View Full Version : Murder Mystery, how to run it?

2008-02-15, 06:28 AM
I've got two main difficulties here. The first is that I'm DMing for Schroedinger's party in which you never actually know if they will all show up until you arrive at the meet. Assuming everyone comes, the party looks like this:

Level 5s all round, with a Paladin, Rogue, Cleric, Fighter, Barbarian, and War sorcerer. My main concern is that darned cleric, he is a wily one.

The second is that I am about as unexperienced as you could possibly ask for, and have no idea just how to go about this. I want to have a Bargheast and a Vampire both present, with one of them actually being the killer and the other one being discovered, blamed, and possibly slaughtered by the party before they realize it isn't him.

I'm not sure which should be which yet, and I'm also not sure how to run large numbers of unique NPCs at once (since after all, anyone who is obviously a commoner will immediately be ignored)

2008-02-15, 09:30 AM
Any time you run a murder mystery, figure out what divination spells (e.g. Augury, Locate Object, Commune, Speak with Dead) the party can cast, and figure out if those should yield good information, and how your villain might try to outwit those...

Anyway, I'd suggest trying to figure out some sort of verbal/visual tip that you can use to cue your players (and yourself) as to which character they are talking to.

I'd use relatively detailed descriptions of any NPC's in the region (make sure you know who they are before describing them, though... nothing likes the players talking to the hooded peasant in the corner for 30 minutes in-game) so that the players can make guesses as to the identity of the individuals (i.e. the wizard probably isn't carrying very many weapons, the cleric is liable to wear full plate, etc.).

Try to have fun with this and continually ask yourself, "If I were a player in this campaign, what would I try to do?"

2008-02-15, 12:05 PM
One problem I see all too often in murder mysteries in DnD is that the PCs wander aimlessly for hours. You give them clue after clue and they go nowhere. Then one innocuous clue, and they suddenly put it all together all at once.

That said, I have no idea how you go about fixing that type of situation. I haven't run a mystery so I can't comment on what actually works in actual play.

Personally I'm of the opinion that social puzzles should not be logic puzzles. My group treats everything that comes out of the GM's mouth as true. Sometimes they're willing to account for NPC trickery. It never occurs to them that an NPC spreading misinformation may not be doing so deliberately. Maybe he's just misinformed. I think you need a lot of false leads and misinformation in your mystery. Not just the murderer himself trying to frame someone else, but random people spreading rumors or theories as though they were fact. Let the group sort the relevant facts from the noise, rather than just put the facts together.

2008-02-15, 12:24 PM
The big thing here is that you need to make sure that the victim didn't see the killer clearly. Otherwise the cleric casts speak with dead once and you know exactly who did it.

As DM, though, there are ways to circumvent even this... We questioned a dead necromancer about who he was working for in our last session, and his corpse exploded to prevent him from answering the question. Just make sure you don't make it sound like a sloppy cop out.

2008-02-15, 12:35 PM
I once ran a murder mystery, it started with them hearing a scream from an alleyway (yeah, clichè), then they went and found the body, and went to the victims home. There they found evindence of the victim having done some research on a cult devoted to restoring the king to his throne, then another guy was murdered and they went and found a house where the cult resided, then they started using their cheesy combat stuff. I have a difficult time doing anything to my players in combat without using very powerful stuff :smallannoyed: however, the playing was more successful than I usualy get, where they just roll over everybody.

2008-02-15, 12:35 PM
I've got two main difficulties here. The first is that I'm DMing for Schroedinger's party in which you never actually know if they will all show up until you arrive at the meet.

A common problem for all groups. Sometimes you can puppet the missing players' PCs until the next session, otherwise you need a flimsy excuse they they aren't present. "Sleeping off an all-night drinking session", "24-hour flu", "Called away to take care of family/temple/royal business", "Researching a new spell/song/weapon technique", or "Horse got sideswiped by a manure cart, still filling out the paperwork" should work in a pinch. In general, don't work *really* hard to come up with an In-Character excuse that fits the plot, just handwave it and keep the game moving.

The second is that I am about as unexperienced as you could possibly ask for, and have no idea just how to go about this. I want to have a Bargheast and a Vampire both present, with one of them actually being the killer and the other one being discovered, blamed, and possibly slaughtered by the party before they realize it isn't him.

