This irregular column resurrects (relevant) lost blog posts from Mike’s 2006 personal blog on Yahoo 360 and updates them with new relevance and perspective.

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Mysteries are hard to write. Ones for Roleplaying are even harder – or maybe that should be the other way around. There are a lot of unique challenges that have to solved in a mystery that simply aren’t there in other forms of writing – not if the mystery is to succeed.

I write a lot, both fiction and non-fiction. A large part of my non-fiction output are game rules and supplements for the various RPG campaigns that I run, while an equally-significant majority of the fiction consists of adventures to take place in those campaigns.

RPGs as a media format

A roleplaying campaign bears a lot of resemblance to writing for a TV show with an almost unlimited budget – but having to write 4-10 hours worth of material almost every week. In general, the author knows the major cast – the characters operated by the players – and has a free hand to introduce supporting characters and featured guests as necessary. The task is made both easier and harder by the fact that these characters are neither designed by, nor under the control of, the author – he has to anticipate what they might do under the circumstances that he has created and be ready with further story that follows on from the decisions that those characters make. The better the roleplayer, the more they operate from the perspective of what their character knows, what their character can do, what their character wants to do, how their character thinks, and so on. In other formats, the author has greater control over these character parameters, and hence over the actions of the characters.

So roleplaying scenarios are just another format, with its advantages and weaknesses, and the peculiarities of that format have to be taken into account when writing for a game.

Mixing Genres

There are as many different genres of roleplaying game as there are genres of fiction, from high adventure, pulp, fantasy, spies and secret agents, cartoons, Japanese anime, superhero, post-apocalyptic, war, science fiction – you name it, it’s there (it might not be popular, but that’s a whole different issue). And just as within the bounds of any given genre of fiction you can write a story with the style of another genre. So it is the case with roleplaying scenarios – you could have a fantasy setting in which one scenario is a spies & secret agents thriller, followed by a war drama, followed by a romance. The only constants are the fixed and established background, the existing supporting cast, and the main characters.

The rules for writing to most of these genres are fairly straightforward and translate well from one to another. You have to be clear and concise; you have to be plausible, and believable (which is not the same thing), and use language to distinguish one character from another; and so on. In some formats, you can cheat a little, leaving the picky little details up to the set designers or sound effects men or whatever; in prose and in RPG scenarios, it all pretty much happens in the heads of the participants – the reader, or the players, and that means that you have to get a little more specific. At the same time, you can’t waffle on for pages establishing the scene – you need just enough detail that the players/readers are aware of the significant attributes of the scene and then you get on with the action. “Don’t tell, Show”.

Star Trek was one of the first TV shows to realize that the same held true of the Science Fiction genre. If it’s a technology that is used every day, you don’t spend half a page of dialogue explaining it – you just use it. You only get into the specifics if it becomes vital to the plot.

Modern fiction of all forms has taken that lesson to heart. Compare the writings of any turn-of-the-century writer with those of a modern author, and it is the vanishing of reams of descriptive prose that will strike you most forcefully. As a result, there is more action and reaction per page in modern writing than there used to be.

The Rules Of Mysteries

But there is a glaring exception to a lot of these principles, and that is the mystery. While you still have to respect all the requirements of good fiction in general, the mystery story has ironclad conventions that must be respected or the mystery loses credibility and audience/participant satisfaction:

  • You must have a limited number of suspects (no matter how large the pool of potential suspects might be at the beginning of the story); introducing an eleventh-hour “ringer” upsets people terribly.
  • You should never hide evidence from everyone but the chief investigator – that’s why Sherlock Holmes had to have his Watson.
  • You have to make the mystery transparent enough to solve, but not so transparent that the readers get there first – in other words, you have to avoid an anticlimax. That means that you have to conceal vital facts without concealing them – doing so by distracting the audience in some way.
  • There has to actually be a guilty party – a mystery in which no-one committed the crime is exceptionally tricky (though it has been pulled off every now and then, either by revealing a case of misadventure and suspicious circumstance, or by showing the crime to be self-inflicted for whatever reason.
  • And you have to play fair with the audience.

That last one is implicit in all the others, but it is so important that it bears repeating: You Have To Play Fair With The Audience. All the other conventions are, when you think about them, simply concrete manifestations of this one super-rule.

Science-Fiction shows the way

For a long time, it was thought that this rule made science fiction and mysteries impossible to combine. The detective would whip out gadget “X” at the end of the story and announce, “but as everyone knows, the [gadget] reveals instantly [whatever it is supposed to reveal], which clearly shows [character name] to be the killer.”

It took one of the legends of the Science Fiction field, Isaac Asimov, to prove that this was not the case – simply because this “solution” was in violation of that one super-rule. If a futuristic technology was important to the story, you had to establish what it could do up-front and early on in the story; it had to be as much a part of the background as the crime scene. Even so, the need to explain more things (a truism of science fiction) is always at odds with the need to conceal things (a necessity for a good mystery), so the Science Fiction mystery remains very hard to write well.

But the same can in fact be said for any style of fiction in which a mystery story is set, let’s face it – one of the rules of good fiction is to be clear and concise; one of the needs of mysteries is to avoid being clear and concise about certain details while still revealing them – and without making it obvious that you are doing so.

