Murder Mavens Unite! A Review of Brindlewood Bay

Brindlewood Bay

Author: Jason Cordova
Publisher: The Gauntlet
Page Count: 54
Available Formats: PDF
PDF (DTRPG) – $10

Welcome to Brindlewood Bay. Home of the Murder Mavens mystery book club, a group of elderly women who frequently find themselves investigating (and solving!) real murder mysteries in Brindlewood Bay. The game is inspired by the TV show Murder, She Wrote, the works of H.P. Lovecraft, and other “cozy” crime drama and TV shows of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s.

Quietly hitting the Indie gaming scene, Brindlewood Bay has garnered quite the following as of late. While its rise in popularity has not been meteoric, it has steadily increased thanks to its use of the successful “Powered by the Apocalypse” (PbtA) game engine and the gaming scene being devoid of other similarly influenced games.

Brindlewood Bay is powered by D. Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World game engine, modified to fit the theme and tone of Brindlewood Bay. If you’re unfamiliar with the PbtA system, there are so many variants and derivatives. It’s impossible to point you to a comprehensive system primer, so I will do my best to give you a short and sweet overview of Brindlewood Bay’s mechanical underpinnings.

  • Uses a character sheet in place of playbooks
  • Players use Moves to propel the story
  • Uses Advantage/Disadvantage modifiers
  • No predetermined “bad guy,” determined through gameplay
  • GMs do NOT roll dice
  • GMs have reactionary Moves (typical in most PbtA games)

The dice mechanic employed in Brindlewood Bay is a simple 2d6+attribute modifier to determine the level of success or failure of a Move. On a 10+, you’re successful. On a 7-9, you are partially successful, but there will be a drawback or complication. Rolling a 6 or less means you have failed to accomplish the task in the way you had intended; the GM will now be able to impose direct or indirect complications into the narrative. No matter the result, even failing propels to the story forward. The Advantage/Disadvantage mechanic is not traditionally part of PbtA but is a great fit in Brindlewood Bay. Simply put, if you have either Advantage or Disadvantage, you roll three dice instead — Advantaged takes the highest two dice, Disadvantaged the lowest two.

Moves are actions that are typically triggered by the narrative to resolve something or move the story forward. There are two types of Moves in Brindlewood Bay. Basic Moves, available to all players, and Maven Moves, specific to a particular Maven. One Maven Move is taken during Maven generation and as part of advancements. Maven Moves are humorously named after TV characters that have influenced this game.

The game is designed to embody a verify specific tone that is moderately unique within the tabletop roleplaying game space. In fact, there are two thematic aspects Jason Cordova seems to be striving for. First, he’s trying to embody the feeling of those murder mysteries Jessica Fletcher perpetually found herself embroiled in during each episode of Murder, She Wrote. Second, he wants the deeper and potentially darker mysteries inspired by Lovecraft’s work to lie just under the surface and to slowly creep toward the surface. The sense of unsettling and impending darkness slowly creeps forward over several mysteries and multiple sessions; it’s something that you just can’t put your finger until later when it’s ready to rise up. There are three constants in Brindlewood Bay, the town, the Murder Mavens, and the Midwives of the Fragrant Void.

  • Brindlewood Bay is a small coastal town in Massachusetts. This former whaling community today is a tourist destination with bed and breakfasts, antique shops, and has a reputation for being a cozy little mecca for artists.
  • The Murder Mavens are a small murder mystery book club that has been meeting religiously every Saturday evening for the last ten years. They meet in the loft of the Candlelight Booksellers. They are particularly fond of The Gold Crown Mysteries series by Robin Masterson, featuring the globe-trotting super-sleuth, Amanda Delacourt. The Mavens themselves are elderly women whose partners have passed away, and their children are all grown and scattered to the winds. They are enjoying their golden years in picturesque Brindlewood Bay with their book club, and help the local police as amateur detectives.
  • The Midwives of the Fragrant Void are the underlying Lovecraftian element that hides just below the surface. At the start of the game (or a series), some townsfolk wonder if the Murder Mavens might be committing the crimes themselves, using their knowledge gained from mystery books to frame others. In reality, this is a false accusation, because Brindlewood Bay is a significant location for a dark cult called The Midwives of the Fragrant Void. The cult has historical ties to Brindlewood Bay, and it’s these ties that drive their actions. The Mavens, over the course of several mysteries, will become increasingly aware of their activities, influence, and their supernatural connection to many of the murders.

Mysteries play out over the course of several hours and can be played as multi-session or one-shot games, but the approach to the latter is a little different. Ideally, players will commit to playing five or six mysteries in total. Sometimes they are back-to-back, and other times they can even be running in parallel. Each game session follows a particular structure (summarized below), with the mystery being just one part of that structure. This design element allows for long term narrative development and ties up loose ends from the previous session. Readers should note that session one has a different structure.

