11 Ways To Make Mysteries Magnificent

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1211

Brief Word From Johnn

Check out this cool session pic from Platinum Wizard of Adventure Nemsoli:

I asked Nemsoli what I was seeing, and he replied:

What you are looking at is a Dwarven Forge 3d model my GM bought and painted. The two minis are clockwork owlbears he printed and then painted.

The paper cutouts represent glyphs on the floor that triggered different effects. We had to navigate them based on what we had learned about the god to which this tomb was dedicated.

There were a variety of negative effects based on which glyph we ended on. We made a lot of poor decisions. Lol.

I thought this was a cool puzzle idea you could use sometime in your campaign too. You can get game icons here.

Speaking of puzzles, mysteries are the worst. They hold so much promise. But when they hit the game table, it feels like something’s missing. Let’s talk about that in today’s feature tips.

And then at the end of this newsletter are several reader tips about stealth sequences, tracking world details, combat cut scenes, and NPC roleplay.

Let’s dig in!


11 Ways To Make Mysteries Magnificent

From Johnn Four

Mysteries are tough to GM. They’re difficult to run because our medium is different than books and shows. We have players who decide what the characters do so we face a more open world. And because mysteries are ultimately puzzle adventures, their main engine is information that we have far less control over than an author does.

So here are a few tips to make mysteries magnificent so we more fun with mystery adventures.

1. Begin At The End

Work backwards from the mystery event, whether it’s a crime, disappearance, strange occurrence, or accident. If you are a Campaign Logger GM, use the % datetime Tag to quickly log the series of actions and events that lead up to the mystery event. Be sure to add the @ Tag to all NPCs and # Tag all Locations so you have a three-point reference for each notable event: time, place, and persons.

What we’re after is a clear, simple, and succinct timeline for easy reference and review. We use this tool for consistency and to prevent Logic Bombs because we work backwards from the mystery event to ensure all facts and plot points have congruency.

2. Drop Many, Many Clues

The villain left their business card in the fishbowl at the pizzeria and the heroes never looked. That’s okay, because we’ve left extra clues around. Villain’s initials in the High Score of the arcade game, a witness, or a piece of foreign currency could all be vital clues.

There should be no fear of leaving too many clues. Worst case, players feel smart for finding so many eggs during their Easter hunt. Keep a couple of Drag & Drop clues behind your screen as well, ready to drop into play in emergencies. And study the Three Clue Rule theory. It helps make your mysteries more robust. Once the players have found what they need to continue the story, the rest of the clues can be ignored, left out, or changed by the GM.

3. Use Real Pictures

If time and technology are available, use real pictures. Take a picture of your work desk, a room, car, or backyard that contains planted evidence or simple situations. Show this to the players instead of just giving verbal hints. Let players find the hidden objects or puzzle out what happened in the pic. This also helps prevent players from getting trapped in their heads fretting over numerous imaginary details. A picture, piece of art, or photograph gives them a point of focus to obsess over. 🙂

4. Use Props

Use actual clues. It will have dramatic appeal when you hand over the actual balled up paper they saw in the photo with the phone number on it.

This also works great with notepads, address books, box puzzles, toy weapons, and other artefacts present in your mystery. For example, a tiny plastic knife prop could reveal it’s not the murder weapon because the wounds were jagged at the edges – you let the players ask questions and figure it out.

Feeling adventurous? Put your own phone number on a clue and let the players call it. Be an NPC when you answer.

5. Let PCs Use Their Abilities

RPGs are a fusion of player and character skills. A player might not be as smart as their character, and their character might know nothing about archery.

Different GMs treat this problem in different ways.

Here’s what I do:

  1. I describe the situation
  2. Players ask all the questions they want, and I tick the in-game clock one round per question if it matters
  3. I go around the table once in awhile to ensure all players can get their questions in or make in-character statements
  4. A player can tap out any time and ask for a roll to resolve the search or puzzle
  5. I set difficulty level for the roll based on the quality of player questions, method of investigation, and any other relevant factors
  6. Player rolls behind my screen, often with helping rolls by assisting players (aid rolls are public)
  7. I tell them the truth, a half-truth, or a lie based on the roll

I explain to players that their characters would have a lot more sensory details than what I’m able to describe. To compensate for this, we can use game mechanics to reach a solution or conclusion. If players go straight to a die roll, the difficulty is very high – nigh improbable. But if they roleplay and take a whack or two at it first, a roll becomes more feasible.

