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How to do Good Mystery Scenarios

A Google+ post, reposted here because I want to refer to it.... 


Setting the right stakes
Consider the Highlander TV series of the 1990s. This was a programme that had a few very good episodes. They were never the episodes where the climactic scene hinged on the question “Will MacLeod beat this other guy in a sword fight?” The show is called Highlander – of course he’s going to win. Despite the fact that immortals duelling with swords was the key draw of the series, the best episodes were not the ones that asked “Who is the best sword-immortal?” but the ones where the question was something else. Will MacLeod kill this person even though he doesn’t want to? Will he be able to rescue the innocent NPC the baddie has taken prisoner? That kind of thing. Strangely the producers never seemed to work this out, and most of the episodes were about the who-is-the-best-at-swords thing, but there you go.

If your only options in a scenario are “the players do/don’t solve the mystery”, and the mystery is the only thing happening, you have a problem.

If the solution is “you’ll solve the mystery no matter what” and the players know it, there’s little sense of accomplishment in getting to the end. Character drama – the journey above the destination – can compensate for the lack of jeopardy, but there are other options.

1) Time running out

Good for a Sherlock Holmes-style game where failure could undermine the central conceit of your PCs. You’ll work it out – but will the villain have escaped by the time you do? Conan Doyle used this a few times.

A variation is what you might call the Usual Suspects template. The secret agent is on the train, and you’ll get a photograph of him or her when you arrive in Istanbul. But if it takes you that long to work out who it is, chances are they’ll escape or pass on the secret plans to their associates before you can catch them.

2) The villain out of reach

The Columbo method. You know who did it, because you watched the pre-credits sequence, or because you’re a great detective, or because the bad guy said something like “So, I killed my wife, did I? Well, I’d like to see you prove it! Good day, detectives. I said good day!”
So in one sense the mystery is solved. But how did they do it, and how can you prove it?

You don’t have to make the culprit known from the start – solving the whodunit part about 2/3rds of the way through works, and then the ending either sees the culprit proven guilty or left as an ongoing nemesis.

Slightly different, and common in film noir and hardboiled fiction, is the scenario where it’s relatively simple to get the person who pulled the trigger, but the detective may or may not get to the bottom of who ordered the hit.

3) Something else going on

Perhaps the easiest way to make both success and failure in solving the mystery “acceptable” is to make sure the PCs have more than just that going on.

For example, police detectives will usually have more than one case active, and some of them might never be solved. Or, in a scenario for OSS agents behind enemy lines in World War II, the mystery may be “who killed Agent Donovan?” At the same time, the agents will have missions to undertake that involve spying, sabotage or training resistance fighters. If things go wrong on absolutely all fronts, their new objective will be to get home safely: whatever happens, you’ve got an adventure.

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