Ask Angry: Building a Mystery

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Do you have a question for The Angry GM! Well, because people can’t get it right, I had to set up a separate page with instructions. About how to send a f$&%ing e-mail. Ready How to Ask Angry to learn how to submit a question.

Tinkledink Catsprocket asks:

My players have expressed interest in playing something ”mystery-like”. That was all I could really get out of them far as information goes. So my question is this. Say we’re running a standard Murder-mystery, who-dunnit type deal. How to I run it without making it incredibly annoying for the players. I feel like the line between engaging and infuriating is incredibly slim. As a pretty new DM this scares the living s@#% out of me.

Let me begin by pointing out that Tinkledink Catsprocket is not the e-mailer’s actual name. The e-mailer DID NOT EXPLICITLY TELL ME HOW TO CREDIT HIM/HER/IT/THEY. So, I generated a random gnome name. Congratulations! Actually, I generated several and picked the “best.” Best part, I added you to my contact list. You will now, forever after be known as Tinkledink Catsprocket to me.

Thanks for your question Tinkledink.

Holy f$&% is this a loaded question. Mysteries are the most complicated f$&%ing things to run in a role-playing game. Because they don’t work like any other mysteries. A mystery game is NOT a mystery game. That’s the first thing you have to understand. I’ll come back to that baffling contradiction in a second.

The second thing you have to understand is that most GMs eventually stumble into running mystery games without realizing it. Because mystery game does not necessarily mean “solve the murder.” It can, but it doesn’t have to.

Now, when we think of mysteries, we think of mysteries like mystery books and police dramas on TV. But the trouble is, mystery games don’t work that way. Or rather, most TV shows and books don’t actually present good mysteries. Instead, what they present is a story about someone solving a mystery. And usually, around the 44 minute mark (of the show), the detective gets that last crucial bit of evidence or information that makes the case solvable and then solves the case. The mystery wasn’t actually solvable before that point. Usually because the story included some sort of red herring or diversion that looked like the solution. So, any other solution would be guessing.

The point is, the audience really can’t beat the detective to the solution in most mystery books and TV shows. Because they aren’t really trying to present the audience with a solvable mystery. They are trying to tell the story of a detective who solves the case. Now, you can find a few true mysteries out there. Monk and Psych on the USA Network were great because they did give the audience all the clues needed to beat the detective to the solution. They actually invited the audience to try to solve the puzzle. Which is why I loved them. And most of the Sherlock Holmes short stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did that as well. The first few didn’t manage that quite so well, but after that, it was a fun game to figure out the story before Sherlock.

But, here’s the problem you run into when you run a mystery game in D&D. The audience IS the protagonist. See, in the non-mystery shows, the protagonist solves the mystery and the audience usually can’t. In the mystery shows, the protagonist solves the mystery and the audience can too. But if the audience doesn’t solve the mystery, the protagonist still does. In a mystery game, if the audience doesn’t solve the mystery, the mystery is NEVER solved.

The biggest problem with running mystery games for most GMs is that mystery games are the most FAILABLE games you can run. That is, failure is a very strong possibility. And failure is entirely contingent on the players’ (not the characters’) abilities to work things out. And this rubs a lot of GMs the wrong way.

See, the dirty little secret is that when players are demanding a mystery game, they are secretly asking you to engage THEIR brains. THEY (the players) want to solve something and feel like bada$& detectives. They are really saying they want a puzzle.

And that’s why I’m saying that most GMs eventually stumble into running mysteries. Because most GMs eventually put in some riddle or puzzle. A mystery is just a riddle or puzzle that spans the entire adventure. A mystery adventure is just an adventure in which some aspect of the resolution is hidden so that the adventure can’t be resolved until the players figure out the hidden aspect. The identity of the killer, the location of the hidden temple, how the smugglers are getting their goods into the city, whatever.

So how do you put together a good mystery adventure? Cripes, I could do an entire 10,000 word article on this subject, but here’s the very basics.

First, figure out the answer to the mystery. You have to know the answer. I know some GMs are going to insist you can make the solution “whatever the players eventually decide is the solution” or that you can run a good mystery “without knowing the solution.” Those GMs are wrong. And dumb. They aren’t running mysteries. They are running smoke-and-mirrors railroady bulls$&% and robbing their players of the chance to succeed or fail on their own merits. You need to know the answer.

And normally, when it comes to a crime, you need to know who did it, why they did it, and how they did it.

Once you’ve got those things figured out. You’ve got to break it down into clues. Make a list of, like, ten clues, from vague to specific. The lowest clues on the list should point to multiple answers. The higher up the list, the fewer things the clues should point to.

