How I Run Mysteries

Somebody on RPGNet was doing a survey on “general mystery running advice”. Since it’s been a while since I posted here, I thought I’d post my thoughts on that.

If there’s a mystery, I think of a whole bunch of ways players could find out the answer. Let’s call them Clues. eg let’s say a redhaired guy did it. Then a clue is: strands of red hair.

Then I put the clue wherever the PCs look. So it’s never “there’s red hair at the crime scene” but “there’s redhair wherever the PCs look”.

Sometimes you can even step back and be even more general about the clues, so “wheever the PCs look” there is “an appropriate clue that points to Teh Solutions”. eg if they go totally for motive then I will, on the fly, make sure there are heaps of motive clues that point to redhaired guy.

The other important thing is to use the idea of focus. If a scene is leading to a strong lead, I put lots of screen time into that scene. Like say there’s redhair at the crime scene, I describe it slowly. I call for lots of rolls. I play the NPCs up as dramatically as I can. I take the time to explain how fricking awesome the PCs are for finding the clues they do. Whereas if there is no lead, I just summarise and cut. You see this on cop shows all the time. If there’s no leads but the police think to do something, we don’t show them doing it, we just cut to the next scene and the cops go “we canvassed two hundred bars and nobody had seen our guy”.

Which is the final tip: watch TV. Crime shows are everywhere and despite the caveats that players aren’t Lennie Brisco, crime shows are written, for the most part, to allow ratiocination (ie letting the viewer solve the mystery). Hence they are good at skipping useless avenues and focussing on strong avenues, to name but one technique mentioned. And they’re good at Making The PC’s Skills Important – if one character is an expert in Ancient Japanese History then holy shit there will be a lot of crimes that can be solved through that. And learning that kind of mental judo, the art of going “no matter what the problem is, Ancient Japanese History can solve it” makes for good GMing, because you learn to go “whatever the PCs do solves the problem”.

This is what it always comes back to: WATCH TELEVISION. No medium ever created has had more in common with, nor more to teach the roleplayer. Sometimes I think I should do a Hamlet’s Hitpoints except focusing entirely on watching Law and Order.


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