Wednesday, June 11, 2014


The first installment of my series, "What Other GMs Do Wrong", was surprisingly popular.

I received some great feedback from it, and it was even listed as one of Dyvers Best Reads of The Week * Woohoo! Recognition from my peers. I'd like to thank the academy...


Continuing this while the iron is hot, here's a subject I've wanted to write about numerous times. Please, GMs out there in internet land, do this better. If you are handling this subject well, please help those who aren't. Thank you.

This has been a public service message from Barking Alien.

This is Clueless Morgan
He ain't got a clue.
I ask you Clueless Morgan, are you clueless because you're inattentive,
or because there simply aren't any clues to be found?

What Other GMs Do Wrong: Mysteries

I love a good mystery.

OK, I love a good mystery in an RPG.

There are basically two types of mysteries in RPGs the way I see it, the Adventure Mystery and the Setting Mystery.

The Adventure Mystery

An Adventure Mystery is one in which a crime or event occurs and the PCs need to find out who committed the crime, or how and why the event occurred.

The Adventure Mystery either constitutes, or begins, the adventure the PCs will go on. An Adventure Mystery might also be revealed after the adventure has begun, but it still beacons the players to explain the situation and the reason for it.

For example:

The Baron of Barrowdale has been murdered! He was a vile man, much maligned by family, allies and enemies alike. Who killed him? What do they hope to gain? Can you solve the mystery before his dimwitted son replaces him at ceremony to be held tomorrow?


On further inspection of the computer records, you see that the explosion in the head scientist's lab was no accident. The safety procedures designed to prevent such a release of energy were entered correctly into the system. You notice however, that one of the containment fields was manually deactivated. Perhaps other protocols were tampered with. The question is who did it, and why?

The Setting Mystery

The second type of mystery is the Setting Mystery. This is a mystery that is intriguing, and can (read: should) lead to adventures in the future (or clarify something from ones in the past), but it is a part of the background of the milieu. It is not necessarily important to solve a Setting Mystery 'at this very moment, or else!'.

Setting Mysteries are there to entertain, reinforce the atmosphere and help immerse players in the setting. They linger in the background, waiting for those players that are curious, or interested enough, to explore them.

For example:

The PCs need to cross the forest of Mistwood, a ragged and desolate woodland, which is home to a tribe of Orcs. They are told that if they encounter the Orcs, they should make a break for the old, oak tree in the center of the forest. The Orcs won't go near it. When asked why, an NPC responds:

"The Orcs of the Blood Mark, who fear no one, and nothing, avoid the Elder Oak at the center of Mistwood. They always have, as far back as anyone can remember."

The PCs are left to wonder, if Orcs have driven out the Elves, the Druids and the sylvan beasts from the forest, why do they fear a tree?"


The GM said, early on in the campaign, that no Superhero or Supervillain in the setting possesses all three versions of the Ulti-Power: Cosmic, Magical, and Psycho-memetic. Yet Doctor Universe, whom they have met several times now, clearly appears to have all three. Does he? Is something else going on here?

So what is the problem?

The problem is, Most Gamemasters can't ^#*@ing do Mysteries!

For the purposes of this post, I am going to focus on the Adventure Mystery. If there is interest in my recommendations on how to develop Setting Mysteries, I will address them in a later post.

When it comes to the first type, the Adventure Mystery, the major mistake I encounter more often than not, is not having any clues or leads. A crime has been committed, and as a result, there is going to be evidence.

We've all seen cop shows, and yet many a GM will not leave one shred of evidence to point you toward the culprit of the crime. Seriously, you end up looking like Clueless Morgan up there.

I was playing in a Superhero game where a man attempted to kill a Senator. He failed thanks to secret service personnel. The man had no ID, and didn't show up on any computer records. He was essentially a non-entity.

He claimed he was from another planet, and that the Senator is actually a member of an evil species of shape shifters. The assailant appeared to be a normal Human when checked out by doctors. He was held in jail until the Superhero team could come check him out.

The PCs split up. Some went to go talk to the crazy guy, some went to our headquarters to look up evidence in the computers, and I went to the scene of the crime to see if I could find something there.

Oh, I should make a note of something.

My father was a cop.

A Detective and Sargent at that. I know a little something about detective work. He told me a lot, and his favorite genre of movies, TV and novels were crime and detective stories, many of which I ended up watching and reading.

I am also fairly good at puzzles and riddles, as long as they aren't math related.

I was told flat out by the GM, there was nothing to be found at the crime scene.

When we looked up information on the guy, including visual recognition and voice software, nothing.

When we spoke to him initially, nothing.

Finally, one of the PCs got him to open up enough to have him reveal he knew, or had at least worked with, the old Superhero team that had since disbanded.

Cool! A lead! We can contact one of them to verify this guy's story.

