Sometimes, you just need a good atmospheric murder mystery. It seems like the options are endless: mysteries involving British trains. Mysteries with British aristocrats solving murders involving tea. Mysteries involving time-traveling British people who are also somehow aliens. Mysteries involving unspeakable cults in Massachusetts from storied British families. British murders by British people, solved Britishly.
What I’m saying is that in time-honored historical tradition, maybe if you travel in Britain (or are from there), have someone else taste your food before you eat it. They will also probably find it bland and flavorless, but if you can detect the difference between your taster choking because they would shiv their grandmother for chili powder in that moment vs. actually being poisoned, you’re golden (note that none of this applies to Scotland, which has both curries and haggis, which are delicious. Fight me).
But what does this have to do with you, dear reader? Well, if you’re at all like me, you’re pretty much constantly absorbing media and thinking “this is fine, but it would be better with wizards and dice.” Sure, it makes for tiresome and bewildering conversation with strangers at the DMV, but it does tend to lead to a profusion of gaming scenarios rattling around in one’s head.
Assuming that you’re into running a mystery for your players, but don’t want to show up on a watchlist because you Googled “hiding a body” one too many times, I have a treat for you: a mostly system-neutral murder mystery.
I say “mostly system neutral,” because I initially wrote this scenario for my local Blue Rose group, and I didn’t so much “file the serial numbers off” as “clumsily try to change one number like a guilty elementary-schooler with an F on their grade card.”
System and Assumptions:
This game assumes that your world is high magic and reasonably civilized. Think magic crystals, colleges, and adequate public sanitation. Waterdeep, anywhere in Eberron, or (of course) Aldis are all appropriate settings.
Politically, this game works best with a hostile neighboring nation that was recently defeated, but is clawing its way back into being a threat. For purposes of this scenario, we will call this nation “Badveria.”
A note on clues: borrowing from the central conceit of the brilliant GUMSHOE system, it is assumed that characters find every clue they look for. Exceptional rolls or specific skills provide additional insight, as opposed to finding things in the first place. Nothing grinds a murder mystery to a halt faster than just…failing to find a clue.
Orthallen Dagworth, a brilliant young alchemical student with Setting Appropriate College (GO, MASCOTS!) was murdered by agents of Badveria, who were seeking out his notes. His research is tremendously valuable to Badveria in its desire to build a more effective method of ensuring air superiority, as well as driving forward their understanding of ballistics.
The murderer, Aiden Strelley, is also a student at the college. He is from a prominent local family who has made their fortune mining magical crystals on their ancestral land, where there was a rich vein, but this vein ran out five or so years ago. Aiden’s father, Mardic Strelley, made a deal with Badveria to continue to supply crystals in order to maintain the appearance of wealth. Badveria has been doing this for several years—the crystals supplied by the Strelley line are now used in infrastructure, weapons, and toys across the nation. Aiden, who is studying medicine, poisoned Orthallen and set up his lab to look like he died in an accident.
Orthallen’s received orders from Badveria through Tulli Bettesthorne, a deep cover agent. Tulli is an anatomy instructor, as well as the functional medical examiner for the city. Tulli arranged for the death to be declared an accident from inhaling alchemical fumes while he was studying. Aiden has never met Tulli as her true self, and only knows her as “Mortissa,” which he overheard a Badverian agent calling her after she thought he left.
Trevor Peckham: Orthallen’s partner. Devoted, fiery, furious, smart, and tenacious. He is also an alchemy student, and the only person alive (not working for Badveria) who had any knowledge of Orthallen’s research. It is Trevor who draws the characters’ attention to what he strongly suspects was foul play.
Location 1: The Scene of the Crime
It is assumed that characters will start here, but feel free to modify according to the needs of your group—it’s entirely possible they will come up with creative and/or ludicrous ideas. Roll with it.
- Clue 1: Orthallen’s body has already been removed. However, the room still is covered in stains and stinks strongly of the alchemical reagents that are the official cause of his death. Several books of Orthallen’s notes still remain. Careful examination of the notes reveals that some of them are missing. Though the notebooks he used are rough, there are clear stresses on the binding that indicate pages have been taken out. Had the pages been ripped out while the notebooks were in use, the whole things would have fallen apart. Use of an appropriate investigation skill (with a high difficulty) reveals that the sections missing were on gases that are lighter than air, as well as the properties of ashes of certain trees near the border of Badveria.
