Recently I got asked to write a guest spot on a popular network, you know the one. The post turned out to be about using mysteries in RPGs. I really wanted to pull on the thread of making mysteries different from traps and combat encounters while still satisfying and easy for all kinds of characters to participate in.
Dungeons & Dragons
I wanted to look at what other had been done since the game’s beginning. I looked over the Dragon Magazine index, 3 issues were tagged Mystery!
- #117 had an article that really just boiled down to reskin and mashup your monsters so the players don’t get bored after memorizing the monster manual.
- #240 had a guide to medieval mystery fiction to draw inspiration from, and 101 Mysteries that are closer to plot hooks than anything else.
- #288 during the time of D&D 3.0 we got a really well-researched look at Mystery writing, 10 villain archetypes for mysteries, and a bibliography of some good reference works
- 10 principles of fair play from Father Ronald Knox’s 1929 essay documenting what made a mystery satisfying instead of cheapening the reader’s experience.
The fine folks at Steve Jackson Games updated GURPS Mysteries in 2017, my POD copy was printed in August 2020. It covers crime-solving over several time periods, as well as a nice timeline of when certain forensic techniques were invented.
Gumshoe, the fine folks at Pelgrane Press wrote a game all about solving mysteries, and the basic guidelines for putting together scenarios and clues are helpful; if the mystery is the dungeon, then the clues are the monsters, imagine searching a dungeon and not finding any monsters so you couldn’t progress your story. Gumshoe’s central conceit is that if the characters try the right skill, they will find the clue. The cops tossed the apartment; if the clue was hidden in the apartment, they find it. If the detectives interrogate the suspect, they may get the clue; they might need to use some other leverage clue on the suspect to change their attitude enough to make them talk. Pocket Gumshoe is Pay What You Want, and the Gumshoe SRD is free.
In 2011 Pelgrane Press released Lorefinder a mashup of Pathfinder and Gumshoe that won an Ennie in 2012. I have a copy and will be updating this article when I have dug a little deeper into it.
Other mysterious notes
A lot of the focus of mystery fiction is on murders, the other crime-solving stories end up in suspense, but I would assume that a group of characters might end up solving many kinds of problems over their careers whether looking for bigfoot, figuring out the oddness of a faerie ring, and the like.
Adventure writing 101, the common wisdom is that if one skill check stops the plot, the adventure is poorly written. Either a character fails the check or nobody has the skill and therefore the story can’t progress, you’ve just ruined somebody’s Saturday night.
I believe that allowing a character to use their theme knowledge modifier when searching for clues would help keep specific skills and trained only DCs from stopping the adventure. If the characters are investigating a dead icon and another icon notices their recording studio is set up for two microphones, two cameras, and an extra chair then they might have been attempting an interview the night they were murdered.
In that vein, let’s talk about leverage clues
Gumshoe’s leverage clues might act similar to the theme knowledge in that they change the DC to influence a suspect. If you are interrogating a suspect who was close to the victim where the murder was a crime of passion or the victim suffered particularly badly while dying, the killer might have some remorse, and so a character bringing up the neighbors that heard the arguing, throwing down the crime scene photos of the grisly death, talking about how long it took them to suffocate according to the coroner’s report. This shifts the focus on the killer’s remorse and not whether or not the killer can be placed at the scene. Trying this one a suspect who isn’t the killer will produce a laughable result; they might feel sympathy for the victim, but they know you’ve got nothing, and while they might try to help at best, they will dummy up and wait for their lawyer at the worst.
but what if I fail?
In the Gumshoe model, you shouldn’t fail if you at least tried the right type of check, but if the characters fail to find the clue, you can have other investigators, cleaning staff, or the victim’s family members bring things to the characters asking about something they found.
Clues as information and the purpose of scenes
The Gumshoe folks have things they consider core clues that you get from essential scenes where they can be revealed. These set-piece scenes are required for the mystery to unfold and each one contains at least one core clue. I would hesitate to equate them to encounters since it may only be a location where a clue is found and no NPCs are met and no combat occurs.
There are optional scenes where you may learn something that puts an existing clue in better context but does not itself present a core clue. Some of the optional scenes contain clues or information that eliminates a suspect or category of suspects.
Gumshoe also introduced the concept of a floating clue. Imagine a scene where your characters had to interview six suspects or witnesses, and any one of them could divulge the clue. If the game session was going long or the pacing was dragging, the GM could provide the clue sooner and eliminate the other interviews. If the players are having fun, the GM could withhold the floating clue until the last interview. If this is a core clue, then the whole set of interviews part of a larger required scene, but not all of the interviews are required to finish the scene.
If you have any feedback about this post or our books please feel free to contact us.
Evilrobotgames at Gmail.com