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beyond the Kuiper Belt, over the sea

What not to do in an RPG

February 10th, 2010 by Kit

RPGs are great.  They allow for all sorts of collaborative fiction with all sorts of people playing all sorts of characters. Never in a stage production could I be cast as a … well, as any of the characters I ever play.

But hold on, “all sorts” of fiction?  There’s one in particular that has never worked in my experience, and that is the Murder Mystery.  It’s incredibly hard to make a murder mystery work in an RPG.  If you go the Agatha Christie route, you need to come up with an outlandish murder scenario, an oddball cast of suspects, and then have the players roll well on their perception rolls to spot key details.  If you go the Colin Dexter route, you need to make a dense web of relations between a group of reasonably normal people, and have the players suss out a motive by exploring the whole social web.

Either way, you run into a problem of affordances: you know how, in a video game, some doors just are flat panels with no handles?  You know that you can’t open them, because they lack a handle and its affordances.  In an RPG, affordances are even more obvious, generally: the GM, in describing things, gives you the set of things you might need to know, or to twiddle, or to play with.  They can throw red herrings in there, but that just ameliorates the problem—fundamentally, they’ve still taken a number of things and raised them from the background.  A part of a mystery is often identifying what information to take out of the background.

Finally, mysteries are troublesome because of their intrinsically solitary method of solving—the information that solves the mystery can come from many sources, but the moment of eureka comes from one mind, and one mind alone.  One person synthesizes the information and then Knows How It Happened.  Who wants to play Dr. Watson to some other player’s Holmes?  To have everything explained, because either they as a player couldn’t put it together, or they as a player didn’t get enough information to put it together because they did not roll well enough on perception rolls?  Not I.

So, if you’ve run a successful murer mystery tabletop RPG, please, tell me how.

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  • Lauren

    I would argue that it is Mr. Conan Doyle who uses the “detective has lots and lots of ranks in perception” method, while Ms. Christie uses the “detective is very good at observing people and deducing from social interactions”. But this may be because I only read her Poirot stories because secretly I wish I was a mystery solving penguin.


    Joe ran a murder mystery one shot for me and a friend. It was in D&D, but it didn’t have to be. He brought in a good mix of perception rolls to find physical clues and character dialogue to find social clues. We didn’t achieve a good balance of character roles, though; I was “Holmes” and the friend was “Watson”. That might have had to do with the strength of personalities of the players…

    The GM has the same problem as the writer of the mystery novel, in that both storytellers have to describe, in words, everything that happens. The writer has the benefit of being able to use very carefully chosen words, but the GM has the benefit of drawing maps all the time. You can both describe a room in general terms and leave it to the mystery solvers to ask questions. You might give away a bit by knowing a lot more details about relevant points, I guess, but I don’t think that ruins the experience.

    Ask Joe, he did a good job.

  • kit

    Thanks, this is more or less just what I was looking for!

  • Gyro

    I suspect one good way to set up a murder mystery is giving the players information overload.

    Also, the Holmes/Watson dynamic doesn’t necessarily have to play out: more collaborative groups may have a less lopsided dynamic. It does often happen, though, that you have one person who tends to be somewhat dominant.

  • R4ph

    Another trick is to use the curtain of causality* effect, and not put in the details. Leave whats happened vague – or unspecified – and when the players start chasing down avenues, run with that as the actual idea. So, for instance when your players examine the crime scene, don’t mention lots of details, wait till they start asking questions. If they ask whether there are any open windows, comment that one is slightly cracked, and let that become a thing. It requires much more seat of the pants GMing, but it can work.

    Or just run it in a very feudally heavy system like L5R, where knowing the truth and having evidence isn’t enough unless you can get the testimony of someone important. Then it;s just about getting enough to convince someone important enough to actually denounce the culprit.

    * This is the effect wherby until you reveal why something’s happened, then it could have happened for any reason at all. So, say you’re PCs drive down the street and an octopus smashed in through their windscreen.

    Now, this has happened because there’s bunch of guys way down the street working on an octopus-apult for a high school project. But if your PCs suddenly go: “Ah-ha! this is clearly the work of our arch-nemesis, Baron von Evilstein! After all the octopus is his families sigil, so clearly this must be his work!”

    Now, since you’ve not revealed the reason behind the octopus, and if your poker face is good, and if your players idea is better than yours, run with it. You can end up with cooler plot, and your players feel dead clever for having worked it out. Win-win. Just don’t let them know you’re doing it.