Last week, I proposed an alternate approach to plotting mysteries that made them more suitable for RPGs and could also be of benefit to mystery writers generally. Due to time pressures, I didn’t include examples – and I wasn’t entirely sure they would be necessary (that’s why I spent some time working on the diagrams; they were supposed to be a combination illustration & abstract example). Nevertheless, I had also intended to include some actual examples, if there was time. Since at least one reader has requested some “real” examples – and since I hold by the tenet that one person making a request represents up to a hundred more who didn’t bother to actually make the request – today’s article consists of those missing examples.
The Jar Of Jam: An example of the Linear mystery
The initial situation: A household contains a three-year-old boy, a five-year-old boy, and a ten-year-old girl, plus mother and father. The Father works Saturdays, departing before the Mother gets out of bed. On the morning in question, he told the Mother as he was leaving that they were out of bread. When she gets up, and before getting breakfast, she nips down to the corner store to buy more. When she returns, she finds what had been a new and unopened jar of jam on the kitchen floor, with half its contents consumed. Her task: to decide Who is responsible.
- Observation: There are traces of jam on the floor and walls in the rough shape of a small handprint.
- Observation: The three-year-old’s cheeks are covered in jam.
- Statement 1: The five-year-old claims to have been playing the PS3 in his room at the time.
- Statement 2: The ten-year-old claims to have been talking on the phone to one of her friends at the time.
- Investigation Of statement 1: Plausible, fits the childs habits.
- Investigation Of statement 2: Plausible, the ten-year old can spend hours on the phone.
- Suspicion: The three-year-old is immediately the prime suspect, but the evidence is purely circumstantial.
- Known Fact: Jam-Jars can be very difficult to open for the first time, even some adults struggle unless they know the trick of using a sharp knife to break the vacuum seal first.
- Deduction: A three-year-old doesn’t have the gripping strength to open such a jar. He may have consumed the jam, but cannot be responsible.
- Deduction: The same is true of most five-year-olds.
- Suspicion: The Ten-year-old girl is therefore the new prime suspect.
- Deduction: A ten-year-old would probably not have consumed jam direct from the jar, she would have made a sandwich.
- Known Fact: There was no bread to make a sandwich.
- Deduction: The ten-year-old is therefore probably not responsible.
- Deduction: Therefore, either the 5-year-old was strong enough to open the jar of jam, despite expectations, or someone else opened it. The only possible “someone else” present in the household at the time is the ten-year-old, who has previously been eliminated.
- Deduction: If the father gets up before the rest of the family on a Saturday Morning to go to work, he either has no breakfast or makes his own.
- Deduction: If the father did not make his own breakfast, he would not have known that the family had run out of bread. Therefore, he did, in fact, at least attempt to make his own breakfast.
- Investigation: Mother asks the five-year-old to help open a new jar of jam and observes his behavior. He struggles with it for a few seconds before giving up. His demeanor displayed some guilt at the mention of Jam, however, and the jar lid is slightly sticky when he returns it to the Mother.
- Observation: The three-year-old is not tall enough to see a jar of jam left on the breakfast table without climbing onto a chair.
- Known Fact, not previously revealed: The three-year old can climb onto chairs but does not do so unless others are at the breakfast table.
- At this point, three plausible solutions are possible. Either the ten-year-old opened the jam to make breakfast while talking on the phone and before realizing that there was no bread left, or the father used the last of the bread for his breakfast, opening the jam and leaving it on the kitchen table. The five-year-old saw the opened jar and ate from it using his fingers before giving it to the three-year-old or leaving it on the table where the three-year-old could get it, or consumed the jam himself and smeared some on the hands and face of his brother to deflect guilt over ‘being naughty’ from himself.
- Observation: The butter is still on the breakfast table. This supports both possible explanations.
- Observation: The usual storage location of the jam is beyond the reach of the 3-year-old and reachable only with difficulty (involving moving chairs) for the five-year-old. Since the chairs appear relatively undisturbed, this supports both possible explanations.
- Observation: There is a bread-and-butter plate in the sink with breadcrumbs on it. Since there was no bread for the ten-year-old to consume, this exonerates her and leaves only one possible guilty party: The absent father. The five-year old is an accessory, but is guilty of lying about his behavior actions, and may be guilty of attempting to frame his brother.