Now, those clues are the treasures. And you scatter those around your adventure and put them behind obstacles just like you would hide treasures and keys in a dungeon. The “the man who did was an elf” clue is hidden behind the “grumpy eyewitness who doesn’t trust the party and won’t tell the party unless they get some leverage on him.” Or the “identity of the guy who bought the poison” is hidden inside “the guy who sold the poison” which is hidden behind the “bodyguards who protect the assassin’s guild alchemist.” Of course, the location of “the guy who sold the poison” may in turn be hidden inside the “seedy bar that’s a front for the black market” which is only useful because the party figured out “the victim was poisoned.”

Beyond that, the biggest most important thing is how you deal with failure. Because mysteries can turn into “endless adventures” very easily. Imagine the party is hunting for a killer. They miss some clues, others disappear forever, they blunder, and then the killer finds out the party is after them and erases the rest of the trail. At a certain point, the party might f$&% up so bad that the crime is unsolvable. But they won’t know that. They are going to keep digging at the cold trail, spinning their wheels, and getting nowhere. Players don’t admit defeat. They need to be told they have been defeated.

If the party is working for someone to solve the mystery, that someone can pull them off the case and refuse to pay them any further. “You’re not getting anywhere and we’ve got other problems to solve, the case is closed.” There can be a time factor “we can only keep the harbor locked down for three days, after that, whoever it is can escape the city and they will never be seen again.” Or you can just up and tell the players “the trail has gone cold, you haven’t discovered any new clues or leads and it’s becoming clear that you aren’t going to solve this” and then move on to a new adventure.

If you can’t do those things, you can’t run a good mystery. You can run a s$&%y pretend mystery like some GMs try to do, but if you can’t deal with the possibility of failure, DO NOT RUN A MYSTERY.

Speaking of, you always hear a lot of arguments about whether clues should be missable. “If the party fails this check or doesn’t think of doing that, is it okay to let them miss a clue?” The answer is yes. Yes, it is okay for the party to miss a clue. That is why you start with way more clues than you need to solve the mystery and you work from vague to specific. That way, the adventure can run for a while before the party hits a wall because they f$&% up one too many scenes and encounters. Again, other GMs will tell you differently. Those GMs want to run police procedurals, stories about people solving mysteries. They don’t want to run actual mysteries.

Oh, one more thing. Until you get really good at running mysteries and you know how good your players are at solving things? Don’t throw in false leads and red herrings. Make the mystery pretty obvious once you get a handful of clues. The thing is, mysteries always SEEM easier to solve than they are. And GMs tend to overcomplicate mysteries to compensate. The party solving a mystery that was too easy feels good. The party failing to solve a mystery that was too hard feels crappy. Err on the side of too easy until you get some practice.

Good luck, Tinkledink!

Now, scroll down to the comments to find the people whining “there’s nothing wrong with not knowing the answer…” and “listen to your players’ speculation to decide who the real culprit is… “ and “it’s important for people to ‘fail forward’ so the players never lose the adventure based on one die roll…” and “my players LOVE the mysteries I run and I ALWAYS…” It’s all bad advice. I swear to you. Mysteries are one of those things that puts the “is it okay to fail” and “player skill vs. character skill” debates front and center and the GMs who participate in the debate do not understand that players who want to solve mysteries have already answered those debates. And those players’ answers are more important than know-it-all GM answers who think they know how RPGs are “supposed” to work.

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45 thoughts on “Ask Angry: Building a Mystery

  1. That was GREAT advice, and right on time! Im writing a mistery adventure right now: a noble murders her own father for the inheritance and covers it up as another appearance of a “legendary beast” (like the Beast of Gevaudan or the Beast of Exmoor) who was supposedly killed years before. (I was pretty inspired by The Hound of the Baskervilles and the Brotherhood of the Wolf movie). I was planning on sending you an e-mail with this exact question, so the timing couldnt have been better!

    By the way, if you DO write a 10000 word article on this topic, Im gonna read the shit out of it. I’d read it until the words got physically carved in my brain. So, what I’m saying is… please do. Pretty pretty please with sugar and marshmallow on top. You can even badmouth me on every single page of such article and I wouldnt even care.

  2. The Alexandrian has some interesting mechanics regarding mystery design, the gist of which is, for every conclusion that is available for the PCs to draw or scene/location that is available for them to visit, include at least three clues, any one of which would be sufficient on its own. Then scatter the clues among the scenes/locations, so you only have to manage to reach one in order to have a shot at finding the clue to the next. Otherwise, if you group all the clues together in the same scene, then the scene becomes a chokepoint, which is a problem if the PCs never reach that scene.

