Have you ever tried to run a mystery adventure in a game that was not specifically designed for mysteries and failed spectacularly? Everyone loves a good mystery, whether they see the end coming or are shocked by the big reveal. They appeal to one of our most basic linear instincts, if you believe anything you hear on Star Trek DS9.
That may be the most important thing to understand about humans. It is the unknown that defines our existence. We are constantly searching, not just for answers to our questions, but for new questions
Pulling off a good mystery in an RPG is not easy. There are so many things that can go wrong: the players miss a vital clue, the GM force-feeds information, an important detail is left out early on, a red herring takes us down a deep rabbit hole, or a TPK results in us never getting the answers we want.
For today’s blog, we will be looking at the five basic scenes of a standard mystery and some tips for players and GMs to make the most of these steps when the mystery is a major element of your story.
Scene 1: Discovering the Mystery
When a mystery is first revealed, it is generally after the events of the mystery have already occurred. Players discover a crime scene, a series of strange crop circles, or a woman covered in tattoos that does not remember who she is. We encounter the results, but we do not understand what they mean, and so we must unravel the mystery to discover the truth.
GMs that favor improvisational styles will really struggle here because they often want the answers to the mystery to surprise them as well as the players. If you really want to run a good mystery, the reward for the GM should really be the player’s reactions rather than the joined discovery. So try to figure out exactly what happened and lay out the discovery scene with all the “evidence” right there. This way, if a player thinks to look for a clue that you had not thought of you can reasonably deduce whether or not that clue would be there, still leaving you some flexibility to work with.
Players, when a mystery is revealed your number one priority is to look for clues. Avoid the temptation to draw conclusions early on about what happened. You can miss valuable evidence if you focus your attention on supporting only one hypothesis in the first scene. After all, if you assume a man suicide then there is no reason to search the bedroom for blood-stained earrings or extra wine glasses.
Scene 2: Group Discussion
Once you have gathered all of the possible evidence from the mystery scene, it is time to compare notes. This is where the players do a majority of the talking and the GM steps back to allow them to bounce ideas off of each other. The goal is for players to draw a reasonable theory, or possibly more than one, about the truth behind this mystery.
GMs need to take a more passive role in this scene, answering questions rather than asking them and not interrupting with NPC prods or scene drama. Try to avoid giving clues that the group may have missed in the first scene or pointing out where their logic is wrong. Just make notes for later scenes.
Players, this is your scene to do all the talking like you normally would before diving into a mission. While brainstorming all the answers can be helpful, you really want to narrow down your possibilities to the single most likely explanation, or perhaps the one that is most easy to test in scene 3.
Scene 3: Testing Theories
At this point the players will have one or two theories that they want to test. So they go find an expert to consult, a witness to interrogate, or a new location to examine more evidence. Simple discovery is no longer the mission. The players want to prove that their theories are right or wrong.
GMs, remember that you are not trying to reveal more of the mystery that was not encountered in the first scene. That leads to unsolvable mysteries and/or players that feel cheated. Your goal is to address the party’s theory. The fact that the murder victim had a twin sister may be interesting, but if the party is exploring the theory that the mob was after the victim then they need to get a definite yes or no from the godfather they question.
Players should also remember that they are not looking for new random evidence. There is a clear goal that needs and answer, and the answer may be NO. But more than the simple answer, the players need to learn the reason behind that answer in order to help move the story forward. If the mob was looking for the victim, was it because they wanted him dead or because the victim was the long-lost child of a mob boss? It makes a difference, especially for the next scene.
Scene 4: Rebuilding the Hypothesis
The first time you hit this scene, it will probably feel a lot like scene 2. The big difference is that you are adding absolute truths into the equation. You’ve disproved some of your theories with your new evidence, and now you are ready to narrow down your theories, or spark some new ones if the old ones are gone.
While a GM is still more passive in these scene than the odd numbered ones, there are some management things that a GM should feel more at ease doing while the players are rebuilding their hypothesis. The group has direction now, so sending an NPC in with new evidence, such as an autopsy report or a call from the fleet commander. Just remember that these should be used to push the group forward and not throw them an unexpected curveball.
Players, remember that you are not rebuilding your hypothesis from scratch. Use as much from the previous scenes as you can to formulate your new theory. Do not make something completely new unless you have eliminated all of the old possibilities. And if your hypothesis still needs testing, go test it in a new scene just like you did in scene 3.
It should be noted that, depending on how complicated the mystery is and how long you want the mystery to stretch on, the scene sets of 3 and 4 can be repeated almost indefinitely. If it is a simple one-session mystery, then you will go right to scene 5. Otherwise the mystery will unfold as you discover more pieces to the puzzle while testing your theory. Experiment with chemicals, interview suspects, Google the internet, and do whatever it takes until your hypothesis is the only viable solution.
Scene 5: The Big Confrontation
Now that you have your unshakable answer, you are ready for the climax of the mystery: the big confrontation. This is where the players throw their hypothesis at the mystery and find out if they discovered the truth or were ultimately thwarted by a red herring goose chase.
GMs, make sure that you do not punish the players for being right, even unintentionally. If they expose the true criminal and he escapes unpunishment, make sure it feels like he just barely escaped and still feels thwarted by the group. If the group discovered why the ship is without power, let their solution work rather than leaving them to die. If the group got the wrong answer, reveal enough of the truth in game to show them where they went wrong. And don’t forget that this is the adventure’s climax, so make it spectacular!
Players should plan out the details of the big confrontation. This is the moment that you discover if you found the truth or not. Think a little bit about what that reveal will mean and plan accordingly. After all, a good mystery is not just about discovering the truth. It is about confronting the truth. What will you do with the murderer? How will your crew manage now that you know one of your own was a traitor? Make preparations to steer the ending in the direction you want, so long as you were right of course.
We used crime mysteries for our examples because they are so easy to associate with the concept of a mystery, but there are many other kinds of mysteries you can run in a campaign: finding a lost civilization, surviving a haunted house, navigating through a trapped room, first contact with an alien race, or playing match maker for the king’s son all delve into that realm of the unknown.
Not every campaign is a crime solving campaign, and not every adventure needs a good mystery. This is just one tool to make amazing stories together, and we hope this helps you use that tool a little bit better.
And because we don’t say it enough: Games are fun! Enjoy them!