The Underlying Conflicts

THE NEEDS OF A MYSTERY ARE IN INHERANT CONFLICT WITH THE RULES OF GOOD WRITING. How well that conflict can be resolved dictates how well an author can write mysteries.

It occurs to me that modern crime fiction owes more to Asimov than will ever be acknowledged, by the way. Modern technology has advanced so far that shows like CSI are essentially science fiction in genre – a thought that might amuse the writers and producers of such shows. But how else would you categorize a show whose description reads “A team of scientists solve crimes using advanced technology?”

Be that as it may, the format within which you are writing can equally be at odds with the nature of a mystery.

  • In prose, you have to actually state things in black and white – hardly conducive to hiding things.
  • In TV and movies, you can show key things in the background without calling attention to them, making them easy to conceal, but also making the anticlimax harder to avoid UNLESS at some point you make a fuss about them.
  • Plays, unless they have improbably-lavish budgets (which is rare) can’t afford a major prop or scene unless it is important to the story – again making things harder to conceal.
  • And in RPGs, the characters – who are operated by real people other than the author – are expected, and expect, to solve the mystery using their character’s abilities and knowledge. That means that the author has to respect and take into account not only the limitations and advantages of the characters, but of the real people behind them, providing additional explanations and descriptions as requested, which again makes it harder to conceal the key facts; it’s all too easy for the RPG mystery to become a logic puzzle (read anticlimax!).

The difficulty of distance

Writers have one key advantage over the audience, the reader, the player – they know whodunit. But this knowledge is dangerous – it makes the writer try harder to conceal this knowledge within the story so that he isn’t giving hints away, inadvertently. The writer can’t put himself in his audience’s shoes and approach the mystery from a perspective of ignorance – making it much harder to judge what is obvious, what is not obvious, and what is too well hidden.

Some writers “solve” this problem by NOT deciding who the killer is until the last possible moment – they describe an investigation with plot twists, revelations, high points and low points, and systematically cross off suspects until they are left with only one. The problem is that the author (usually) isn’t a super-genius, able to think of every possible factor or solution, so these can seem forced and contrived.

Others rely on feedback – exposing a representative member of the target population with the mystery who has not previously read the story/script and getting their reactions, in detail. But finding such people isn’t easy; other writers generally want to write their own material, not review other people’s; and non-writers tend to find it difficult to be detailed and precise enough in their feedback, telling the author what’s wrong in general, but not where, and not how to fix it.

RPGs: A fourth solution

The best answer I can think of is to use the skills of Roleplayers. Divide the material into acts or chapters. Give them a list of suspects. Have one player assume the role of each principle participant. Have them work through the mystery, from their character’s perspective, indicating at the end of each scene, act, or whatever whether the written words were being accurate to their character, were making their character seem suspicious or guilty, and who they thought the leading suspect was. This feedback is specific enough to be invaluable, and is based on a group of people that tend to be intelligent, articulate, well-read, and used to working within the boundaries of character limitations.

Better yet, let them work out their own solution to the mystery. Give them the initial specifics; when they ask the right questions, give them the appropriate answers. More importantly, listen to the “obvious questions” that they ask, and you didn’t, as leaving an obvious question unasked is a red-letter bold-capitals *hint* that is almost certain to lead to an anticlimax for a significant part of the audience. Not only will the characters come back to you more developed, often more rounded, and more plausible, so will the mystery.

So the only remaining mystery is why more authors don’t do this?

It’s my theory that the solution comes in two parts – a combination of ignorance, and of fear (never a good combination!).

Ignorance: of RPGs and what they can offer. This is (I believe) starting to fade; they have been around for quite a while now, and the urban legends of psychological trauma have been pretty strongly debunked, at the same level as the people who claim that the lyrics made them do it – song lyrics or RPGs might be the proximate trigger, and might shape the resulting psychosis, but the person was so mentally fragile that SOMETHING would have sent them over the edge eventually, anyway. But ignorance, of the “I just never thought of it” variety, remains an element.

Fear: that this literate, articulate, intelligent group will spread the plotline – and the solution – all over the internet, would seem to me to be the biggest reason why anyone who has thought of the idea has not implemented it. And, based on the behavior of some people out there, this fear is neither unreasonable, nor unwarranted.

But the solution seems simple; these problems were solved by movie studios decades ago, back when they first introduced test screenings of new releases. Contracts, stipulating a harsh penalty for revelation; a snippet or synopsis that avoids revealing the key ingredients, and that they ARE allowed to quote provided that the WHOLE is quoted, with each person receiving a slightly-different version. But these might put potential participants off.

An even simpler and better solution: trust. These people have a lot to gain from the experience: a new level of respect for themselves and their hobby, the pride of being on the inner circle, of having their names in the acknowledgements. There would still need to be contracts, stipulating that the copyright on any materials developed in the course of, or resulting from, the sessions remains the authors, and in return, the participants will be acknowledged as contributing to the final manuscript; but those need be nowhere near as scary, and can be in plain English, and still be just as binding.

It seems like the perfect solution to me – but then, I’m a roleplayer.

For those who have read this article looking for ways to write & run Mysteries for RPGs: this is a subject that I have addressed before.

I direct the reader’s attention to:

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