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Need a One-Shot Mystery


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So I just decided to run a short mystery scenario on New Year's Eve for my wife and daughter. I'd like to do a 1920s-ish, non-supernatural mystery they can investigate and solve. Preferably not a murder. The point is to introduce them to BRP, and get them interested in a supernatural investigation next, and finally lead them into Call of Cthulhu adventures. Now I've got some Cthulhu stuff that I haven't looked at in years, but I don't think there's anything suitable. Can anyone point me to something, maybe online, that I could grab in time? Thanks!

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You could do an abbreviated, updated version of Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone mixed with Clue: Priceless missing jewel, creaky old mansion staffed with suspicious characters, old-money family with gruff patriarch, eligible bachelor son, wild daughters. Use the Clue game board as a map, complete with secret passages, and stat up Colonel Mustard, et. al., as NPC suspects. You needn't use the same character names or have the map where the players can see what you're drawing from. Be sure to include mysterious foreigners lurking about the grounds (Hindu priests seeking to recover the jewel, which was the eye of an idol).

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Thanks guys! I tried replying yesterday, but my phone decided to erase the post. X(

I read through a lot of the info you led me to, Rod. Very helpful indeed. And Seneschal, your suggestion is a good one. I crammed a bit on The Moonstone, browsed some Clue boards, and whipped something up. Will be starting soon, and I'll get back to you and let you know how it went!

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Also, keep in mind The Three-Clue Rule:

http://thealexandrian.net/wordpress/1118/roleplaying-games/three-clue-rule

Basically, for every essential conclusion the PCs must make to solve your mystery, provide at least three clues (and more is better) so that they won't be stumped and stopped.

Also, consider the type of mystery you want to run. The “noir” mystery sub-genre and conspiracy adventures tie directly into one another. And they definitely provide a different experience than Agatha Christie-style mysteries. Film noir derived from the hard-boiled detective stories of authors such as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.

Earlier detectives like Philo Vance and Lord Peter Wimsey operated among the rich upper-class and were frequently wealthy and influential themselves. Society was assumed to be essentially good; the detective’s job was to root out the bounders trying to spoil things for everyone else. Sleuths of the hard-boiled school lived in a whole other world. They were blue-collar types who dealt with the scum of the earth. Society was inherently corrupt; a detective examining a crime among wretched slum dwellers would inevitably unearth a series of outrages leading to a rich and politically powerful villain who masked his misdeeds beneath a veneer of respectability. Everything was a conspiracy; the rich and poor were tied together with webs of lust, murder, greed, and secrecy. In Red Harvest Hammet’s Continental Op exposed civic corruption – not because he was a Holmesian genius but because his mere nosey presence caused the conspirators to question and mistrust each other to the point of violence. In genteel murder mysteries there was usually one culprit, who followed his original crime with additional killings to attempt to cover his tracks. In hard-boiled mysteries, there might be multiple culprits, each removing someone who knew too much about their activities, and each villain’s felonious deeds were somehow linked to the others’.

In genteel murder mysteries, violence usually occurred “off camera” and the detective solved the crime by being brilliantly clever. Typically the genteel detective was a superior being who stooped to fight crime because it amused him. In hard-boiled mysteries, violence was an ever-present fact of life. Characters could die simply because they had the wrong friends or bought a raffle ticket at the wrong place. Giving a punk a beating to gain information (or getting beaten up by thugs for being too inquisitive) was par for the course. The detective, while street smart, tended to solve the crime by dogged persistence in the face of opposition from both criminals and the authorities. The gumshoe prevailed because he had the time and stubbornness (and his client’s fee) to stay on the case when the overburdened police couldn’t or wouldn’t. He generally tried to do the right thing (according to his personal code) but was willing to break or bend the law to protect his client and could be tempted by the promises of treasure or a beautiful woman.

So how does all this translate into role-playing? Hard-boiled mysteries are easier on the players for several reasons. Investigation is more action-oriented, with combat and car chases taking equal time with comparing stories and sizing up suspects. Instead of gathering the servants into the drawing room and politely questioning them (“Did you make your Know/Deduction/Fast-Talk roll?”), the player-characters get to stalk the mean streets to follow up on leads and hunt down colorful (and sinister) NPCs. Adventure will tend to come to them in the form of dishonest clients, hired thugs sent to shut them up, and resentful police officials wanting to know what the PCs have found out while complaining about their “interference in police business.” The player-characters don’t necessarily have to make amazing logical deductions; they just have to keep plugging away until their actions causes the whole corrupt deception to collapse and expose itself.

