Obsidian Portal – Thursday Feature – Plotting a Mystery

Author: ketherian

While quest-based (or, “kill it and take its treasure”) games are the norm, mystery-based games are  subtly different:


 Quest-Based Mystery-Based
 A McGuffin** is required No McGuffin is required
 Action oriented Information oriented
 Traditionally epic Traditionally not epic
 Mostly combat Mostly skill challenges
 Linear plot Clues/Key scenes

** mcguffin (n): an object or device in a movie or a book that serves merely as a trigger for the plot.


Mysteries can be a diversion, the plot of a story arc, or even the basis for an entire campaign. If you want to run a mystery, you need to make sure you can still reward and motivate your player-characters in a way equal to that of a quest-based game.

Players are motivated by four things:
  • Character advancement. Not all games reward non-combat scenarios equally with combat-scenarios. Story awards allow you to reward a major storyline or make an important accomplishment. Your game system should have something similar.
  • Increasing social power/prestige. Give the party contacts, resources, and allies upon which they can draw. Used as sources of information, this reward should increase the party’s effectiveness, reputation, and social standing.
  • Treasure. Typically lacking from a current-day mystery game, treasure can be gleaned from the criminals or paid for services rendered.
  • Combat. In a pleasant reversal, combat is a nice way to break up the skill-challenges and dialogue. Planning one or two significant combats inside a mystery keeps the party interested and on their toes.
Working Backwards:

Start your plot by explaining the cause of the mystery in a sentence or two.

  • An extra body was dragged out of the inn after the fight. No one from the fight knows him or recognizes him at all.
  • Villagers found the body of the old arrogant farmer with an arrow in his back, but the arrow didn’t pierce his skin.
  • The kids never came home. The guardsman is desperate to see his family reunited while trying to present a brave face to his neighbors.


    This sentence describes the cause of the mystery (the Event). To add more detail, answer the following questions:

    • Who is the victim? If the mystery is victim-less, answer “what was stolen” instead.
    • What happened? Detail the immediate actions that led up to the Event.
    • Where did it happen? The location described in detail at the instant of the Event.
    • When did it happen?
    • Why did it happen? The motive should shape your unknown subject’s (or “unsub’s”) future and previous actions.
    • How did it happen? The timeline should stretch back from the Event and forward into the future. How far you go into the past is story-dependent.

    So for the mystery of the extra body dragged from the inn:

    • Who is the victim: A pilot with a reputation with the black market goods. Well-liked, but quiet.
    • What happened. He was robbed and rolled. His body was left inside an inn and then a bar fight started.
    • Where did it happen. An old tavern near the docks.
    • When did the event happen. Several hours before his body was placed in the Inn.
    • Why did the event happen. The unsub needed to kill someone to fulfill a contract with an evil entity.
    • How did the event happen. For details, see The Alehouse Mystery. (closedsm.png)

    Technology or magic levels should be considered when plotting a mystery. How can the party figure things out: science, machines (technology), or magic? Spend some time figuring out how your party could use their skills to solve the mystery. If they lack specific skills (to use the Esper Photo Analysis to pull more info from around the corner in the photograph), make certain to introduce an ally who can fill in the skills gap. If they can speak with the dead (or find video footage of the event), be prepared to replay The Event from this different point of view.

    Mysteries occur in a logical, linear fashion – but the party is going to explore scenes in a random order. The more you know about the NPCs (victim, unsub, or witness) and the places involved, the easier it is to make all the clues stick together.


    Three clue rule states: For any conclusion you want the PCs to make, include at least three clues. In addition, each of these clues should be available to the party through more than one way each.

    Your party probably won’t discover all three clues in the way you expect; so each clue or scene should be written so that it can be either experienced by the party or described later by witnesses (or seen on CCTV or equivalent).

    Your sets of clues should help the party answer most of the questions you’ve asked above. Some questions (like when the event happened, or where) probably don’t need clues. Typically, parties concentrate on who did it and what was their motive.

    The Reveal:

    Every mystery has a series of key scenes. Naturally, the biggest two are the Event and the Reveal. The reveal is the end scene where the party can confront the guilty. As tempting as it is to script the reveal; don’t. Leave it open. It is better to know where the unsub will be and what they’ll be doing than to set up a scene that your party might never reach.

    A Mystery Adventure Template:

    The following is a sample template to help you write up a mystery adventure.

    • Difficulty. A rating explaining how much experience the party should garner from success.
    • Intro statement. A statement explaining if this adventure is part of a larger plot, a specific campaign, or if it is a stand-alone scenario, and where it is located.
    • Lead-Ins. There are multiple points of entry that the party can use to come into the adventure.
    • Rumours. Some games rely on rumors. Each statement should be followed by a T (for true) or F (for false). Relevance and irrelevance to the plot can be noted as well.
    • Synopsis. A brief summary of what the adventure contains and how it should go. Work all your answers into a story and carefully mention each plot point in the ideal order in which the party should encounter it.
    • Plot points. This describes the Event, and any key scenes that occur during the adventure.
    • Conclusions. A brief description of the repercussions from the event and potentially, the party’s actions.
    • How it really went. A list of Adventure Logs. No plan survives the enemy.
    • References. What external resources (maps, Internet articles, tools) did you use to make the adventure?

    So how about it? Are you ready to ditch your McGuffin for an unsub? Let us know in the comments below.

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