- Clue 2: There are several books on the desk that refer to the work Orthallen was doing. However, it’s very clear from suspicious gaps in the mess on Orthallen’s desk that these were not the only books he was using, indicating that it’s an incomplete overview of his research. It is common knowledge that the library only allows one book to be taken out at once without special dispensation. The fact that Orthallen had three (or more) indicates that he had specific permission from the administration to check out more—a sign of groundbreaking and important breakthroughs on the horizon. Characters without any sort of academic background, or who fail an appropriate (and difficult) roll, are unable to tell anything about the books themselves—they’re highly specialized and incomprehensible to anyone outside of Orthallen’s field of study. Characters who pass their roll are given the following titles:
- Luminous Gases and their Properties, Volumes 1 and 3.
- On the Hermetic Sealing of Flexible Materials for Maritime and Agricultural Use.
- Volatile Miasms: Manufacture and Storage: Introduction.
Location 2: The Morgue
This area is kept cold by means of magical crystals; the workers in the morgue are very proud of them and declare as soon as the characters arrive that “These are Strelley crystals—the best you can get!” Orthallen’s body is currently the only one in the morgue.
- Clue 1: any discussion with the staff of the morgue, or review of the paperwork in the morgue reveal that the medical examination was conducted by Aiden Strelley.
- Clue 2: Any examination of Orthallen’s body reveals that it shows no contamination from the alchemical reagents that were theoretically the cause of his death. There is no staining, and not even a hint of the stench in the room. A successful healing or other investigative check reveals that he was killed through a sudden hemorrhagic event, with no sign of trauma to his windpipe or lungs. This is wildly inconsistent with the reports of his death, which indicate that he choked on gases that he was working with as part of his research. A truly exceptional success should reveal that the cause of death was an overdose of a common painkiller derived from the bark of the fevertree—something that only a medical student would have access to in sufficient quantity to cause death.
Location 3: the Library (Probably)
This scene can take place anywhere, but most likely, the characters will attempt to investigate at the library to find out what other books Orthallen had been reading.
- Combat! The characters discover that Badverian agents have been told by someone they only know as “Mortissa” to watch out for anyone snooping around after looking in on the alchemical laboratories. Build this encounter according to the rules and appetite for challenge of your players—since this is only one of three potential combat encounters, it should be challenging enough to keep combat-heavy players happy.
- If the characters manage to avoid burning down the library, they are able to piece together that Orthallen was researching how to make lighter-than-air transport and gunpowder, and that Badveria was interested in the results. The only way they could have known what he was researching though, was if they had a person on the inside.
The Badverian agents should have access to a special ability (a recharge ability, stunt, or other system-appropriate power) that enables them to turn off or control any crystal-based magic on the characters or in the library.
Location 4: Aiden’s Chambers
- Aiden can be found (alone) in the dormitories. These are small, windowless rooms with heavy doors and thick stone walls, clearly older than the rest of the college.
- When the characters confront Aiden, if they have sufficient evidence to convict him, he panics by closing the dormitories and knocking together several flasks on his desk. The combination causes the room to begin to fill with a noxious gas.
- Figuring out how to ventilate or neutralize this gas should be a complex task, though as usual, clever roleplay or the use of magic should be both encouraged and effective.
- Every round that takes place, the characters must lose an aggregate of 1/5 of the total party’s hit points from the characters breathing in noxious gas. The characters may assign this as they wish.
- Additionally, each round, one character gets one level of fatigue or other appropriate condition. This can also be assigned by consensus of the players.
- If the characters fail, they come to in the healer’s college. Aiden has died from inhaling noxious fumes, and they’re regarded as something kind of like heroes for uncovering the treachery.
- If they succeed, they can confront Aiden, who has an appointment with “Mortissa” later that night, and is willing to tell them the details in exchange for his life.
- Confrontation with Mortissa can take place anywhere that speaks to your players, but by default, it should be somewhere out of the way, and unlikely to be visited by the city watch. This is a boss fight, so be sure to make it difficult. Don’t skimp on the henchpeople. If Mortissa/Tulli beats the characters, she knows her cover is blown, and she leaves the characters to flee back to Badveria with all possible speed. If the characters beat her (and leave her alive for interrogation), she reveals the whole scheme.
As of the end of the game, the characters should be able to connect the dots and realize that virtually all of their military and infrastructure is potentially contaminated with Badverian crystals, and thus vulnerable to Badverian meddling. Additionally, the Badverians are now ahead of the characters’ own nation in terms of both air travel and gunpowder. If this knowledge were to get out, it would cause mass panic, but something clearly must be done—it’s up to the characters to stop the Badverians before it’s too late!
So what do you think? Does this sound like the kind of scenario your group would enjoy? Sound off in the comments!