Mystery Game Tips

From Danny East

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0400

A Brief Word From Hannah

Incompetence is Always Believable

A character of mine recently snuck into an Imperial base, without any of the appropriate paperwork, by pretending she had inadvertently used the documents in question to mop up a coffee spill. The guard, used to dealing with moronic co-workers, found this a perfectly believable excuse.

It occurred to me that if I could use this gambit as a player, why shouldn’t it work for me as a GM, too?

The heroes expect the villain’s henchmen to be bumbling, so why not use this stereotype to lure the party into a trap? The PCs will think nothing of demolishing incredibly weak guards at what they assume is the Big Bad’s lair, but if the whole thing turns out to be rigged to fall down around their ears, the joke’s on them.

Rockin’ Prep Music

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately listening to the Celtic rock group Blackmore’s Night. Whenever I hear more than a couple of their songs in a row, it gets me in a GMing mood. Witches dancing at midnight, abandoned nymphs, thunderstorms with a personality; what could be better?

A lot of their lyrics are pretty cheesy, but that’s just how I like my gaming, so it fits. If you’re running a high magic medieval fantasy campaign, I strongly recommend checking them out. Some of their instrumental tracks would make good in-game background music, as well.

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5 Room Dungeons webpage:

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Mystery Game Tips

Mystery Games are gaining popularity, as much for the challenge of GMing them as for the challenge of playing. Intrigue, deceit, and evidence were easy enough for Sherlock Holmes, but outside of a good module or the RPG translation of a popular movie or book, there is little help for a mystery GM. These clues should help to crack the case of the “Hard to Run Mystery Game.”

Begin At The End

Work backwards from the end in your mind. What did the villain do to end up where they did with what they have? Who owns the apartment/island/car they’re in, and how did they get there? If they got there by segway, did they rent the segway? From whom?

Using this technique will lead the villain from the end to start, dropping clues and trails along the way. Work up and down this timeline, leaving hints and false trails where you can.

Drop Many, Many Clues

So the villain left their business card in the fishbowl at the pizzeria, and the heroes never looked. That’s okay, because the GM 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. Or, maybe they’re misleading clues.

There should be no fear of leaving too many clues. 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.

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. Show this to the players instead of giving hints by mentioning the things in the room. This may also prevent the players from getting obsessed with looking for hidden things and slowing down the plot.

Use Props

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

This also works great with notepads, address books, or boxes or weapons with hidden compartments. Feeling adventurous? Put your own phone number on the clue and let the players call it. Make sure the voice mail message is changed, though.

Let PCs Use Their Abilities

Remember that this is a role playing game and not real life. This means that the players and their characters have different abilities. If the players were as smart as their characters, they’d be detectives. Just because Joe Smith can’t interpret a clue doesn’t mean his character can’t.

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 around the pizza delivery car, than make that trail annoying and slow. The players will gravitate to the fast and exciting trails without feeling railroaded into it by the GM.

Engage All Senses

Remember that the 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?

The 5 Item Witness Formula

Every witness will notice some things; no witness will notice all things. Many events and people are similar and would have similar things to notice about them. Try this:

Pick five items you want the players to discover about the event/person. To correctly identify the event/person, they must know all five things. For example, the villain is Tall, White, Male, Old, and Bald.

  • Witness One remembers a short (the villain was sitting down) white man with a laptop.
  • Witness Two remembers a tall white man in a red hat with a laptop.
  • Witness Three remembers an old white man in a red hat with a briefcase.
  • Witness Four remembers two tall bald white men, one with a laptop and a red hat.
  • Witness Five remembers a tall bald man with a briefcase.

Only after talking to all the witnesses and assessing the situation do the players get a clear picture of what happened. Remember to plan this out ahead, though. It’ll be worth the trouble.

Give Players A Tangible Time Limit

They have three minutes before the maid comes back. The witness’ phone card only has thirty seconds left. The train is leaving. The library is closing. The policeman is going off-duty. These are solid opportunities for roleplay.

Allow Good Luck

Don’t forget the GM holds all the cards in these games. Let some luck happen. If it doesn’t make perfect sense and is not completely realistic, that is just fine so long as the players are having fun. Running forty sets of fingerprints, filling out the paperwork, and waiting for the results to come back negative is seldom fun.

Let Each Player And PC Shine

As always, be sure to have at least one moment during each session for each individual player to use their character’s special abilities. Throw in a security system for the hacker or a car chase for the grease monkey.

Make sure none of the players can say they didn’t do anything the entire session. This is especially important in a mystery game where there is a definitive plot line and an absolute goal.

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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.

Too much realism might evolve into a dull and depressing game, but there is one aspect that should always remain realistic. Failure. *Let them fail.*

Finding the cold body of the mayor’s daughter, or watching the museum curator take the bulletins down will motivate the players to play again. To play again and win.

