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30 Days of Gamemastering: Part Sixteen

October 17, 2013

This is part sixteen in the continuing series of posts for the “30 Days of Gamemastering Challenge” from Triple Crit.

Investigation and mysteries: how do you use foreshadowing, red herrings, and keep the tension rising?

Mysteries are among the harder scenarios to run as a gamemaster, at least for me. Mysteries tend to be fairly linear: the PCs find clue A, which leads to revelation B, which leads to clue C, etc. As a sandbox GM*, I tend to rebel against such a linear plot line. Nevertheless, I think a good mystery can be done in a sandbox format by following this series of guidelines:

  1. Know your backstory: If you’re going to do a mystery in a sandbox game, it is imperative that you know the story behind the mystery. What happened? Why? What has the perpetrator done since the crime? What is their plan? Without knowing all of this, you’re not going to set up a believable mystery scenario. That is not to say some things may not change in the course of play: for example, many times my players will say “I think that Person X did Action Y for Reason Z” and this actually makes more sense than the XYZ I had set up, so I change it on the fly. But you’ve got to have at least the basics down to set up a decent scenario.
  2. Give the players clues: In order for a mystery scenario to be successful, players have to have clues to pick up along the way. This seems like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how many times I’ve come across mystery scenarios that didn’t give the players any agency, any means to figure out what was going on and act on it. For example, recently I wrote about a mystery scenario that I was running that went off the rails. I found that the main problem with the scenario is that there weren’t really any clues for the players to use to get at the root of the story. Essentially, things would happen to them that they could react to, but didn’t really lead them to “whodunit” or, more importantly, why. It was rapidly becoming an exercise in frustration until I came up with some decent clues that put them onto the right path.
  3. Make sure your clues make sense: I’ve also played in scenarios in which the “clues” didn’t really lead us in the right direction. The GM thought they would, but it was not as intuitive for players who didn’t already know the answers. Look at your clues from the point of view of your players, people that have no prior knowledge of the mystery’s solution. Make sure that they intuitively lead from A to B. Taking the extra time will really pay off and head-off some frustration in the scenario. Also, remember that players never go the route that you plan, no matter how much thought you give to it. So try to have a contingency “clue” if this one doesn’t cut it. It’s always good to have a backup plan.
  4. Make failure interesting: Don’t let your mystery get derailed by bad die rolling. That’s not to say that you should just “give” everything to the PCs, but a series a bad die rolls can cut a scenario–any scenario–really short. Fate Core has a really nice rule in that it advises GMs to always “make failure interesting”. It’s a variation on the concept of “No, but…” Just because a PC failed a skill roll, don’t let this stop the action of the story. Maybe a failure just means that they got part of the information, but not all that was available. Maybe they get the information needed, but at a cost.  Maybe they get bad information–but which could lead them to another aspect of the mystery that they haven’t explored yet. Maybe they get the information they need, but also alert the villain to their presence. Essentially, don’t just say “No” and stop the action. Keep the action flowing, even if the PCs didn’t succeed.
  5. Make your antagonist imperfect: In order for there to be a trail of clues, your antagonist, at some point, has to make a mistake. It doesn’t have to be a classic blunder (like getting involved in a land war in Asia), but something must have been overlooked. You want a challenging villain for your piece, but they can’t have thought of everything. There has to be something for the PCs to latch on to to lead them forward. Be careful of making your criminal mastermind flawless and completely omniscient. Challenging, yes. Flawless, no.

Hopefully you’ll find these helpful in making a successful mystery scenario. Looking back over them, I’m struck by the fact that these rules apply to nearly any kind of scenario, not just a mystery or investigative adventure.

What about you? How to do you craft successful mysteries? Throw some thoughts into the comments!

* I use the term “sandbox GM” to mean a GM that sets up scenarios in an “open format”–a non-linear, open area where there are many ways to reach a particular objective of goal. I set up the basics of the scenario–setting, characters, etc.–and then just let the PCs run with it.

From → Tips and Tricks

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