6. Keep Hot Trails Hot And Cold Trails Cold

If they’re supposed to follow the villain from the pizzeria to the theatre to the ski loft to the petting zoo, then allow that trail to run hot and fast. If a false lead brings the players to following the pizza delivery car around, then make that trail annoying and slow. Players will gravitate to the fast and exciting trails without feeling railroaded into them by the GM.

7. Engage All Senses

Remember that PCs have five senses: Sight, Touch, Hearing, Smell, and Taste. Don’t forget the last two: Smell and Taste. Does someone smoke a pungent tobacco that leaves a scent long after they’re gone? Taste the soda that was left behind. Is it flat? Is it diet?

8. The 5 Item Witness Formula

Every witness will notice some things. No witness will notice all things. And two people seeing the same thing will report details differently.

Try this:

Pick five items you want the players to discover about an event, object, location, or NPC. To correctly piece together the identity or import of that the PCs must know all five facts.

For example, the villain is Dwarvish, Tall, Female, Old, and Bald. There are 132 dwarves in the city. 22 of them are tall. 5 of the tall ones are female. 2 of the tall females are old. 1 is bald. Bingo!

  • Witness #1 remembers a dwarf
  • Witness #2 remembers a tall dwarf
  • Witness #3 remember that the dwarf had green and black beard rings (denoting a female dwarf)
  • Witness #4 remembers a tall and stout person who looked really old
  • Witness #5 remembers a dwarf with a helm hiding a bald pate

Only after talking to all the witnesses and assessing the situation can the players get a clear picture of the mystery’s villain.

9. Give Players A Tangible Time Limit

They have three minutes to search the room before the maid comes back. The witness’ phone card only has thirty seconds left. The train is leaving. The library is closing. The officer is going off-duty. These are solid opportunities for roleplay. And the time limit forces players to take action.

10. Allow Good Luck

We take it upon ourselves to give players as much agency as possible, to be generous with the clues and details, and to let logic reign. This is quite a burden. We should let some luck happen.

While we worry about interfering or having players claim deus ex machina, I’ve never had backlash after giving players an unexpected boon. In fact, the few times I’ve received feedback after dropping a helpful clue or having the villain make an untimely mistake, players expressed appreciation for help keeping the game going. No one complains when they receive something unearned.

11. Let Each Player And PC Shine

Be sure to have moments each session for each player to use their character’s special abilities. Throw in a security system for the hacker, a car chase for the grease monkey, thugs for the jujitsu master, and a grumpy government official for the face man.

Inventory the character sheets. Quest for skills, equipment, and abilities unique to that character. For example, if two characters are both awesome at stealth, try to find some other character sheet element that only each character has.

Then pick an obstacle whose Achilles heel or solution sync perfectly with one character’s chosen special feature. For example, a clue might dangle from a height only the rogue can climb to reach.

For bonus points, try to add two or more such obstacles in each encounter so multiple players get multiple spotlight moments each session. For example, a fire encroaches and threatens to burn the clue up on a cliff ledge. While the druid uses their ice magic to hold the fire, the rogue quickly skedaddles up the rock face and grabs the blood-covered scarf.

We want to ensure no player can say, “I didn’t do anything important this session.” This is especially important in a mystery game where there is a plot line and an absolute goal, and some characters might not be suited for clues and smarts.

It’s Your Turn

A mystery game is a game that grips. It grips because it is fast-paced and often has horrifying results if things are not accomplished in a jiffy.

Be clear on the salient facts to prevent Logic Bombs and inconsistences. Challenge characters and players, in multiple ways. Use props when possible to appeal to different player types and to take the mystery into another dimension. Be liberal with the clue canon, and let the party get lucky once in awhile. What things do you do to make mystery adventures a success? Hit reply and let me know.

Thank you!

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Tracking Geopolitics and Cults

Silver Wizard of Adventure Eric asks:

I was wondering if you had any ruleset/tricks to help manage factions in a country – not necessarily guilds but factions with specific political/religious agendas.

