Monday, November 26, 2012

Running a Mystery - Necessary Mistakes

Over the Thanksgiving day weekend I got to play in a game ran by my cousin's wife. It was a small game, and a lot of fun, but it also got me to thinking about some of the challenges associated with a game based around solving a mystery rather than say combat, especially with a system like Pathfinder that is definitely geared towards more combat oriented approach. Before we begin with that though, I do want to point out that this was only the second session of Pathfinder I've ever played (at 13 hours, does it count as 2?) and it was a lot of fun. I definitely have to give a hats off to the fine folks at Paizo for the work they've done on preserving the old school D&D feel with a more modern syste. Anyhow, that aside, let's begin.

The Perfect Crime
One of the big problems that I think a lot of GMs have when they are running a mystery type adventure, or anything based around an established group trying to hide facts, is that it can become very easy to make it into the perfect crime. After all, these people the GM is putting on the opposition's side are skilled and capable people. They, like the PCs, have decent intelligence, wisdom, and charisma stats (assuming D&D/pathfinder stats, system appropriate otherwise.) Most importantly though, the GM - as a player of the game themselves - understands the type of approaches that the players can, and most likely will take, and thus has likely taken steps to address these issues.

When it comes to play, the players try things, the GM figures the NPCs would have expected that angle, and so the PCs hit a wall or an area where things are covered. This becomes worse when the players are close to a clue that is needed to give them a leg forward but no one makes the roll to notice the clue, or its relevance, and so now the PCs are doubly stuck. As a player, this is often where the game becomes frustrating as your plans to move forward are foiled and you don't know where to go or what to do to get back on track (as a side note: GMs, this is often where your PCs will just shoot someone or something to get the plot moving forward again. So if you don't want that, be careful to watch for signs of this.)

The end result of all of this? The GM is frustrated because the players missed a clue, they don't want to give out a gimme, and the players aren't seeing what  - to the GM - is the obvious and logical next step. The PCs are frustrated because they can't even figure out which way the puzzle box turns, let alone have any idea what - if anything - that will reveal for how to solve it. Furthermore, they may feel like the GM is having a "I'm so much smarter than you!" moment as they can't see the next step but the GM obviously set this whole thing up to be solved.

The solution? Well, different games have made a bunch of different approaches. Most notably, the Gumshoe system is based around skills that don't require checks and just give the players relevant information so that if the players get stuck it's not because they missed a clue/roll. You can also give additional rolls, give hints, or just spell things out in some way. In my opinion though, a better way is to simply open up a new angle.

A Thread To Unravel
Mysteries are funny things. They're these big, complex balls of plot threads and it can be very hard to crack them open because of that. However, give the players a couple of loose threads to pull on and you might be amazed at just how fast things begin to unravel. This is another of the problems with mystery games. If the player makes the right leap of logic, they've unraveled your four session mystery in half a session. If the players don't make the right leap of logic they get stuck for sessions upon sessions, if not go in the entirely wrong direction. A such it can be good to dole out these threads sparingly. You still want to give them though, and in my opinion one of the best ways is mistakes.

Whatever the enterprise being done you've likely got some stratification of the players involved. There's the mastermind, the core helpers (lieutenants) and then other levels down to the hired help. The beauty of this is that the lowest level - the help - can very often be used as a very plausible way to give the players a thread to pull. Even better, is that since they're on the bottom of the food chain, there's a lot of thread to pull meaning it will take some time.

For example, let's say the players are investigating some stolen objects and they think that they're being kept in a warehouse. They investigate the warehouse and come up empty. They can't approach the warehouse owner without evidence enough to bluff him, and now they're just spinning the wheels. What can you do here? Well, if you can find a way to have the player overhear one of the warehouse workers complain about how drafty a section of the south wall is; or if you can have a player hear one of the thugs bragging about how they recently got to see the other backroom to one of their friends; well, now there's a thread the players can pull on. Also, someone who may - or may not - know where a hidden door is and can open it for the players.

Now, mistakes don't have to be done by the low level mooks. Sometimes you want to give the players a bigger hand, especially when they're near the end of the adventure and just need that final nudge. For example, in the same situation let's say that Lord Abercroft is the mastermind behind the theft. Only, the players have ruled him out because the items stolen equate to a very large sum of cash (like my own country, as opposed to my own estate) and everyone knows that the Abercroft family has been low on funds and just scraping by ever since great grandfather Abercroft bet on the wrong side in some scuffle or another and lost big. No doubt our villain is keen to play up this fact too, as he is a smart villain, right? Exactly. However, perhaps Lord Abercroft hints that he could take a pretty young lady away somewhere very fancy. Perhaps he hints that the Abercroft fortunes are about to change. And perhaps a PC sees this, or one of the pretty young lady's jealous other suitors lets them know. Now they have something to help pin Abercroft and the money together. A thread they can pull at. If nothing else, it helps bring the spotlight back onto Abercroft or re-assures they're on the right track.

In both examples there is a key thing here. The mistake stems out of some core, basic human desire. In the first example you either have a worker bitching about his work place - misery does love company - or some low level thug bragging to friends as a way of trying to get recognition. In the third mistake Abercroft fancies the lady and wants her for his own. Including these basic human elements is a key thing to remember with your mistake because it helps explain why the mistake happened. It's no longer "and why did the level 10 rogue not have his front door locked when he had a stack of cash on the table?" it is "If only that girl wasn't so infatuated with getting the jewels, the win, and the guy we'd never have found this out."

So, if you're running a mystery keep this in mind. It could just make the difference between a fizzled session and a great ending.


  1. You've really hit the nail on the head there. I run games with mystery elements a lot, as I think they can be very good fun. I am *not* a fan of the gumshoe system though. If I can't think of half a dozen ways that the PCs could come across a clue - usually by dint of a mistake made somewhere, by someone - then I'm just not trying hard enough.

    I've been a player too many times when the GM has been left exasperated at the group for not figuring out the "obvious" clues left behind. It's usually easier to look at how they're investigating the scene, and if they come up with a kick ass idea, let a little something slide loose, and see what they do with it. Players may not be able to see the same patterns the GM has set up, but they're great at spotting connections that we never see.

  2. I totaly don't remember, where I'd met this saying, probably from some screenwriting advices. But suggestion were, literaly, "Remember, most of the villains are not very smart, quite emotional-driven or have apparent weaknesses. If it wasn't so, large number of crimes solved in real life wouldn't be possible"

  3. This was hit home for me. I have a lot of struggle creating a interesting mystery and usually have to resort to gimme's because of it. This article has been extremely helpful in getting me passed a road block I as having in the mystery campaign I am currently working on.