    • I second this. I’m also always glad to see your mystery advice; I know you started your how to run a f-ing game series as a lead in to mystery gaming topics.

      Also, I wanted to include some mystery next adventure, so this helps a lot in both how to include it, and what to avoid making a mystery (i.e. if I don’t want them to fail to find the Ancient Temple of the Swamp Mummy, don’t make its location particularly mysterious)

  3. I think a red herring or two are necessary, because the PCs have to be able to indict the wrong person. A major f#$% up would still work.

    Imagine: The PCs follow the red herring, catch the wrong person, and said fellow is summarily executed. Then, the PCs are haunted by innocent’s ghost, which could either lead them back onto the trail or perhaps become another obstacle they just have to get past. The paladin could lose their powers; gods are mad at the cleric; the family of the wrongfully accused could petition or impede the PCs; etc. etc.

    So much that can be done here even with a total $#!% storm. Wonderful.

    • They are not. And because GMs are very bad at assessing the difficulty of puzzles and mysteries (because they have created the puzzle and cannot possibly see it from the mind of someone who knows nothing about it), GMs should NOT use red herrings and false leads until they get a feel for the difficulty of their own mysteries. Which is exactly what I said. This is not good advice for a GM building mystery adventures for the first time.

      • Alright, but does this extend to avoidance of multiple suspects or is it confined to misdirection?

        • Have you ever played Castlevania II? How did it feel when you figured out that a townsperson’s helpful advice was actually a lie? How, then, did it feel when you thought that a townsperson was clearly and obviously lying when their script was something crucial to progress?

          None of that is fun or good. You can still use misdirection and such but it should be very clear to the players that the information they’re receiving might be a misdirection. Maybe they’re doing an investigation for the Royal house, and the Grand Vizier gives them a tip–of course it’s suspect, no Grand Vizier in fiction was ever a stand-up guy. Or maybe the party is in a bad position to question the obviously-questionable information they just received–the smug jerk who has demonstrated that he would find it more amusing to just watch the party chase their own tails has given them something that could completely blow the lid off the case. Or, it could be a huge trap. Let the players know that’s where they stand with it, and let them figure out how to approach that.

          For a lot of this I’m just extending the principles from Angry’s articles on Gotchas and traps from the Mad Adventurers archive. A lot of the same rules apply, just the traps (which should still be telegraphed) are social or informational in nature, and not physical objects that might cause horrible bodily harm.

          • I think I’m using red herrings different than you two. I was thinking more in terms of dead ends (every adventure is a dungeon) than a trap.

            I would completely agree that the gotcha scenario sucks. I was thinking more in terms of Cluedo or Guess Who—a situation in which you have a number of suspects that your are whittling down to find the perpetrator. That whittling process can lead to dead ends.

          • I was thinking more in terms of Cluedo or Guess Who—a situation in which you have a number of suspects that your are whittling down to find the perpetrator. That whittling process can lead to dead ends.

            I’m picking up what you’re putting down here. It’s a reasonable proposition. I think the potential danger is player frustration – that kind of immediate, irrational, pack-your-books-and-call-it-a-night frustration that comes from a sense of having your chain jerked when you were doing everything right. Red herrings are a way of telling the players – not the characters – that they were wrong even if they were being clever (i.e. following the clues deliberately laid in front of them by the GM).

            I think red herrings might be usable, but first the sting has to be taken out. At a bare minimum the players should be able to easily and quickly backtrack one step and pick up the right trail (perhaps eliminating the red herring path made it much easier to find the information they missed before). It might be worth it to throw the players and characters a bone by dropping a clue into the red herring – a person of interest happens to walk by the empty alley as the dejected characters turn to leave; after ransacking the apartment and finding nothing, one of the characters notices that the window overlooks the crime scene and shows a whole new perspective that leads to a revelation.

            That helps inject a little of what Angry was talking about when he referenced shows about people solving mysteries – the sudden clue reveal – while not removing the “I want a puzzle” side of the game.

        • Never ever ever ever ever ever have multiple suspects because as I have seen it it doesn’t mean they have fun trying to whittle them down, they bang their head over and over again thinking that one person is guilty because they are and they keep trying and failing and being frustrated about seeing that the person is in fact not guilty but it must be them.

          Basically Red Herrings whether through clues, people, or anything do not work how you think they will work. They will just lead to frustration in the players and you because eventually you will just put up your hands and say my god it is this person just stop banging your head against the wall now, which is not really good design.

