Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Retrospective: Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective

I used to think that the late '70s and early '80s were a uniquely magical time for games in general, but now I'm not so sure. That's not say that the period when I first entered the hobby wasn't a magical one, since it certainly was for me. Rather, I think it more likely that it was the time when I was most open to picking up and learning new games, no matter how "weird" they might seem. As a result, I was exposed to a lot of games that I not only enjoyed playing but that had a profound impact on how I play and even conceive of games.

A good example of this is Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective, written by Raymond Edwards and published by Sleuth Games in 1981. As I understand it, there were several versions of the game released. The one I owned, which I picked up in 1982 or 1983, came in a brown binder, like the one depicted above. However, there was also a boxed version that I sometimes saw in game stores and hobby shops. I suspect the contents of the different versions were identical, but, again, I can't say for certain. The game's components consisted of a brief rulebook, a map of Victorian London, a case book, a clue book, a London directory, a quiz book, and an archive of newspaper clippings from The Times. In the version I owned, these components were either three-hole punched to be held in the binder or placed in pockets at the front and back of it.

Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective was, as you'd expect, a game of mystery solving, with the player -- it was a solo game -- taking on the role of Holmes as he attempts to unravel one of ten cases presented in the case book. Additional cases were made available in boxed supplements that I never owned and were very necessary if you completed the ten integral cases, since they had no re-playability. Cases were presented in a simple narrative form, almost like a story, after the reading of which the player is set loose to bring it to a satisfactory conclusion. This was done by consulting newspapers, interviewing eyewitnesses and suspects, and generally scouring London for clues. For example, you might read in The Times that, at the same time as the crime you're investigating occurred, a celebrated entrepreneur disappeared from his home. Looking at the London directory gives you his address, which you then look up in the clue book. If it's pertinent to the case, you might find an additional narrative describing what you learn upon visiting his home and talking to those who live there. This in turn might give you further leads, which you then pursue in like fashion.

If this all sounds a bit like a very free-form choose-your-own-adventure book, with the information scattered across several volumes, you wouldn't be far off. That's certainly how it felt to me, at least initially, but, over time, the game took on its own feel, one that has forever colored my sense of how to handle mysteries in RPGs. Needless to say, I loved Consulting Detective, in large part because I could play it alone and take my time in doing so. There's no time limit on the cases and you can take days or even weeks to puzzle out the mysteries it presents. Once you believe you've solved the case, you go to the quiz book, which asks a series of questions to determine if you have, in fact, come to the right conclusions. The game relies on an honor system to be enjoyable, though the clues and information for all ten cases are scattered throughout to such a degree that it'd frankly be more work to try and cheat than to actually solve the cases the proper way. Only the quiz book contains any real revelations the player must avoid until he's ready.

Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective is a game I spent many, many hours playing alone and I had a lot of fun doing so. The game is very well presented and strangely immersive. Looking through those Times articles for clues and then seeking out suspects through the directory was thoroughly enjoyable and contributed greatly to the sense that I was doing more than playing a "mere" game. Likewise, there were no game mechanics for discovering clues; I relied entirely on my own cleverness, memory, and intuition. That's probably why, to this day, I shun games and game mechanics that attempt to replace (or at least supplement) player skill at solving mysteries. Even Call of Cthulhu's Idea, Know, and Spot Hidden rolls rub me the wrong way much of the time. It's also why I love props, like fake newspaper clippings and diary entries. To me, they're the best way to present a mystery in a roleplaying game.


  1. The nice thing about that nowadays is that we live in an amazing time for props like this. We can find scans of many original newspapers, and we have tools like GIMP to put our own fake articles in the originals.

    I did this for my own Helter Skelter (1969 San Francisco) and it was a lot of fun.

  2. I became aware of this game at about the same time, 1981, through a subscription to Mystery magazine. I sent off for "more info" and got a lovely package of about six sheets explaining the game, and examples of some of its props. In the end, I didn't make the purchase, thinking, erroneously it would seem, that after playing through the 10 cases, the game would then be useless.

    This product shows that when handled with intelligence and skillful design, solo games don't have to be conscripted to "introductory" games stuck in the back of a rulebook, but rather can be just as memorable and enjoyable as any game designed for a group of players.

