The Alexandrian


The maxim “more clues are always better” is an important one. There is a natural impulse when designing a mystery, I think, to hold back information. This is logical inclination: After all, a mystery is essentially defined by a lack of information. And there’s a difference between having lots of clues and having the murderer write his home address in blood on the wall.

But the desire to hold back information does more harm than good, I think. Whenever you hold back a piece of information, you are essentially closing off a path towards potential success. This goes back to Garriott’s advice: Unless there’s some reason why the door should be cannon-proof, the player should be rewarded for their clever thinking. Or, to put it another way: Just because you shouldn’t leave the key to a locked door laying on the floor in front of the door, it doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be multiple ways to get past the locked door.

With that in mind, you should consciously open yourself to permissive clue-finding. By this I mean that, if the players come up with a clever approach to their investigation, you should be open to the idea of giving them useful information as a result.

Here’s another way of thinking about it: Don’t treat the list of clues you came up with during your prep time as a straitjacket. Instead, think of that prep work as your safety net.

I used to get really attached to a particularly clever solution when I would design it. I would emotionally invest in the idea of my players discovering this clever solution that I had designed. As a result, I would tend to veto other potential solutions the players came up with — after all, if those other solutions worked they would never discover the clever solution I had come up with.

Over time, I’ve learned that it’s actually a lot more fun when the players surprise me. It’s the same reason I avoid fudging dice rolls to preserve whatever dramatic conceit I came up with. As a result, I now tend to think of my predesigned solution as a worst case scenario — the safety net that snaps into place when my players fail to come up with anything more interesting.

In order to be open to permissive clue-finding you first have to understand the underlying situation. (Who is the werewolf? How did he kill this victim? Why did he kill them? When did he kill them?) Then embrace the unexpected ideas and approaches the PCs will have, and lean on the permissive side when deciding whether or not they can find a clue you had never thought about before.


A.K.A. Bash Them On the Head With It.

Sometimes, despite your best efforts, the players will work themselves into a dead-end: They don’t know what the clues mean or they’re ignoring the clues or they’ve used the clues to reach an incorrect conclusion and are now heading in completely the wrong direction. (When I’m using the Three Clue Rule, I find this will most often happen when the PCs don’t realize that there’s actually a mystery that needs to be solved — not every mystery is as obvious as a dead body, after all.)

This is when having a backup plan is useful. The problem in this scenario is that the PCs are being too passive — either because they don’t have the information they need or because they’re using the information in the wrong way. The solution, therefore, is to have something active happen to them.

Raymond Chandler’s advice for this kind of impasse was, “Have a guy with a gun walk through the door.”

My typical fallback is in the same vein: The bad guy finds out they’re the ones investigating the crime and sends someone to kill them or bribe them.

Another good one is “somebody else dies”. Or, in a more general sense, “the next part of the bad guy’s plan happens”. This has the effect of

The idea with all of these, of course, is not simply “have something happen”. You specifically want to have the event give them a new clue (or, better yet, multiple clues) that they can follow up on.

In a worst case scenario, though, you can design a final “Get Out of Jail Free” card that you can use to bring the scenario to a satisfactory close no matter how badly the PCs get bolloxed up. For example, in our werewolf mystery — if the PCs get completely lost — you could simply have the werewolf show up and try to kill them (because he thinks they’re “getting too close”). This is usually less than satisfactory, but at least it gets you out of a bad situation. It’s the final backup when all other backups have failed.

Continued tomorrow…

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