          • I think you can present red-herrings that are more like 2-level clues. “The corpse smelled like fish,” the witness tells them, so they run off to question the fish monger. Nope, it wasn’t him, alibi is air-tight, but the foul-smelling merchant can tell you everyone who was by his shop that day, including one man who they know has a motive. So, not a dead end, but a clue that points in a different direction than they think at first. You still might run the risk of them saying, “Nope, fishmonger is clearly lying, let’s dispense some vigilante justice right here!”, though.

    • I think the problem is that players will add in their own red herrings. If you’ve played in some of the games I’ve played in or ran…
      Adding to the confusion requires a delicate touch
      The players’ characters can only sense what you tell them is there, so when you lie to them it can easily become frustrating

    • I think you underestimate the ability of players to completely f#$% up and misinterpret clues of their own merit.

  4. This all reminds me of one of my friend’s mysteries where the solution was hidden in the guard’s locked post of the town, with short squires telling us to “please don’t come in” at the door.

    Not even the troublemaking rogue wanted to enter. But apparently that was the only place where we could “ID” the BBEG for solving the whole thing before he exploded the bank in fireballs and left. What a crappy adventure.

  5. If you don’t want a failure in the mystery to result in an out-of-character game over screen, then you (the GM) need to think about the end result when designing the mystery to be solved. For example, say a murder mystery is brought to the players, because a friend of theirs if framed, and they trust his innocence. If they fail to follow the clues, their friend is brought to trial and convicted. The mystery ended in failure, but the adventure could shift to breaking him out, after which the original culprit might strike more directly. Or if they are trying to catch a serial killer and fail, what happens? He kills again, potentially leaving more clues. This might be like “failing forward,” unless those deaths matter to the world and the characters. Or perhaps the players need to identify the spy who has the plans for the city’s defense before he leaks them to the enemy at a planned rendevous (discovered by whatever contrived situation you use to set up the game). Obvious failure point when the rendevous happens, then the focus shifts to “Now we have to stop the invasion a different way” or even “Now we have to resist the occupying power, and perhaps get revenge on that traitor who now rules the city.”

    • Your example isn’t “failing forward” so much as having consequences for failure.

      The “Friend being framed” adventure ends when the friend is killed by the axe, or saved from the axe by breaking him/her out, and then the next adventure starts at getting haunted by his/her ghost to find the real killer (for vengeance by sword or dragging the culprit in front of the magistrate) or by having to hide the friend and get them out of town while avoiding being caught by the law and local citizenry who believe the friend is a criminal and justice must be served (either “Mob Justice” or actual justice).

      The serial killer continuing to kill example would be contrived unless the killer moved out to another town or did the reasonable thing of laying-low for a while in game (ending the current adventure anyway, and the players possibly wouldn’t connect the two events until you have the killer admit to the original crimes).
      Your siege example is still another example of having consequences for failure that don’t continue the adventure so much as throw a completely different problem at the players, that happens to build off of the result of the previous adventure. The first adventure of “Stop the enemy spy” is completed, and now the second adventure is “Deal with the invading army”.

      All of your examples are excellent adventure ideas though, so I will be shamelessly stealing them. Thanks!

      • Part of the challenge of the mystery, and other non-combat scenarios, as Angry has pointed out, is clearly communicating when the player needs to change track. You can break the fourth wall and tell the players directly, but if you build a deadline into the plot from the conception, you can let them know the adventure arc is over, without having the table-top equivalent of a game-over screen. Sure, the adventure is over, but it isn’t necessarily a TPK situation–but you do need to have the failure take a form that the PC’s will care about to avoid having it come off as “You guys took too long so here’s the answer.”

        • The end of the adventure doesn’t mean the end of the characters or campaign, so I apologize if I mistakenly implied that, just that the adventure ends when it’s defining conflict ends.
          For example: The “Stop the spy” adventure ends if they catch the spy, or if the spy gets away. Neither of those outcomes ends the Campaign since the problem of the army bearing down upon them is still a problem. The DM just has to come up with another adventure that plays off of the result of the first one (unless that was the campaign capstone adventure, or it was a one-off game). Either giving them an entirely new problem if they managed to catch the spy (maybe the enemy army heard of a powerful dragon/artifact/other Mcguffin, and the players manage to hear of it as well), or making them have to deal with the army taking over the city if the spy gets the information out (by making them act as freedom fighters, as the example you gave)
          I had meant to point out that “failing forward” isn’t the correct term for what is happening, since as The Angry One repeatedly points out, failing forward is terrible advice.

          • You’re missing the point.

            Yes, the “Stop the spy” adventure ends when the spy escapes, but if the PCs have no way of KNOWING that the spy has escaped, they don’t know that the adventure is over and will therefore continue to hunt, vainly, for the spy.