- Interrogation of the five-year-old confirms the more innocent alternative. He came out for breakfast, followed by his brother, who climbed up onto a kitchen chair because his brother was sitting at the table. He decided that since there was no bread, he would just have jam for breakfast. His brother then demanded some of the jam. They both got down from the table to make it easier for both of them to reach it at the same time.
This was a straightforward, linear, and trivially domestic investigation. There was only ever one solution: Father to Five-year-old to Three-year-old. It was also a very realistic situation that many parents will know from first-hand experience.
Okay, be honest: How many readers suspected the father from the start? And how many were sure of it from item 15 on? Okay, who doesn’t have their metaphoric hand up – no-one? That’s the problem with a linear mystery plot – it can be easy to suspect the identity of the guilty party, and it turns the whole thing into an anticlimax that plods to a solution.
That’s bad in a TV show or piece of fiction. It’s worse in an RPG, and more likely to occur, because you don’t have one person investigating (and possibly missing key facts), you have two, three, four, or more. In fact, it was very hard to slow down enough to identify each concrete step in the above chain of detective work; if all the clues had been presented at once, most people would have the solution in seconds.
The Wounded Monarch: A Parallel Plot
To demonstrate the Parallel Plot, we need a somewhat more complex and significant mystery than the simple story of the Jar Of Jam. We also need a somewhat broader suspect list. At the same time, to keep the example practical (and capable of completion in the time I have available), it must necessarily be limited in scope. So this will not be a complete example, but rather an illustration of the various steps involved in constructing a mystery plot of this sort; where those steps are to be repeated multiple times in order to construct the finished mystery plotline, only one or two iterations will be presented. Anyone who wishes to complete the process of turning it into a complete adventure or suite of fictional accounts is welcome to do so.
I’ll be putting the actual content of each step in a text box like this one to set it off from the description of the process.
1. Initial Briefing
The construction of a Parallel Plot has several elements in common with that of a Linear Plot. You still start with a setup, or initial briefing, which describes the mystery to be solved, but is otherwise devoid of clues or evidence.
While dispensing high justice and hearing supplications from his subjects, someone has shot the King with a crossbow. Fortunately, the bolt missed hitting anything vital, but the rumors have been swirling ever since he was carried away to the Royal Chirurgeon where the bolt was removed. The King is still in considerable distress and not entirely rational following the attack. With the Palace Guards all tasked to defending the King, the PCs have been summoned by the Seneschal to discover who shot the King and Why.
2. Prior Knowledge
It is better to be minimalist here, but context is also very important – clues may exist in the form of encounters that the PCs have had in past adventures. For example, if it is known that there is a conspiracy of high-level mages hunting for a lost artifact, that’s a piece of information that may be relevant if magic or a clue to the artifact appear in the mystery.
So the second thing that the GM should do when constructing a mystery of any sort is to make a note to themselves of any such Prior Knowledge that might be relevant to the mystery, or that the PCs may mistakenly consider relevant.
(Because this is an isolated example and not part of a series of stories or adventures, there should be nothing here. Note that it can be useful, when designing a mystery for an RPG, to work backwards to establish certain facts in advance of the actual adventure – whether that is the presence of a dark cult, personality profiles of selected nobles, or whatever. So you can build a list of “prior knowledge” requirements and then use that as a checklist of elements to include in preceding adventures.)
3. Three Solutions
The next step is to outline at least three solutions to the mystery. These must all be plausible stories that explain what has happened. I’ll call them A, B, and C. So far as possible, they should feature (mostly) the same protagonists, though the relationships between the protagonists, and even elements of their personalities, may vary. These variations should all be consistent in terms of objective behavior, however.
The King was shot by a member of the Assassin’s Guild in fulfillment of a contract with the Earl Of Halsford, who is 14th in the line of succession but who has Crown Prince Harald under his thumb. The Earl then plans to persuade the Prince to permit him to marry the Prince’s daughter, bolstering the Earl’s claim to the throne, and then have the Prince follow his father into the grave. Poison on the bolt has deranged the wounded monarch; the PCs are also required to find a cure BEFORE they can confront the guilty party. The Seneschal, already suspicious of the Earl, has chosen to have outsiders investigate because he does not know who in the court are in league with the Earl.