No. We can't. We were informed that nearly every member was either dead, had retired and disappeared, or had become a villain (OK, just that one guy, but still).

I mean...What the H-E-Double Hockey Sticks?!

GM: Solve the crime!

Players: We will!

GM: But remember, there are no clues, no evidence, no records, and no leads or contacts. What do you do?

Players: Give up and go play Call of Duty!

People (the Players) got frustrated, myself included.

In a discussion after the game, the GM explained to me that if the PCs had used heightened senses and detection powers (such as X-Ray Vision, Mystic Senses, Ultra-frequency Hearing, etc.) , or deduction and detective skills, we would have found a number of clues earlier in the game.

As it turned out, aside from one guy with Mystic Sense Powers, none of us had heightened senses of any kind. No one had detective skills either. This team had no Batman and the mystery required one.

This goes back to a similar statement I made about Scaling:

"If none of the PCs have heightened senses, detective skills, and aren't detective types, don't make the adventure dependent on solving a mystery."

Another issue that comes up a lot with RPG mysteries, is that there is a perception that one solution solves the mystery. That makes sense doesn't it? I mean, when it's a whodunit, there is only one 'who', right.

Now, unless you are very good at planning out mystery games, and your players are very good at solving them, you are banking on the fact that a group of people are going to randomly guess the guilty party you are imagining in your head as GM.

This is a bad idea.

First, we're all geeks, and we all think we've got some genius story or adventure concept that is going to WOW our players, so we come up with a murderer or criminal mastermind who is SO PERFECTLY OBVIOUS if you just put the pieces together.

Is there any guarantee that will happen though?

Don't put money on it.

Make the mystery, and the solution to it, more flexible.


So what can you do about it?

#1. Recommendation One: Leave clues damn it!

If you are going to go the traditional route with mysteries, leave clues PCs can find. Consider what means they have to notice and discover things, not what means you wish they had.

Vary the sources of evidence. Depending on the nature of the crime or incident, consider whether there is physical evidence, visual or audio recordings, witnesses, or specialist available to consult on the matter.

#2. Recommendation Two: Be challenging, not unfathomable.

Don't use your extensive knowledge of 15th century painters and your skill at word play to create a clue that only you and ten other people in the world are going to get. That is freaking obnoxious. Make it relatable and accessible to your players' knowledge base, not yours.

#3 Recommendation Three: Do Mysteries Differently

I can't stress this one enough.

I don't usually build my mysteries the way most people do unless I am dealing with someone else's setting, and I know the mysteries need to have specific answers to solve them.

When creating my own mysteries, I set up a situation, provide the actions of NPCs, and perhaps a little background for motivations. Then, I use alternative mystery models described in games such as InSpectres and Gumshoe.

Basically, I as GM, provide the crime, and all the pieces needed to commit it and solve it, but I don't solve it myself.

Let me reiterate that.

I create the mystery, but not the solution.

I get the players, through their PCs, to investigate, add ideas, suggest clues, provide rationales, and point the investigation towards an ending that I am challenged to figure out. It's not my mystery that they have to solve so much as our mystery that I have to logically solve based on what the players said and did.

I could really go on and on with this for pages and pages, but it's getting late and both you and I have stuff to do.

In conclusion, if you can not lay out a mystery in a way that it can actually be investigated and deduced, don't use mysteries so much. Ease off a bit.

If you are going to use them, figure out what model you want to use, and then adhere to the basic tenets of that approach. If players need to assemble a number of clues to determine what happened and who's behind it, provide clues, as well as direct evidence and NPCs who can provide Intelligence. If you are using the 'players build the mystery' approach, do a little reading on that style before hand, and run some practice scenarios over in your mind. If can be tricky, so be prepared.

Good luck, and remember, it's elementary Watson. Elementary.

Barking Alien

* By the way, don't forget to check out Dyvers The Great Blog Roll Call 2014.

This list is awesome.

Seriously, Charles has done us all a great service by checking out all of these blogs, enabling the rest of us to more easily find the ones we'll like. Browse his comprehensive list of blogs so you can figure out what is out there and which ones pertain to your areas of interest. Find old favorites, make new ones and see what blogs are right for you.

Thank you Dyvers!


  1. I find it handy to leave the door open to multiple solutions being the right one depending on what the PCs figure during their clue-gathering and investigation.

    It's very similar to how one should design "inescapab" traps. I don't usually bother working out "the solution"; instead I let any reasonable idea work.

    i think too many GMs get attached to the cleverness of their initial idea and want the players to appreciate how clever and devious it was, not understanding that oftentimes it merely leads to frustration and throwing hands up in the air as the players give up on it.

    1. I totally agree Matt, on all counts. I originally intended to write up the 'Multiple Solutions' option as one of my suggestions, but I ran out of time last night (it was late, and I was wiped-out).