            You need to find some way to announce to the players that “Hey, you blew it”; For the “stop the spy” adventure, maybe it becomes really easy to find out who the spy was when sudden Baron von Moustaches disappears, thereby blowing his cover, though it’s too late for the PCs to do anything. But that’s not a very subtle spy.

            So trying to build in some sort of deadline, or failsafe valve that lets the players know the blew it is a good idea. Heck, you can even use the whole ‘rival detectives’ scheme where the objective is to solve the mystery before Mycrocke Poirot does. Get creative. but let the PCs know when they’ve ‘lost’.

          • Oh, that’s where the miscommunication is happening.

            I do get that the PC’s need to be informed as I did read all of Angry’s articles both here and on the Mad Adventurer’s Society, and therefore assumed that I didn’t need to mention it being that it wasn’t relevant to my pointing out that “failing forward” was the wrong wording to use.

            Thanks Michael, for letting me know what Randy was trying to point out to me. I unfortunately did miss your intent there Randy, and for that I apologize.

  6. I have to agree with everything said. This is all excellent advice, especially for an aspiring DM such as myself.

    It’s difficult to understand just how difficult a mystery is, unless you’re on the players’ side of things. As the DM, you KNOW who dunnit, or where the smugglers are getting their contraband, or what the end game is. The DM can just imagine how their players will figure everything out. But, the players have none of that information to start with. And, chances are, they’ll miss a big clue or botch a roll more than once during the adventure. If you don’t plan for multiple avenues of success, they’ll be stuck with no chance of success.

    Angry, thanks for an awesome post and blog! I’ll definitely be referring back to many topics as I start plotting out my own adventures.

  7. Didn’t you do a guest appearance on a podcast where the entire episode was about running mysteries?

  8. I don’t understand how anyone can think you can run a mystery without knowing the answer.

    If you don’t know the solution in advance, you can’t give clues. Any “clues” you give are just random factoids, and there’s no guarantee they’ll actually all point in the same direction.

    Fortunately, it doesn’t seem anyone is disagreeing with you on this point, Angry. At least not here.

    • That is the difference between a roleplaying game and a collaborative narrative. In a roleplaying game, the world is there and set, and you have goals you’re trying to succeed at, but you could fail. In a narrative you come up with stuff on the fly and decide if it is interesting enough and that’s what happens.

  9. thanks for that article, i just realised im accidentally running a “work out whats going to kill you at the climax of the adventure” mystery because of it and i had best redesign how im telegraphing it. Much appreciated 😀

  10. How do you determine when the players want a mystery though? You have said before that the feedback players give is always suspect. So do they want a mystery, or do they want to feel like a bad ass detective in a police procedural? If you are not sure, which would you try first? The cop show method is more railroady, but there is no sour grapes fail at the end. Perhaps inject the aspect of failure in other ways (you find out who the killer is and have to catch, kill, reveal them before something terrible happens!). Thoughts?

    • I agree; I thought that that was where Angry’s whole thesis comes crashing down around his ears. All we have here is Tinkledink’s word that his players said they want to play something “Mystery-like” but Angry has taken it that The Players Have Spoken and really, really want the one kind of mystery game he felt like talking about.

      It’s fine advice for running that one kind of mystery game, but that’s not the only kind of mystery game, and a lot of this is terrible advice for other kinds. And contrary to the closing statement, it’s not AT ALL clear that the “players have already answered the debate” on these questions.

  11. No, you can’t do that. You can’t play the naive relativist card on this. Angry’s “thesis” is the only plausible way to run a mystery in the context of a role playing game. That is to say, mystery implies that there is an unknown question and it has an answer that is unknown, and role playing game implies that the players will be given the opportunity to make decisions that have real consequences.

    So when you say “the one kind of mystery game that Angry wants to talk about,” what you’re actually referring to is “the only logical way to run a true mystery in the context of a table top RPG.”

    If you are running your game in a way where there is no known answer at the time that the adventure begins, then it’s not a mystery. If the PCs get to fail forward, then it’s not really challenging (for reasons that have been hashed and rehashed repeatedly), and if it’s just a narration designed to make the PCs feel like they solved it, then it’s a selfish DM’s wet dream, robbing the PCs of agency (the thing that makes RPGa worth playing).

    So no. You’re wrong. And you sound defensive, too. But don’t let your defensiveness drive you into naive relativism. That’s a void that is almost impossible to escape because when you’re in it, it’s almost impossible to realize that you’re in it.

    • So, what about the DM finding that the players come up with a theory that’s for some reason more exciting or might open up interesting possibilities for future adventure – I remember my party erroneously starting to suspect an NPC from an earlier adventure to be the evil mastermind they had to uncover, and I really liked the idea that I could expand that one-off character’s role massively.