I just found a great resource to help out with factions: RuneQuest I – Guilds, Factions and Cults. Great great stuff.

Hey Eric!

Alas, I don’t have a gaming sub-system for cultures or geopolitics spelled out yet. That’ll come when I develop Wizard of Worlds and Wizard of Roleplay.

Meantime though, here are some tips and ideas that might help:

I manage my factions through Loopy Planning: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Op6YtiD9iI

Special Loopy Planning in-depth tutorial for Wizards of Adventure:

Fantastic Factions => 4 Tricks To Get The Most Out Of Your Villain Factions

The Faction Pyramid Technique

Horde-ing => Creating Factions the Fast and Easy Way

Faction Pyramids in Campaign Logger

I hope this helps.


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Use Combat Cut Scenes

Platinum Wizard of Adventure Andy Fundinger shares this faster combat tip:

I thought this podcast was pretty good, especially the idea of front(faction) based mass combat.

[The Glitterbois] #99 – Mass Combat in Rifts Games

It seems to me that any combat could be accelerated by interspersing cut scenes. I’m thinking in a part of combat where everyone is just reducing hit points, the GM just announces a few rounds of damage for everyone involved. This would allow a big bag of hit points to still serve a narrative purpose without taking so much table time.

“Ok, you each take 30 damage and the giant takes 250, some of you must be getting low so we’ll rollout the next round…”


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NPC Dialogue Tips

RPT GM Jocelynn asks: Do you have tips on dialogue? I’m no theatre kid. Thanks! :^)

Hey Jocelynn,

I often describe what NPCs say rather than being Shakespeare. That takes a load off GMing.

When I do need to speak in-character, I use these tricks:

  • Repeat what the player just said to me and turn it into a question. “You found goblins in the woods and they’re planning an invasion?”
  • I ask a lot of questions, which puts the ball back in the players’ court. “What makes you think that, warrior?”
  • When doing any kind of negotiation, I try to come up with the worst sob stories. “I cannot possibly sell it to you for less than 105 gold pieces. I have 8 hungry mouths to feed and my eldest wants to attend the university next season! Also, my horses have some bug and I need to pay a cleric on Moonday to heal them!” It becomes a fun game to think up ridiculous excuses while haggling.

If you’ll allow me to recommend my book, GM Mastery: NPC Essentials has additional roleplaying tips, advice, and techniques in it: https://www.roleplayingtips.com/gm-books/npc-essentials-book/

You might find these tips from the Archives of interest as well:

8 NPC Parley Tricks

How To Develop A Compelling Voice

The Game Master As Public Speaker


Tips for Stealth Sequences

RPT GM Addis Bedilu asks: Any do’s & don’ts you would recommend for stealth sequences?

Hey Addis,

A lot depends on your game system and how you adjudicate things.

Here’s my two cents off the top of my head. Your mileage may vary. Let me start in general terms and then get specific.

Roll When You Can Face Defeat

Often I’ll ask for a skill test, senses check, or other test only to realize after the player fails that I didn’t want failure. Now I’m lamely requesting a re-roll or encouraging other players to try, desperately hoping for a success. Or I’m scrambling to improvise what happens now that gameplay is blocked.

We do this while GMing normal situations. But in stealth situations the stakes are different and higher, especially for we GMs. If the party fails at the wrong time, we realize our misplay. The PCs become exposed and the stealth state of your adventure ends. Now it is a regular situation again. And it especially sucks when this happens near adventure start. Everyone only received a few moments to enjoy stealth mode, and now it’s regular style play again.

So nowadays I handwave or insta-succeed a lot of player actions, and roll only when I’m ok with or prepared for a #Fail. You might check out Gumshoe powered games that have this design philosophy for more advice. A cool side-benefit here is you chew through a lot more gameplay this way, and you get bursts of quick pacing for variety.

Quantity of Rolls Increase Failure

Defeat in a stealth game means the characters are discovered. The more often dice determine fate, the more often you risk rolling defeat. For example, if I have only a 5% chance of failure, I’m very likely to succeed. No sweat. But if the GM makes me roll 20 times, on average I will fail at least once. And as we talked about above, failure at the wrong time robs everyone. So I like to modify my GM style during stealth scenes, missions, and games to ask for fewer rolls.

