The hardest type of adventure to both prep and to run is the mystery. When done well, the mystery is a thrilling ride from scene to scene collecting clues that build into a satisfying reveal; be it knowledge gained or villains thwarted. When a mystery goes wrong though, it can fall somewhere between caught in the doldrums and a root canal gone wrong. What makes a mystery too mysterious for your players, and how do you salvage a mystery gone wrong?

Fumbling In The Dark

Most mysteries go wrong due to a problem with either the flow of clues or the quality of the clues presented. From a high level, the goal of the clue is two-fold: to drive the mystery to the next clue and to help build to the eventual reveal. The clearest example of this is Law & Order, where in the first half of the show each scene reveals a clue which directs the detectives to the next scene, culminating in the arrest of the suspect.

When the flow of clues is too slow, the mystery stalls out and the players are unsure of what to do. They begin to wander around trying to guess where to go next, they get antsy and look for some action (i.e starting a fight), or they give up on the mystery all together, waiting for the next clue to be delivered to them.

When the quality of the clues is poor, the characters are unable to use one clue to move to the next one or cannot connect the clues to put together the reveal. The end result is the same, the players have too little information to know what to do next, and the game stalls. This effect is made worse if the game stalls out just before the reveal, where there are no more clues to hand out.

There are signs at the table when your mystery is having a problem:

  • The players cannot remember the early clues later the mystery, and the GM has to remind them of what they’ve found.
  • The players start suggesting actions outside of solving the mystery, trying to exit the story.
  • The players start suggesting more aggressive (read: violent) actions on the people within the plot, out of a growing frustration.
  • The players are having trouble remembering what the goal of the mystery is in the first place.
  • There is a rise in gaming distractions (e.g. flipping of books, checking the internet, etc).

Put A Lamp In The Window

If you detect that your mystery has gone dark you need to first figure out what the source of your problem is: flow of clues or quality of clues.

Flow of Clues

If your clues are not flowing well, you need to consider how to speed up getting clues to the players. In your prep, you should make sure that one clue leads to another. During play, you have a few options to increase the flow. One solution is to do some aggressive screen cutting, ending the current scene and cutting into the next one as soon as the clue is found (see Law & Order). Another, which may be harder during the game, is to make up a new clue and drop it into the scene to move the story along.

One special note, if you are running a game with a pass/fail skill mechanic, like d20, a failed roll to find a clue will always stall out a mystery. Change what you have characters roll for so that finding a clue is not a pass/fail. See this article and the Gumshoe system for ways to remedy this problem.

Quality of Clues

If your clues are too opaque you need to figure out how to help the players understand the meaning of the clues they possess. In your prep, you want to make sure that you note exactly what each clue tells the players about the overall mystery as well as how that clue links to other clues. During the game, you have several options to help the players better understand. First, you can allow the characters to make additional skill checks, to provide new information. You can have the players use an expert NPC, who can provide additional information about one or more clues (i.e. the entomologists in Silence of the Lambs). Finally, as a GM you can work with the players to walk them through the clues, asking pointed questions to get them back on track (I have had good success with this method in the past).

Giving Them A Night Light

There are things you can do proactively to help your mystery run well. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Use recaps at the start of your sessions to help remind players what has gone on in the past sessions. This is especially important if your game does not run weekly.
  • Have your players use a clue map to visualize and organize their clues so that they can see how clues relate to each other.
  • Give out clue cards for key clues. It helps the players visualize the clues and you can write the important facts on them.

Like A Rainbow In The Dark

Making a good mystery is no…um…mystery. By keeping a healthy flow of clues, and making sure that your clues both lead to the next clue as well as help complete the reveal, your mysteries will be entertaining for you and your players. When running mysteries you need to watch for problems and when they arise, make adjustments to keep the mystery moving.

What problems have you run into when running mysteries, and how have your overcome them? How do you help your players keep track of the clues in a mystery?