One of my favorite things in any type of game is discovery. I like solving puzzles, revealing plot, and unraveling mysteries. This can be a daunting challenge for both GMs and players alike. There is a belief that in order for a mystery to be considered an excellent mystery it must be complex and have a lot of moving parts and players. The result should be revealed in a glorious after-the-fact montage as if it were heist or slasher film. While that type of reveal and resolution can be extremely fun to watch in something like Leverage, Sherlock Holmes, Ocean’s 1X or various Guy Ritchie affairs, it is quite simply not something that is fun or engaging in which to play. Players want to be the ones taking the active role in investigation, and they want to progress the story and the mystery as they do so. This is the point where the difficulty of running a mystery really gets ratcheted up. The onus is on the GM to create a solvable, progressing mystery that remains not only mysterious, but sufficiently revealing enough to provide leads. Deus ex Machina solutions might be fun to write, but they are rarely fun to receive. What’s the point in having a mystery if it’s unsolvable? It might be a story or a cinematic, but it’s strictly not a mystery. Of course, this is the point that most people decide that simply running a traditional mystery is out of the question.
The question then becomes, can a mystery ever be fun for both parties in a standard table top game? The answer is, of course, yes. There are a few key things to remember when running a mystery that makes the job much easier and much more fun.
1. Keep it simple
2. Noir stereotypes exist for a reason
That’s it. Only three rules to running a fun and successful mystery. Let’s take a look at what those three rules ultimately mean.
Keep it simple
This is a rule that can apply to just about everything that you do in your entire life, and running a good mystery is no exception. When it comes down to it, a mystery can be summed up by the question “Who did what?” Did someone murder someone else? Did someone steal something? Did someone go missing? All of these questions are just detailed versions of that simple question. For us, let’s say that it was noted thief Jean-Marc du Montaigne that stole a cache of rubies from the Duchess of Yardley. This fulfills the Who and the What. Now, as a GM you could take this one sentence and build the mystery and gameplay around in by splitting up this question in two ways, “Who stole the rubies of the Duchess of Yardley?” or “Jean-Marc du Montaigne has been arrested, no one is talking about why, but there are a lot of nervous people in the peerage and you have been paid to find out more”. Whichever direction you go, it is important to make sure the actions of the parties make sense. There is no need to make this an elaborate plan, as your Noir stereotypes are going to provide plenty of distraction. This portion can be answered with the two part question “How and why was it done?” The only differences in the above split question scenarios are the Jean-Marc was captured in the second scenario, and the point of view in which the story is told. So, let’s say that Jean-Marc stole the rubies by seducing the daughter of the scullery maid and knocking out the main guard of the gem display. This is a straight forward heist, a little bit of deceit and a little bit of physical violence. There is no need to go crazy with the how, making up a complex how is only like to lead to continuity errors and gaps in understanding. A mythical cat burglar that escapes all detection might be cinematic, but it’s extremely difficult to make interesting, if he’s actually that good and it’s not just his legend, which is covered in point two. The second part of the two part question is “Why?” Simple motives are almost always the best here, unsurprisingly for a point entitled Keep it simple. The classic motives are the best: sex, revenge, loyalty and money. You can even mix and match these motives easily. In our example we are trying to create a dual sided story, something you wouldn’t normally do, but I am doing to illustrate the ease. In that case, we need a motive that makes it interesting in either direction. Using the four classic motives, we can create the story that Jean-Marc was stealing the gems from the Duchess because his family was being held hostage by Count Gerard La Fleurs, the scorned secret lover of the Duchess who is hoping to shame her by stealing the gems that have been entrusted to her. This encompasses sex, revenge and loyalty. It’s also believable that Jean-Marc would be targeted since he is a notable thief, and a man in a position of power might try and leverage that. This is a story that has depth, but is simple at its core. It’s a courtly intrigue story with a fall-guy. Now, we don’t need to make it any more complicated than that. Our Noir stereotypes are going to do the heavy lifting for us.
Noir stereotypes exist for a reason
Do they ever! If you are unfamiliar with Noir stereotypes, you might have some problems thinking up ways in which to make the mystery itself interesting. Don’t worry, I come prepared with resources. I will give you a few moments to check this out. Let’s look at a few of these stereotypes to see how we can mix and match them to give us sufficient cover to our simple mystery.
