Mystery novels are among the most popular genre of literature. TV dramas, police procedural series, and true crime documentaries follow the exploits of investigators as they track down the criminals behind shocking and fiendish murders. Yet how do you run a mystery in a Mythras game?
Mysteries in tabletop roleplaying games involve asking questions, observing scenes for clues, deduction, and finally identifying a culprit to bring them to some form of justice. Presenting a mystery to a gaming group which is used to a more simplistic hack'n'slash, arcade style of adventure, however, can be difficult. Some players might jump at the chance to play a sleuth, even an amateur one, while others might sit back, utterly bored that their Barbarian with his grand massive two-handed battleaxe has no enemies to behead.
Some games, such as GUMSHOE, focus entirely on investigations. In contrast, the Mythras Core Rulebook has less than a page to discuss the matter. Page 282 of the Core Rulebook has this to say.
Some scenarios rely more on research, mystery, intrigue, and detective work than on the use of the weapons.
It also adds:-
The most vital aspect of well designed scenarios is that they have alternate means of reaching their conclusion. A scenario, especially one centred upon investigation, should never come to a juddering halt if a crucial clue is not discovered.
It is important to the flow of the game to let the Adventurers acquire evidence during the course of a mystery investigation, to forestall the bane of all investigative scenarios - boredom.
Start With The Crime
When preparing the mystery, always begin with the crime which draws in the Adventurers. Most likely, it's a murder, but there are many different kinds of crimes:-
Apparent Accident - An accident which is not what it seems. A body has fallen from the top of a tall tower. Did they jump? Were they pushed?
Apparent Suicide - The body looks as if they ended their own life. Or did they?
Robbery - Mysterious masked thugs beat up an Adventurer, or a friend, and make off with something they were carrying. What was so important about that item they were carrying? Why was the criminal desperate to take it? Or was it a random attack?
Theft - The prototype, magic item, or MacGuffin has been taken right from under the Adventurers' nose! Where is it now? Who took it, and why? Also, how can they get it back?
Abduction - Someone has been taken - spirited away. Can they find and rescue this person before the crime becomes murder and the mission one of recovery?
Blackmail / Extortion - Some unknown person is threatening dire consequences for someone if their demands are not met. What terrible evidence do they hold? What secret are they threatening to expose?
Assault - Nothing has been stolen. The miscreant just wanted to beat up the victim, either as a deterrent or warning, or simply because the victim was in their way.
Make Someone The Characters Have Met A Victim
Don't just have the Adventurers roped into investigating a crime committed to Lord Edgecase, someone unknown to them. Make Lord Edgecase someone they know - either as an Ally, Enemy, Rival, or Contact, or as a friend of the family, or some other connection common to all of the Adventurers' backgrounds. Perhaps they all bumped into the victim at some point in their lives - either as a ruthless foe, or a close family friend, or a kindly stranger, or even someone who robbed them five years ago.
Your investigators could prick up their ears and pay attention if they recognise the name as a recurring figure in their game: particularly if they are confronted with that person's murder.
What's At Stake
What is usually at stake with an investigation? The Adventurers might not have any kind of stake in working out whodunit. It won't matter to them if Rando A killed Rando B, if they knew neither of the Randos.
Rope Them In - The Adventurers are deputised and assigned the job of investigating. At stake is their reputation for closing cases and catching bad guys.
Thicker Than Water - The Adventurers are pushed into investigating by a visiting dignitary, or the head of their family, or the boss of the department they work for. The victim was one of their own.
Reputation - The Adventurers have been taunted by the perpetrator. Or a Rival has taken on the case, and the race is on to prove whose mettle is stronger.
Wrong Place, Wrong Time - The Adventurers stumble upon the crime in progress, or its immediate aftermath. They turn out to be "Johnny-on-the-Spot," and as the first responders, it is now their case.
Prepping the Suspects
Assuming you want the Adventurers to achieve victory through sleuthing rather than a swift arrow to the fleeing miscreant's back, you will need to keep the identity of the suspect hidden until they are revealed through the Adventurers' keen powers of observation.
