Mystery scenarios for roleplaying games have earned a reputation for turning into unmitigated disasters: The PCs will end up veering wildly off-course or failing to find a particular clue and the entire scenario will grind to a screeching halt or go careening off the nearest cliff. The players will become unsure of what they should be doing. The GM will feel as if they’ve done something wrong. And the whole evening will probably end in either boredom or frustration or both.
Here’s a typical example: When the PCs approached a murder scene they don’t search outside the house, so they never find the wolf tracks which transform into the tracks of a human. They fail the Search check to find the hidden love letters, so they never realize that both women were being courted by the same man. They find the broken crate reading DANNER’S MEATS, but rather than going back to check on the local butcher they spoke to earlier they decide to go stake out the nearest meat processing plant instead.
As a result of problems like these, many people reach an erroneous conclusion: Mystery scenarios in RPGs are a bad idea. In a typical murder mystery, for example, the protagonist is a brilliant detective. The players are probably not brilliant detectives. Therefore, mysteries are impossible.
Or, as someone else once put it to me: “The players are not Sherlock Holmes.”
Although the conclusion is incorrect, there’s an element of truth in this. For example, in A Study in Scarlet, Sherlock Holmes is investigating the scene of a murder. He discovers a small pile of ashes in the corner of the room. He studies them carefully and is able to conclude that the ashes have come from a Trichinopoly cigar.
Now, let’s analyze how this relatively minor example of Holmesian deduction would play out at the game table:
(1) The players would need to successfully search the room.
(2) They would need to care enough about the ashes to examine them.
(3) They would need to succeed at a skill check to identify them.
(4) They would need to use that knowledge to reach the correct conclusion.
That’s four potential points of failure: The PCs could fail to search the room (either because the players don’t think to do it or because their skill checks were poor). The PCs could fail to examine the ashes (because they don’t think them important). The PCs could fail the skill check to identify them. The PCs could fail to make the correct deduction.
If correctly understanding this clue is, in fact, essential to the adventure proceeding — if, for example, the PCs need to go to the nearest specialty cigar shop and start asking questions — then the clue serves as chokepoint: Either the PCs understand the clue or the PCs slam into a wall.
Chokepoints in adventure design are always a big problem and need to be avoided, but we can see that when it comes to a mystery scenario the problem is much worse: Each clue is not just one chokepoint, it’s actually multiple chokepoints.
So the solution here is simple: Remove the chokepoints.