The King was shot by a member of the Assassin’s Guild in fulfillment of a contract with the Earl Of Halsford, one of the King’s advisors, because the King has become progressively more deranged and the Council Of Advisors are finding it increasingly difficult to conceal this condition from the public while preventing the monarch from doing serious damage to the Kingdom (if not outright disaster). The Earl would be Horrified at any suggestion that he wants to claim the throne himself. But Crown Prince Harald is not a strong character, and the Earl fears that a court faction led by the Seneschal will unite behind the Princess Alyssa – unless he can force the Prince to marry her off to someone who will blunt her ambitious nature, preventing a Civil War. The Seneschal, who fears a disaster should the Prince ascend the throne, has brought the PCs in to conduct the investigation because he suspects the Earl, and can use the incident to discredit both the Earl and the Prince and possibly even have the Prince removed from the line of Succession as a traitor. Rumors of poison are being spread to explain the King’s current incapacity, but in fact there is no poison and the incapacity predates the attack.
While the Seneschal and Earl of Halsford each lead a faction within the court and would like to blame each other, one a supporter of the Crown Prince and the other a supporter of the Princess Alyssa, neither had anything to do with the plot. The assassin was a deranged individual whose life was destroyed by a poorly thought out Royal Decree. He believes that the King, who was once good, wise, and kindly, has been possessed by a demonic evil and must be destroyed. In truth, the King has NOT been possessed, but he has been replaced by a Doppelganger. The PCs have been brought in to investigate the attempted assassination because neither faction would trust any member of the court acceptable to the other (and the undecided are courtiers and idiots who couldn’t be trusted to investigate a birthday party). The Doppelganger keeps a vial of Lamb’s Blood on hand at all times to fake any apparent injury necessary. There was no poison on the bolt at the time, but another Doppelganger has anointed it with some after the “King” was wounded to mislead investigators who might otherwise want to poke and pry.
* NB * This solution works exceptionally well if the ideas in The Complete Guide To Doppelgangers by Goodman Games, or in my addendum to that game supplement (described in ‘The Hidden Truth Of Doppelgangers’) is used.
Notice how much these three theories have in common? In all three, we have the Seneschal and Earl of Halsford as antagonists toward each other. In all three, we have a King with a reputation for wisdom and kindness and being a good ruler. It might have been helpful to establish the existence of the Assassin’s Guild and the rivalry between the two factions in advance, but these can be brought out by witness statements.
Next, we need to “Salt” the adventure with people who will espouse the motivations contained within each of these three theories. The deranged peasant in the third can act as his own spokesman, but it would be helpful for the others to come from the outside – the innkeeper where the PCs are staying, a member of the watch, whatever. These exist only to ensure that the possible theory is in front of the PCs for the players to consider.
5. Hotheads, Reactionaries, and Red Herrings
Next, we need a couple of hotheads from each faction (and I count the followers of the lunatic and those who oppose them as factions, bringing the total to four), who will blame the other without need for tedious investigation, and act accordingly.
We also need to make a note of anyone who would have strong reactions to the events, deciding that the time is right to set plans of their own in motion. A lieutenant of the guards might see this as a chance to eliminate his captain, ensuring his own promotion, in the hope that by making the crime look similar to that under investigation, the same person or persons will be blamed for both.
Thirdly, there will always be a couple of people who will seek to exploit the situation for gain. While some of these may be obvious – “King Ramus Memorial Mugs” – others will be more subtle, involving perhaps trade deals or illegal acts that would normally not be permitted but which might escape notice while everyone is distracted by something more important. All three of these groups are Red Herrings but they are also plausible suspects.
6. Witnesses & Confusion
Finally, we need to populate our cast with a number of witnesses – some of whom are truthful, some of whom are not, and some of whom just want attention.
Eyewitness testimony is the least reliable evidence there is – it’s even worse than circumstantial evidence or hearsay. At the same time, it can often be the most powerful testimony in convincing investigators of what took place. (For more on this, I strongly encourage everyone – GMs and Players alike – to read:
- Eyewitness Testimony Can Be Tragically Mistaken, an article at the Live Science website; and
- The Certainty Of Memory Has Its Day In Court from the New York Times.