  • Mystery Recap – Mysteries not resolved at the end of the last session carry over into the next session. This allows for multiple parallel mysteries to be active.
  • Resolve Cliffhangers – If the previous session ended with one or more cliffhangers, resolve them with regular play. Once they are naturally resolved, play moves on.
  • Beginning of Session – This a housekeeping step; players will mark new End of Sessions questions (if they wish) and resolve any Moves that happen in this phase.
  • Cozy Vignettes – Each player takes the spotlight and narrates a vignette showing their Maven enjoying life in Brindlewood Bay. These scenes are meant to be light and warm and to give life to the Mavens outside of solving mysteries.
  • The Keeper Presents a New Mystery – The Keeper now frames one or two scenes in which a new murder mystery is introduced to the Mavens. The Keeper also informs the players of the mystery’s complexity rate.
  • Investigation – The meat and potatoes of the session happens in this phase. The Mavens do what they do best, they investigate the murder by following leads that interest them. They may also call for “downtime scenes”; these scenes allow the Mavens to bond with each other or members of the community.
  • Crown Scenes – There are two special sections on the character sheet: The Crown of the Queen and The Crown of the Void. When the text from those sections is marked during play, that Maven must do as the text instructs. This frequently means narrating a very specific type of scene.
  • End of Session – During this phase, each player reads aloud the questions they have marked in the “End of Session” section of their character sheet. For any they can answer “yes” to, they earn XP.
  • Stars & Wishes – This final phase is for players and the Keeper to highlight what they enjoyed (stars) and what they hope to see in the next session (wishes).

As mentioned above, the first session follows a slightly different structure with the Mystery Recap and Resolve Cliffhangers being replaced by the following phases:

  • Read the game and gather play materials – The Keeper prepares for the game.
  • Player and Keeper Introductions – Self-explanatory
  • CATS – CATS is an acronym that stands for Concept, Aim, Tone, and Subject Matter. It is usually presented by the Keeper and helps to establish some basic expectations for how the game is going to proceed. It’s also a low-stakes way for the Keeper to get accustomed to being in the spotlight, especially if they’re new to running games.
  • Character Creation – Self-explanatory
  • Character Introductions and A Cozy Little Place – Every player introduces their Murder Maven by Name, Style, Cozy Activity, and Maven move. Then, around the table again, each player describing three key aspects of their Maven’s earlier life.

As the narrative continues to unfold, there is an elegantly designed mechanic that Jason has developed that ties the resolution of every mystery up in a nice bow. Each mystery has a number of Suspects and a list of potential Clues but lacks a finite answer as to who committed the murder. This is where the Theorize Move comes into play. Jason’s design for this is awesome! It allows the players to have a “freewheeling discussion” about the suspects and clues they have up to the point of someone initiating the Move. If they can reach a consensus about who they think committed the murder, they will Roll+number of Clues and then subtract the Mysteries complexity rating from the total. Depending on the result of the roll, the Mavens will have solved the murder or will have further complicated their situation. If they’ve rolled well (12+), someone connected to the dark conspiracy will be revealed to the Mavens in addition to solving the murder. This means the players get to decide, based on the clues and the suspects encountered, what the solution is; there is no predetermined solution. This design element encourages players to think in all directions, making connections based on the available evidence and suspects as to who did it.

As with all PbtA games, the Keeper has a toolbox of resources at their disposal. These include Guiding Principles for which they must follow and a set of Reactions they can make based on the dice results of the Mavens when they roll to resolve their Moves. A section about the Anatomy of a Mystery, a resource on how a Brindlewood Bay mystery is laid out and what its component parts are. It’s a useful insight should the Keeper wish to write their own mysteries. Also, there is extensive Keeper’s advice on how best to work with all of the Basic and Maven Moves to enrich the players’ experience.

Lastly, there is fantastic advice on how to create the Dark Conspiracy and the underlying Void Mystery. You know, that Lovecraftian influence that’s just below the surface. This aspect of the game comes to fruition after multiple sessions and is treated and played out as the final mystery in a series. Its design is similar to other mysteries, but there are deviations, and this section helps the Keeper to develop the mystery in full.

For the purchase price, you receive a hefty PDF bundle that includes the book in two different layouts, one for printing and the other for screen reading, several reference pages, and five mysteries to get you going. The layout of the book is smart, concise, and easy on the eyes. There are only a few pieces of black and white art, including the cover. While thematically appropriate, the compositions themselves are just okay, with some more visually appealing than others. This may be by design, but…

Taking everything into account (a freewheeling discussion with myself), I have rolled a 10 for my Theorize Move, added the number of Clues, and subtracted the Complexity Rating. I have concluded that the correct solution is, Brindlewood Bay is a winner! The game’s design is elegant, embodying the spirit of the TV shows and literary works that have influenced it. Jason has created something that fills a rarely seen void in the hobby and, in doing so, pulls together gamers and non-gamers alike.

~ Modoc

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