1. Everything is awful – A world in which things are going poorly is a world that can provide many distractions for our heroes. People might be out of work, there might be riots in the slums, or rumors of war just rumbling in the distance. The more things that are going wrong, the more things that the players will link to the mystery. You don’t even have to work at this, it’s all setting background until you start drawing the lines as you see fit. The Duchess is responsible for the factory that is currently shut down because of the unsafe working conditions and the three deaths there in the last month. The dockside slums are in revolt because the Duke, her husband, levied a tax on all fish that has made it so the area can afford to feed themselves. The Duchess stands to inherit the vacant Barony to the northwest, after a fire killed the Baron and Baroness, leaving the titles vacant. This is a huge honor for her. All of these things could be ties to the mystery, and might even be avenues the players follow. That’s ok, and as long as there is information to keep the searching and moving on to the next lead, the hooks can be as varied as you feel like. Again, keep it simple. Basic, believable motives.
2. Spiderweb of Deceit – Simply put, everybody lies. Each lie that unravels leads to the next lie which leads to the next lie. Even as players do things to get out of this web of deceit, more lies and secrets entangle them. It is important that many of these lies have nothing to do with the actual mystery. The more hooks that the players have into the world, the more forces that will assail them thanks to the next point. This is pretty easy, and the result of social and combat challenges can lead to the revelation that one or more parties were lying. In fact, the more lies that are revealed, the better. If you can tie in lies about the players, you score bonus tumblers of scotch. In our scenario, the fire might have been a cover up for an assassination, the factory foreman have been bought off by a crime family in order to force the Duchess to rely on their goods, and the Duke might be raising the price on fish after threats of livestock farmers of stopping production if the competition wasn’t swung in their favor. These are all lies that can be followed up on, but don’t directly affect the mystery. Each lie they unravel is going to bring more forces against them, with more opportunities to act and discover what’s really going on. As long as enough lies lead back to the main mystery, for example the Count is paying off the farmers, and the crime family owes a favor to the Count, then the mystery isn’t dead in the water and the players really get a sense of getting dirty.
3. Nothing Stands Still – As our players start shaking things up, the vested parties need to make sure these meddlesome heroes are dealt with. The important part about this is that every opportunity for shaking things up ends with a lead or with information. It’s ok if the players take a beating, as long as they get something out of it, even if that is just the name of a new player in the game. The players should feel the parties becoming threatened and concerned with their presence, and it’s ok to have the encounters result in a tacit understanding between the players and a new ally. After all, misunderstandings happen and as long as the motives for the conflict make sense, wrapping those up and presenting allies makes all the more sense. This is a VERY important Noir stereotype, and one that should be leveraged whenever possible.
4. Femme Fatale – This can be redone to simply be “person of interest and mystery”. They need to be at cross purposes, and forthright in the things they appear to desire, all the while working for one other specific thing that is at cross purposes to the players. Working with this person should be tempting, and even dallying with a temporary alliance is not out of the question, but it should resolve in such a way that players have the opportunity to prove the person is against them, and even gain the moral high ground on them as the story ends. This is one of the more complicated pieces to add into the story, but if you had some running antagonists in your game setting already, this is a change to highlight them and let the players squeak out a victory. This isn’t a stereotype that you would want to use every time, but it is an important one and a fun one for the players.
Those are really the big ones to consider, and should be easy enough to work into the mystery. It should also be apparent how all of these distractions take up time and energy from the players without really obscuring the mystery any further. These things are nothing more than red herrings to the story, and serve as so much set dressing and pacing filler. After all, you don’t want to keep the players from solving the mystery, but giving them these sort of things to uncover and resolve lets them progress in a tangible way without wrapping up the overarching mystery. It’s a great set of devices that are stereotypes for a reason. Use them!
This is really the biggest thing that contributes to the feel of the mystery. Of course, it’s the thing that contributes most to any game ever. The pacing needs to be very tight in a good mystery. The players need to have time to do tasks, but always feel as if they are crunched for time. You want to make them feel like they have to choose things in an either/or scenario. Of course, no matter what they choose, it should ultimately lead them in the right direction. Even something as simple as a pattern of skill-social-physical keeps the party on their toes and keeps them constantly shifting gears. Again, the goal is to move the story forward, so you want to control the speed at which that happens. As long as constant momentum is felt, it’s going to be a good mystery. This is another case of where it’s ok to have the flow be predictable. You aren’t necessarily looking to shake up the players in this way, and letting them prep for a potential fight or way for them to get roughed up but get information is a good idea. Switching it up every now and then should occur, of course, but establishing a pattern is just as important. After all, it’s all about the pacing.
This was much longer than I intended, but I absolutely love detective stories. Hopefully after getting a taste of how truly easy it is to build them, the fear of the Mystery will fade, and people will find it more accessible. Noir films are classic for a reason, and don’t let a system stand in the way of telling a good Noir tell. Every system can do the above points, since they are all story oriented. Don’t be intimidated…unless that’s part of the plan to lead the thugs into a sense of complacency, of course.