So we need some wheat, and a heap of chaff to hide it in. Everything from Halflings riding miniature dragons to magically-animated shadows to members of the Palace Guard attacking the King with swords. Witnesses should disagree on the number of assassins, the number of shots, the type of weapon, ages, descriptions, genders, and clothing. Make up the nonsense now so that you can avoid distracting yourself with it while working on the real clues.
6. The first trail of breadcrumbs
Next, we need to outline a trail of breadcrumbs that lead the PCs to solution A. These should be everything from true statements by witnesses – the “wheat” mentioned above – to physical evidence. This is the trail that, if followed, will solve the crime – if Solution A is the real answer.
This trail of breadcrumbs can be simplified into larger chunks and then broken into details, which tends to make life easier. For example, for solution A, we might have
Bolt to Assassin’s Guild to Earl of Halsford to Prince Harald to Princess Alissa to The Plan To Usurp The Throne to Poison to Cure to Solution.
It’s necessary to break those landmarks down into individual steps before the path of the investigation can become clear:
- Bolt to Expert Fletcher to Assassin’s Guild as suspects.
- Watch Crime Reports (Dead bodies) to General Location Of Assassin’s Guild.
- Street Rumor (investigation) to Specific Location of Assassin’s Guild.
- Raid on Assassin’s Guild to Guild Records to Earl’s Pseudonym & Method Of Payment.
- Method Of Payment to Earl’s Estate to Meaning Of Pseudonym to Identity Of Earl.
- Identity of Earl to Relationship with Prince Harald.
- Prince Harald’s history and personality to Earl’s Plans (suspicion only).
- Investigation of Earls Estate to confirmation of Earl’s Plans for Princess Alyssa.
- Suspected Nature Of Poison Used to Search Of Earl’s Estate to Dark Elven Outpost.
- Raid On Dark Elven Outpost to confirmation of Agreement between Earl & Dark Elves.
- Dark Elven Poison to Elven Lands to Cure for Poison.
- Cure For Poison to Recovery Of The King to Confrontation With The Earl.
- Capture Of The Earl to Solution.
That’s a substantial adventure in four parts – the Mystery, the Assassin’s Guild, the Earl’s Estate and Dark Elves, and finally the confrontation with the Earl and Cure of the King.
But Players are fickle and unlikely to follow the train-tracks of such a straightforward plotline, and nor should they. They might well focus on the poison first, or decide that the Assassin’s Guild is too obvious, or any of a dozen other possibilities. It was contemplating that reality that led to the invention of the Parallel Plot approach.
When you look over such a detailed list of breadcrumbs, you soon find that things are missing, as well. For example, there is nothing there about the factions within the court, but an understanding of the nature of those factions is critical to understanding the relationship between the Earl and the rest of the Royal Family. That information needs to be inserted at the very top of the investigation, before the PCs even get to the Bolt, and while they are still interviewing witnesses.
7. & 8. The other breadcrumb trails
Repeat the above procedure for plotlines B and C. Don’t be surprised if there is considerable overlap. Remember that at the moment, all three solutions are equally valid.
Key Switching Points
The next step is to determine which of these events are Key Switching Points. Solutions A and B, in the case of the example, are perfectly parallel right up to the plans for the Princess Alyssa and the encounter with the Dark Elves – since there was no poison. That makes this a key switching point between solutions A and B.
9. The Innocence Flags
The final preliminary prep that is needed is to identify, in each of the solutions, evidence that will disprove the other two, leaving that solution as the one true story. What is the central point of difference, and how can these be brought to the attention of the PCs?
These are events, and evidence, that can ONLY occur if the solution that contains them is the correct one. These will usually be found at the Key Switching Points; they are the branching points in the flowchart of the investigation. For example, if solution B is the correct answer, then even if there is a Dark Elven Enclave on the Earl’s estates that is proffered up to the PCs as a Red Herring, they will find evidence that the Earl (who in solution B is a good guy, if ruthless) has opposed and tried to eliminate the Dark Elves, not that he did a deal with them to get a rare poison that induces madness, and whose effects linger even after the poison itself is neutralized.