The best way to hide a suspect is among a host of other suspects. That means creating a list of possible prime suspects, and possible ordinary suspects, not to mention one or two red herrings. This is important, because the Adventurers' job will be to reduce that suspect list to just one - the actual perpetrator (or group of perpetrators).
The means is the how - the method of killing. Stabbing, strangulation, poison, a shove off a cliff, blunt force trauma to the back of the head.
Major hint: Don't make the answer magic, or psionics, or the spirits, or Cthulhu. Even if you are running a fantasy milieu where a sorcerer villain is known to use a damaging spell such as Smother, or some spell to summon an elemental or deadly spirit, make it clear that the bad guy in this case used ordinary, mundane methods to kill - sword, dagger, bullet, poisoned chalice, garotte, fire, and so on.
This is murder, not fantasy combat or arcade game slaughter. The purpose of this scenario is to find the tangible, real clues left at the scene which point the finger of guilt to the perpetrator.
Just as important to the scenario is motive. This answers the question of why the perpetrator committed the crime in the first place.
Think of a motivation. Greed, jealousy, hatred, rage - these are four compelling reasons to drive someone to crime. Ignorance, bigotry, fear, and vengeance are four more.
Vanity is one of the worst, because few things are worse than a monster who acts out of the mistaken belief that God is on his side and everything he does is right by his God. The vain will never confess, because they will justify their misdeeds as righteous. The only way to stop such criminals is to catch them in the lie and let them commit a fatal error such as blurting out something incriminating.
Don't Go for The Insanity Plea
Don't go for "possession" or some form of insanity as the motivation. Harnworld has a kind of spirit entity called the Umbathri, which are said to drive people to distraction from just looking at them. Don't use "The Devil made me do it" or "I was mind controlled by a witch's spell" as motivation to kill. Don't use mental illness, not even sociopathy.
Oh, and please do not use "I have multiple personality disorder and it was my evil alter ego, The Beast, wot done it" as your motive either. Dissociative Identity Disorder is a real thing, and while some people's alters can be scary, the scary personas are only scary to the sufferers. They're as likely to take up knitting as try to murder people.
And for the record, "schizophrenia" is not a motivation either. In fact, get into the DSM-5 before even coming close to understanding insanity. The insane commit fewer crimes to others than sane people driven by cognitive malice. Don't go down the road of trying to make the bad guy nuts.
This is the what, where and when. The opportunity is the key element. Who does not have an alibi for the time the crime was committed? Who was absent from the room when it occurred? Who was present, and trying to stay hidden?
Who was doing what when the lights went out, or the big distraction occurred out at the back? Do the Adventurers realise that it was a distraction to start with, or do the clues reveal this fact in the course of the investigation? Who staged the scene? Who is framing the innocent patsy?
If you have the means, and you know everybody's motive, the opportunity is the big chance for the Adventurers to lock down which suspect out of the whole list is the perpetrator, because they are the only ones who could not be accounted for at all once all the evidence collecting is done.
The trail does not have to run smoothly from the victim straight to the perpetrator. Nor does it have to be so cut-and-dried as having the apparent perpetrator trying to leave a house, clutching a bloody murder weapon in their hand or holding the magic MacGuffin which was supposedly snatched away from under everybody's noses.
People Lie - People lie all the time. Sometimes, they lie because they hate the cops, or the Adventurers if they are the closest thing to a legal authority in the area. Sometimes, they lie because they are covering for someone whom they suspect to be the criminal, or because they just love being obtuse, or because they know exactly who the criminal is and they want to extort cash or favours from the perps some time down the road.
People Conceal - As much as they lie to cover up the crimes of others, or out of spite against the law and those who investigate crime, people also like to hide the evidence, or even throw it away or destroy it. Sometimes, the passer-by who sees a body on the ground will steal the dead person's stuff first, and later alert the authorities.
Trails Get Washed Away - The best Track skill can be made less than useless by rain, snow, or time. Trace evidence, tell-tale blood stains, and dead bodies all get worn down by time and predation, to the point where one can only identify someone by their skull, teeth, or items found near the body.
In order to lead the Adventurers to the villains, patsies, and red herrings involved in the case, you will need to prepare clues for them to follow, and to gather as evidence to build their case.
