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.