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Designing A Mystery for DnD

by Jae

Sometimes DnD can fall into the formula of combat, dungeon crawls, and fetch quests. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, sometimes you need more opportunities for role playing. The perfect solution to a role play light game is a mystery adventure. Mysteries are essentially large role play focused puzzles that the players need to work together to tease apart. They’ve got a few main characteristics, and there are a ton of ways to enhance them too. In this article we’ll be sharing the basics you need to create and run a mystery session for your next DnD game.

What Makes a Mystery?

When we think of common mystery examples, Sherlock Holmes comes to mind. A Sherlock Holmes story has all the parts of a mystery that you need to create them for your game. All mysteries start with a premise. Either a murder, a missing item or person, or some other conundrum that needs to be solved. Following the premise, the mystery needs clues. Not all clues should be obvious to your players right away, but each helps solve the mystery.

The last piece of any mystery is the accusation or resolution where the heroes proudly proclaim they have solved the mystery. It is then revealed if they were correct or not. While each of these steps can be broken down into smaller and smaller parts, this is the simplest framework you will need to construct your session’s mystery. So, let’s get to building a mystery of our own!

parts of a mystery

What Makes a Good Premise?

The difference between a good premise and a bad premise is a thin divide. Any mystery premise can be made better with detail. Vagueness is the enemy when writing a mystery because each piece of the puzzle matters. For our example, we’ll be looking at a murder mystery. It’s the most common example, but it is the most flexible to work with. Let’s dive in:

As the adventurers enter the small town they were summoned to, they see a crowd gathered around a town crier loudly proclaiming that Tabitha Smith has been murdered. The crier shouts further that citizens should stay indoors and be available for questioning by the town guard.

Villagers murmur “A murder? But how? No one’s come into town in months… it couldn’t be one of us.” Several other villagers nearby sob at the news. The town is small and the murder seems to have taken a great toll on a number of people. As the crier steps down from his platform and the crowd begins to disperse, a guard walks up to the party and says “You there! Adventurers! The Mayor wants to see you! Come with me.”‘

Now whether or not your party goes with that guard is a whole different topic. But let’s assume they bite so we can move forward. The introduction has set the scene, but this is only the first part of the premise. So far the heroes know the following:

  1. There was a murder.
  2. The victim’s name was Tabitha Smith.
  3. No outsiders have been to town for months.
  4. Many villagers found this surprising and were deeply upset by it.

These are all important clues we will discuss more, but the premise itself should contain these kinds of details. The story doesn’t have to be presented any specific way, but you should make sure to give enough information for the adventures to start their quest. So far we’ve not done that because we’ve split the premise into two parts: the first, setting the scene, and the next part, quest delivery. In this example, that means talking to the mayor:

The heroes find themselves in a small, but well-furnished office. While not opulent or grandiose, the furniture is well-crafted and uses finer materials than you might expect in the small town. The mayor, a human man in his late fifties, appears worried and tired. He welcomes the party to come in and sit down. The guard who escorted you stands post at the door.

“Welcome. Thank you for coming to see me, though I wish I could say I had summoned you on better terms. As you may have heard, there’s been a murder in our town and I’d like to enlist your help.” The mayor continues “We’re a small town with a very close-knit community. I can’t trust my citizens to be impartial in their investigation, as they are all close friends and family. That’s where you come in.”

The party at this point can question the mayor, who will give some details about the town and the situation. Should the heroes accept and help the town, the mayor will review the facts with the adventures. If the heroes refuse for whatever reason, the mayor will express his understanding and ask that the party leave the town, as he will be sealing the gates until the murderer is caught. Once the team accepts the quest the mayor will also express his concern that the murderer might strike again. The facts he has are as follows:

  • The victim’s name is Tabitha Smith, the blacksmith’s daughter.
  • She was murdered last night, just before dawn.
  • A town guard discovered her by the farm on the north side of town.
  • She is to be buried tonight at sunset.
  • There were no reported witnesses.
  • No known persons have entered the town in months, and currently no non-citizens reside in town.

With this the mayor will tell the adventurers where they can find the inn, and provide them with a room free of charge. The adventure is now in their hands.

Now we have a quest setup: Find the murderer and protect the village. We’ve put together the premise with its main components. We know what happened, we set up a goal, and we have given the players several places to start. If your clues are all about the murder, players may ask questions that get them to a starting location.

