Parker Brothers' Clue Was My First RPG


In Clue, the pawns are more than pawns – they’re characters.  Of course, you won’t be playing them that way – you won’t even know if you’re the killer until the envelope gets opened – so it makes no difference which one you choose.  

Nevertheless, I used to pore over the Clue box as a child.  We had the 1972 edition, with the very expressive live models.  I went way overboard studying those characters’ faces and thinking about who they were.  How was each of them likely to react when they found a dead body in the house?  What perspectives would each of them bring to the investigation?  And what motives or secrets might each of them have?  The idea of playing as a character, even in that very limited sense, switched something on in my brain that has never been switched off.  

The next time someone asks you that stumper question – just what is a roleplaying game? – I recommend explaining it to them in terms of Clue. 

It’s Like Clue But…

Imagine we’re playing Clue (you’ll say), but instead of using your pawn as a counter, you’ll also speak and act as the corresponding character.  When you talk to other players, you’ll adopt his personality.  

It’s up to you how you play your character.  Some things you do and say will directly impact the murder mystery.  And some things you do will have no real game-impact – you’ll just do them for the fun of playing a character. The point here is that the pawn you choose changes the way you play the game.

You’ll use Your Character’s Skills to Solve the Murder

If you’re Plum, that means brains and bookish skills – if you’re the Colonel, it means using your no-doubt extensive knowledge of strategy to catch the killer.  

Now, wait – how will you be able to play like you have those skills?  Well, each time the Professor tries to do something bookish, he’s more likely to succeed at it than any other character.  Similarly with military strategy for Mustard, or any other skill you want your character to have.  You usually get to decide.  

Different rpgs have different ways of representing skills in the game, but it usually involves a special dice roll.

Just Like Clue, an RPG Has a Storyline

Oh, you don’t believe that Clue has a storyline?  It’s “six strangers in a mansion, and one of them’s a killer” – and that’s enough storyline for any rpg.  But the difference between an rpg and a boardgame is...
  • In a boardgame, your main goal is to achieve some in-game objective – getting to the end space or, in Clue’s case, to find out which cards are where.
  • In an rpg, your main goal is to discover and experience a storyline, regardless of whether you’re “winning” or “losing” in-game. 

There Is No Board.  Instead, There’s A Game Master

If there’s a board, it’s more like a map.  And to move around, you just declare, “I’m going to the Conservatory.”  And declarative actions allow for more detailed stuff than would be possible in a board game, like saying, “I look closely at this bloodspot.”

So who tells you what you see when you get to the Conservatory or look at the blood spot?  Well, one player isn’t playing a character at all.  He’s the game master.  He has the environment of the game tucked away in his brain.  Chances are he created it himself.

In Clue you can’t go outside the mansion – even in those editions where there’s a spooky-looking garden drawn out there.  Too bad, because that’d be a cool place to investigate, huh?   In an rpg, you can go anywhere you can think of and that your game master can makes up details for.  Using your character as an avatar, you can explore an infinite “gameworld” (and be sure to pronounce those quote-marks) 

The Clincher

... The best part is that if the game master is really on top of his stuff, he’s letting the player’s choices influence the storyline.  What you do, and how you do it, changes the world where the story takes place.  (Especially if they belong to an older age bracket, I find that outsiders are more intrigued by this part than anything above.)

Because there’s a game master and because we’re all using our imaginations, you can do anything your character would do (and, remember, there are rules and limits on your skills).  Oh, and, if you’re the killer, you’d certainly know it.