How To GM Mysteries - Roleplaying Tips

How To GM Mysteries

From Istrian

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #637

General Tips

5W1H

A mystery can usually be narrowed down to the 5Ws and one 1H: Who, Where, When, Why, What, How. A mystery can also have multiple instances of one of these.

For example, Where could lead to multiple locations, each being related to the mystery in a limited way. At the same time, each of the Ws can be related to some other minor mysteries, thus creating a large web of mystery.

Since players draw conclusions from what they have found, they are likely to mix things up and try to do things to confirm their hypotheses. That’s why some improvisation will be required.

Is Failure Acceptable?

That’s an important decision and do not withhold this answer from players.

Failure can mean many things:

  • The PCs take too long in their investigation and the culprit gets away
  • The PCs consider they have done enough
  • The PCs do not wish to take further risk and are ready to close the case
  • The group simply runs out of clues

If failure is not acceptable, it will be necessary to have contingencies planned for critical stuff to fall into the hands of the players (but they must, of course, pay a high price for it).

Know Events, Improvise Clues

You won’t know ahead of time how players will proceed when they try to unravel a mystery. And it is impossible to predict the result of rolls. As such, I find it best to not make lists of clues to be found.

Instead, I write out vague events (Bill and Bob had a fight in the dining room in the morning) and improvise the actual clues depending on how the players act (the butler was hidden nearby and saw the fight, blood stains on the carpet, either of them sporting a few wounds, and so on).

Give Clue Overload

I find it best to give a lot more clues than to try to hold to a few important ones, and then let the PCs sort it out by themselves.

This gives you several advantages: players always have leads to follow even when they lead nowhere, and it creates a greater feeling of immersion into an actual mystery.

Witnesses

I love them. Witness NPCs are best way I’ve found for delivering loads and loads of leads upon the PCs, most of them usually unrelated or complete rubbish.

NPCs see things, but they may not understand them, or remember them right. They might just make up things to fill in gaps in what they believe they saw to appear credible, or to make themselves interesting.

Some will even lie outright for their own reasons while not being bad people themselves.

Let Them Try

PCs will do unforeseen things. They go to unexpected locations or talk to undefined NPCs. However, with the knowledge of the events that transpired to lead to the mystery – and some subtle fact manipulation – you can create a link between whatever the PCs are doing and the truth. For example, be ready to give more importance to some minor NPC you neglected if the PCs think he can help.

Random Generation

Don’t forget to help yourself by having some NPC generators. After all, how likely are they to talk precisely to the NPC you created rather than to some random passerby who seems to be related to something?

Honesty

Tell your players, “This is a mystery, there is a solution, I know how it begins, I know how it could end, but I have no idea how you will get there. So I will be improvising a lot, but it’s not because it’s improvised that it’s unrelated. And if something looks completely illogical, ask me OOC, and I’ll tell you if I made a mistake or if it’s illogical IC”.

Mystery As Main Plot

When the PCs’ goal is to unravel a mystery and whatever they do with the solution does not really matter, then in my opinion, failure (partial or complete) must be an option.

Hold A Briefing

In this case, I believe the most important part is the Briefing. This may take any shape or form, but it is simply the hook that contains a significant amount of information, with only half of it relevant, and less than 10% as actual truth.

One thing that must be made clear to the players is they are only required to investigate everything in the briefing, or as much as they can. The minimum I put in the briefing is a clear reference to at least 2 NPCs, 2 locations, and 2 mysterious events (for players who like to talk, those who like to search or infiltrate, and those who want to browse libraries for anything similar).

The rest of the investigation is up to the players. They might even come up with stuff that wasn’t in the briefing or planned at all. The best thing to do is to roll with it (perhaps secretly roll a die to see if it has any link with the mystery). Obviously, there must be no critical clues, only stuff that leads either nowhere or to more stuff.

When to end the mystery is not up to the GM. It is up to the players to say when they are done. There could be an actual objective (find the missing people, arrest the murderer) and even deadlines. Make these as clear as possible.

One campaign I’m currently running has PCs investigating paranormal events. Their only goal, as stated by their superiors, is to find the truth, or as much truth as possible, while keeping a low profile. Usually they start with a full briefing containing press articles, reports, maps, and other stuff that has a load of information, on many different topics, not all of them related. Usually it mentions an event, a location, and the names of a few people involved (journalists, police, criminals). It usually also contains some information that may be useless, like background checks, unexplained events, seemingly-related events in other places many years before, etc.