It might be best to give hints with a starting location right away. The three presented in the above lead-in are the scene of the crime, the body (not yet buried), and the blacksmith. Since you know your players are likely to start in any of those locations, those are the areas where you should set up your next batch of clues for the sleuthing to begin. It would also be a good idea to tempt your less willing players with some sort of reward for helping this town.

anyone could be next

Setting Up the Mystery

At this point in the story you may have created a great lead in. But if you’re writing out a mystery, it’s good to stop at this point and work backwards from the crime. Think through the whole event and use individual snapshots of the story you’ve come up with to litter the area with clues that will help your adventures. Let’s go back to the mystery and write out the whole series of events carefully and then start building the potential paths of the mystery from there.

Tabitha was accidentally killed by her boyfriend who was recently infected with lycanthropy. He killed her by the farm on his way to the old broken windmill. This was where he had been locking himself up at night to prevent himself from hurting anyone. Tabitha stumbled upon him leaving his home, near the farm, where her insistence that he tell her what’s going on delays him too long and causes him to change in front of her.

It’s actually a very straightforward series of events. This is how all mysteries should be, but there is a lot that can be done with any simple plot because the heroes have to piece together what happened without seeing it. In DnD we want to be expressive and engage everyone’s senses. But with a mystery, you are usually only offering them second-hand information. This, along with possible red-herrings, creates the puzzle in the first place. Let’s take this story and start building out locations and clues.

unfortunate transformation

Clues and Linking Information Together

Every clue should link a piece of information together. Not all clues are obvious, but each should allow players to make connections with the information they have. Each clue’s value to the greater story will come together as more are assembled. Let’s start off by constructing a list of locations that will help our heroes solve the mystery and then populate each location with clues.

Locations we have so far are:

  • The body (graveyard)
  • The Blacksmith (Tabitha’s home)
  • The Farm (The crime scene)
  • The windmill (where Tabitha’s boyfriend was going)

These locations will have very important clues since they are all key locations for the mystery. Other locations can have subtle clues as players start to stray off the path of investigation.

Other locations we can use:

  • Village Tavern
  • The Church
  • The Butcher shop
  • The Wainwright’s

These are of course just sample locations. As long as you can come up with a reason there would be a clue in a specific location, it’s a valid location for you to have. However, not all places need to have clues, and not all people need to have information. The next thing we need to do is build a table of clues and place them about. It’s often easiest to start with the place that will have the most clues.

crime scene closeup

For this scenario, that’s the scene of the crime: This place should be littered with clues. Not enough to solve the case on its own, but your biggest, most obvious clues should be here. In our example we’ll start with the following:

  1. A discarded old key with some orange clay-like dirt on it (DC 12 perception/investigation to find)
  2. Muddy tracks that show the victim running away, towards where they were found dead.
  3. Claw marks on the ground near where the body was.
  4. Short, faint trail leading away from the farm towards the broken windmill. (DC 17 to track)
  5. Part of a torn love letter.

The Blacksmith: Here at Tabitha’s home we will find several clues as well as a few people of interest (more on that later).

  1. Tabitha’s room – Love letters in a small jewelry box
  2. Indications that Tabitha would sneak out her window at night
  3. A Rabbit’s foot from the hunter’s lodge

The Graveyard (body): This is the place where you get the most clues about the death of the victim:

  1. The victim appears to have odd bite and claw marks (indicating animal attack?)
  2. Morticians report, ruling out animal attack as there are no canines large enough to do this; indicates possible attempt to cover up the murder.
  3. A pull-apart ring that hides a heart beneath clasped hands, a symbol of secret love.

After you have clues at the three primary locations where the adventures would start, you need to make sure these clues would lead them to any secondary locations to collect more evidence. Each place had a clue that would lead people to ask if Tabitha was in a relationship with anyone. This will help the heroes find out about Tabitha’s boyfriend as a possible person of interest.

It may also give the players an idea of why Tabitha was out of the house at night. The different clues presented here can give ideas about the murder; animal wounds and claw marks indicate something isn’t right and lead the party to ask about what could make such a mark. The clay on the key will indicate the old windmill since the area is surrounded by this type of dirt, which any villager will be able to recognize.

Furthermore, this gets the players to and into the windmill where more clues will be laid out. This should lead them to the proper solution: there is a werewolf in town. While these are all great clues on their own, all of these items are obtained or enhanced by talking with people of interest.

shredded interior

People of Interest

A person of interest is anyone who may have information about the mystery at hand. This can be Tabitha’s parents, a town guard, Tabitha’s boyfriend, or any random villager. An NPC who is close to the deceased will have more information. These people will be more likely to drop hints about the case and Tabitha’s life.