      I addressed the full-of-your-own-cleverness idea in the 'Be Challenging, Not Unfathomable' section, but perhaps I could have expanded on it and clarified it further.

      I really could write another half dozen posts on this.

  2. Justin Alexander over at has a great series of posts that match up with your approach. His basic approach is the "Three Clue" Rule. There should always be at least three clues the players can find to solve a mystery and there should be three clues for the players to find each of the three clues. Essentially, provide evidence and information that leads to the evidence and information needed to solve the mystery. He also advocates not intentionally including red herrings since players will make those up on their own.

    1. Very cool. I like what he is saying.

      At the same time, I usually drop not one, not three, but a dozen or so clues, because you never know who's going to pick up what, and how they are going to process it in their heads.

      Moreover, I tend to use the InSpectres approach, and have been for many, many years (long before InSpectres). If a player gets one, or more, of the basic clues, and then suggests things what MIGHT reasonably be there following the same pattern of logic as clues already found, that player creates a new clue. That gives the player, and the rest of the group, the opportunity to steer the investigation and possibly come up with a solution I haven't thought of.

  3. Also, as a player and from my experience DMing for my friends, make the first three or four clues fairly obvious. Players will still miss some of them anyway and I find with mysteries it helps to get the ball rolling fairly quickly which helps a lot.

    1. Agreed.

      This goes back to my idea above. Create a dozen clues of different kinds. Physical evidence is not the only type of clue. Overheard conversations, doctored computer files, witnesses, etc., are all ways of finding more information that can contribute to catching the culprit.

  4. In my opinion and experience there is 2 levels for a mistery.

    One is the development mistery, the one we can use to develop the story. As people gather information they advance in the adventure and knowledge of what's happening around. As GM we should find a way players advance even if they do nor resolve all the clues, maybe in a not so good position as they could have got if they had gotten all the info.

    Players don't know what they should know: "Yes, the sneaky elf you like so much dissapear and let you in an ambush!"

    Players know: "The elf is planning to betray you": Players decide to let him guide them and kill him before they reach the ambush.

    The other one is the puzzle mistery. It means you have to investigate and get the right information in order to advance or acomplish you mission. Players can actually fail or get stuck. I usually don't use this because i can fail due GM lack of skill and players lack of skill.

    1. Not sure I get your drift here Martim. Partially, it's the spelling and grammar of the post. I am assuming you either wrote it very quickly or you're not a native English speaker. No worries. Everybody's welcome at Barking Alien.

      I don't feel like your first example really works for what I'm talking about. The elf that leads the team into an ambush is not a mystery really. It's an encounter. Maybe a scenario, a part of the adventure surely, but possibly even little more than the plan or tactic of one NPC in the scenario.

      It's not something you investigate, find clues about and pursue the answer to over time. As a matter of fact, in your example, the Players know and get rid of the elf. No mystery.

      Your 'Puzzle Mystery' is more like what I am talking about. Yes, players can fail or get stuck, but I have found from many years of experience that unless you are playing with dullards and half-wits (Which, if you are, that's fine. They're your friends. It's not for me to judge), the main reason the players hit a wall is because the GM doesn't provide enough insight into the situation to at least give the PCs a fighting chance.

      Remember, we GMs are the PCs' (and players') eyes, ears and other senses. They know what is in the fictional environment around them only through what we tell them. If we say there is nothing to be found, what else can they possibly do?

    2. I am a not native speaker, but i wrote it too fast and i have just noticed how awful is the text. Sorry for that.

      What i mean is that some misteries work like a path, a serie of questions that guide the players in the adventure. In these cases the idea is not so much to challenge the players, but to keep the interest by providing the information step by step. Like when a detective talk to some guy, then another, then another, and he is getting closer to the killer with each interview.
      The mistery is supossed to be solve so the adventure can advance. And indeed, if they are not dumb they should advance to this point. But because the mistery has a guide function, even if players fails, a GM can arrange another ways so they can keep going. They can get a punishment for every failure. The mistery is just part of the story telling side.

      What i mean with a puzzle mistery is one in which the mistery is a challenge with the risk of failure for the players. I think it is similar to an encounter we prepare to be hard and have a chanceto kill the party, but we don't actually want per se to kill the party (or do we?!!! :P). In anycase, the chance of failure is what gives sense to the mistery. Now that's ok if it happens in the end: the king is assassinated because the party didn't get to know the prince was a traitor. But if this happens to early is like a bad fight after the classic first meeting of the heroes in the bar.

  5. Really cool post, and totally apropos to my current SWN game. I LOVE mysteries in RPGs, but I'm always sure to leave plenty of clues. And though I always have an idea of who the culprit is/where the stolen diamonds were hidden/etc, I always allow myself to be persuaded otherwise if the players hit upon something really cool. :)