  3. I'm a big Sherlock Holmes fan and always wanted to get a copy of this game when it was on the market. Time to check eBay...

  4. I once had an opportunity to examine the boxed set and my memory tells me that its contents were, indeed, identical to that of your binder.

  5. Wow this should be re-released as a bundle of PDFs.

  6. I had this game too. It was a very handsome binder, and the materials were made with an eye on Victorian England. I sold it on eBay to a guy in Mongolia(!).

  7. James, this sounds a lot like a slightly more RPG-ized version of a board game I had, 221B Baker Street.

    I have a feeling many of the folks here know this game quite well.

  8. It does sound similar to 221B Baker Street, but I would guess that any games based on Holmes are going to have elements in common. I remember 221B playing like a more advanced and interesting Cluedo.

  9. Consulting Detective is an amazing game, quite different from anything else on the market that I'm aware of. The amount of work that went into it must have been considerable. We had tremendous fun playing it in team mode in the early '80s. I pulled it out and replayed some of the cases solo a couple of years ago, and enough time had passed that it all seemed fresh again. There was a 1930s/40s version, too, called Gumshoe IIRC. Never had that one so can't comment on it in any greater detail.

    221B is simpler than Consulting Detective but still very enjoyable.

  10. Played 221B but not Consulting Detective. Sounds awesome.

    I agree that whomever has the copyright should release a version in PDF.

    And another piece of the puzzle was just added to the list of "Things I Messed Up" when I was last trying to run a non-D&D game.

  11. This comment has been removed by the author.

  12. I believe I have a complete set with all the expansion (plus the Gumshoe game). I agree: It's an awesome and tactile gaming experience.

    For diehard completists, a couple of notes:

    • A case entitled "Sherlock Holmes & the Baby" is part of Different Worlds #44. It's still available to buy online. (They actually did a good job at trying to recreate the original experience.)

    • A fan-made PDF expansion for the game under the name of iDetective is available for purchase online. (A standalone version that doesn't require SHCD is also available, and future installments of iDetective are also standalone.)

  13. Always wanted this game, but I heard it got more difficult as the games progressed.

  14. The cases are challenging, but the system is awesome. It is more for the deliberate, slow thinker though, IMO

  15. My parents had a copy. I don’t know why I never played it more. I’ll have to see if they still have it.

    I think there was something special about that period for games, though. It was the height of the pre-digital era. (Which is to say, digital was still in its infancy and only just started its influence.) Of course, I’m far from a neo-luddite. But I think limitations often spur creativity.

    1. It was the height of the pre-digital era. (Which is to say, digital was still in its infancy and only just started its influence.) Of course, I’m far from a neo-luddite. But I think limitations often spur creativity.

      I think you may be on to something here.

  16. It is in print but only in French apparently.

  17. As I recall, one didn't play Holmes - one played one of the BSI (Wiggins?) who Holmes would send off on assignment to try to "match up" with Holmes' deductions. Occasionally, one would find Holmes passing on a hint to the player.Splendid game, which our local Mycroft group enjoyed during a thrilling weekend celebration of Stamford introducing Holmes to Watson and vice-versa. I may still have my three copies of the game - two in the binders, one in the box. Yes, they were the same components, though "consolidated" in the boxed version. Originally, it was published by Sleuth, but then Different Worlds took over. And, yes, supplementary adventures became more difficult - until one was published with no solution! The contest, which was to solve it first, was never finished before this ended up, I suppose, on the scrap heap.

    *jeep! & God Bless!

  18. I have a complete set of this series as well as the Gumshoe variant, though I have never played the latter.

    Consulting Detective is a fantastic and immersive game that really makes you feel like you're in a Sherlockian story; especially when you're poring over newspapers and other documents which may or may not be of value to your investigation.  It's just different than any other game you've ever played.

    My feeling is that Consulting Detective would be ideal for implementation in an online interactive mystery site, like the current Sleuth game, only much better!

  19. There's apparently a spiritual successor to this called "Hunt a Killer." I played one of its scenarios and its very similar.

    I first learned of Consulting Detective because of, of all things, a Sega CD game... which apparently is based on this tabletop game (I even compared the list of cases between the video game and the tabletop... the video game is apparently based on the first three mysteries). That's how I ran across this article, actually. Now I wish I could play the original.