Why are mysteries so hard?

Ask the gamemasters

Campaign Mastery was asked,

I’m making a Hero System 5.5 campaign for some of my friends. I wanted to do a non-power game that was mystery based. First session went off fine, and I had some good hooks and an o.k. story. Now I find myself looking to plan another session and I’m completely blocked for ideas. The setting is 1990’s, so tech and the internet aren’t as advanced as they are today and the characters are in an east coast city. Where can I look for good mysteries that I can tie into my campaign?

Ask the GMs - Mike

Mike’s Answer:

I would normally start by pointing our enquiring GM towards the obvious sources: 40 years of Crime shows on TV, and the last 70 years or so of crime and suspense fiction. But these don’t always translate too well into the gaming genre.

Mysteries are the hardest things to get right, as I found out when I tried to adapt “The President’s Plane Is Missing” by Robert J. Serling for my superhero campaign. It was a story that fitted perfectly with the technology and the campaign setting. The setup for the situation carried over perfectly, but from the moment the PCs started investigating, the plot went off the rails; after the fact, I realised that the mystery relied on the investigators making certain assumptions and accepting the seemingly obvious at face value. When the PCs didn’t, things quickly went horribly awry. Although I was ultimately able to scramble my way to a reasonably satisfactory resolution, it lacked the jaw-dropping shock created by the twists and turns of the original plot.

Add to that the risk your players may have seen or read the source material, and the potential value goes way down.

What’s more, all too often such mysteries can be shattered by the players asking the wrong question (or, more accurately, the right question), just as happened to my adaption of “The President’s Plane Is Missing.”

The next most obvious source is to take scenarios and modules that were written in the past for different game systems such as Top Secret and adapt them. But these may not have compatible backgrounds. Some will adapt easily, others may be all-but unusable.

That leaves only the hardest solution of them all: writing your own.

The attributes of a mystery are:

  • A crime is committed or an unusual event occurs;
  • the criminal/perpetrator tries to give himself an alibi;
  • the criminal/perpetrator tries to throw suspicion on someone else;
  • the criminal/perpetrator tries to throw monkey wrenches into the investigation;
  • the investigators find a flaw in the obfuscations;
  • one revelation leads to another until the criminal/perpetrator is revealed.

Any one of these can be novel in nature, from the nature of the crime to the means used to obtain an alibi to the means by which the flaw is discovered. Often, this is not enough to make the mystery difficult to solve, which is why police shows often revolve around the need to get evidence that will stand up in court – hamstringing the investigators to operating within the law. PCs can and often do evade or ignore such restrictions, which only makes it harder for the GM to create an adequate puzzle.

So, here’s my secret recipe for creating a mystery:

  1. Create a crime in which multiple perpetrators might be guilty.
  2. Create an alibi for each.
  3. Create reasons for each to obstruct the investigation.
  4. Create different versions of the scenario (only one or two paragraphs long) in each of which one of the perpetrators has covered up their guilt.
  5. Let the players investigate to their heart’s content.
  6. When they come up with a favourite theory, and try to prove it, throw monkey wrenches into the works and let them discover evidence disproving the theory.
  7. Cross out each alternative version of the scenario as they clear the person it claims is responsible.
  8. When only one is left, that’s the real solution to the mystery.

Unless, of course, they come up with an idea that you hadn’t considered and that you like so much that you rewrite your scenario on the fly to make correct!

Hope that helps!

Ask the Game Masters - Johnn

Johnn’s Answer:

Danny East posted some great mystery gaming tips in Roleplaying Tips Issue #400. Be sure to check those out.

I have GM’d only a small number of mysteries. Some went well. Some went poorly. In the ones that went well I focused most of my planning attention on NPC development. I covered motives, personalities, skills. This gave me a lot of mileage during games when I needed to improvise and roleplay numerous interactions with the PCs.

In the games that went poorly, I focused too much on the details. I tried to put together complicated twists, turns and events. In the heat of play I got a few details wrong and suddenly my whole pattern of logic blew up.

The last time I GM’d a mystery I created a timeline spreadsheet. Key NPCs were each given a column. The far left column was for the time. The second column was for the events of the mystery. The NPC columns contained details of actions and locations along the timeline. It worked well, and I’d use the same tool again next mystery I run. It helped me keep important details straight without convoluted documentation or memorization of all threads.

As for sources, Mike mentioned the best ones. If you do use an external source for the plotting though, be meticulous in detailing events, timeline, NPC actions and NPC relationships. Also be thorough in detailing the truth – the critical path – of the story. That’ll be your backbone. This will require parsing through the source, possibly several times, to tease out the 5 Ws of the story.

I vote with Mike to just use external sources as inspiration and then design the adventure yourself. This opens up additional source possibilities, because you won’t need all the information provided – you’ll just be taking a seed and creating the rest.

Some additional sources of inspiration:

  • Newspapers – crime features big in news and each story is a potentially great mystery
  • Tabloids – for weird and outlandish seeds, or for great NPC inspiration
  • Google crime listings for inspiration on different types of crimes
  • Documentaries – real life stories help inspire your design

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