Mysteries in games and fiction

Photo: Agatha ChristieI was recently reading through a mystery novel and developing a bit of impatience, trying to see how long the author would take to develop the story to a point where I would care about this investigation.  (Answer: looks like page 95, which is definitely too long.)

Since then, I’ve been thinking about this topic in the context of games, as well as fiction.  When do we get interested enough to actually want to go along with a mystery story?  How do I get my players to jump in, rather than feel like rats going through a laboratory maze?  I identified the following components as essential to my own interest.

What it takes to draw me in

1. We must have enough context to understand the nature of the mystery.  A locked-room mystery is not interesting at all unless you understand that the door was in fact locked, thus making the means by which the crime was committed seemingly impossible.

2. We must have enough clues that we start making connections between them.  Until we have the corners pieces of a puzzle, it’s really hard and uninviting to try to figure out the big picture and place puzzle pieces.

3. The mystery itself must be intriguing, arouse curiosity, make the reader, viewer or player want to solve its puzzle or at least to discover the answer.  The mystery of why the garbage gets picked up at 6am on some weeks and 2pm on others is not intrinsically fascinating, largely because the question is mundane, it can have any number of answers, and none is more satisfying than the others.

4. We must care about solving it.  Perhaps it will help sympathetic protagonists, or maybe innocents will suffer if the mystery is not solved.  Maybe there will be more murders, or a scapegoat will be framed for the crime.  Unlike the other elements, which appeal to the intellect, this is an emotional sort of drive.  It’s the buy-in.

The first two are a matter of supplying enough information to meet a minimum threshold.  The last two, however, require addressing the player/reader/viewer and drawing them in.  It’s a sort of seduction, if you will.

Satisfying solutions

As the mystery develops, we run into additional conditions for player, viewer or reader satisfaction:

5. Solving the mystery should make us feel competent.  That includes feeling smart for finding and putting together the clues, of course.  But in role-playing games in particular, it can also mean feeling badass for intimidating the bad guys into confessing (in a hard-boiled detective game for example), feeling brave for risking your character’s life and limb to acquire the macguffin, feeling clever for using a successful strategy, etc.

6. The solution must be honest.  Certain clues can be reinterpreted in a new way when enough context is pieced together, and legitimate red herrings are part of the genre, but outlandish distractions or fundamental changes in the way the fictional reality is understood to work tend to make the player/reader/viewer feel frustrated, cheated.

In play

As game masters, how do we address these components in a game in order to get the players invested in the story?  Here are some suggestions.

Making the players care (requirements #3 and 4):

  • Tie the mystery to the Player Characters’ fate or to something they care about such as their sanctum or headquarters, a friendly supporting character, etc.  Or drag them in through foul blackmail from an arch-enemy!
  • Make use of the Player Characters’ history and relationships.  If you can find a way to elicit different emotional reactions from them by tugging on such plot threads, you have to potential for conflict, divided loyalties, agonizing choices, moral quandaries, and all that good stuff.
  • Edit: Try to pique the players’ curiosity with the mystery.  Admittedly, gauging how subtle you can be while still getting their interest up requires a fine-tuned ear.

Giving enough information to understand context and connections (requirements #1 and 2):

  • Prepare short briefings, handouts and props for the kick-off.  Having written materials in hand, as long as they are short and to the point, helps the players integrate the clues.
  • Plan on redundant ways to award the clues, showcasing different character skills, areas of interest, or advantages.  There should always be a few different ways to get at the useful information,
  • If necessary, nudge in scenes where the Player Characters have to go over “what we have learned so far,” for example for the benefit of a client, victim, or investigator.  This can help them put it all together.
  • Don’t stint on using flashbacks, cut scenes, etc. to explain the results of skill rolls and how the Player Characters recognize or connect clues.  This adds more flavour and context the way raw numerical results can’t.