Finding mourning villagers may indicate a friendship with the deceased and allow your players to probe about Tabitha’s life. Any of her friends from town may carelessly drop her boyfriend’s name while talking about how much he must be grieving. Tabitha’s friends could be any young women in town and may be found at any location.

For these characters, it is perfectly acceptable to flex your improv skills. The results of talking to these people should be the same, planned or not. Deliver information about the town, a clue, or the crime.

When you are designing dialog for people of interest, it is better to make them more verbose. Your players are not ace detectives in real life and may not pick up on subtle clues or hints. This doesn’t mean that every person your players run into should spill their guts. But once they start talking, they should not keep their information too close to the chest.

With every conversation, have players either roll investigation, insight or use their passive perception to see if they notice anything unusual. Maybe they notice someone is lying, or maybe they catch onto something that may direct them to the crime scene. It’s a good idea to prompt your players for skill checks more often than you normally would.

Secondary Locations

After we hit any of our primary locations, we should move onto secondary locations. While any of the locations we talked about can be a primary or secondary location, movement from one location to the next is what indicates how information will be linked.

Going from the scene of the crime to the windmill, for example, will lead your players to see the windmill is surrounded by red clay like dirt, much like was on the key found at the scene of the crime. This kind of clue links the two locations together and gives your player something to consider. Why are these locations linked? What does that tell them?

Initially this will just add to the mystery, but over time players can build up more clues across other locations. Perhaps later your players find the same mud on Tabitha’s boyfriend’s shoes, potentially implicating him in the murderer. That’s just one way you can tie things up.

Another path secondary locations can take is one of narrowing scope. If your players go to the wrong secondary location, you can easily rule the area out by either having no useful clues, or by having clues that actively indicate the area as not connected. By doing this you help your players narrow their focus on what matters. Don’t be too afraid to spell out a dead end for your players. This is what keeps them on track and keeps things moving.

wrong turn

Solving the Crime

Your players are going to be taking a stab in the dark when they first embark on the mystery. It’s your job to light the way. When they present the clues and information that they found, use supporting characters to help corroborate or refute their telling of events. By doing this you can keep everyone engaged and lead them in the right direction.

A great example of this would be the party going to the mayor and indicating that Tabitha’s boyfriend may be a werewolf. The mayor may think it far-fetched at first, but the heroes can tie together¬† their clues: the key at the farm which unlocks the old windmill, evidence of a werewolf having been chained inside, muddy boots of Tabitha’s boyfriend, the implications of the secret love.

All of these can be used to convince the mayor to take action or to let the party do so. While the party goes through the clues, the mayor’s response can be telling and be a kind of passive reward to your players for a job well done.

On the flip side of this, your player may, despite your best efforts, get things totally and completely wrong. They might overlook the key, never go to the windmill, be convinced she’s having a secret affair with the mayor. They may end up accusing the mayor himself of being the murderer and trying to cover up his actions, perhaps by making it look like a werewolf attack and calling in outside help.

This is something you can refute immediately by having an alibi for the mayor that the mayor himself does not bring up. For example, a guard might say, “But the mayor was drinking with us at the tavern. Must have been 15 people who saw him there all night.” These kinds of things can help defuse the situation and let your players know how badly they got things wrong. Players will often surprise you and very quickly go off the rails on any adventure.

conspiracy board 2 werewolf boogaloo

Wrapping Up the Mystery

After your players have solved the crime, it’s time to cap the adventure with a climactic bit of action. A werewolf fight, from our example, is a perfect cap to a longer role playing session. The combat can happen as night rolls in. The players could find Tabitha’s boyfriend frantically trying to get into the windmill to lock himself away, but he’s lost the key! Here we can have the moon roll out from behind some clouds, he transforms, and then you have yourself some good, old fashioned combat.

The climactic battle really wraps the whole thing together as well as create certainty about the clues and sleuthing your players did. It would be much less fun if the mayor believed your adventurers right away, and executed Tabitha’s boyfriend before anyone could see him transform into a werewolf.

While that may be fun for you, keeping your group guessing about whether or not they did the right thing might not be the best for their long term enjoyment. Or it might be an interesting moral quandary. Perhaps your group will step in on the werewolf’s behalf and think of another solution that doesn’t involve death.

Mysteries, like any adventure, can be incredibly complex or amazingly simple. Crafting one takes a little bit of forethought. But in the end they promise to be a fun and rewarding experience for both you and your players. Give a mystery a try at your next session and let your players take a break from all the hack and slash. They might end up surprising you when they put on their thinking caps.

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