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

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How To Start A Gaming Group At School

From Katrina Middelburg-Creswell

[Comment from Johnn: I received this request from a subscriber who had just finished reading Katrina’s article at the website about starting gaming clubs at schools.

“Hello, I read your article on how to start an RPG group. I must say that it’s very well structured. But, I am a 10th grade high school student, and I would like to start an RPG group, but I don’t have a teacher that plays D&D. Do you have any tips you could offer?”

I forwarded the reader’s request to Katrina, and she replied with the great tips below. Thanks Katrina!]

1) Keep searching at school. You’d be surprised how many people actually do or have played RPGs in their past. A lot of teachers have. See if you can find someone to help you search (for example, your librarian can be a good resource).

If all else fails, consider the mass technique of just putting a small ad in the school newspaper. FYI, D&D is just a bit over 30 years old, so your best luck will be to find teachers who were teenagers in the late 70’s and the 80’s. Keep looking. They are out there! Telltale signs are teachers who insert Star Wars and Star Trek references into their classes.

2) Look for a supervisor. Can you find a teacher who’d be willing to supervise, rather than be directly involved? If you know someone who’d be open to allowing you to play in their classroom, that might be the way to go. Then you’ll have to set up your own GMs, but who knows, the teacher might end up getting involved as more than just an observer, and then, problem solved.

Here’s a good one: bring your dice to your math teacher and ask her to explain to you how the probability is different when rolling two 10 siders as opposed to rolling a d100. Once she is done explaining – after 15 minutes – you may well be able to get her to support such a game in her classroom. After all, it’s math!

3) Find a parent. Ok, no luck on the teacher front? Maybe one of your friends’ parents used to play. Often, if you can get a parent involved, it’s possible to use school facilities, if the adult agrees to facilitate as an advisor.

4) No matter how it works out, make sure your group is set up professionally. While it might seem like a good idea to just play in the cafeteria or library after school, my guess is your school is like mine and would put the kibosh on any unsupervised gaming quickly. And any incidents like that might have a negative impact on the chance of getting a real game club set up in the future.

Good luck! Our gaming club has been a very positive addition to our school.

Katrina’s articles on gaming clubs at school:

[Comment from Hannah: When I was in high school not too long ago, I got a previously non-gamer teacher into a casual game of tri-stat dX. Even if you can’t find any teachers who play D&D already, it’s a good bet that at least a few of them would be happy to learn.

The Star Wars and Star Trek things are good tells, but also keep a lookout for social studies teachers who are into civil war reenactment. That’s roleplaying, too, and chances are they’ll be up for pencil and paper RPGs as well.]

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Four More Ways To Be A Better GM

From Darren Blair

After a few more encounters and wracking my brain a little, I’ve decided to compile yet another list of pointers and ideas that I’ve found while running games.

And Now, The Dramatic Pause

Suppose for a second you’ve just dropped a bombshell on your players. Perhaps a beloved NPC has been brutally murdered. Maybe they’ve been sold out by one of their own. Or it could simply be that someone royally blew a die roll and it’s going to have some seriously negative effects upon the party. So – what do you do now?

Excuse yourself for a few moments.

That’s right. Leave the players by themselves for a bit. Tell them you need to go fetch a manual from another room or retrieve one that you left in the car. Maybe you just remembered you have to go call someone. Or it could be that nature calls.

What you are trying to do is give the players a few moments to mull over the most recent turn of events while you’re out of the way. This will give the players a chance to recover from the shock, allowing them to strategize and consider their options with calmer attitudes.

Think of it this way. You’re watching a TV show and something dramatic happens. That’s when the network goes to a commercial break, right? Same basic principle: give your players a “commercial break.”

“Forget” Some Rules and Loopholes

It could be the party is riding high, or maybe they’re on the wrong side of the invading hordes. They’ve got some pie-in-the-sky strategy that will make their situation better, such as a grand scheme to make them even richer or a last- minute miracle spell to pull their biscuits out of the fire.

Problem is, Obscure Rule #867 says that the party’s plan just won’t work – it’s completely against the rules.

Here is where you, the GM, need to stop and consider a few things. How many players in the party would actually know about this rule? How badly would this rule hurt them? How good have they been at roleplaying?

If you have reason to believe most of the players are unaware of this rule, and your players have been good at roleplaying, then just pretend the rule doesn’t exist. Instead, let the party roleplay the situation out.

Maybe, just maybe, their latest hair-brained scheme will actually work. Or it could be a colossal dud and everyone dies. At least the party had the chance to give it a shot. Even if things don’t go as planned, the party will feel a little better for having tried.

