The Alexandrian

Whenever you’re designing a mystery scenario, you should invariably follow the Three Clue Rule:

For any conclusion you want the PCs to make, include at least three clues.

Why three? Because the PCs will probably miss the first; ignore the second; and misinterpret the third before making some incredible leap of logic that gets them where you wanted them to go all along.

I’m kidding, of course. But if you think of each clue as a plan (the PCs will find A, conclude B, and go to C), then when you have three clues you’ve not only got a plan — you’ve also got two backup plans. And when you realize that your plans never survive contact with the players, the need for those backup plans becomes clear.

In a best case scenario, of course, the players will find all three clues. There’s nothing wrong with that. They can use those clues to confirm their suspicions and reinforce their conclusions (just like Sherlock Holmes).

In a worst case scenario, they should be able to use at least one of these clues to reach the right conclusion and keep the adventure moving.

And here’s an important tip: There are no exceptions to the Three Clue Rule.

“But Justin!” I hear you say. “This clue is really obvious. There is no way the players won’t figure it out.”

In my experience, you’re probably wrong. For one thing, you’re the one designing the scenario. You already know what the solution to the mystery is. This makes it very difficult for you to objectively judge whether something is obvious or not.

And even if you’re right, so what? Having extra clues isn’t going to cause any problems. Why not be safe rather than sorry?


If you think about it in a broader sense, the Three Clue Rule is actually a good idea to keep in mind when you’re designing any scenario.

Richard Garriott, the designer of the Ultima computer games and Tabula Rasa, once said that his job as a game designer was to make sure that at least one solution to a problem was possible without preventing the player from finding other solutions on their own. For example, if you find a locked door in an Ultima game then there will be a key for that door somewhere. But you could also hack your way through it; or pick the lock; or pull a cannon up to it and blow it away.

Deus Ex - Warren SpectorWarren Spector, who started working with Garriott on Ultima VI, would later go on to design Deus Ex. He follows the same design philosophy and speaks glowingly of the thrill he would get watching someone play his game and thinking, “Wait… is that going to work?”

When designing an adventure, I actually try to take this design philosophy one step further: For any given problem, I make sure there’s at least one solution and remain completely open to any solutions the players might come up with on their own.

But, for any chokepoint problem, I make sure there’s at least three solutions.

By a chokepoint, I mean any problem that must be solved in order for the adventure to continue.

For example, let’s say that there’s a secret door behind which is hidden some random but ultimately unimportant treasure. Finding the secret door is a problem, but it’s not a chokepoint, so I only need to come up with one solution. In D&D this solution is easy because it’s built right into the rules: The secret door can be found with a successful Search check.

But let’s say that, instead of some random treasure, there is something of absolutely vital importance behind that door. For the adventure to work, the PCs must find that secret door.

The secret door is now a chokepoint problem and so I’ll try to make sure that there are at least three solutions. The first solution remains the same: A successful Search check. To this we could add a note in a different location where a cultist is instructed to “hide the artifact behind the statue of Ra” (where the secret door is); a badly damaged journal written by the designer of the complex which refers to the door; a second secret door leading to the same location (this counts as a separate solution because it immediately introduces the possibility of a second Search check); a probable scenario in which the main villain will attempt to flee through the secret door; the ability to interrogate captured cultists; and so forth.

Once you identify a chokepoint like this, it actually becomes quite trivial to start adding solutions like this.

I’ve seen some GMs argue that this makes things “too easy”. But the reality is that alternative solutions like this tend to make the scenario more interesting, not less interesting. Look at our secret door, for example: Before we started adding alternative solutions, it was just a dice roll. Now it’s designed by a specific person; used by cultists; and potentially exploited as a get-away.

As you begin layering these Three Clue Rule techniques, you’ll find that your scenarios become even more robust. For example, let’s take a murder mystery in which the killer is a werewolf who seeks out his ex-lovers. We come up with three possible ways to identify the killer:

(1) Patrol the streets of the small town on the night of the full moon.

(2) Identify the victims as all being former lovers of the same man.

(3) Go to the local butcher shop where the killer works and find his confessions of nightmare and sin written in blood on the walls of the back room.

For each of these conclusions (he’s a werewolf; he’s a former lover; we should check out the butcher shop) we’ll need three clues.

HE’S A WEREWOLF: Tracks that turn from wolf paw prints to human footprints. Over-sized claw marks on the victims. One of the victims owned a handgun loaded with silver bullets.

HE’S A FORMER LOVER: Love letters written by the same guy. A diary written by one victim describing how he cheated on her with another victim. Pictures of the same guy either on the victims or kept in their houses somewhere.

CHECK OUT THE BUTCHER SHOP: A broken crate reading DANNER’S MEATS at one of the crime scenes. A note saying “meet me at the butcher shop” crumpled up and thrown in a wastepaper basket. A jotted entry saying “meet P at butcher shop” in the day planner of one of the victims.

And just like that you’ve created a scenario with nine different paths to success. And if you keep your mind open to the idea of “more clues are always better” as you’re designing the adventure, you’ll find even more opportunities. For example, how trivial would it be to drop a reference to the butcher shop into one of those love letters? Or to fill that diary with half-mad charcoal sketches of wolves?

The fun part of all this is, once you’ve given yourself permission to include lots of clues, you’ve given yourself the opportunity to include some really esoteric and subtle clues. If the players figure them out, then they’ll feel pretty awesome for having done so. If they don’t notice them or don’t understand them, that’s OK, too: You’ve got plenty of other clues for them to pursue (and once they do solve the mystery, they’ll really enjoy looking back at those esoteric clues and understanding what they meant).

Continued tomorrow…

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