I bring out the storytelling potential of Unlock! to its fullest? How can I make players feel immersed in Holmes’ world with just a deck of cards and an app? And then there was that third question, which I soon realized represented the biggest challenge I faced in making this scenario. In Unlock!, the main things players do are combine cards and enter four-digit codes, but I wanted a murder mystery. How could I translate the intricate solution to a murder mystery — in essence, a story — into a combination of two cards or a four-digit code? And how could I do it in such a way that if players worked out what to do, it meant they had definitely solved the mystery?

I decided to put that question aside for the time being and consider more broadly how to represent a murder investigation using Unlock!’s established mechanisms. I realized that although the idea of combining red and blue cards was originally about combining items, it was incredibly flexible. Combining one card with another could represent (minor spoiler)

[o]asking someone about something, for example.[/o]
This gave me the way into the story that I needed to get the design off the ground: I could have a crime scene, then players would do things in a fairly realistic way to discover clues and track down suspects.

As I worked, I discovered interesting new directions for my original plot and more ways to insert realistic deductive elements into the scenario. It took me a weekend to create the first set of prototype cards, and I play-tested it two days later. The puzzles worked well. The way I used the blue-red combinations worked well. People really liked the theme and the story — but there was one big problem, and I could have guessed what it would be.

When they got to the end, the way players had to give their solution to the mystery was based on letters in certain key words that could be turned into numbers. At the end of the day on Sunday, as I was finishing the prototype, it was the best answer I’d come up with to my key question of how to translate a murder mystery solution into an Unlock! mechanism, but it just didn’t work. No one saw how they were supposed to use the letters, and when I told them what they were supposed to do, they said it was too vague.

Worse than that, I quickly realized that the way I had constructed the ending didn’t do what I wanted it to do. A group could do the correct thing and complete the scenario, but it wouldn’t necessarily mean they had actually solved the case. They might have a vague hunch about the sequence of events or have guessed the culprit correctly, but have no real idea of what had happened, no real idea of the story. And this is when I began to question whether what I wanted was actually possible.

As Holmes might say, it was a three-pipe problem, and viewing it that way, I realized what I had to do. There was nothing else for it. I donned my deerstalker, told my landlady I would take no callers*, sat at the window, and began to think.

And think.

And think.

It was probably a good hour or so of thinking before an idea began to form in my mind. Yes…what if players had to do that? They wouldn’t be able to do that without knowing exactly what had happened, right? And then that could lead to…


Suddenly, there it was. The answer to the main design question I faced for this game. Very simple, really. If you want to know it (and it’s a big spoiler), click on the box below.

[o]I realized that if cards represented specific events leading to the murder, they would tell a clear story of that murder, including the motive, if placed in the correct chronological order, which meant that I could conceal a four-digit code in those cards that was discoverable only if they were placed in that order. As players would have to know exactly what had happened to place the events in that sequence, they could get the final code only if they worked out the full story, the killer, and the motive.

The icing on the cake was that this solution gave me the title of the scenario (coming directly from a famous quote by Holmes) because to find the final code players had to trace “the scarlet thread of murder”.[/o]
I took my scenario to Space Cowboys two weeks later and sat there as they played it with a series of questions going through my head: Will they like it? Does it make sense? And, most importantly of all: Have I succeeded in bringing out Unlock!’s full storytelling potential in the way I wanted to? I sat watching, on the edge of my seat, waiting to find out the answer.

When they finished the scenario, there was a moment of silence, then Cyril Demaegd, the original designer of Unlock!, sat back in his chair and smiled. He nodded, looked at me, and said, “It’s like taking part in a real investigation.”

Okay, I thought. I guess that’s a yes.

Dave Neale

*I’m not sure I actually have a landlady, so I might have just shouted down the stairs to an empty house and a confused cat. Still, I had no callers while I was busy thinking, so if I do have a landlady, she did a great job.

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