I just got done with a mystery game. Traditionally my record for mystery games is not a good one. My players either guess the mystery right away or never make progress. Both results are no fun for me or the players. That’s why I’m really happy about our last game and I’d like to share a bit of what worked and getting over things that have held me back. The type of mystery is pretty universal, a missing person. There are some elements to the game that won’t make a lot of sense until Tortuga is released that I’ll gloss over because the details matter less than the method.
Start with something everyone knows
One of my biggest problems with mysteries is that I would tend to make science based mysteries, the kind that I loved in Star Trek episodes. I knew my players weren’t scientists but I figured they could be given enough clues, explain scientific principles and they’d figure out connections between them. Big mistake.
Another type of mystery I’ve flubbed is one based on the game world. I would spoon feed the players aspects of the story and give them clues seeing if they could put together the solution. This worked occasionally. Sometimes the players would breeze through it, other times they were completely lost.
This mystery worked because it was about a person that was lost. Everyone understands what to do when you lose someone. You walk around looking for them and asking questions. The way forward is clear.
Establish what the players will reconstruct
Most interesting mysteries are about not just one event but a series of events. The mystery story isn’t about the murder it’s about what lead to the murder. The murderer didn’t leave any direct trace but before they decide to commit a criminal act a person isn’t covering their tracks and leave information all over the place. The murder story is about the investigator reconstructing what happened before the murder.
In this case I established a story that lead to the person disappearing and was based on the upcoming Tortuga book so this will be a vague sneak peek into the new book. For some background, a man (30ish years old) Hessik Vofal leaves his home city-state to go do business in a neighboring town. There is a coup in the city and the borders have been locked down (this is the early days of the Tortuga setting). Anyone that approaches the city would be detained in holding centers because the new people in power need to shore up their hold on the city before news of the coup gets out. The man goes and does business in the nearby town and rents a room from a family. While there he meets a girl, the daughter of the man he’s renting from, and they fall in love. However the girl is already
promised in marriage and so the couple head back to the city to get married, not knowing the city has been locked down.
When almost to the city the couple see another group of travelers get picked up by the city guard and they turn off the road, knowing that something is wrong. The daughter’s father, Refu Dajichk learns that his daughter and his tenant is gone and that they were seen headed for the city and he pursues but is picked up by the city guard.
That’s the scenario that I constructed and started the game expecting to use. There are a lot of things I would normally answer that I didn’t go into in my planning because I knew how many ways the players could mess up the story as I expected it to go. I went in to the game ready to be flexible and I feel that was an important part of the success of the game.
How it really happened
The players were already aware of the coup and were in the city. An elderly man, Phikwu Vofal (a doctor in this case) approached the PCs and explained that his son Hessik went to the town to do business and that after the coup the borders were closed. He worried that something happened to his son and wanted the players to investigate. Phikwu is a wealthy and influential man and will pay them for bringing his son back.
The Players accepted the job easily enough. I imagined they would go, bribe the city guard to leave to the nearby town and pick up the next clue that the son wasn’t in the town either. This was my first revision. One player decided to do exactly that, another decided that they didn’t want to spend money on bribes and doubted they had enough to make a persuasive bribe. They started to ask what would happen if the son traveled back to the city and learned of the detention centers that outsiders were being taken to and started to ask the guards if any of the people detained were from the nearby town. This lead them directly to the girl’s father Refu and they learned that he wanted to kill Hessik. Now the question that immediately comes up is “Why, what did he do?”. Answering that takes the wind out of a lot of the mystery but I had anticipated that question being asked of the girl’s mother in the nearby town so I knew how to handle it. The answer was that it was a private matter that the father would not discuss.
Now the players had another clue, they knew that Hessik tried to come back to the city, but also knew he wasn’t in the detention centers so didn’t get back. This lead to a really fun to watch discussion of why in the world he didn’t come back to the city and what he did to annoy this guy that wants to kill him.
The PCs exhausted a few other leads, they tried to learn more about their missing person, interviewing Hessik’s friends and making sure he wasn’t really a dangerous criminal and his father just didn’t know about it. I wasn’t expecting this line of inquiry. I wanted to discount it as much as possible so the players didn’t think he would be impossible to bring back, so I portrayed him as a free-spirited goof ball that is constantly getting business ideas and they all fail. His dad just keeps funding him because he’s got a soft spot for his kid. Then they guessed at part of the mystery. They all concluded that Hessik had run off with Refu’s daughter. Ouch, that doesn’t solve the mystery but it does let out some of the air. It was too obvious. If I had too, I would leave it as guessed, but I felt I should come up with a different reason for him running from the town, but I wasn’t sure what that would be for most of the game.
Eventually the players snuck out of the city. I wasn’t expecting that they would be able to do that but one of them came up with a plausible plan to hack a vehicle that was blocking an entrance and loop its sensor feeds. With a few dice rolls I let it happen because not letting it happen would just slow down the game.
Now they headed out to the city to the town. They knew Refu’s name so all they had to do was ask where he lived. They found his wife there and knew something bad had happened so they were delicate with their questions and didn’t learn much. Then they decided that since this was a small town there could be gossip about a stranger coming to live there and paid one of the townsfolk to tell them what he knew. This was clever of them and to my liking because gossip is one step removed from the actual events so I spilled the beans that I had just decided on. Hessik had come into town doing business and rented the room, he got along with the landlord’s son Bithachk and they became friends. The landlord’s son had been promised to a girl from a wealthy family, forming an alliance between the two families. Unfortunately the girl was quite unattractive and so he wished to escape.
In reality it made little difference to the story if the players had guessed who their quarry had run off with, except that a predictable story is a boring story. The difference, although immaterial picked up the player’s interest in the story considerably. This little twist added novelty.
Still pondering why the men were not in the town or the city, the PCs went off on the road to track down the men. This part was perfunctory and I would not have allowed the players to fail at this point. If searching the road had been the first thing they went after, I would have had to come up with a a diversion or complication for searching the road. Thankfully this was not an element I had to improvise with this step being last.
Along the way the PCs found a patch of blood stained ground which tipped them off where to look. The men had diverted from the road, and camped for several days trying to figure out what to do. A group of bandits passed by and recognized that the men were well off and took them for ransom but also could not get to the city without being captured. The PCs encountered the bandit’s camp and defeating them snuck the men back into the city the same way they came out.
The main point I learned is to make the mystery about a human interest. At the very least it should be something your players know well. If they are not well versed in a subject, don’t expect to explain it during a mystery. Secondly, you can start with the mystery, then construct the events that leads to the mystery and then pick your clues from there. The best clues are ones that are one step removed from the real events. Something that happens around the main story but connects to the main story. Third, be ready to alter the situation as long as it doesn’t compromise what has already happened.