Investigation scenarios can be tough, particularly in D&D, where the standard method of dealing with any challenge is to kill it and take it's stuff. Unless you create some overwhelming reason NOT to kill every NPC involved, you can assume the PCs will resort to this method either at the drop of a hat or later on when they get frustrated and aren't sure how to proceed. The focus on Investigative Scenarios is "Find the Clues" rather than "Kill Things and Take Their Stuff". Essentially you'll be trying to persude the PCs on "How Not to Kill Things", relying on skills, social contacts, and roleplaying to find clues. Some ideas on "How Not To Kill Stuff":

1) The NPCs are protected via nobility or some kind of Royal Decree: the King says find the <blank>, but you're not allowed to kill anyone but the perpetrator. Most players resent this approach, and will most likely rebel or work very hard to circumvent the "no killing" decree.

2) If the NPCs are high enough level that they can't be easily killed by the PCs, then it helps to have a reason why the NPCs just don't squash the PCs like annoying bugs. The Royal Decree can work in reverse here, if the PCs are protected by the Powers That Be, or can rely on some more powerful party for protection.

3) If you don't want the PCs to attack anything, remove any monsters or NPCs from wherever the clues are. The scene of a fight, for example, after both combatants are gone. An empty warehouse with a filing cabinet full of shipping invoices. Finding the right book in a library, etc.

4) If you're discouraging the PCs from attacking the Major Suspects, then make sure there is something they *CAN* attack. Important NPCs have minions and flunkies, let them beat up on those guys. Use Raymond Chandler's Axiom: whenver he gets stuck in a crime novel, he sends in two thugs to rough up the heroes. Like a video game, a Big Boss probably has disposable Mini-Bosses that can cough up a clue or two. If the PCs are still kill-starved, then make sure you let them know that things are building up to a big Boss Battle.

Some tips for managing important clues:

1) Each NPC should have at minimum two clues that could help the players move on to another encounter. Sometimes three clues is nice, but you want to avoid more than three because that could overload one NPC with everything the PCs need to know, and you want them to move through several encounters piecing things together as they go. Also, give the PCs too many leads to follow and they can get bogged down into indecisiveness and arguments about where to go next. Two is best because its easier for the DM to keep track of, and two possible leads prevents the players feeling that they are being dragged from one encounter to another along a railroad.

2) Never, ever, ever give a clue to an NPC that disappears when he dies. If you have to, put a letter in his pocket, sew it into his underwear, or tattoo it on his skin.

3) Make sure there are duplicate clues, or move the clues around to multiple locations. If the party misses it the first time, make sure they can go back, or find the same information from another source. If they completely miss something, you can have an NPC discover the clue and bring it to the party's attention later.

4) If all else fails, use a Rich Patron to point the PCs in the right direction. Someone, besides the PCs, has a stake in finding out what's going on, and he's willing to pay the PCs to investigate. He can tell them where to go next, and ask the obvious questions the PCs have completely blanked out on. The PCs may not understand what's going on, and may be missing clues left and right, but they *DO* understand getting paid. Eventually, they'll get enough clues to start asking their own questions and investigating on their own.

Breaking the Chain - The Cardinal Rule of Investigative Scenarios

All Investigation Scenarios fail in the same way. At some point, the party will need one vital clue to proceed, and someone will blow a roll, either a Spot, Search, or Diplomacy or whatever, and the scenario will come screaching to a dead stop. Sometimes it's difficult to spot these breaking points until it's too late and you've painted yourself into a corner. Some ideas on how to circumvent this problem:

1) Fudge the roll, and let it succeed regardless of what the dice say. Works best when you know the PCs have exhausted all other options and are incapable of finding any other clues. Many GMs hate fudging (sometimes passionately so) and may refuse to do this, but otherwise you may be staring 4+ hours of complete soul-sucking frustration in the face.

2) Allow a reroll with a reduced penalty, circumstance bonus, or whatnot. Again, you may run into the "fudging" argument here, but you do see this often in parties where the primary skill-monkey blows his roll and the rest of the party tries the same thing, hoping for a "20".

3) Allow a partial success, which might require additional resources or a hint to more information. For example, "You can't pick the lock, but you notice it's a dwarven design... maybe that dwarven blacksmith back in the village might know something about it".

4) Move the clue somewhere else, so the party can back-track, explore another lead, or get the information from a different source. This is mechanically similar to allowing a reroll, although the context is often different enough that the "no fudging" crowd might find it acceptable.