It’s About Pacing, Mechanics & Mindset

We are playing a different game now. In D&D-esque systems, the game before was fight to the last hit point. Now, in stealth mode, the game is push your luck. Each time the dice come into play, the special status of the party — its Agency of movement and access thanks to stealth — gets risked. We like that because those are exciting Stakes. We bite our nails and clench our stomachs as the pips settle to tell us whether the party gets caught in a vulnerable situation. They’ll be behind enemy lines, exposed, and probably outnumbered.

If you ask for many rolls in a shorter period of time, you make failure pretty much guaranteed. If you or bad player choices make dice checks difficult to succeed, you also make failure pretty much guaranteed. Therefore, understand your game system and flex your GMing to take into account how often you want players to succeed until a bad roll or choice reveals them.

For example, if using the 5 Room Dungeon format, we want stealth to succeed until Room IV. It’s ok if players gain surprise, if they become revealed just before, or if the villain is aware of them and is playing a trick. All great outcomes. Alternatively, a setback or predetermined constraint might require the party to maintain stealth and they must sneak back out. In either case, we want stealth mode to survive contact with Rooms I-III.

That’s an example of the change in thinking we can do to make stealth play more fun. Instead of plotting when the characters will be weakened for an epic climactic combat, we plot for when and if stealth mode ends at the most dramatic moment possible. This is precisely when I let player choices and the dice settle things in true RPG fashion.

The Lowest Common Denominator Spoils the Fun

Watch out for situations where particular characters sabotage the party. For example, the warrior in metal armor has so many stealth penalties they might give themselves away 50% of the time. On average, after just two stealth scenes, the warrior makes noise and alerts the guards, ending the stealth state for the rest of the adventure after only the second encounter.

In typical stealth mini-games or game sub-systems, we roleplay the fiction until we face a dice check. Then characters make character sheet tests against some difficulty target result. Map the types of stealth checks you intend on making against character sheets. Make a list of the skills, feats, attributes, traits, and whatnot that map to success probability. Then note which characters do poorly in those checks. It’s those PCs that’ll foil your stealth scenario first from a mechanics point of view.

The good news is, if you take this approach, you now have a clear list of things you can try to mitigate to give the party a chance to succeed.

Equip Them For Success

To help your weakest links, and often to make party stealth even possible, we bestow items as treasure or store stock. Even James Bond got his special equipment scene. Ideally, we offer up single-use items so campaign balance post-mission gets preserved. Potions, single-cartridge items, fragile gear, and so on.

Fail Forward

Should failure occur, you have options for keeping the mission alive. Check out these links for ideas on how to fail forward and combat outs:

Use Flashbacks

Some players will try to over-plan. They’ll ask you a million questions for details you never thought of. They’ll bog down gameplay as they micromanage every step.

To mitigate this, allow players to make flashbacks, where they tell you a story of how they prepared for the current moment in the adventure. This reduces a lot of player stress in trying to plan perfectly. And it covers off my concerns about failing too early.

Blades in the Dark RPG does a great job with this, and you might check out the free rules online for inspiration.


Prepare for THAT Guy

I had one player in a long-running campaign who had a habit of opening doors during combat. That would raise the alarm, admit more foes, trigger traps, and incur all kinds of mayhem. There’s often a player in the party who will get bored fast, want to clobber stuff, and cause trouble.

Prepare some simple stuff to entertain this player once in awhile. Usually, action scenes. Let them take out the guards, chase someone who’s about to raise the alarm, or knock out the cameras with sharp shooting.

Preventing Lame Stealth Fails

We can do a lot before we enter stealth mode to have more fun in this type of game:

Abilities => Offer in-game ways for players to buff their characters such as choosing obscured paths to reward scouting, or adding a camera system for the tech PC to hack.

Equipment => Put into earlier treasures potions of invisibility, slippers of silence, special rappelling gear, and so on for temporary buffs.

Encounter Options => Add furniture and other obstacles for hiding, create secret passages for characters to find and use, put foes in noisy starting positions or otherwise be distracted or delayed.

GM Style => Reduce do-or-die die rolls, allow good plans and choices to succeed through narrative, communicate details and potential consequences clearly so players can make informed decisions limited only by their characters’ abilities.

Ok. I hope those tips help!