Only after everything is said and done should you remind them that such-and-such rule prohibited what they were going to do anyway. This way, they’ll know about the rule and so can keep it in mind next time the situation arises. But in the meantime, they’ll think more highly of you for bending the rules a little for them.

3) …But Remember Other Rules

The party is in a bind. Maybe their position is getting bombarded by every last capital ship in the region. Maybe they’re stuck on Mount Whatthehugareyoudoinghere right in the middle of blizzard season. Or maybe the party is just starting out and the characters are so weak that the chess club could take them in a fight. Regardless, the party seems doomed.

Time to whip out Obscure Rule #5309.

This is a situation when, out of respect for your players, you use some obscure rule, law, or loophole to give the party a fighting chance.

Perhaps the flavor text for those capital ships states that the ships’ targeting computers are off 5% of the time, meaning there are going to be shots that won’t hit anywhere near the party’s position and might actually be hitting some of the bad guys.

Maybe the dwarves in your campaign have some sort of special ability that allows them to detect caves or other crevices in mountains regardless of weather conditions. Alternatively, it could be that you’ve found a way to give the beginning characters an extra trait or skill that might give them the edge.

In any case, go for it. As with the above method, you’ll be giving the party a fighting chance when otherwise they’d be in a big deal of trouble. You’ll help teach the other players a little more about the rules, and in turn you’ll also be known as a fair and fun GM.

4) Show Them The Ropes

Periodically give players little tidbits that will help them visualize the game world and how everything would function. This will help them better grasp their own character’s role in the world, while at the same time helping to introduce them to these wonderful resources.

Got a sword and sorcery campaign? See if the Society for Creative Anachronisms or a similar organization is in town.

A gritty real-world military campaign? Check to see what museums and collectors in your area handle military history.

A far-out science fiction campaign? Off to the library to examine the science behind the science fiction.

If you’re lucky, it might be as fun as an actual gamingsession!

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Weather Magic

From Ian Winterbottom

Weather can be one of the most potentially useful areas for wizardry, not just for spectacularly showy spells like lightning bolt and such, but for more mundane weather effects.

Imagine the wizard who can call forth fog to disguise the movements of an army or an adventuring party. What about the wizard who can summon the wind into the sails of his ship, or fleet, and deny wind to his adversaries? Or even summon a storm to lash at pirates or other attackers? Imagine a mage who can summon or banish rain or snow, even over a local area.

At the Battle of Towton in the Wars of the Roses, a blinding snowstorm into the faces of the archers on the Lancastrian side was a vital factor. The Yorkist side, firing with the wind and therefore having slightly greater range, moved forward and loosed a volley, then retreated.

The Lancastrians, firing blindly into the gale, wasted all their shafts as they fell short, leaving them helpless when the battle began. The advancing Yorkists even retrieved the shafts fired vainly at their first position, where they stuck uselessly into the snow, and fired them back!

Rain can wet bowstrings, or powder, leaving missile troops defenceless. A good archer of the Hundred Years’ War would not only wax his bowstring to render it as waterproof as possible (not much), but would unstring his bow when not immediately necessary, and keep his bowstring somewhere safely waterproofed; for instance, under his hat!

Mud can paralyse an army, as witnessed by the Turks who swept into Europe as far as Austria, crushing all before them, only to be brought up short before the strong walls of Vienna, with their heavy siege artillery mired uselessly far behind in mud caused by torrential rain. (No tarmac roads in the 16th Century!)

Wind can have immense effect, not only in the earlier- mentioned seaborne encounter, but on land too. Wind affects the accuracy of even bullets, especially at long range, while arrows and bolts, with greater area and lower mass, are much more affected.

If the wind is blowing across the range, accuracy suffers. If the wind is toward or away from the archer, range is affected, as at Towton. Still worse if the wind has a cargo, such as snow, dust or desert sand.

A sandstorm will get grit everywhere, in armour, vehicles, and anything with moving parts. It can blind temporarily, and in extreme cases, cause painful burns and chafing. Even street litter can sting when carried along by a strong enough wind.

Any light source, pre-electricity, will have a good chance of not surviving a strong wind; and pre matches, restarting a fire was a difficult task. Contrarily, a wind can fan a conflagration or fire to a hotter temperature, or cause it to spread.

Bear in mind that, in the days of wooden ships, the worst disaster at sea was not storms, but fire. With ships made of wood and everything soaked in tar, a ship could be an inferno in minutes. Consider also that the ability summon heavy rain might be useful to extinguish a fire, if needed.

Lightning strikes could be truly lethal to opponents or armies in iron armour – especially if they are vain enough to wear spiky helmets.

Above all, Weather Magic would be hard work, demanding large amounts of power, since weather is due to the movements of massive amounts of air over vast areas.

Since weather is so powerful, you might think of limiting its use to higher-level wizardry. Probably, in fact, your party’s high level enemies.