Three Step Prep: Investigations

Who doesn’t like a good mystery? Whodunnit stories account for some of the bestselling novels and have featured in movies for decades. Unfortunately, many GMs struggle with good mysteries in their roleplaying games.

In my last post, I wrote a Three Step Adventure Prep to make planning adventure games a simpler endeavor that doesn’t railroad player decisions. In this post, I’ll demonstrate how to use that method to create a mystery adventure.

What Makes a Good Mystery?

James Patterson says that a story is about the twists and turns, but is even more about revealing character. Revealing character may be front an center in fiction, but in roleplaying GM prep is all about the twists and turns; revealing character is a mutual job between the players and the GM.

So here’s a way to create lots of twists and turns to throw your players off the trail of the real culprit!

1. Hook: The Event

This is often a murder, but it could just as easily be a theft, or any number of things. What’s important is that something negative happens that affects the PCs with stakes they feel strongly about. They could stumble upon a friend’s corpse or discover that a powerful magical artifact stolen; anything that they will care about.

2. Main Threat: Whodunnit

You still need a main threat, just like the previous concept. The biggest different here is that the players don’t know who or what it is yet. The hook should have left more questions than answers, and absolutely shouldn’t have pointed to the main threat in any way.

3. Secondary Threats: Misleading Clues

Secondary threats work like the core concept, but here they take the form of clues that lead to wrong conclusions. The secondary threats should be innocent of the crime or, at best, complicit but not the primary perpetrator.

Give the PCs clues that lead to these secondary threats. As they are confronted, let actual clues lead to the real threat.

Throwing a Wrench into the Prep

One trick to throw the PCs for a wild ride is for the GM to not have a main threat; even the GM doesn’t know whodunnit!

Create a number of secondary threats and have them mislead the PCs at every turn. They’ll have no idea whodunnit because you don’t even know. Then, after a couple of twists and turns, choose a secondary threat that is the most unlikely and have them caught redhanded in a new, similar crime…then throw another wrench in by having them be guilty for the new crime, but an ironclad alibi clears them of the initial crime just as the real culprit is about to strike again.

What do you think? I love to hear from you. Drop a comment below or ping me into your conversations in forums and social media and let me know how you’re using this.

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