Next to that, I have written down the actual events, and how they are related to one another. What each NPC is aware of, what they try to do every day, their general goals, etc. With this I can improvise scenes on the fly depending on where the PCs go and what they do.

And I don’t have a grand finale planned. The PCs can decide at any time they have enough information and write a report to their superiors, possibly recommending some course of action. In the end they are not judged on what they do, but on what they found and deduced. They can also call upon allies and contacts to do the action and dangerous stuff while they do their investigation.

Mystery As An Obstacle

In this type of mystery, the PCs need to find some information to move forward. What matters is they get enough information to think they can do something.

The GM’s job is to drop as many relevant but incomplete clues as possible until the PCs have found what they think they wanted to find. Fortunately, it’s simple to do, as anything the PCs do can drop a clue as a side-effect. For example, having an enemy they killed drop the clue as their dying breath, or finding a diary or letters while searching for loot to sell (which very often happens), an NPC randomly mentioning something while talking about something else, etc.

The breadth of each clue must be limited: it only points to one of the 5Ws and 1H, and possibly not reliably.

In a story arc I am currently running, the PCs want to either destroy a certain organization or bring it under their superiors’ control. In the beginning, they received a sparse briefing containing 4 locations and are running through them to find information on what the organization is doing, and its strengths and weaknesses.

Recently, they have run through a “dungeon” that was one of the organization’s local HQs. They found out the location was nearly vacant after its occupation by a demon. The players were uncertain whether the demon was summoned by the organization or if it was unrelated. They simply went in and kept looting through – I mean, looking through – rooms to collect clues while fending off endless waves of enemies. Eventually, they decided to retreat after finding a lot of stuff.

Fortunately, none of them could read the languages of some of the letters they found (and didn’t take the time to read through the larger clues while fighting), so it let me give them the clues I needed to make them feel they didn’t need to return to the dungeon (they didn’t want to anyway). All they found, other than the large pile of loot, were clues about how the organization was smuggling construction materials to some unknown place for unknown goals. And the name of someone who looks like he might be behind it all (never underestimate the power of ominous names).

Mystery As Filler

It may seem weird, but sometimes the mystery does not need to be resolved and is a side-story that might have a positive outcome if solved, but the PCs can just dump it if they don’t want to work on it.

Usually for these, since I am never sure if the players will take the bait, I tend to improvise everything using a simple technique. Whenever the PCs talk to someone new or are about to find something significant (by virtue of rolling high on their “Find Stuff” roll), I roll a d10 and refer to this table (this one is geared towards murder mysteries but can easily be adapted):

  1. The clue points directly to the murderer…unfortunately it is stolen or destroyed right before delivering its secrets all the while making it clear it was very important. For example, a key witness dying in front of the PCs.
  2. The clue is a fabrication planted by someone to divert suspicion from themselves.
  3. The clue unambiguously points to a credible truth. However it is unrelated and using it will harm the PCs.
  4. The clue looks convincing and related but leads to an unrelated fact that a cunning PC might be able to exploit later on.
  5. The clue does not look credible, but does point to the truth. For example, the ramblings of a madman.
  6. No clue.
  7. The clue is ambiguous, but slightly narrows down the list of suspects. For example, indications on hair or eye color.
  8. The clue could greatly help the PCs move forward, however it would require some legwork that might not be easy. For example, retrieving samples of blood or fingerprints, or a map to a dungeon where the truth could be hidden, or making someone talk when they don’t want to.
  9. The clue is precise enough to narrow down the list of suspects to only a few.
  10. The clue is one of the keys to the mystery. For example, when the PCs are actually talking to the culprit or to a willing accomplice.

Anytime a roll is made, the GM needs to tie it in with what was previously done, for consistency.

It is important to keep these mysteries short to avoid mixing up facts. For example, one could end up with three murderers.

One time I used this method was when the PCs were on a ship pursuing the leader of an assassin group. The main investigator (who was not a PC) was poisoned and decided to act dead while asking the PCs to gather as much as possible to avoid another murder attempt. The PCs already knew the assassins wear necklaces as distinctive signs, so one of the things they started to look for was people’s necks.

