Thursday, January 13, 2011

Crime 101: Murder as a Plot Device

It's Thursday, meaning that today is the day we take what we talked about in Crime 101 on Tuesday, and apply it to a gaming scenario. Luckily for me, murder is a very easy element to add to any game, and in fact, most people are probably already doing it in one way or the other right now. That being said, I'm only briefly going to talk about the over-all use of murder in a game, and then I'll go over some details to watch out for. So, ready? Good.

A Case Of 'Whodunnit?"
Murder, as a crime that simply ends someone, is generally best used for setting up a mystery of some sort in your game. Generally, this involves the PCs finding a body, or finding out about a murder, and then going to find out who did the killing. As they follow the mystery, they may or may not get involved in a grander conspiracy and plot. Even if you've never used a murder in your game before, this probably sounds familiar as it is basically the plot behind any movie that begins with a murder and some detectives looking into the crime. It is simple, yet effective, and can work very well with the right group. Still, if you aren't prepared, there are pitfalls you can lose yourself in.

The Basics of a Mystery
Mysteries can be hard in games, because you need to get the flow of evidence right. If you do it wrong, the PCs will go off in random directions, get frustrated, and lose interest. Alternatively, they'll skip past half the adventure, and cut right to the bad guy without any of that build up you had planned getting in the way. Setting this up right is hard, and is something I've talked about before (here). Go read that post now, and then we can continue.

Whoever did the crime, or put things in motion, had to have had a solid motive. This is important to think of when you throw the murder out there, because the motive will tell you a lot about the bad guy in question. Was the murder for revenge? Now we know the person is the type to get revenge. Was it out of shame? Anger? Depression? Was it to protect something? Someone? Answering this question gives you a base line for the villain, along with what they are willing to do to protect themselves, or whoever they are working for (if anyone).

Guilt is a powerful emotion. It can drive people insane, and make them do some of the craziest things you'll ever see. Those things aren't always the best way to clear guilt either. Someone feeling guilty could just as easily cause more damage as they could turn themselves in for the crime. Still, it is important to know whether or not your killer feels any remorse or guilt for what they've done. Someone who doesn't, is much more likely to be a professional - or just insane - while someone who is feeling guilt for it, may not be such a bad person after all.

Movies are full of stories about killers who "lose" their edge due to guilt and remorse, and then become the heroes of the story. Could this killer do the same when the PCs show up, and real villains are afoot? Or do they go into a psychotic episode, unable to live with what they've done, and determined to take someone with them when they go?

Does the killer have any backing? If so, what kind? Mafia/Gang ties can give the person a lot of edges, from back up when things are getting heavy, to food and shelter to help keep their heads low until things blow over. The more backing someone has, the more likely that the murder was part of some larger act as well. The mob, generally, doesn't make a habit of just killing people for fun. It causes too much noise, draws too much attention. So, if they do kill someone, they had a reason for it. If that victim was someone prominent, or attached to important or powerful people, than they had a damn good reason for it.

Backing is, generally, something I'd go over first if I was setting up a murder mystery. It lets me know what resources the killer has, and helps with determining motive and guilt. Someone who is a professional killer, part of a clean up crew, for a large organization is less likely to feel guilt - and more likely to have a cleaner motive than emotion, than some random person off the street. This can really shape the story in other ways too, making a story just a simple murder mystery, or into an action movie conspiracy extravaganza.

Make The Details Add Up
Those three things are the big pitfalls I've seen people fall into, and covering them can help turn your murder into a very fun mystery, or action, story. Besides that though, and like with all mysteries, you need to make sure that your details add up. False clues and leads are fine, but they need something to mark them as being a false clue or lead. Go through your string of evidence a few times, and make sure that it all adds up. If you can, have someone not in the game look at it too - without knowing the end first - and see if it adds up for them too.

Odds are your players will still go astray a little. The only guarantee in table top RPGs is that the players will do something unexpected, after all. However, that doesn't mean they won't come back and find the thread once more. Let them explore, just make sure that there is at least one solid path that leads to the correct conclusion. If you can do more, than do more. But one solid path is what you need.

Have fun with it, and let us know your experiences if you have any with it!

1 comment:

  1. This made me think of a mafia wife killing her husband and making it look like the other gang did it. That would be interesting because she may have heard of a lot of hits but never saw them and might interpret some details of things she'd heard incorrectly giving a clear indication that something is wrong. Just an idea.