The biggest bugbear is that the Adventurers roll a cataclysmic fumble on a Perception check, and completely miss the dagger protruding from Lord Edgecase's back. What do you do if each and every single Perception and Insight check the Players ever make is a fumble?
Multiple Clues - Have multiple clues lying around to tell the Adventurers the same thing. If they miss the Post-It note bearing the time and place of a rendezvous at the scene of the crime, then let them find the same note in an email dumped from the victim's phone, or written on a body's skin. Wherever they find that clue, it automatically vanishes from all other places you might leave it - if a phone number is written on the back of a dead girl's hand, you can safely disappear the "just in case" entry in her undiscovered diary.
Significance - The result of the Perception or Insight check determines how much significance the evidence has. If the Adventurers make a critical Perception check and discover a theatre ticket, you can decide that this is a clue that cracks the case wide open, because it puts the suspect in the theatre at the time of the murder, clearing them entirely of blame, unless they sneaked out the back ...
Conversely, if the check was a fumble, they might come away with a clue, but absolutely no idea as to its significance in the investigation. Is it crucial? Incriminating? Exculpatory? A red herring? As Games Master, you don't have to decide right away if it even means anything, until the Adventurers start to piece the clues together.
Plain Sight - Any clues which are in plain sight can be discovered by the Adventurers. No checks are necessary to discover a murder weapon sticking out of Lord Edgecase's back, or the letter he wrote on his desk, or the smoking gun on the floor, or whatever is on top of the rubbish in the bin. If it's in plain sight, automatically give the clues to the Adventurers. Worry about their significance later.
Piecing Clues Together - Insight checks might give the Adventurers a chance to work out the motive, and even the opportunity. Perception checks are essential for working out the means, as well as discovering hidden or concealed evidence, secret passages, hidden money, weapon, or drug stashes, and so on. And the Adventurers might be as clueless as mediaeval peasants or as clued-in as modern day CSIs with access to the latest laboratory equipment. But in the end, there is no check or Luck Point expenditure which can replace the Players' brain power. The job of deducing who the criminal is can only truly be done by the Players, thinking things through. The clues are hints, but it's up to the Players to see who the hints are pointing to.
Confronting The Perpetrator
The last part of any investigation involves confronting the perpetrator. Sometimes, this can be done simply by inviting all the suspects to turn up so the Adventurers can reveal who they think the perp is. The one who fails to turn up is the one the cops go and chase down.
Well, not quite that simple ...
There are a number of different kinds of endgame confrontation scenes to consider.
The Sherlock Holmes Ending - Where the Adventurer explains what all the physical clues mean to the startled police officer - the burnt match, the scratches on the door frame, the blood stain on the carpet, the words OH CRA- written in blood on the wall.
The Poirot Ending - Where the Adventurers bring all the suspects together in a room and go through them all, until they expose the killer or criminal.
The Scooby-Doo Ending - Where the killer's mask is pulled off, and they discover that the bad guy is, in fact, Walter Kovacs aka Rorschach.
The Jessica Fletcher Ending - Where the Adventurer stages a scene which draws in the killer, by presenting them with an impossible situation which they can only resolve by coming to a scene which turns out to be a trap.
The Law & Order Ending - The one where they barge into a meeting, or exhibition, and slap the cuffs on the suspect, hauling him or her out of the room to the stares of astonished onlookers.
The Goren Ending - The ending preferred by Detective Goren from Law & Order: Criminal Intent, where they work out the bad guy's psychology and work at it until they break and confess, or slip and reveal something incriminating which damns them.
The Columbo Ending - "And just one more thing, sir."
The Taggart Ending - Where the Adventurers work out who the bad guy is, but so too have the local constabulary, and they turn up in a huge blue wave to apprehend the suspect halfway across town.
Or you could have the Adventurers come at the final confrontation in a manner to which they have become accustomed - barging into a room, guns drawn and blazing.
However they come to their grim conclusions, don't skimp on the closing confrontation. They would have gotten away with it, too, were it not for those meddling Adventurers.
Edited by Alex Greene