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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 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.
Put these gamers into camps before it’s too late :^)
Also: Chris Metzen leaves Blizzard, No Man’s Sky designer leaves to work on Star Citizen, more pokemon designs, Talespire a 3d tabletop simulator & so much MORE!
Beard explains how to use plot hooks to incentivize players to go along with your story in tabletop RPGs and the different kinds of plot hooks there are.
Welcome to Dump Stat. The show where we discuss everything related to polyhedrons colliding with wood surfaces.
Motivation and Agency
Today we are going to discuss player motivation and agency for tabletop RPGs. Perhaps one of the most integral parts of adventure design, motivating the players at your table is one of the many challenges that you, as the Game Master, can’t ignore if you hope to craft an interesting, dynamic and fun experience for your friends at the table. Without a compelling hook, experienced players may still understand the Game Masters vision for the plot, but nonetheless, the players will feel railroaded and uninvested in experience ahead.
There are innumerable ways you can hook your players into an adventure but it can be tempting as a Game Master to simply allow your players to roam free in the case of sandbox campaigns or to simply force them into your narrative. Neither of these hooks are true motivations at all- if your players are lacking agency in the greater narrative, they wont care about the story or the people in it.
For those fans of random tables out there, we’ve taken some potential motivations and separated them into the alignment system used in the tabletop games Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder. Despite this, these motivations can be used in any setting and by a party consisting of any moral inclinations, they may simply need to be tweaked somewhat to truly inspire your band of heroes to once again march into the howling catacombs and risk life and limb for a prize they truly desire.
Perhaps the most simple and elegant of the motivations, greed can manifest in many forms and not only can motivate the characters within a story but usually the players at the table as well. Gold, credits, resources, a kingdom, an artifact or even a future favor, motivating a party with greed requires the Game Master to lay out the prize at the start with promises or whispers of a prize and sit back and witness as the players clamber over your setting trying to find where it’s buried. Using greed as a motivation in your adventure requires you, as the Game Master, to include the promise of riches at an adventures end and a suitably exciting location to find it in. How the party hears about this treasure can also feed into the adventure: if the party overhears in a local tavern about a royal tribute ship that was scuttled in monster-infested waters, it’s imperative that the party understands that they aren’t the only ones who know about the treasure. If, during some downtime, a party spellcaster decides to research new spells, reveal to them that one of the dusty scrolls they uncover is in fact, a portion of a greater spell, the remaining pieces could be scattered throughout the world.
If you, as the Game Master, decide to use greed as a motivator, the layout for your adventure could be: the discovery, the journey, the delve and the payoff. Now, this payoff doesn’t have to be the treasure promised at the beginning of the adventure, but if you decide that the party’s princess is in another castle, it is in the Game Master’s best interest to leave hints as to where the party should look next lest the group decide that the hunt isn’t worth it after all. If there is a great risk, there must be an even greater reward!
Using family or friends as a motivator can be extremely effective in some circumstances but risks alienating the rest of the group. Unless the characters show an extreme amount of camaraderie or selflessness, it is recommended that the family motivation is stitched in with a secondary hook for the remainder of the company. If a party member’s little brother is kidnapped by bandits, the company should learn that this same bandit group has recently engaged in robbing merchants in the area and are likely laden with riches, or, similarly, have the bandits attack the character’s personal property and make off with their loved one during the attack, knowing that unless stopped, the indiscriminate attacks will continue. If grafted to a secondary motivation, using a loved one as a hook is usually very effective.
Using a loved one as a plot device shouldn’t always be as straight-forward as a kidnapping. The age-old trope of friends or family secretly being the true villain is also effective but can be clichéd. A loved one becoming involved in circumstances over their head, such as joining a fanatical group or even another rival group of adventurers can be much more refreshing and still give the players at the table a reason to strike out and rescue the one they care about. Due to the varied nature of how best to use the ‘loved one’ plot device, there is no hard-and-fast story outline.
In the real world, curiosity drives many of us to light that first spark of courage. In storytelling, this emotion is amplified. Using curiosity as a motivator follows much along the same lines as using greed, as the answers sought are usually the reason the characters set out on their journey in the first place. However, curiosity requires an additional quality to be met, in that, the Game Master needs to find a question that they are confident the players would be willing to risk their characters over. Why did the planes separate so long ago? What compulsion pushed the star-captain to venture alone onto the hostile planet so long ago? What is the nature of magic? Any of these questions are grandiose to serve as propulsion to an adventure, provided that the characters feel invested in knowing the answer.
Much like the ‘greed’ motivation, the players should be aware of the answer that they will receive at the end of their adventure, to ensure that they are willing to press onward and also to ensure that they are indeed invested in that answer. It is unlikely that all characters will share the same curiosity, but it is possible to inspire others through either implications of what the answer would mean or by grafting a secondary motivation to the first. If the party discovers why ships disappear in a region of the world, perhaps they will discover where the ships, and moreover, their cargo, have been whisked off to.
Protecting the Innocent
A motivation for characters pure of heart, shouldering the responsibility of defending those weaker than themselves is a noble goal and one that is easily implemented as a story-device. This motivation, unlike many, requires the players to decide to accept the responsibility themselves, as asking them to protect a settlement or those weaker than them can sometimes backfire not only in that they may begrudge the people they are supposed to protect, but because they may feel trapped or without agency. This motivation is more effective when presented to the characters and left to them to decide whether or not they want to dedicate themselves to the cause.
If, while travelling in the countryside, the party comes upon a merchant caravan being attacked by a warring nation, you may be surprised to find that the party doesn’t want to stick their necks out for strangers. Worse, if your entire adventure hinged on the characters decision to assist them, your story is now adrift. Use a second motivation to coax them into assisting and if your players still seem reluctant to shoulder the burden of protecting the innocent, write something else.
If your group does seem keen on protecting the weak however, this is one of the easiest motivations to implement. Not only can threats to the weak be used to prompt adventures, but so can other, less dangerous goals. Setting up trade routes, building relationships, gaining fame, respect and honor; all of these can be used to further reinforce the players desire to defend their charge and can be used for innumerable jumping off points for future adventures.
The awakening terror from beyond the stars, the war-provocateur, scientists who are too curious in probing the nature of our reality- the emerging threat references world-shaking events that could cause widespread destruction and misery if left unchecked. Luckily, most characters will be invested in becoming involved in the emerging threat story arc if only because they happen to be alive and don’t want to be dead. This trope can be effective, but also has some hurdles. First, be sure that the players feel as though they are necessary to preventing catastrophe. Because of the world-changing nature of the emerging threat, your players may wonder why they should feel compelled to stop the threat themselves, especially if entities more powerful than themselves would also be threatened by this event. The players may feel outclassed or simply overshadowed by others more powerful or more responsible than themselves to stand in the way of calamity.
Ensure early on that the party is invested by giving them some sort of unique responsibility in the affair. Perhaps they have the weapon to destroy the threat but not the means to use it. Perhaps they are aware of the threat but others don’t take them seriously. It’s your duty as a Game Master to ensure that the characters feel as though if they sit idly by while doomsday approaches, the blame lands squarely on them for not acting.