Write a gripping mystery adventure in four steps

Mystery and crime-solving adventures have always presented a fascinating alternative to typical fantasy role-playing game (RPG) fare, while also presenting a formidable design challenge for the Dungeon Master (DM). At first glance, it is apparent that the mystery fiction author has a pronounced advantage over the RPG adventure designer; the former has control over the actions of all characters involved in the story, while the latter only has control over the non-player character (NPC) criminals and neutrals. As a result, the challenge behind writing a mystery adventure involves how the DM can bring the protagonists (in this case, the heroes) to a solution to a crime at an engaging pace and appropriate difficulty while having no control over the primary characters whatsoever.

The solution to this problem dates back to 1928.

In that year, S.S. Van Dine, a popular detective fiction writer best known for his Philo Vance stories, drafted a short piece for American Magazine titled, “20 Rules for Writing Detective Fiction.” The very first rule states, “The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the
mystery. All clues must be plainly stated and described.”  The detective should know nothing beyond what the reader knows or could reasonably infer. Apparently, the key to good detective fiction is providing a stream of clues for the protagonist to connect, and the reader derives entertainment from having a sporting chance of reaching the correct conclusion before the detective in the story. In order to do that, mystery writers must deliberately set aside a portion of narrative control so that the reader can make deductions as their protagonists do, and it is precisely that portion of narrative control that DMs do without every time they sit behind the screen.

For a DM, writing a detective/mystery adventure therefore involves providing that stream of clues, but since there is no race to the end of a finite book, it doesn’t matter how long it takes the players to reach a conclusion. Instead, the focus must fall on what clues to provide and the timing of their provision.

Thus, a DM could draft a functional mystery-solving D&D adventure by following a few of Van Dine’s maxims and accounting for conditions peculiar to the fantasy RPG genre. Following the steps below should be enough to help a DM to get started.

Step I: Detail the Crime.

While the default crime for most mysteries is murder – Van Dine states that no other crime is worthy of 300 pages of reader effort – a DM has much greater latitude. Readers looking for inspiration may find some in the Crime Scene Sunday category of this blog, accessible through the category selection box in the upper right corner of the screen.

Detailing the crime is simple. Choose a crime, identify the victim and identify the perpetrator. Choose a motive; some of the best are derived from the Seven Deadly Sins: envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, sloth, and wrath. Decide where the crime took place and determine what physical evidence was left behind by the perpetrator, as well as what precautionary steps the perpetrator may have taken to conceal the crime before or afterward. Decide if any witnesses were present, and what they saw. Keep this information at hand while drafting the adventure, since all clues leading to the solution must be consistent with the crime detail.

Step II: List the Clues.

Working from your crime detail, decide what relevant clues may be available to investigating heroes. These can include physical clues, like scraps of clothing, dropped items, items stolen or left behind; eyewitness accounts, which can create more questions than they answer; information available through rituals or other magical means and information either known or readily available to the heroes that has bearing on the case.

Step III: Add the Red Herrings.

While red herrings, or misleading clues, can serve a wide variety of adventure design functions, they represent false clues for mystery adventure purposes. Hint at more than one possible motive, leave behind physical evidence implicating innocent parties, have a witness lie about was seen, offer extraneous information and account for any steps taken by the perpetrator to cover up the crime.

Step IV: Start Feeding the Heroes Clues.

Begin with giving the heroes a list of what they could learn at the crime scene. Encourage them to add to this list, adding new physical clues, bits of information and  interviewing people present at or near the time of the crime (and have answers for expected questions prepared in advance, based on your crime detail). A good method is to make a chart containing fields for what the heroes know, unanswered questions, suspects and prevailing theories the heroes hold at that point in their investigations. If the heroes stall in their investigations, use an NPC to feed them another clue or point them toward another NPC who has something to hide. Eventually, they heroes will identify the perpetrator.

Example crime: the murder of Althea, the baron’s daughter.

Step I. Althea was murdered by Oksana, one of her ladies-in-waiting. The motive was wrath. Oksana was secretly in love with a commoner in a nearby town; due to an unrelated misunderstanding between the two women which resulted in Althea being gravely offended, Althea sought to hurt Oksana by having her love arrested on trumped-up charges. It turns out that a recent change in the law, of which Althea wasn’t aware, made the charges a capital offense; before Althea could intervene, Oksana’s lover was executed. Enraged, Oksana concealed her lover’s sturdy hunting knife and made her way to the castle garden and hedge maze, where Althea was known to walk alone each morning. Oksana hid in the maze, striking as Althea rounded a corner. By virtue of luck, the knife pierced Althea’s heart on the first stroke. Oksana left the knife, which had her lover’s initials burned into the handle, sticking out of the victim’s chest.