(Rolling a 3) They noticed one NPC wearing a necklace under their shirt (therefore not seeing the important part), and the NPC was reluctant to reveal what it was. Unfortunately, the NPC was not an assassin but someone sent by a nobleman one of the PCs wanted to work for, to check on the PCs’ abilities. Unfortunately again, the PCs were brash and went to the ship’s captain to force the NPC to reveal their identity. So they did, and it harmed the PC in the long run.

Meanwhile, they managed to find (10) a vial that contained the poison with which the investigator was poisoned, and (8) talked to the brother of the murderer who didn’t know about the murderer part but while talking to the PCs realized the murderer was acting suspiciously. Unfortunately, this led to his death when he confronted his brother in secret, but helped the PCs take down the actual murderer.

Hope this helps others with their mysteries.

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Brief Word From Johnn

Dungeon Crawl Classics One-Shot A Hoot

I thought we wouldn’t get a game in before 2015 because of player schedules, but we rallied and played Friday. A great way to end the year!

For a change of pace, I prepped a one-shot of the DCC RPG and the adventure, Sailors on the Starless Sea.

DCC could really be D&D 5E. It’s a blend of various editions of D&D. And it oozes with flavour, like older D&D did/does.

The players played villagers who’ve had enough of recent disappearances and losses of loved ones. The likely culprits infest a nearby ruined keep. Armed with pitchforks and knives, the villagers marched up the road onto the path of danger.

Each player played four 0 level villagers. The goal was to keep as many alive as possible.

Just before the keep, the group discovered the smith’s sons spit on poles. Vine monsters took control of the bodies and attacked the PCs. Losing his only hit point to a vine zombie attack, one villager falls immediately. Others fall too, but the creatures are eventually killed.

The depleted villagers then enter the keep. Creatures on watch drop the rusted portcullis on one hapless villager, cutting two other PCs off in the process. Fortunately, one villager was a halfling and could squeeze through the bars, but his friend was forced to look helplessly through the gate…

…As his friends were butchered. Beastmen erupted from a tower. Several villagers perished in that fight. But once the Beastman Champion was defeated, the remaining creatures fled higher into the tower and the group could recover. Inside the tower were several kidnapped friends and family members – still alive!

These folk bolstered the party’s ranks, as players replaced dead PCs with new villagers.

With renewed hope, the party climbed the tower stairs and walked the battlements in search of the escaped beastmen. In the gatehouse upper level, they found the angry creatures. Two dwarf chest-makers immediately died, but then other ranks of villagers closed in and finished their foes off. This also allowed the group to raise the portcullis and let their trapped friend inside the keep to finally lend a hand.

A quick search of the keep’s upper levels turned up snake-eyes, so the group chose to go below the keep next. There they discover a strange pool with hundreds of glowing skulls. Two villagers felt immediately compelled to attack their brethren. The unluckiest faced insane kin swinging swords and they fell fast. The deaths seemed to end the compulsion, leaving the survivors to mourn and curse this twisted place.

Other villagers started picking up skulls from the pool against their will. Those whose minds were left free tried to knock the skulls away, grapple their friends, and otherwise break the compulsion. Unfortunately, inexperience resulted in fumbles, exploding skulls, and more lost lives.

At last though, the villagers escaped the foul chamber and clambered down a dark corridor to emerge onto a beach. In the distance they could hear drums and screams, and see a soft, glowing light. Emerging from far mists, an empty and ghostly longship sailed towards the group. It stopped a few dozen yards from the beach. A villager dove into the cold salt water and swam for the boat. But he was suddenly grabbed by a massive tentacle and dragged underwater.

The party fled the beach and headed back to daylight. They searched the keep’s courtyard more thoroughly. One villager triggered a rock slide amongst the ruins, which revealed a magic stone portal.

Everyone gathers round.

At this point, the villagers’ talents and experiences have coalesced in this crucible of terror. And the survivors feel stronger, manifest spellcasting powers, and feel more confident wielding their weapons. Or, perhaps, it is merely the jest of gods giving their pawns false hope with new powers.

It is likely the latter, for when the group deciphered the runes and discovered how they can be used to open the portal, more mayhem ensued. Behind the portal was a cold crypt and a Chaos Champion interred within.