Edited by seneschal
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Well, we got started late, and had a hard deadline (promised to watch The Glass Slipper up to midnight). So, a two-hour session. I was willing to go with whatever my two sleuths came up with, and it's good I was flexible! Red herrings or actual clues, my investigators were passive and let things happen around them. The jewel was stolen, the constabulary a la Pirates of Penzance arrived, and my wife jokingly mentioned that someone must've put the lights out. So out they trooped, and I dropped an obvious clue to the Indian gardeners at the site of the sabotage. On they went, and one intrepid adventurer deduced that there were more than just the three gardeners staying in the servants' quarters. They were immediately dragged outside and roughed up by the police (my girls didn't even object!), and confessed that while they knew nothing about the theft or the lights going out, they had been harboring three Brahmin priests... Immediately my wife decided it was the strange-looking assistant, Mr Jennings, who must be the leader of the priests. To be fair, I'd had his boss Dr Candy rush out into the storm right after the theft, claiming to have spotted movement outside. Candy had called to Jennings to accompany him, so the two of them looked suspicious. Since we were almost at our two-hour deadline, I let Jennings be searched and the diamond found! Everyone was satisfied, so, mission accomplished.

Next, a haunted house...

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I'm glad things went well. Sounds like you guys had fun. :) Good creative GM-ing, too, in letting the character the players suspected turn out to be the culprit, regardless of the "facts" of your scenario. Makes them feel good and you look like a mystery-writing maven.

So ... what do you have in mind for the haunted house? ;D

My local paper publishes floor plans for upscale homes for sale in a weekly Sunday real estate section. They're often places built in the 1930s or '40s, which is a bonus. If your hometown newspaper does the same, you've got the house to haunt already. If not, look for model home floor plans online or at the office of the nearest housing development being built nearby. Or nab an architecture book from your local library. As with the Clue board, the players don't need to know the source of your map. And you can add secret passages, etc., to suit.

As for the ghost ... it could be the real thing. Or it could be nefarious persons trying to scare folks away because the house and/or grounds are being used for illegal purposes. Or it could be some other unnatural (but not necessarily spiritual) threat causing the goings on. I once took a haunted house scenario written for my favorite pulp game and replaced the vengeful ghost with invading robots from another dimension (my players were Doctor Who fans before being a DW fan was cool). Many of the scary events and NPCs were the same, but something different was causing those bumps in the night.

If you don't want it too scary, check out the movies Hold That Ghost (Abbott and Costello) or The Ghost Breakers (Bob Hope) or The Cat and the Canary (again, Bob Hope). The serious version of The Cat and the Canary (1927) and Old Dark House (1932) are good to crib for ideas and atmosphere.

One interesting take on a non-supernatural "haunted" house was the Hardy Boys mystery The Disappearing Floor (1940). The house in question was a prototype of one of those automated homes speculated about in the 1930s and '40s and lampooned in assorted Looney Tunes cartoons. Rooms seemed to change around the teen sleuths because the home's controls were out of whack and the floor plan really was shifting as the boys explored.

Edited by seneschal
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Actually I was thinking of making "The Haunting" (newer title of what was I think the original Cthulhu starter scenario) into a slightly-less threatening, non-Cthulhoid haunted house. Simply a ghost haunting. Haven't decided what they'll find in the secret basement room, instead of nasty undead creature. Maybe just some kind of magic charm on an altar, so they can knock it apart while being poltergeisted, and have the thing banished that way. Or maybe a Scooby-Doo -ish, non-supernatural 'haunting' to scare folks away. But if I do that, I'm necessitating an extra scenario in my indoctrination attempt.

Because I wanted to go from generic supernatural scenario, to some actual Cthulhu cultists. And then -- cthulhoid monstrousness! >:>

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Don't neglect the free scenario "Murder in the Footlights," downloadable from Chaosium's web site. It's an abbreviated mystery with good villains and maps. Nothing icky for your newbie players, although the villain's scheme could be a lead-in to more Lovecraftian things. I fleshed out the scenario by adding clues and NPCs (available in the Downloads section of this site). Not a haunted house but a haunted vaudeville theater. It could be very Scooby Doo-ish or genuinely creepy depending on what sort of tone you set.

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One unsual approach to writing up a mystery adventure that can be fun, and fast is to have the PCs find something (a dead body for example), and then ask yourself some questions about the discovery. Pick (basically make up) answers that seem fun and interesting. Then, after you've done that for a bit, look at the assorted details you have and see if you can work up a sotry that fits the details. Once you got that much working, you can usually get a good idea of what is going on, and can fill in the other details in a common sense, cause & effect fashion. This way, you don't really need a good mystery to start with; you can make up the mystery along the way.

One of the nice things about this approach is that the players will generally be taking the same approach to solve the mystery as you used to fill in the details. So you should have a pretty good idea of what questions they will be asking, and what direction(s) the answers will point them towards.

For instance, if the PCs find a dead body in one of the PC's home, you not only have the description of the victim, his possessions, and method of death to provide clues, but also you can work up a reason why he was found in the PC's home.

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