The Alexandrian

Posts tagged ‘three clue rule’

I can’t do a murder mystery because the PCs will just cast speak with dead.

I’ve seen this sentiment a lot, but it’s never really made any sense to me: The act of investigating a mystery is one by which you reveal that which is unknown. When we talk about PCs casting a speak with dead spell, we’re describing a situation in which the players reveal that which is unknown (i.e., they investigate the mystery), but then, oddly, we’re supposed to conclude that they can’t investigate the mystery because they investigate the mystery.

I think part of the problem here lies in an erroneous instinct that I talked about as part of the Three Clue Rule:

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, in reality, while a mystery is seemingly defined by a lack of knowledge, the actual action of a mystery is not the withholding of knowledge but rather the discovery of knowledge.

Let me put it another way: Strip the magic out of this scenario. Imagine that you’ve designed a mystery scenario in which there was a witness to the crime. The PCs turn to this witness and say, “Who killed him?” and the witness says, “It was Bob.” And it turns out Bob is just standing there, so they arrest him. End of mystery.

You wouldn’t conclude that you can’t do mystery scenarios because people can talk to each other right?

Speak with dead should be no more alarming than an FBI team taking fingerprints or a CSI team enhancing video and running facial analysis.


You may also see people suggesting that you “nerf” the spell to one degree or another. (Corpses that refuse to answer questions, for example.) Nothing is more frustrating to a player than having their smart choices blocked because the GM has some preconceived notion of how they’re supposed to be investigating the crime.

But what you can do is design your mysteries to the reality of the spell. Generally speaking, after all, people in the game world know that the spell exists, right? So they aren’t going to plan their murders in ways that will expose them. (Any more than people in a magic-free setting will commit their murders while standing directly in front of surveillance of cameras.) They will find ways to conceal their identity; they may even find ways to try to use the spell to frame other people. (For example, imagine a murder scenario where the victim thinks one of the PCs did it because the perpetrator used a polymorph spell.)


The same advice generally applies to other divination spells, too. The only divination effects which are truly problematic are those which allow you to contact omniscient beings and receive crystal clear information from them. Fortunately, these spells basically don’t exist in D&D (and most other games). The closest you can get are commune and contact other plane, but both are explicitly limited to the knowledge of the entity you’re contacting. (1st Edition AD&D actually had a lovely table for determining “Likelihood of Knowledge” and “Veracity”.)

Here’s a quick miscellanea of some Alexandrian-related material that you can find around the internet at the moment.

Martin Tegelj has posted the latest installment of the RPG campaign he’s developing based on my pitch for Doctor Who: The Temporal Masters. There are currently six adventures in the series. Although only some of them are directly related to the Temporal Masters, I recommend checking out all of them:

A Conversion Before Christmas
Something Old, Something New
Dawn of the Temporal Masters
The Riot
(Prelude: Donna)
Fugue State
Alliance of the Daleks

Bastion Rolero - Translating Three Clue Rule

Three Clue Rule in Hebrew

Hebrew is another language I am completely illiterate in, but Oded Deutch has also translated the Three Clue Rule into his native tongue as כלל שלושת הרמזים.

The Three Clue Rule has proven to be something of a “gateway drug” for better GMing, so I’m always excited to see it getting out in front of a larger audience. Thank you to Martin, Jose, and Oded for being awesome!

Places to Go, People to Be has translated the Three Clue Rule into French as La Règle des Trois Indices!

I can’t read a word of it, but it does remind me that in French the word for “clue” is the same word as “indication” — i.e., it is something which indicates something else. (I think I first encountered this when reading essays about the Arsène Lupin stories.) That seems like a particularly useful bit of alternative etymology in the particular context of the Three Clue Rule (or Three Indication Rule), since the rule can actually be applied widely beyond the format of a mystery.

(For those curious, the English word “clue” derives from “clew”, which originally referred to a ball of thread: Just as Ariadne’s thread led Theseus to the entrance of the labyrinth, so clues will lead you to the solution of the mystery. The example of the labyrinth, I suppose, just indicates another way in which the provenance of the Three Clue Rule can be extended.)

Sertorius: Beneath the Banshee Tree - Bedrock GamesBrendan Davis sent me review copies of the Sertorius roleplaying game and the Beneath the Banshee Tree scenario for the game because my Three Clue Rule was name-dropped and used in the latter.

To be perfectly honest, when Brendan sent me the PDF for Sertorius I gave it a quick glance, saw it was yet another 500 page fantasy roleplaying game, and threw the PDF metaphorically onto the stack of Things I Will Probably Never Get the Time to Look At(TM). But I’m always interested in good mystery scenarios and when I cracked open Beneath the Banshee Tree, it did exactly what good adventure scenarios are supposed to do: It got me really intrigued about this setting and this game.

I still haven’t really delved into Sertorius, but I have taken a slightly closer look: It’s a game where everyone plays a powerful sorcerer in a land where sorcerers are god-kings and potentates. As your power grows, you attract followers and slowly shift from a mortal to a divine existence. So, basically, Ars Magica if your characters were powerful Sumerian demigods instead of scholars hiding in the dark woods of the Europe.

Whether Sertorius sounds interesting to you or not, I recommend checking out Beneath the Banshee Tree: First, it’s free. Second, it could easily be adapted to a lot of different fantasy settings (while likely bringing with it a few unique stamps that will only serve to enhance the experience). Third, it’s really good.

Davis uses a very clever, randomized structure to drive a serial killer-esque investigative scenario in which even the PCs can become targets. Structurally, the adventure is clever because each additional crime scene brings additional clues that, generally, point towards the villain’s accomplices (providing a second layer of redundant investigation that makes sure the scenario remains robust and interesting no matter how it plays out).

Conceptually, however, Beneath the Banshee Tree is captivating: The “serial killer” isn’t actually a killer. (Most of the time, anyways.) Instead, Davis has created a fiendishly clever crime that’s uniquely fantastical and only possible in a land of wonder and magic. I’d say more, but I don’t want to spoil it: Check it out.

(Remember, it’s free. It also contains an entire fantasy city that you can easily grab and use in any number of nifty ways. Seriously, why are you still reading this when you should be reading that?)

My original essay on the Three Clue Rule has been translated into Czech for an awesome-looking fanzine:

Drakkar 43

Direct Link (PDF) / Facebook Page

I’ll be honest: I can’t read a word of it, but I think it’s pretty cool nonetheless.



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