When we start talking about different types of games certain questions arise right off. What kind of game do we want? Which is followed immediately by what flavor of that type do we want? When it comes to a game based in mystery the possibilities are endless. Your characters could be hard bitten film noir detectives on the trail of a murder in 1950’s New Orleans. They could be ultra-futuristic sci-fi agents trying to unravel who is actually controlling the universal network. They could be fantasy characters trying to find out who kidnapped the duke’s daughter and now holds her for ransom. All of these possibilities and a nearly endless list of variations are possible.
That said, there are some things to keep in mind when crafting and running a mystery game and it is to those topics that I will turn my attention for this article.
An adventure based game can focus on fights and traps and the other “normal” fare of a role playing game. A mystery game, however, is by definition a much more social sort of thing. Encounters are much more likely to involve talking than fighting. Of course there’s nothing wrong with a good row in a mystery game it’s just not the focus of most of the encounters.
We can take most of our cues directly from mystery writers. The things that work for them are going to work for us as well. What sorts of things am I talking about? Good question. What are the things that make a mystery story work? Think back to the last mystery story you read? You haven’t read any. I strongly suggest that you either read mystery fiction or watch mystery movies from the type that you are trying to emulate. But since we’re all here I’ll give you my short course on writing for mystery.
In any good mystery story someone is trying to hide something. Whether they’re trying to hide the murder, or the theft, or the adultery is actually beside the point. The principal question at hand is how are they trying to hide their deeds and what ends will they go to to conceal them?
The key elements in creating a mystery story include:
- Clues that lead to more than one possible person
- Clues that don’t actually mean anything (red herrings)
- Clues that indicate something other than what actually happened (a murder disguised as an accident)
- Hiding clues in story elements that don’t look like clues
- Clues that don’t look like clues or that don’t look important
Ok, so how do we actually put a mystery game together?
The short form is to start with a crime or some other activity that someone wants to hide. Sprinkle clues to what’s going on around for the player characters to find. Season with red herrings and misdirection. Throw in the player characters. Give it a stir and a shake and let the players have at it.
What will make it work is the atmosphere and the descriptions that the gm gives the players. Remember that a mystery game is more oriented towards social interactions than a typical adventure. I also recommend that in execution the gm lean more towards role play than mechanical resolutions of situations. If a player character tries to intimidate a source or a witness have them role play it then if you want to use a mechanic to decide how the npc responds to it that’s fine but keep the intrusion of mechanics to a minimum in a mystery based game.
What follows is the setup for the mystery game that I ran at OrcCon 2011. One thing to keep in mind is that a mystery game for a convention is very different (and much simpler) than a mystery game for a campaign. The main reason for this is time. At a convention you only have 4 hours or so to do the entire mystery and things always take longer to do at a convention.
Dark Side of Mardi Gras – Setup
Synopsis: A voodoo sorcerer has come from Haiti to New Orleans and is now expanding his power into the black community of New Orleans making young men into zombies to serve him. Note: These are not undead zombies these are living people who’s are essentially being mind controlled. One of the young men was a student of one of the player characters (Prof. Martinsen) he hired a local detective to find out what happened to his student. The detective (Remy LeChance) was getting too close to the truth and the voodoo sorcerer killed him in a voodoo ritual. At the start of the game the player characters have been picked up by the police for interrogation in regards to the murder.
- Remy’s notebook (Found in Remy’s Apt) – Remy’s notebook contains notes about this case as well as others he’s working on. Unfortunately Remy doesn’t put headers on the pages of his notebook so only he knows what notes relate to what cases. Some of the clues may seem like they relate to this case when in fact they don’t.
- Newspaper (In possession of one of the pc’s at the beginning of the game) – A copy of the New Orleans daily news paper is available and actually contains clues relating to the case at hand (as well as others) which could lead the player character to go and talk to the report that Remy was working with. (If she is being played as a player character give her the information that they would get in the course of talking to her). Whether the player characters connect the news paper story with the case is up to the players to figure out.
- Crime scene photos (Found in the police report) – If the player characters managed to get a look at the police report and/or steal one of the crime scene photos it should point them in the direction of some kind of voodoo involvement. Given the time and setting of the game I expect the character to scoff at the idea with the exceptions of Margaret and Prof. Martinsen and possibly Annabelle but let the players go where they will with it.
If not played as player characters the reporter, the professor, and the voodoo priestess will not directly mislead the pc’s but they may not have or may not remember key information unless prompted by the right sort of question. The idea is to lead the pc’s through the story but not to give it away until the very end.
So we have a basic setup for a mystery story. We have a crime, why it was committed and by whom. We don’t really have a cover up but we do have some potentially very misleading information. At the very least there should be enough to give the characters some discussion as to what’s going on and who’s involved.
The Story Evolving
As the player characters work their way through the mystery and begin to unravel the threads of the plot there are some additional tools that we can employ to make the mystery more interesting. Chief among these is the plot twist. A plot twist occurs whenever the path the characters were following suddenly veers off in a direction they did not expect. Perhaps one of the potential suspects is found out to have been having an affair with the victim or they were in business with the victim and the business wasn’t going well. All of the above and many other ideas are all potential plot twists. Red herrings are plot twists that seem very plausible but actually don’t go anywhere and may actually lead the investigators in entirely the wrong direction.
Use red herrings with caution as too many of them and the players will start to lose interest with the story.
The Big Reveal
The big reveal is the moment in the story when the veil of mystery is pulled back and all is laid bare. If the gm has done their job right the players should be just on the edge of making the connections that will reveal all, but there should be some surprises in store at the big reveal. Usually there’s more to it than meets the eye, and there are things revealed that do not fit the expectations of the pc’s.
In the Dark Side of Mardi Gras the big reveal is when the characters confronting the voodoo sorcerer discover that his powers are very real and very dangerous. (Interestingly in actual play the big reveal was not as impactive as I had imagined it would be.)
One word of caution in the big reveal, don’t change the rules of the game on the players at this point. If they aren’t on the right track that’s fine, but don’t lead them down a false path and then in the big reveal make the real villain someone the characters have never encountered or never had reason to suspect. If they missed it that’s their problem but if you don’t give them the clues that might lead them to the real bad guy you’re cheating and the mystery will actually fall flat on its face.
These are my views and techniques for creating a mystery game. Mystery games can be lots of fun regardless of genre or game system. The main things to keep in mind are to keep descriptions lurid and evocative but not definitive. Keep the players guessing by giving them legitimately misleading or confusing information. Give them the clues they need to solve the mystery even if they don’t see them right away or don’t realize the significance of them. Try to hold onto the mystery until the big reveal and keep some surprises in store for the players. Don’t cheat or change the rules on the characters. Remember the goal is for them to solve the mystery.
As always the words expressed in this article are just my opinion, your mileage may of course vary.