by Cynthia Chow
& Kristin McFarland
Tabletop games have become very popular again over the last few years, this week we have a review of a mystery set in a game store, No Saving Throw by Kristin McFarland, and a fun guest post by Kristin about games. Details at the end of this post on how to enter to win a copy of No Saving Throw, a link to purchase it from Amazon, and from an indie bookstore where a portion goes to help support KRL.
No Saving Throw: A Ten Again Mystery By Kristin McFarland
Review by Cynthia Chow
Seeing vampires and space aliens run around the Independence Square Mall is not an unusual experience for Ten Again tabletop gaming store owner Autumn Sinclair. She doesn’t enjoy mediating between players who claim to have been unfairly assassinated due more to being obnoxious than their strength levels, but Autumn loves making her store a safe place for her nerdy customers. It’s also why Autumn is so distraught when she learns that one of the Live Action Role Players is found murdered during a vampire quest, stabbed with two holes in his neck and thrown off a balcony. Two of his fellow LARPers are quickly questioned in the death, making Autumn fearful that the hysteria and deaths once blamed on Dungeon & Dragons will be directed towards Ten Again.
Autumn had felt that her chances for a business grant were in jeopardy even before the death, and she worries that media reports and pressure from the mall owner will force her to close entirely. When her best friend, White Lake Police officer Jordan Hansen, is taken off the case due to her connection to Autumn, the game store owner is forced into doing a little discreet breaking-and-entering and espionage in order to uncover an additional motive for the death. Complicating the investigation is that one of the witnesses not only is in competition with Autumn for the grant, but that Meghan Kountz was the Mean Girl who tormented Autumn all through high school and is currently dating her ex-boyfriend. It looks as though Ten Again’s curse jar will be filled with a lot of bills before Autumn manages to fight her way to the truth.
This is a fun and original new series that makes the most of the gamers and nostalgic setting. It’s refreshing to think that there still are people who prefer to compete in face-to-face competitions rather than online videogames, although hopefully there are usually less-fatal results. Autumn’s loyalty to her gaming customers is admirable, and while she really hopes that Meghan’s the murderer, Autumn’s practical enough to suspect everyone. Readers will find themselves empathizing with Autumn, who finally found herself happy being a successful business owner and a nerd and has been able to encourage others to be more open with their inner geeks. The mystery is thoroughly compelling and steers toward a surprising and exciting conclusion, one that challenges the suspense levels of the most adventurous video games. This debut mystery introduces readers to a world filled with likable characters who show admirable growth and development, and whose enthusiasm for gaming is contagious.
In Every Game, a Mystery
by Kristin McFarland
Within every game we play, there’s a mystery. Hear me out.
Each story we tell contains a mystery, a question that must be answered in order for the protagonist to reach their end: Who killed the victim? How can I be with my one true love? What is my enemy’s greatest weakness? While we tend to think of the mystery genre in “Whodunit?” terms, every plot hides answers the audience doesn’t know, whether that’s as simple as a twisty journey to a happy ending or as complex as a plan to save the world.
And what are games but stories made miniature?
The connection between mystery novels and tabletop games like, say, Dungeons and Dragons or Magic: the Gathering may not immediately seem clear, but when we think about games as a way to collaboratively tell stories and, consequently, to answer the question posed by a mystery, suddenly the relationship becomes a lot easier to define. Cozies are, by definition, mysteries set in a contained space, just like the games we play at the kitchen table. Boundaries of scope and genre operate like rules to keep the stories told within the parameters defined by the readers and players. And of course—the violence contained is typically pretty bloodless, unless you and your friends get really worked up over rolling the dice!
But, you’re saying (I can hear you!), that’s true of all stories, not just mysteries. I’ve convinced you that games are stories, but that doesn’t mean that mysteries and games automatically go together. So let’s break it down a little and get specific.
Everyone knows Clue, of course, the mystery board game we all had in the hall closet growing up: it was the Colonel in the living room with the candlestick! I think every kid in the 80s and 90s played that game, and I’d bet my best d20 that kids before and after my time played it, too. But referencing Clue is reaching for low-hanging fruit, so let’s branch out a little bit.
How many Dungeons and Dragons adventures begin with a mysterious stranger in a tavern gathering adventurers together for an as-yet-unknown person? The identity of the stranger, the purpose of the call, the motivations of other players—those are all mysteries begging to be solved, and this simple plot device continues to hook gamers. Most D&D quests rely on a series of mysteries to keep the player characters motivated and moving forward within the story.
Betrayal at House on the Hill, one of my very favorite games, plays with the mystery genre more deliberately by directly utilizing the tropes of horror films. Betrayal-scenario games inevitably involve a mystery (Which one of your friends is actually the bad guy?!), but this game actually includes a story with puzzles and solutions for players to use in their quest to overcome the killer.
My favorite games have always been games like what I’ve described here, games that are aware of their story-telling nature and set out to explore how players can work collaboratively on a miniature narrative. Even as a child I loved writing and exploring fiction, so I think it came naturally to me to associate the questioning experience of gameplay with novels. That mental connection only got stronger as I began to read mystery novels and to regard solving the puzzle posed by the plot as a game.
Cozy mysteries have often consigned to the same corners of the book world as romance and science fiction, dismissed as simplistic, unrealistic, or even silly. They’re called “escapist,” like the term is a bad word and the desire for escape into a different world is a negative thing. In actuality, the escape that cozies offer—usually to a small town or other “cozy” setting—provides entrance into a more complete world, where mysteries have solutions and questions receive answers.
Games of all kind are maligned as often as genre fiction, dismissed as silly party activities, distractions from real life or real engagement with the people in our lives. But the truth is, games, puzzles, and stories are all interrelated and, I think, completely inseparable. What fun would we have if we didn’t occasionally engage with and enact our own little mysteries?
To enter to win a copy of No Saving Throw, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “throw,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen June 29, 2019. U.S. residents only. If entering via email please include your mailing address (so if you win we can get the book sent right out to you), and if via comment please include your email address. You can read our privacy statement here if you like.
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & mystery short stories in our mystery section. And join our mystery Facebook group to keep up with everything mystery we post, and have a chance at some extra giveaways. Be sure to check out our new mystery podcast too with mystery short stories, and first chapters read by local actors. A new episode goes up next week.
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