10. Who says what
With the solutions now mapped out, just as a list of quick notes like the one presented above, and some definition of the personalities involved, it is now possible to determine who says what to the PCs, and when – in other words, to construct a list of initial clues and subsequent ones. The Earl will accuse the Seneschal, the Seneschal will accuse the Earl, the Lunatic will accuse the Demons, his enemies (the churches) will accuse the Lunatic, and so on. You can determine who has a reason to lie under each of the possible solutions, and about what, and construct a table accordingly, as shown in the previous post (and replicated below).
As much as possible, each witness should say exactly the same thing, regardless of which solution is correct. But some of what they say will be the truth in one solution and a lie in one or more of the other solutions. Use wit and double-meanings as necessary to achieve this.
Often, the “person” saying something will be the GM interpreting a skill or observation roll. “I examine the bolt – what do I see?” This is every bit a witness statement as anything said by an NPC, but it must never be a lie – though it might be a mistake, or misleading. Never assume that a PC will succeed or fail in any given role of the dice, either – eventually it will catch you out.
Anything that a PC is expected to determine using his own senses or skills should be backed up by a witness saying the same thing. Just in case. And if a PC’s extraordinary perception is going to give the solution away immediately, make sure that someone has the means of confounding that perception, and a reason to be doing so.
The Power Of The Parallel Plot
Because you have three possible solutions to the mystery and don’t have to choose between them right away, two of the three become false trails while the remaining solution becomes the truth. The answer that the PCs decide to focus on obviously seems to be the truth to them, or at least the most likely to be the truth; if this really were to be the truth, the end of the adventure would be truly anticlimactic. Deciding that the first solution they investigate is NOT true leaves you with two, and a guaranteed plot twist part way through the adventure. You can then focus your efforts on making one of those remaining solutions seem to be the truth when it isn’t, building in yet another guaranteed plot twist, or on using the third solution to raise doubts about their proposed – second – solution until the very last minute, your choice.
Remember the limitations of your players
I have one player (and a very good friend) who appears in my campaigns from time to time (and who has popped up as a commentator/contributor here at CM in the past) who loves Sherlock Holmes and enjoys some other mystery authors – but who is not very good at detective work, himself, and who becomes extremely frustrated when confronted with such plotlines as a result. For him to get full enjoyment out of a mystery plotline, he needs a constant stream of obvious clues and lines of investigation to follow – give him those and he’s as happy as a clam (He’ll know who I’m referring to).
The lesson is this: Plan your mysteries based on the limitations and abilities of your players. Don’t hand them anything they will ferret out for themselves on a silver platter (or they will busy themselves with ferreting out something else that might be more damaging to your plans) – but don’t let the adventure bog down too much if your player doesn’t have the knack of thinking a certain way.
This ia an art that takes practice. There is a fine line between catering to your players capacities and being condescending toward them. So aim for a level of sophistication and difficulty that is just a little above what you think they can handle – and then give them a helping hand across the final threshold if they need it.
My personal solution
Someone is sure to ask, so here is my personal solution to The Mystery Of The Wounded Monarch (and yes, it’s a further step up in sophistication): All three solutions are partially true. As a GM, I will do my best to make the solution A appear to be true at first, right up to the flag point regarding the Drow. At the same time, I will do my best to ensure that solution C appears to be a Red Herring by constantly foisting apparent railroad tracks leading toward it in the direction of the PCs – then letting them ‘jump the tracks’. Putting the lunatic front and centre and then being dismissive of him as a harmless fruitcake with a bee in his bonnet will distract the players. I will then have Solution B appear to be the correct solution, right up to the point where the PCs have to make the moral judgment that’s implied between letting the Earl get away with a very bad deed in furtherance of a righteous cause or exposing him and letting the Seneschal sow the seeds of Civil War. Once the mystery has apparently been resolved, I will have the lunatic expose the reason for the King’s seeming loss of touch with reality as his replacement by a doppelganger (Solution C).
So A is partly true (it was the Earl) but B is partly true (it was a desperate attempt to prevent a Civil War, and his oath to the Kingdom is more important to the Earl than his oath to the King or his personal Honor) and C is partly true (the King really has been replaced/possessed, not be a Demon but by a Doppelganger) – which means that the consequences of the PCs moral choice will be visited apon the Kingdom almost immediately.
Sounds like fun to me!