      Would it be considered cheating/railroading if the DM decides to change the mystery’s solution mid-game? I know that there are schools of thought that frown on adapting/changing challenges on the fly, what about the plot?

      • You are still in essence taking away the actual choice of the player however and still allowing them to fail forward by doing that. In essence you are removing the possibility of failure from the adventure. You are also removing any meaning from the choice that I made thus making it not really a choice.

        Even if you are doing it so that you can run what you think is going to be an interesting adventure later most players would rather fail the adventure that they are on and have consequences to their actions than to just roll dice all day, and that is what you are asking your players to do is roll dice to determine where your story goes and that’s not a game.

      • Okay, I think you bring up a great point here, and it moves the conversation forward. I think that as long as you (the GM) know what you’re doing, are honest about what you are doing (with yourself), and admit your reasons, I think you’re fine to make such decisions for the sake of the betterment of the game. If I was in the exact situation you describe (players suspect a plot that I like a lot more than the plot I initially created), I would go with the players’ solution over my own. I would very literally be changing the game to suit what the players came up with, it would be a contrivance, and it would be fun.

        But I would know exactly what I did, and if asked about it, I’d freely admit it. So everything that Frank says is true, and I would admit to letting the PCs fail forward for the sake of what I thought would make for a better game. Schroedinger’s cat comes into play here, so I understand that many GMs would just not tell the players to make them feel super smart. For me personally, I’d admit that their solution was better than mine rather than take effectively take credit for their idea by not telling them.

        The key distinction here, and I’m sure many will think it’s not important, but to my mind it is SOOOOO important, is that the GM did not decide at the outset to structure the mystery without a solution. So the GM didn’t just say “I’m going to throw out seven clues and see what they come up with, and then go with that.” Rather, the GM had a mystery with a solution in mind, but then realized that the PCs’ solution was better, and made a judgment call.

    • Who are you responding to?

      Because I think the whole damn thing comes down to the fact that the original question didn’t ASK for a “Mystery as defined by certain hard and fast rules” but rather for something “mystery like” and if that’s not a term that is open for interpretation, I don’t know what is.

      • The whole thing about mysteries are that they are like jigsaw puzzles that need to be solved, and involve people and clues instead of the funky shaped pieces to fit together to get the whole picture.
        Angry does have the right idea here about how to put one together so that the players aren’t lead through by the nose with no chance of failure or coming to the wrong conclusion, and his “system” works for all kinds of mysteries from murder to theft to vandalism (including but not limited to arson, graffiti, wrecking the place) to conspiracy to commit any of the above.

        As to the not knowing what the players want and how it is being misinterpreted, Angry actually said in the post about reading player feedback that WHAT they are saying they want/feel is actually what they mean, but WHY they want/feel it is based on examining the feelings after the fact and is therefore suspect. (I don’t know how to bold in the comments section, so I used caps instead).

      • I was responding to you (sorry for doing so in the wrong place). My answer follows.

        Okay, we could go on like this all day. You can say that “mystery like” is vague and open to interpretation. I can say that a mystery is a question with an unknown answer. I can say that we’re talking about table top RPGs in which players should be able to make decisions for their characters and failure should be possible.

        If we are disagreeing about those assumptions, then we need to have a different discussion. But if we are agreeing on those assumptions, then we really and truly are reducing “mystery” to what angry has reduced it to.

        If your players are just looking to feel like they’re solving mysteries, then there are a number of ways to make them feel that way, sure… but they aren’t true to role-playing in the sense that either (1) their decisions don’t rule matter or (2) they can’t ultimately fail because they’ll just get to keep trying until they succeed.

        That’s really all I’m trying to say. Either you accept the context or you don’t. The thing I’m trying to point out is that if you think this is simply “Angry’s interpretation of what a mystery is” then I think your misunderstanding runs deeper than what a mystery is – I think it runs on the level of what a table-top RPG is.

        • Yeah, see, I don’t disagree with your definition. I just disagree with the assertion that your definition is what the players have said they wanted. I think Angry quite clearly recognizes several other options as valid game types but discounts them as “not Mysteries” – which is fine. But the players haven’t defined what they want yet. Angry says “They are really saying they want a puzzle.” and I’m saying “Whoa, not so fast.”

          Because seriously. The players have asked for a “mystery like” game. Maybe they just want the trappings? We don’t know. I think pitching a hardcore “You guys gotta solve this” mystery might not be the best way to deal with this.

