Designing a Murder Mystery Adventure

by Jeff Hitchin (jhitchin@bigfoot.com)

Usually, when plotting a traditional fair-play mystery for an RPG, I start with the killer, then create the victim. You have to know why the killer decided the victim had to die, what led up to it, and what happened before and after the murder. Now, once you know that, you create the clues that will lead the detectives to the killer. Don't try to find good places to hide them, because your players won't go to those places to find them usually.   :)

Now, once you have that, create your other suspects and supporting characters. You will need them to make sure that the scenario isn't too easy. Find reasons for the other suspects to have killed the victim. Make sure that some of them had opportunity to do so. If they find that nobody had opportunity but the killer, it'll be a short game.

Also, make sure you have plenty of locations to be visited, because your players will want to explore. I've found you also have to have a lot of pat responses for things. I played one game where a woman who owned her own plane flew to New York City, killed her twin sister and flew back to Chicago. The players, upon hearing from her secretary that she had flown to Denver for a meeting (which was her alibi) immediately hacked every airline database they could find, tried calling the airlines, etc. They never once thought about a very rich woman who was CEO of her own company having her own plane. So I had to do a lot of fake rolls for information that wasn't there and playing perky customer service representatives who couldn't give them information, either. One person went so far as to fly to Chicago and show pictures of the suspect around to see if anybody who worked the gates recognized her as she might have been flying under another name. At that moment I was glad I kept a list of names for NPC's in my notes as I had to come up with five NPC's that I hadn't planned on in that session.

I also ran a session where a man asked the detectives to check up on his ex-wife who he was still in love with. I had planned on when they got there that she would be dead on the kitchen floor. However, the operative who said he'd take the case decided he would climb down the outside of the building instead of walking in the front door (he used to be a circus performer). If I had made a linear murder plot, this would have totally screwed everything up and I'd be hosed, so please, please, please do not etch your plots in concrete.

Think of running a mystery game like one of those How to Host a Murder party games in a box, except that you hold the clues and you have to find the proper points to insert them without making it look like that's what you're doing.