Villagers entered the chamber only to get frozen in place. And then die from the extreme cold.

With rope and luck, the party eventually rescued some of the fallen and then recovered the fine greatsword the champion grasped in death.

Unfortunately, we ran out of time and had to end the session there. Everyone agreed it was a great game and a fun game system.

I heavily used the free resources available at purplesorcerer.com. We also installed the Purple Sorcerer app The Crawler on our phones and tablets, and it was a great boon.

Overall, DCC RPG oozes flavour and sword & sorcery type play. It was fantastic playing “real” people as PCs, a great change from the beefed up PC types you create in other systems. Fear of death is palpable when you have just 1 hit point.

In addition, the game hands you interesting gameplay. For example, each spell receives a permanent manifestation you roll for when first cast. How does the magic appear in the world? This creates new PC quirks, and plot hooks, based on your roll. Could be you get this spell from a demon, for example – something a good GM can develop as the campaign wends onward.

You might not like a lot of randomness in your games. We generally like controlled randomness, lol. But in this case, we embraced it because it felt like part of the flavour and experience. One player mentioned after the game he initially found the spellcasting tables a pain, but he got faster with them in short order and felt they made his wizard more fun to play.

Gameplay with first level PCs was quite short, unfortunately. We did not get to try out Deeds of Arms, for example. That mechanic alone offers warrior players room to roleplay, do crazy stuff unbound by complex mechanics (no 20-step grappling flowcharts needed), and be heroic while weak at the same time – true sword & sorcery feel.

We packed up and had a quick discussion about how we could game more regularly in 2015. Looks like that’ll happen. Woohoo!

Have a great holiday week. Maybe you can fit some gaming with family in?

Cheers,
Johnn

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Reader Tips

D6 Reasons Why An Enemy Might Be Able To Escape

From Jesse Cohoon

Secret Passageway (roll 1d6)

  1. Stairwell (aka the one underneath the “regular” one in the Munsters TV show)
  2. Hallway
  3. Bookcase
  4. Slide
  5. Lifting mechanism/ elevator
  6. Drop (floor vanishes beneath the person trying to escape)

Trap (d6)

  1. Exploding pressure trap
  2. Trapdoor
  3. Illusionary floor/covered pit
  4. Release of a monster
  5. Self-destruction (of the building/spaceship, etc.)
  6. Stop/slowdown of time

Vehicle/Animal (d6)

  1. Chariot, cart, car
  2. Wagon, truck
  3. Steed – horse, donkey, zebra
  4. Giant bird, mythical flying creature, zeppelin, airplane, hang glider
  5. Boat, on the back of a large water creature, submarine
  6. Caravan, bus, ferry

Blocked passages (d6)

  1. Wall moving to block passage
  2. Bars blocking passage
  3. Collapsing passageway (ceiling coming down or walls coming together)

Filled with impassible hazards (d12)

  1. Water filled with crocodiles
  2. Swamp water filled with eels or snakes
  3. Sea water filled with sharks
  4. Water filled with piranhas
  5. Lava
  6. Steam/superheated air (coming from pipes/vents in the wall)
  7. Electrified field/sparking wires
  8. Fireballs/laser field
  9. Darts/arrows bullets
  10. Molds/slimes
  11. “Gust of wind” spell or giant fan
  12. Sand filled with snakes, scorpions, spiders
  13. A swarm of stinging/biting insects
  14. A pit filled with sharpened, poisoned spikes

Magic (d6)

  1. Fly away
  2. Teleport (either self or the PCs away)
  3. Mirror Image/illusion
  4. Summon monster/demon
  5. Polymorph/Druid’s Wild Shape ability
  6. Invisibility

Intercepted by a 3rd party (d4)

  1. Subordinate of the enemy
  2. Common enemy
  3. Rescue of a friend
  4. Unknown party showing up on the scene

How might the delaying feature be activated? (d4)

  1. Lying in wait
  2. Switch to activate
  3. Magic
  4. Puzzle

Speedy Lunch Games

Hey Johnn,

I’m an avid reader of your RPT emails and I love the stuff that you do. I’m starting a Pathfinder club at my school with about four other people and I’m finding that one of the biggest constraints is time, particularly when it comes to combat, as we only have 30-40 minutes per session. Do you have any tips for faster combat or faster sessions in general? I would love to hear from you or see this in your RPT.