Step II. There were no witnesses to the crime itself, but the castle gardener, a lecherous fellow who always kept an eye out for the beautiful Oksana, was pleasantly surprised to watch Oksana disrobe by the castle midden, wrap her outer garments around a large stone and throw them into the cesspit, not far from a flower bed he was weeding. The gardener was paying little attention to what she was throwing away, and didn’t notice the heavy bloodstains on the clothes. He has been warned about his wandering eye by the baron, and won’t share what he knows willingly. Another lady-in-waiting, Clarice, knew that Oksana had an argument with the victim, but didn’t know what caused the conflict. Percival, one of the scullery boys, once saw Oksana walking with her lover in the town. Everyone knows about the lover’s execution that took place the day before the murder. The only physical evidence left behind are the knife and a few strands of red hair (Oksana’s) found on the blond-haired victim’s gown.

Step III. Red herrings include a lute string found near the body (this was dropped by a court minstrel earlier on the morning of the murder), a pruning hook left in the hedge maze near the body (absent-mindedly left by the gardener, who is already under suspicion for his lechery) and the fact that the victim recently and publicly spurned a red-haired suitor, a wealthy man from the province’s growing merchant class, who happens to have the same initials as the executed lover. Some heroes may take the fact that Althea was killed with a pinpoint strike to the heart to suggest that she was murdered by a trained killer.

Step IV. The heroes will probably gravitate toward the initials on the knife handle first. Castle staff will associate the letters with the spurned merchant, since nobody but the executioner knew (or cared) about the initials of Oksana’s dead lover. Fortunately for the merchant, he was in the company of the local church abbot for the entire morning on the day of the murder. And he’s too much of a fop to own a hunting knife. The lute string will probably be next; the minstrel was performing for the baron and his lady at the time of the crime. The pruning hook places the gardener at the scene, but he had a long conversation with one of the stablemen at the  flower bed he was weeding while the crime was being committed. The heroes will only know about Oksana’s red hair if they think to ask if anyone in the castle has red hair, but the hair alone isn’t enough to prove anything. If questioned, Oksana will state that she and the victim reconciled an hour before the murder, and the hair was probably transferred when they embraced in forgiveness. Only the executioner will link the initials on the knife to Oksana’s lover; he will also remark that Percival said he saw the lover on one prior occasion in town, but the executioner didn’t have time to ask where or when.

The heroes may have a break in the investigation when the gardener realizes that the heroes are seriously considering Oksana as a suspect. At that point, he may tell her what he saw her do and try to blackmail her for his silence, demanding carnal attentions as payment. This could lead to Oksna behaving strangely, like trying to recover the bloodstained clothing from the cesspit in the dead of night to escape the gardener’s growing power over her. Heroes observing such an act will probably have enough information to identify her as the perpetrator.

If the heroes confront Oksana, either from the executioner’s leads or by being caught trying to retrieve and destroy evidence, she will confess.

As this example demonstrates, it’s not very difficult to draft a basic mystery adventure, and with these four steps, you’re ready to draft your own.


20 comments on “Write a gripping mystery adventure in four steps

  1. ClefJ says:

    Oh my glob you’re back! 8D Iloveyou! I really enjoy mysteries in rpg’s, I liked this read very much.

    • Alric says:

      Thanks for the kind words. Between family, work, and school, I rarely get to visit my own blog. Your comment was a nice surprise.

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  4. Mike says:

    This post is great but I have somewhat unrelated question. Based on your creative and frankly awesome approach to adventure design I would guess that you aren’t the type to use premade adventures. That being said I am wondering what you think is the best premade 4e adventure because most of them are kind of garbage in my opinion. I’m a big fan of paizo’s pathfinder series but I convert them to 4e which is fairly time consuming. Just curious about your thoughts.

  5. David says:

    I loved your example, hope you don’t mind if I master it for my lvl 6 party, they could use a little mystery solving!

  6. doodlebob17 says:

    Really nice blog!

  7. Amanda says:

    Oh thank goodness, this is exactly what I needed for my Con of the North game! I’m basically running CSI: Ankh-Morpork, and was having trouble figuring out how to write a good RPG-specific mystery for my Watchmen to solve. 🙂

  8. Liz liban says:

    Wow thats awesome plz give me an advice i want to write an adventurous and mysterious book exactly how many pages does it take and how many days if i start to write it right now reply please thankss…

  9. Liz liban says:

    Please give me an advice i want to write a mysterious and adventurous book what steps should i follow?

  10. Noelle says:

    I am looking for the Crime Scene Sunday section to no avail. Could you please help? I am writing a steampunk murder mystery rpg and am looking for inspiration.

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  12. Yicheng Liu says:

    Reblogged this on The blog of the unknown writer and commented:
    Amazing for both mystery writers and TRPG fans alike!

  13. Michael Lavella says:

    I was googling dnd mystery adventures and ran into your article. One of my players made it known that he likes a good mystery/rp encounter and as I have been more combat oriented I thought I’d try finding one to run them through. I thought of making one up but didn’t think I had it in me. Came across this and after reading it, gave it a go. I managed to write up a short mystery regarding missing supplies from the local garrison without too much trouble or time. The steps breakdown really makes a lot of sense. Thanks for the help and advise that is now going to allow me to create my own mysteries rather than having to rely on finding ones to use.

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