In my experience as a paper and pencil RPG player, I have seen mysteries attempted by multiple GM’s, with mixed results. On one occasion, the party came close to quitting in frustration because they hadn’t done “the right thing.” On another, the mystery was told to us as we looked at objects and people the GM deemed important to mention, and the illusion of investigation was shattered as the railroad tracks were made apparent. On other occasions, there was simply nothing memorable about the adventure. When I decided to try my own hand at the genre, I discovered the traps that can lead to these issues, and from my own experience, I would like to offer some advice on writing and running a mystery for your own group.
Before I get into the actual advice, I’d like to briefly touch on the structure of a standard mystery, which I will divide into four parts: the hook, the investigation, the escalation, and the showdown. In the hook, the situation is presented, and the protagonist is somehow drawn into involving his/herself in the story. In the investigation, the protagonist will look into events, talk to witnesses, explore motivations, hit a few dead-ends, and otherwise collect information to help them solve the mystery they are involved in. The escalation occurs when events are set in motion, either by the protagonist’s action or inaction, wherein the stakes are raised, and some of the true nature of the situation is revealed. This leads naturally to the showdown, in which the protagonist confronts the story’s villain, and the outcome of the story is decided.
When writing a short story, novel, screenplay, etc, the author is making the decisions of who the protagonist will talk to, where they will focus their investigation, what they will deduce from their findings, and in general, every aspect of the story. This is not the case in RPG’s, and therein lies the biggest trap into which the GM’s can blunder. These are decisions you cannot and should not make for your players. If they are to be the protagonists in your mystery, they must dig up information, track down important NPC’s, and draw their conclusions based on their investigation, all on their own. A guiding hand from the heavens will give them the feeling that they are in a Choose-your-own-adventure book, where all possible paths have been planned out ahead of time.
Preparing to run a mystery requires a different kind of preparation than a “standard” session. Rather than planning encounters, scene flow, and story arcs, most of the pre-game effort should be put into developing the setting. Besides the standard questions of who did what to who in order to set off the whole scenario, extra effort needs to be put into the locations, the preceding events, and most importantly, the involved NPC’s. Ideally, you should have a good half to full-paged word document on each NPC, starting with stats, and then moving into their involvement in the preceding events, and what motivates their actions. The final piece of prep work is to create a timeline of sorts that represents what occurs if the players do nothing, or are not in the scenario at all. Know how events would play out, and the unaltered plans of each NPC.
As the GM, the only part of the story you have direct control over is the hook. Getting the players involved in the story is easy enough, provided they have a stake in the situation. Maybe the players are detectives, and investigating is their job. Maybe a friend or family member is the victim, or even a suspect. Maybe these events tie into your larger story arc. However you decide to hook the players in, they will need leads to follow. Provide them with an NPC’s version of the situation, and a few places or people involved, and set them loose. The story is now largely in their hands.
The purpose of all of the prep work you have done is to prepare yourself to react properly to your players’ interactions with your sandbox scenario. Since you can’t control the investigation phase, you will need a depth and breadth of knowledge about the scenario. Note, however, that I did not mention clues in the section about prep work. Banish the idea of a point-and-click adventure from your mind. You may premeditate some clues, but be aware that the players may not find them. They may not look where the clues are, talk to the right person, or follow your train of thought. For this reason, understand that in a mystery, the clues are where the players look.
This is un-intuitive for many GM’s, but if you are experienced in improvisation, then you already know how to do this. The players dig a hole, and you toss a clue into the hole. They may hit a dead end or two, but “this is a dead end” can also be a clue. Rather than hunting for the clues that you thought of, they decide on their investigation approach, and with that, you feed them some information about the scenario based on where they look.
As an example, let’s say you are running a Hunter: The Vigil game, and behind the scenes, there is a sinister reason why monster attacks in the area have stopped. Through the course of their investigations, the players do some research with back-issues of the local paper. With this, you can feed them the information that suspicious events were on the rise until a certain recent point, after which there is relative silence. The players then move on to finding out what changed at that time. Or the players might start interviewing talkative old people, uncover a local legend with a grain of truth in it, and never get to the newspapers at all.
As the story progresses, your huge sandbox will begin to narrow in focus. Just by taking part in the investigation phase, the players set events in motion, determined by the motivations of the involved NPC’s, which will lead to the escalation phase. Perhaps the party is getting close to uncovering a dangerous truth, and steps are taken to discourage them, or remove them from the scenario entirely. Maybe they uncover information that implicates a perceived ally in the crime in question. Maybe the serial killer publicly proclaims a specific about his next murder. The important idea in this phase is that the stakes are raised, and the tension builds toward the mystery’s climax. Don’t be afraid to call short breaks so that you can consider the implications of the players’ actions during the investigation phase and decide on an logical and exciting escalation.
Finally, when the truth (or at least most of it) is revealed, it will be time for a showdown. It could be that the villain knows the jig is up, and attempts to skip town, setting up a confrontation as he is packing a suitcase, or a high-speed chase as he makes for the state line. Maybe a web of deception unravels, exposing a grisly, long-buried secret behind a seemingly idyllic setting. Perhaps the players figure out the serial killer’s next target, and race against time to stop him before the body count rises. Whether the showdown is physical or social, it must do one of two things: either draw the story to a close, or provide a clear line to the next adventure. Whether there is more to the story or not, the GM should strive to relieve most of the built-up tension, so that the curtain can fall with a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction.
Mechanically, only one new element need be introduced: some sort of way for the players to know if they’ve found all of the pertinent information in a scene. In my preferred system, new World of Darkness, I handle this with Willpower. Any player may spend a willpower, and I will tell them if everything has been found, or if not, point them in the right direction. In systems that don’t have such a convenient stat, I recommend a pool of a few points or counters based on some mental attribute, representing intuition, or hunches. This will end, once and for all, all the prodding things with sticks, searching for secret doors, peeling off wallpaper, and wandering around in frustration and boredom. Truthfully, you may only end up using this mechanic once or twice, but it’s a good safeguard against the point-and-click adventure pitfall.
Also, make sure you are not writing (and make sure your players know they aren’t playing) a short Sherlock Holmes style mystery. Do not expect your players to know that the scuff mark on the floor means that their suspect is a soccer player with only one ear and a slight lisp. Make sure your players understand that this is not expected of them. If nothing makes sense, the investigation phase is not over, and there is more to learn. Novelist and screenwriter Raymond Chandler, considered by many to be a founder of the hard-boiled detective genre, had this to say about this particular trap:
At least half the mystery novels published violate the law that the solution, once revealed, must seem to be inevitable.
By the time you reach the confrontation, the NPCs may be surprised by the outcome, but the players should not be. Any twists thrown in at the last minute should not invalidate the players’ conclusions; rather, they should complicate the final confrontation. The players want to solve a mystery, and taking that away from them will ultimately leave them frustrated and unsatisfied.
Bringing the mystery genre to the gaming table can result in a fun and intriguing multi-session adventure. With good understanding of the structure of mysteries, good preparation, and good practice, players and GM can create a greatly enjoyable role-playing experience together. I hope this long post, if you managed to get through it all, can provide you with some good ideas. Happy RPing!