Thanks, Angus

Hi Angus,

Thanks for the kudos!

Roleplaying Tips Weekly E-Zine Issue #2 — Running Faster Combats You might find these tips helpful.
Plus, if you will excuse the pitch, Fastercombat I wrote a fantastic course with Tony Medeiros of Leonine Roar on just this very topic.

It has a money-back Critical Fumble guarantee, so there’s no risk to try it.

Meantime, I’ve run lunch games and they’re fun.

Try to grab Gaming Paper or giant graph paper to draw maps on. You keep these and just roll them out next session fast. You can draw and make notes on them. I like Gaming Paper because you just keep rolling it out like a giant scroll.

Take pics of the scene anytime you have to stop mid-combat. Then you can reconstruct fast next session.

Award XP for anyone who shows up ready to play by start time to make session starts faster.

Start with action or drama to get players into the game faster. Roll initiative!

As people are settling in, take two minutes to recap last session.

If you have a disruptive audience distracting players, recruit them to be NPCs or to run monsters.

Make sure each PC has a clear identity and strong hook. This makes it easier to get into character faster and contribute to the group.

Minimize game materials to speed game set up and clean up. Play in the theater of the mind so you don’t need minis. Use just one set of dice with a dice tray in the middle of the table. Forgo a GM screen and roll behind your hand or in the open.

Hope these tips help.

Readers, do you have any suggestions for Angus?

Introducing Players To Fantasy

Hey Johnn, I love your tips but there’s something I need specific help with. I have a new group of players but none of them are into fantasy. They are willing to try D&D, but I’m worried about running players who don’t even understand any typical elements of fantasy. If there are any tips you could give specifically for that, I’d greatly appreciate it.

– Justice

Hi Justice,

Fantasy is one of the easier genres to get into because it’s pretty simple. You don’t have to understand crazy technology, for example.

I’d surf around TV Tropes a bit to identify what elements make up fantasy for you.

This will help make things clear in your mind when you GM.

Next, flesh out the characters a bit. Give them at least basic backgrounds and relationships. This will help connect them to the world and each other.

Keep your early games simple. Provide clear quests or goals to help players focus. Tell a good story to hook them in.

Layer in the fantasy as background in your encounters to help introduce the genre over time.

And create good cheat sheets to help players learn the rules. Regardless of genre, if players get to know the rules after awhile they can start to focus on other parts of the game, like setting. But if everyone is still not clear on how to make an attack or cast a spell, your group will be too distracted to worry about figuring out the genre.

– Johnn

Gambling Games Resource

From Felicia Hudson

Johnn,

I love your gambling table. So keeping that. But I wanted to share something else with you.

Gambling Games for D20 Roleplaying from Caged Dragon Games is a great gambling resource.

It has rules for down and dirty games using things you already have at your table, DICE!

It can be found on Paizo.com or DriveThruRPG and at $0.99 you can’t go wrong.

Easy Template For Quick Magic Items

From Eric Gosselin

I created a few items for a Dark Ages World of Darkness campaign using a method I perfected.

First, there’s 1-3 lines to outline the item’s use and make it evocative.

Second, the physical description including an image from Google Images.

Third, some background on the item, either the problem it was created to solve or its creator’s story or both.

Always add a twist. Every item is imperfect or has an unintended consequence to its use. That’s what happens when humans play around with the rules of the universe.

Fourth, a system section, the rules to use, activate and recharge the item.

For example:

The Key of Mann

A key that unlocks a pocket universe the size of a room containing big furniture.

You turn the key into any door and cross the threshold into the room.

Magnus L’Uomo was a tall man who struggled when traveling because accommodations were never his size.

The twist, if used without being attuned to the key, you might come out at any other door in which the key was activated.

Kakusei Seishin No Nabe

The pot of the wakeful spirit, created by a Japanese alchemist.

He was never satisfied by the taste of his tea, so decided to create a pot to unlock the full flavour potential of his infusions.

The twist, it wakes the spirit of the plant so-infused and triggers a vision/discussion with the spirit (add personality based on the plant type).

If the plant reacts positively, it will unlock a boost or at least a positive effect.

However, say something wrong and the plant-spirit may unlock some of its contraindications like allergic reactions or poisonous effects.