          That said, I find the argument that “If there’s no fixed answer, the players’ decisions are meaningless” to be misguided. If the players essentially get to DECIDE who the villain is, how is that a meaningless choice? It has consequences – if the players decide that it was the Ishandi Ambassador who bumped off Prince Nuveau, then the Kingdom might very well now be at war with Ishand, but if they instead determine that it was the Vizier all along, then there’s no war, but maybe the Vizier’s daughter now seeks revenge on them. And both of those are things that the PCs can clearly see ahead of time. This meets all the criteria of a meaningful choice. And it can be framed in the style of a mystery – the PCs go around gathering clues, formulating theories, questioning people, etc. And it doesn’t rule out the possibility of failure either, since, as you can tell from any amount of mystery media, determining who the killer is is in no way the same thing as being able to prove it in a court of law or bring him to justice (or, y’know, foil his evil plans.). Neither of your “not really roleplaying” assertions is necessarily true about a game where the identity of the murderer is undefined in the GM’s mind at the start. And they seem even less relevant to a game where the GM uses the players’ initial actions to make a decision about who the villain is and what clues might be found before the players reach that conclusion.

          Or what about a game where the actual identity of the murderer isn’t even really relevant? This is basically how things work in a lot of serial mystery books and shows. There’s no long term impact that the killer on the latest episode of Murder She Wrote was the victim’s husband and not her vengeful brother – we’re never going to see any of these characters again. It’s important that the murderer is caught because you want to bring murderers to justice, but their specific identity is almost trivial. What we’re actually here for could be character drama as the party investigates, struggles with personal issues and corrupt law enforcement. Or any of a number of things. Surely, that is still a “mystery like” game. And how is it not a roleplaying game? Trying to rigidly stick to some sort of fairly arbitrary definition starts to lead us to some really ugly “That’s not a real RPG because reasons!” territory, IMHO.

          Summary: There are lots of ways to run a “mystery like” game while still being “roleplaying games”. The players haven’t spoken to say “we want AngryDMs definition of Mystery!” yet. Maybe that’s what they want. If so, great. Good article. If not, still good article, but not necessarily relevant to what these players want, and it would be nice if these other options were treated as legitimate ways to run a game that can be fun and mystery-like even though the point of the game ISN’T to present the PLAYERS with a mystery to solve.

          • I’m really enjoying this discussion and I’d love to continue it, but I don’t want to write a 5000 word essay here (I want to, but not here). If there is some way to carry on this conversation elsewhere, or if it’s within the realm of proper internet etiquette to have it here, I’ll gladly have the full discussion. For now, I will do my best to summarize my argument here.

            Summary: you still haven’t presented a coherent idea of a “mystery-like game” that a relevant D&D game. You only need to provide one.

            “I find the argument that “If there’s no fixed answer, the players’ decisions are meaningless” to be misguided.” – you’re correct. That’s not my argument. My argument is “If there’s no fixed answer, it’s not a mystery.” It’s just an unanswered question.

            (1) If the players get to decide who the villain is, then it’s a violation of D&D. D&D doesn’t work that way. Players don’t get to make decisions about the story or other characters. That’s what the GM does.

            (2) “Or what about a game where the actual identity of the murderer isn’t even really relevant?” This is an irrelevant game. If the identity doesn’t matter then why are the PCs seeking it? What are you playing at? In books and shows, we’re not role-playing, we’re the audience. We don’t care who the killer is but you bet you’re a$% the main character cares. As audience members, we are just cheering on the main character and we desire resolution. In an RPG, when we are the player, we have to find that resolution, so we need to know who is responsible, and the true identity is the whole point. It’s what makes it relevant.

            So yes, people can get together and do the things you’re describing. But they’re not playing a relevant D&D game.

          • Angry needs to write a glossary.

            I think a lot of the argument above results from people using the same term in different ways. IIRC, Angry has, expressly or by implication, defined what he means by “role-playing”, and by extension, “RPG”. He can correct me if I am wrong, but I believe that definition involves making decisions in character. Decisions made out of character, including the player deciding “whodunit” (as opposed to the character determining “whodunit”, are by that definition not part of the act of “role-playing”. Deciding who the villain is is a meaningful narrative choice, but it is not a meaningful role-playing choice.

            Now, if I have Angry’s definition correct, you can quibble with whether the definition ought to have broader application, but it remains the applicable definition for the purposes of this site. He has stated what he means by RPG, and that the types of games he is discussing are RPGs by that definition. Arguing that his statements may not have application to other types of games may be true, but it is also irrelevant to a discussion respecting RPGs as defined by Angry.

  12. Good read. I will say that i don’t think D&D lends itself to mysteries particularly well. The skill system used to invistigate–physically or via interviews– is just a poor fit. Other systems are much better designed to handle those kinds of demands–WoD, ConX, Arkham, etc.

