Dump Stat #2a

Dump Stat Ep 2 – Mystery

Welcome to Dump Stat. The show where we discuss how sourcebooks became the original DLCs.

The mystery.

Running a mystery, particularly in a traditional tabletop rpg game can be challenging. Many of these challenges revolve around how clues are discovered, generally by using a small set of skills that are limited to what most heroes would classically use on an adventure but are instead implemented in a non-traditional way. There are ways to elevate this problem but it requires the Game Master to not only adapt the adventure more adequately into the mystery mold, but additionally to treat the character’s abilities in a unique way conducive to an intrigue-filled plot.

An aside should also be mentioned at the top here: what we will be discussing today largely refers to non-intrigue centered game systems (Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder versus more mystery friendly systems like Call of Cthulhu, World of Darkness and Gumshoe) but these sources will be referenced as they offer handy advice. If the Game Master is developing an entire mystery campaign or is playing with one of these systems, this advice can be useful, but these systems generally have their own tried and true methods of implementing a mystery and it is recommended to follow their guidelines.

Crafting the Plot

Perhaps the most fun and interesting way to effectively craft a mystery for a tabletop RPG is by role playing the antagonist on your own time. In a traditional rpg, the villain will have certain abilities (maybe even a stat block) that you can utilise to determine what their talents are, how they can effectively accomplish what they want and what happens when they go ahead with their dark machinations.

This can be an effective way to craft the plot because not only will assist in fitting the pieces together logically, but can also give a natural timeline of events. Now, certain liberties can and should be taken to ensure that there are indeed clues for the players to piece together what happened (if a high level wizard breaks into a bank, they can effectively erase all evidence of the theft unless some liberties are taken) but this method effectively leaves a trail you, as the Game Master, can highlight for your party to follow to find out who-dun-it.

If using this approach, keep in mind that the more individuals removed from the actual ‘crime’ the villain is, the longer the mystery will become. If a member of a noble family knifes her estranged lover, it will generally take the characters less time to find the killer than if the noble pays the captain of the guard who coerces a gang leader who sends his crony to do the deed. A straight-forward plot isn’t necessarily a bad thing but depending on how long or winding you wish your adventure to be, the more threads there are to uncover, the potentially more interesting and dynamic your mystery can become.

Micro to Macro

In researching mysteries, I came upon many references that attempted to outline the structure in the lens of a traditional, mystery-unfriendly tabletop RPG using any number of metaphors or similes. To yours truly, the best way to visualize the structure of the mystery is as a more dynamic dungeon puzzle.

An interesting and successful mystery should be built much like a puzzle but blown up over an entire adventure. A successful dungeon puzzle is part trap, part puzzle and has a very clear purpose, drive, clues and, most importantly, a success / fail dynamic. The mystery should be crafted in much the same way: a hook that potentially includes a clue in-an-of-itself to point the characters in a direction, evidence pointing to solving the mystery and, somewhat unique to a traditional RPG (Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder) a pass / fail dynamic. Many mystery-based RPGs place large concern on the gathering of evidence as this is a weakness in traditional RPGs but examined through the lens of the dungeon puzzle, a GM can create an engaging mystery-plot very easily.


The discussion of how to deal with clues in a traditional table top RPG are long running with innumerable ways to solve the very real problem of PCs missing evidence due to a failed roll. My own personal solution follows along the same lines as giving clues to a dungeon puzzle: the clues themselves shouldn’t be hidden or obfuscated or even misleading- the PCs wont miss any details by failing rolls- it’s simply that the level of detail and accuracy is dictated by their die rolls.

In this way, if a party of adventurers fails every roll related to gathering evidence, they aren’t penalized or forced into making bad decisions to continue ‘role playing’. If a PC fails a roll to gather conclusions based on the evidence presented, they simply don’t gain any insight as to what the evidence means.

To elucidate, I’ll use an example: the PCs find a dead body in an alley. The best way to start is to give the PCs the ‘read aloud’ text one would find in a published adventure. Ensure that this text includes all of the immediately discernible facts: it’s a woman that is faced-forward on the ground, blood mats the back of her head, her arms are splayed out across the ground, some of her belongings are scattered through the alley, etc.

If the PCs decided to say, use a Heal check (familiar to the Pathfinder and D&D) to determine how the victim died, the GM should still tell the players what they can see even if they fail the roll to allow the players to come to their own conclusions. If the PC were to pass the Heal check, the Game Master could say that the large wound on the victims head indicates she was surprised from behind. If the PC were to fail this check, they could still come to this conclusion on their own without the assistance of a roll based on the Game Masters descriptions.

In more direct terms, the Game Master shouldn’t seed the adventure with Red Herrings if the party fails a roll. Much like how I personally craft dungeon puzzles, if the party is unlucky, they should still be able to solve the puzzle (or in this case, mystery) using their wits if they are paying attention so they aren’t punished for something beyond their control. However, good rolls should allow the party to gather more evidence or more accurate ideas of what actually occurred so it requires less guesswork on their part.

Keep It Simple

The stereotype of the PCs doing something ‘stupid’ or ‘unexpected’ is a strong one in role playing games. In the simple narrative of a classic tabletop game, oftentimes the players will behave in a way unexpected to the GM. In a mystery game, this unexpected maneuver can pose a serious problem in that it can either put the players down the wrong path or can actively stop them from reaching their goals. The more muddied the waters in a mystery, the more chance that the PCs miss or forget a clue, misinterpret a piece of information or just become confused and frustrated. To elevate this, it is in the Game Masters best interest to keep mystery plots as simple as possible while still keeping it interesting. With larger periods of time between sessions, details are forgotten, clues may be misremembered and the pacing will throw things off. It’s in the Game Master’s best interest to keep things relatively simple if your group is unexperienced with mysteries or isn’t playing an entire mystery campaign to avoid seeing their players strangle themselves on the twisting plot threads.