5) Just give the clue to the PCs without bothering with the roll. This can often be accomplished via roleplaying... if the PC is smart enough to say, "Sounds like that barmaid is hiding something, I try to seduce her" or "That hobgoblin was walking funny, I search his underwear", you can often just say "You find <blank>" without bothering with the Diplomacy or Search roll. This method is best if the PC is "Asking the Right Question", in which case he should be rewarded for good thinking rather than good rolling. On the other hand, you want to avoid just giving things to the PCs without any effort. This may make them feel like they're being handfed trail of breadcrumbs (which feels like railroading) or may make them suspicious enough to ignore the clue ("we didn't have to risk anything for this clue, therefore it must be a red herring or a trap"). You also don't want to devalue the PC's abilities. The player spent a lot of time picking the right stats, feats, skills, etc., and he wants the satisfaction that his choices are giving him payoffs he otherwise wouldn't get.

6) All obstacles should have at least *TWO* out of the three basic methods to get past them. The three methods are A) Violence, B) Social, and C) Specialized Skills. For example, a door is locked. You can A) break it down, B) persuade or bribe the owner to give you the key, or C) cast a Knock spell or have the rogue pick the lock.

7) If it seems like the party is getting sidetracked, explicitly tell them "This NPC has no further information", or "You don't need to take 20 on your search roll, there are no more clues at this location."

8) Use a Karma mechanic to automatically succeed at a roll or get a hint from the GM. Many games use Action Points, Fate Points, Luck Points, or whatever. This is a resource the players can spend, just like a piece of equipment, a number of hit points, etc. While some in the "let the dice fall where they may" crowd feels this is cheating, the decision on where to use your Karma is just as valid a choice as deciding to attack or roll a search check.

Most experienced GMs, even the ones who refuse to fudge, use a combination of these techniques to move the plot forward. Instead of the entire plot hinging on that one crucal roll, the risk of complete failure is minimized by spreading it out over a larger number of rolls. This reduces the chances of the dice breaking the chain and forcing the party into a dead-end.

I'm not sure which should be which yet, and I'm also not sure how to run large numbers of unique NPCs at once (since after all, anyone who is obviously a commoner will immediately be ignored)

Put the important NPCs on index cards, with notes about what clues they have and under what circumstances they'll reveal them. Let the PCs *KNOW* when their dealing with a Card-Carrying NPC, and when they're dealing with a walk-on servant or commoner. This will cut down on red herrings and pointless sidetracks. A finite list of suspects will allow them to focus on the important NPCs.

2008-02-15, 01:53 PM
I ran one of these and had a barbarian in the party ... guess who I framed for the murder? ;-) I picked a fight with the barbarian in the bar, then later the murder happened ... the one who traded insults with the big man. The barbarian's amulet was found on the dead body, etc.

By pinning it on a character, the PCs are motivated to prove their friend's innocence and could uncover the true identity of the culprit in the mean time.

I laid out motive for the murder, who did it, interesting information, what NPCs have that information, and let the PCs decide who to talk too. With the town watch on them like a hawk, they weren't even thinking of killing NPCs without being attacked first. And of course, I staged a couple of fights to keep their dice warm. =)

Good luck!


2008-02-15, 02:02 PM
Some general points:

1) Don't let your players browbeat you with magic. People are all too inclined to assume that Divination = Teh Win. It doesn't really. As another poster pointed out, the Speak With Dead trick can be circumvented trivially by simply not having the victim know who killed him. People always to go to ludicrous lengths to magically disguise people, in order to foil scrying, but they forget that eyewitnesses are notoriously unreliable.

2) Don't make them roll for the clues. Give them all the information they need the moment it becomes reasonable to give it to them. *Don't* make them work for the clues, the work is figuring out what the clues *mean*.

3) Don't forget they're *supposed* to work it out. Better too soon than too late.

3-a) Remember: it's easy to spot a clue when you put it there. You might think that "a single red petal lies on the floor" screams "clue" so loudly your players are bound to pick up on it, but when the line is slipped into a longer description it's very easy to miss.

4) Give everybody a reason to lie. This is *particularly* important if they have Truth spells. Make *everybody* want to avoid anything that could give away their secrets easily.

2008-02-15, 03:17 PM
Expect your players to become extremely meta-conscious. If your games normally include Conservation of Detail, you can be pretty sure they'll be all over anything you grace with an adjective. I don't really see this as a good thing, so make sure your descriptions are full enough that your players can't immediately identify everything plot-relevant in the room simply because that's all you specifically mentioned.

Also, don't be afraid to leave traps for them if the killer finds out they're "on the case".

Lastly, as a final touch of mind screw, consider having a suspect leave on "family business." As it turns out, it was entirely legitimate, but it throws up an enormous Red Herring, especially for the meta-detectives.

2008-02-15, 04:36 PM
Ah, thank you. I think that should help a lot.