    100% agreed that players have to be able to fail, accuse the wrong person and be wrong. D&D is so focused on success and players succeding that… . If you want a real mystery, be prepared to have it remain mysterious.

    I found that it was fun to run a mystery session or two using, essentially, a board game type layout. You put out a big board and have different areas where the players can go (the docks, the pub, the morgue, the creepy old dude hug factory, whatever) and have different interactions planned for that with each area having a few different possible clues. The PC’s can find one or many of them, depending. And then you can have a few other areas sitting to the side– the H4xx0r L41R or the moonshine hollow–where if the the players find out about it, they can go there. It really transports the players.

    I also like to commit to aboslutely minimal combat in a mystery session. If there’s going to be a fight, it is going to be climactic, not someone messing with you at the pub. it sets a different tone.

    Related to this is the Conspiracy Campaign. Similar in design and style.

  13. @BurgerBeast – I don’t really care about D&D specific problems; And the name of this site these days is “AngryGM” not “AngryDM”; I’ve said this elsewhere, but Angry has a tendency to talk about “RPGs” when he MEANS “D&D-like RPGs”. Yes, he uses the term “D&D” once in this article (humorously, in a place where he could easily have substituted ‘RPGs’ because the comment in question is equally true for all RPGs) and the term “RPG” once as well.

    The site is subtitled “RPG advice with attitude” not “D&D Advice with attitude”.

    Anyway, if I need to go over the difference between “Mystery as backdrop” and “Mystery as the point of the game” we’re gonna need more than 5000 words, because we’re going to need to go over some base principles. =/

    • Well I could be wrong but this seems to be the problem. I think Angry GM (as opposed to DM) is a change related to potential copyright issues. Also, I think Angry talks about RPGs that are basically D&D-esque or Pathfinder-esque unless he explicitly states otherwise. This seems to be the ultimate point on which our disagreement lies.

      It’s probably also worth mentioning that RPG only implies role-playing. It doesn’t imply authorship of a story or determination of outcomes. It implies that you can assume the role of one character. That’s all. So you may wish to discuss RPGs that include other additions but those RPGs are not necessarily relevant for obvious reasons.

      • Copyright issues? For serious? I don’t think there have been “copyright issues” surrounding the term “Dungeon Master” since the TSR era.

        Anyway, I’m not attempting to imply that we “need” to talk about certain types of games, I’m just saying that if you want to talk about “RPGs” then you should acknowledge that there is way more territory under your “assume the role of one character.” umbrella than D&D and its knockoffs. And yes, some of those games assume authorship on the part of the players. And no, that does not make them “not RPGs”.

        • “Anyway, I’m not attempting to imply that we “need” to talk about certain types of games.” Yes, you are. That’s how this conversation started.

          “you should acknowledge that there is way more territory under your “assume the role of one character.” umbrella than D&D and its knockoffs.” – I do. Why wouldn’t I? For that matter why does it matter whether I acknowledge them? They exist.

          “And no, that does not make them “not RPGs”.” – I’m starting to think you’re just misrepresenting my stance on purpose. I never said it makes them “not RPGs.” I said it makes them have additional considerations. If this was a blog about Ice Hockey and the content was primarily about the National Hockey League, you wouldn’t expect a rational person to start getting all holier-than-thou because the blog dared to have Ice Hockey in the title but then focus on the NHL exclusively, ignoring Olympic Hockey and Paralympic Sledge Hockey. The point is you can talk exclusively about the NHL and still say you’re talking about Ice Hockey. If people want to go berserk because you’re saying things that ignore the particulars of Olympic Hockey or Sledge hockey, then that’s just ill-guided.

          So I come along and say “look, he’s talking primarily and often exclusively about the NHL.” Then you come along and say “Oh my word, you’re saying Olympic Hockey and Paralympic Sledge Hockey ARE NOT HOCKEY?!!!! You’d better rename the blog to NHL instead of Ice Hockey because this is ridiculous!” – no, sorry… you lose. It’s still a blog about Ice Hockey.

  14. By suggesting you’ve already heard the reasons against your advice, you can easily dismiss them. But allow me to point out, there’s a difference between failing an adventure and hitting a wall in the story where players don’t know what to do next. They will be pissed at you for being vague and you will feel like an idiot for putting clues in places they can’t get to and no amount of “you’ve failed. you’re off the case.” is going to make that feel better.

    And while I have always decided what I think the mystery solved will look like, if a player has come up with an amazing and creative way to solve something that might even make a different solution, I had better damn well reward that kind of creativity…somehow. I could incorporate that into the story and as such, yes, the story evolves. That’s not the same as not knowing the ending when you start.

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