As a general rule, avoid creating Red Herrings as the players will generally do that for you. Any Red Herrings that appear in the plot should be resolved as soon as possible, should grant some other insight into the mystery that puts them back on track and should never be left hanging between sessions lest the players brainstorm around this non-starter.

The Pass / Fail Dynamic

When crafting a mystery for a traditional table top RPG, I encourage Game Masters to use a level of a pass / fail dynamic to ensure that the PCs don’t simply run out of clues or lose sight of the mystery altogether. By pass / fail dynamic, I mean simply that when engaged in the mystery adventure, the plot should have a conclusion that is readily visible or controllable to the players to ensure that they understand when a mystery is solved. This could be the party arresting a certain individual, it could be a series of murders stopping or the rescue of an abductee or return of a precious item. Put more directly, a mystery shouldn’t end when the party gives up or runs out of clues- there should be a clear success or fail in the narrative that gives the party some direction as to what they need to do to solve the problem at hand. On a smaller scale, referencing the paragraph above on ‘clues’, if the party fails a roll and makes an incorrect assumption on what occurred, this should have an impact on the parties resources or the plot overall, without simply resulting in an utter failure, much like how poor choices in combat or a puzzle can drain resources, but only results in player death or heavy consequences if they make a bad choice or are especially unlucky.

The success / fail portion of the adventure should determine on how accurately the party interprets, gathers or utilises the clues during the course of the mystery. Much like many traditional adventures, the Game Master should plan for an outcome if the party should fail in their goal and how they could become aware of it. If the characters ends up throwing an innocent party in prison and wiping their hands of the endeavour, the adventure shouldn’t end there! Ensure that it’s not very long before either the true culprit strikes again or another piece of evidence lands in the PCs laps that convinces them that they may have made a mistake.

Additionally, for longer running mystery adventures, the party may find some, but not all of the guilty parties and bring them to justice. In this case, much like above, the Game Master should orchestrate an event that causes the party to requestion their original findings, but in this instance, a conclusion can still be reached. Perhaps in the future, the culprit will strike again, and the first mystery adventure will in-and-of-itself become a piece of evidence against the greater villain!

TL;DR Quick Notes

  • Stay open minded to non-traditional uses of spells, skills or talents to elevate confusion in non-mystery conducive games
  • Craft the plot by RPing as the villain in your own time- keep a timetable of how and when the villain did things but when actual gameplay comes around, take liberties
  • The more individuals removed from the actual mastermind, the longer and more dynamic a plot can get, but be careful it doesn’t cause confusion
  • Structure the mystery like a dungeon puzzle: there should be the primary mystery, some evidence, a clear goal and some pass / fail conditions
  • Give the party all of the information they need upfront and allow rolls to elevate guesswork
  • Don’t seed the players with Red Herrings- they will do this for you
  • Cut Red Herrings as quickly as possible to avoid players falling into a rabbit hole
  • Keep the plot as simple to understand as possible to avoid confusion
  • Have a pass / fail dynamic: if the party makes a wrong guess or a poor choice, this should cost them resources or have other consequences instead of just failing outright. Generally, like in a traditional adventure, the players shouldn’t die or fail outright unless they do something really foolish and / or are very unlucky.


Gumshoe Rule System http://site.pelgranepress.com/index.php/the-gumshoe-system-reference-document/

Misdirected Mark Podcast

Episode 108 – Point Economies and The Mystery

Bonus Episode MMP & BS Crossover – Get a Clue



  • Gumshoe focuses on results, if you want pass / fail, you need stakes
  • Why This Game Exists GUMSHOE speeds and streamlines the time-honored form of the investigative roleplaying game. The central question a traditional RPG asks is: Will the heroes get the information they need? Assuming that they look in the right place and apply appropriate abilities to the task, GUMSHOE ensures that the heroes get the basic clues they need to move through the story. The question it asks is: What will the heroes do with the information once they’ve got it? If you think about it, this is how the source materials we base our mystery scenarios on handle clues. You don’t see the forensic techies on CSI failing to successfully use their lab equipment, or Sherlock Holmes stymied and unable to move forward because he blew his Zoology roll. You don’t see this because, in a story failure to gain information is rarely more interesting than getting it. New information opens up new narrative possibilities, new choices and actions for the characters. Failure to get information is a null result that takes you nowhere. In a fictional procedural, whether it’s a mystery novel or an episode of a cop show, the emphasis isn’t on finding the clues in the first place. When it really matters, you may get a paragraph telling you how difficult the search was, or a montage of a CSI team tossing an apartment. But the action really starts after the clues are gathered. Investigative scenarios are not about finding clues, they’re about interpreting the clues you do find. GUMSHOE, therefore, makes the finding of clues all but automatic, as long as you get to the right place in the story and have the right ability. That’s when the fun part begins, when the players try to put the components of the puzzle together.
  • Tip For Players: Containing Speculation Investigative scenarios often bog down into speculative debate between players about what could be happening. Many things can be happening, but only one thing is. If more than one possible explanation ties together the clues you have so far, you need more clues. Whenever you get stuck, get out and gather more information.

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