Giving a satisfying solution (requirements #5 and 6):

  • Have a good sense of what emotional payoff your players are looking for, and provide it.  Offer a chain of clues for your puzzle fans, of course, but also opportunities for daring-do, action, pursuits, hacking, fast-talking, fighting, etc. for characters (and players) looking for a different reward.  (If you have not already, I recommend reading Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering, by Robin Laws.  It’s a well-spent $8 for any GM running any role-playing game.  For more mystery-specific discussion, see one of J.D. Corley’s last posts in this discussion thread.)
  • Have a clear idea in mind of the initial situation and the key non-player characters’ driving motivations.  If I’m not running something open-ended like InSpectres (see discussion of game approaches below) but a more traditional kind of mystery, I always have one or more solution in hand as I begin, which will explain the initial clues.  However, the players inevitably ask questions and do things I had not thought about; having a good sense of what the background is and how the NPCs will react to challenges and changes helps me answer on the fly, rather than trying to steer the players back to the elements I did plan for.
  • Even if you are not using a build-as-you go approach (see below), pay close attention to the theories spun by your players to explain the clues they have collected.  They’re often better than the one you started with; you can use them to make the players feel smart about figuring things out.  Or you can use them to provide engaging rabbit-holes and red herrings before the final plot twists.

Games with an innovative approach to mysteries

All of the following are designed to avoid the problem known as pixel-bitching or pixel hunts, in which players are stalled and unable to move on in a mystery game until they find a very specific clue.  At the same time, they try to preserve for the players the suspense and thrill of solving a mystery.  They depend on four approaches, or a combination of these, which may be disorienting at first for gamers who approach mystery-based scenarios as classic puzzle-solving.

Clue-based enabler: for example, the GUMSHOE system (Pelgrane Press) used in The Esoterrorists, Trail of Cthulhu, Mutant City Blues, Fear Itself.  The player characters will always get the core clues, provided at least one of them has at least one point in an appropriate investigation skill.  To get more, they spend from a pool; and to perform non-investigative actions for which the result is uncertain, they roll as in traditional RPGs.

Build-as-you-go: for example, the Engle Matrix system (Hamster Press), InSpectres (Memento Mori Theatrics).  There is no set solution as the adventure begins, the players and GM together will create one as they go, aided by the system to adjudicate who controls the narration and to what extent at any point.  What guides the evolution of the story is really what the group as a whole decides makes a satisfying tale, given the die rolls and reversals.

Jenga tower-style mission/heist/con job: for example, games like Wilderness of Mirrors (Wicked Dead Brewing Company), Blowback (Two Scooters Press), or the Mistborn Adventure Game (Crafty Games).  The group of players start off in a first by making their perfect plans, then a bit like in Fiasco things start to go wrong and they must turn things around to salvage victory from the jaws of defeat — or at least mitigate the disaster.  This is admittedly more about suspense than mystery per se, but it typically works well with a classic mystery at its core, as long as it’s not too big.  The mystery is often what causes the team’s original plan to unravel.  (See here for more about heist games.)

Retrofit: for example, the Leverage RPG (Margaret Weis Productions), which is also a con job game.  There is a set solution, but successful use of PC skills, roles or advantages allow players to narrate a flashback that explains what “really” happened in an earlier scene and change the sequence of events to their advantage.  InSpectres also pioneered the use of such flashbacks in its “confessional” mechanic.


Here are a few links I have collected over the years on the topic of mysteries and related genres in role-playing games:

  • Jason D. Corley: A mystery fan schools you on mystery games — an excellent essay series and discussion exploring the structure of different types of plots where mystery is a central element, and how to use them in games.
  • Mysteries: Step by step instructions — a discussion on The Forge; C Lehrich’s comments, in particular, are detailed and insightful.
  • Phil Masters’ The Truth — Obviously — an article on creating conspiracy or fringe theory plots and props for games
  • Modus Operandi — the unofficial source for espionage role-playing games, providing adventures, rules, character sheets, reviews, and fan fiction.

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