Blog - Mysteries in RPGs

I love mysteries - mystery stories, mystery movies and especially mysteries in RPGs.

I’ve been listing to this RPG Design panelcast recorded at Metatopia 2019, with Ken Hite, Betsy Rosenblatt and Darren Watts, and it sparked off some additional thoughts that I want to write about.

But first, I recommend taking a listen, it’s 50 minutes of goodness.

RPG Panelcast Creating Mysteries in RPGs

Oh! vs Aha!

I think I see a difference in games between “Oh!” Moments and “Aha!” moments. What do I mean by that?

Sometimes when there is a big reveal in a mystery or a story, we give an “Oh!” of surprise. It might be an unexpected twist, or a dawning realisation. The jigsaw puzzle pieces fall into place. You’ve completed enough of the Sudoku puzzle that the rest almost completes itself and the whole is revealed. It’s good and exciting and fun.

There are other times, when you spot the big reveal before it happens, and we give an “Aha!” of satisfaction. We have divined what is going on, we have had a peep behind the curtain, we’ve puzzled out the clues and now we know what is happening. This is also good and exciting and fun.

I think a great mystery game has a nice combination of “Oh!” and “Aha!” moments.

Mystery Styles

It seems that there are several distinct styles for running mystery adventures. It occurs to me that there has been a progression over time, moving from the first of these to the last. In my very earliest RPG days it was all about exploring the dungeon, killing the monsters and retrieving the treasure. But it wasn’t long before we moved from random dungeons to ones with a clear theme, and then on to adventures where one step let to another and then a grand finale. Those were probably the first railroad adventures.

The railroad

In the classic railroad approach to a mystery, the GM plots out beforehand the end result of the mystery and a precise chain of clues which must be followed in order to get there.

Somebody once said “I don’t mind a railroad if I’ve got a ticket to awesome-town!” I’ve played in many mysteries which have been run along this pattern, and I’ve had a great time with them.

The problem that can occasionally come up with this approach is when the players have a blind spot to one particular clue… if they just can’t see it, then how do they progress? That could be a mechanical blind spot like in Chaosium call of Cthulhu where everybody fails their spot check, and just hangs around. Or it could be player side - Gumshoe systems make clues available to characters without needing a dice roll, but sometimes the players just don’t grok where that clue is leading them. In these situations the GM needs to bring in some deus ex machina to get them back on track again. That can be done skilfully of course, and the players might not even notice the process that gets them back on track again.

The network

A variant is where there is a finale of the mystery that the GM has planned, but there are several routes to get there, which can be tackled in any order. If the PCs come to a dead end on one track, they can switch to another avenue of investigation.

The first examples of this that I saw was in book of Traveller adventures, and more recently the long “Eternal Lies” adventure by Pelgrane Press for Trail of Cthulhu is a bit like this - in the central part of the adventure there are five avenues of investigation, and these can be tackled in any order, although you probably need to complete all of them to get all the information you need for the final event.

These are more work for the GM to produce, but it helps overcome the blindspot problem in the straight railroad. One of the best tools that I’ve seen for producing this kind of network is the conspyramid from Nights Black Agents by Pelgrane. They have kindly left up their information about this approach for designing a conspiracy in this Pelgrane Conspyramid article In a nutshell, design a pyramid with each level representing the scope of power, from the level 6 leadership at the top to level 1 street power at the bottom. You can then draw in relationships as needed between upper and lower levels to show who controls whom, and whether it is directly or obliquely and the nature of their relationship.

Conspyramid diagram

Just in time design

In this approach, the GM sets out the initiating elements of the mystery, but they haven’t decided on a particular chain of events yet, or even the ultimate solution. They might have a number of ideas for how things might go, but nothing is set in stone. As the players investigate the mystery, the GM decides on things just one step ahead of where they are at any point. It requires a lot more improv on the part of the GM to do this, but it does allow a lot of flexibility.

Arguably this is the approach proposed by Apocaplyse World and some of the PbtA games. They headline the idea of “play to find out what happens”, but they don’t expect that play to be on a completely blank canvas - they have mechanisms to allow a GM to sketch out a range of ‘fronts’ aka threats which are near or far. This broader framework helps give the GM some pegs to hang ideas on as they present the next consequences that follow on from player actions.

Some players say “never give the GM ideas”, but I’ve had a number of times where the players — when mulling over the clues — come up with a better thought about what is going on that I’d originally considered and so that became the plan all along. I remember one sci-fi game where a scientist was kidnapped off the street in front of them, and one player said “Oh no, I bet a shadowy power is collecting scientists to work on some kind of planet wrecking weapon”. Up until that point I hadn’t decided exactly what was going on, and now I knew!

This approach depends a little on whether the players know that this is happening. If they don’t twig that this is what is going on, it provides valuable “Aha!” Moments. If they do, then the approach merges into the next one, collaborative story telling.

Collaborative story telling

If the GM and the players share responsibility for determining the direction the story goes, then it becomes a collaborative mystery. It’s a journey of discovery together, and be very creative through having many brains working on the problem of how to tie together strands in a compelling mystery.

Although it is great for producing a story which everyone enjoys, I think it is almost impossible to get “Aha!” moments out of this kind of mystery. When everything is being created in the open as you go along, the ability to work out what is happening and ‘solve’ the problem just isn’t there.

Procedurally generated

So can you have a collaboratively generated mystery which also allows the element of surprise to be present? You can if you have some clever game mechanics, and I’ve recently come across two which are in development.

You may have heard of Ten Candles by Stephen Dewey My Ten Candles review. He is working on something called Ten Candles: Mysteries and it runs his normal mechanic in reverse. You start with one candle lit, and as you successfully address clues more candles are lit and you gain more narrative control over the adventure, until in the end all the pieces come together and the mystery is solved. You can read a playtest I participated in here.

Another great approach that I’ve come across is designed by Betsy Rosenblatt for her The Solvers game. Still under development, it uses genre-appropriate prompts to create people, locations and clues which gradually get woven together during the game to organically provide a super mystery. It is focused on the child-sleuths such as the Famous Five, Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. I was in an early playtest in 2018, and you can find my notes about the story we played in my Metatopia 2018 review

If you know of other procedurally generated mystery games, I’d love to hear about it - perhaps contact me on Twitter @NAlexWhite?

What do I like best?

Over time, my natural inclination has been towards the network approach. It is more work for a GM, but I think it does maximise both “Aha!” and “Oh!” moments for my players.

Having said that, most of the games that I’ve run in recent years have been 1-shots at conventions, and in those cases I’ve tended to run pretty short railroads.

I’ve enjoyed some games which were made up as they went along or were a form of collaborative storytelling, but I’ve rarely had either Oh! or Aha! moments in them so I wouldn’t personally run those as a mystery.

My attention has been piqued by the procedurally generated options though - I will definitely be keeping a close eye on those in the future.

Want to find out more?

  • If you want to hear more about Stephen Dewey’s plans, it is best to follow his Patreon https://www.patreon.com/stephendewey.

  • Betsy Rosenblatt is on twitter @221Betsy

  • The RPG Design Panelcast which plays lots of useful and interesting panels (mostly from Metatopia if I recall correctly) is always worth a listen. Find out about it here on the site here. RPG Design Panelcast
  • And I’m always open for a chat on twitter @NAlexWhite

Photo by João Silas on Unsplash