May 31, 2015

Mystery and Intrigue - Ask the DM

Ask the DM

Charlie asked:
I'm planning on running my first campaign. I want it to be heavy on investigation (ie: Sherlock Holmes meets HP Lovecraft meets Murderhobos). How do I ensure that the mysteries continue to remain intriguing and surprising after the party has already discovered a lost civilization, a wererat union, lost treasures, missing princes, and faced down 7 elder gods?
Thanks for writing in, Charlie. Good investigation campaigns rely on engaging the players and drawing them into the mystery, no matter how small. It's easy to think that crazy wild plots stimulate mystery, but that's not always true.

Write an Impossible Hook

Mystery is all about leaving an open question in the player's minds by presenting them with something impossible. This open question can be anything, but in the context of adventure writing is most often an adventure hook. An adventure hook is the event that introduces your players to a quest, and draws them in. This hook, free from the context of the adventure itself, should be something bizarre, inexpiable, impossible, or wonderfully unique. Perhaps the local silk market is selling wares woven with prophetic images of the future, and noone asked knows how the silk is made. Or perhaps a young boy was seen walking around outside the city wall at night guarded by ferocious goblins that collapse into sand when slain. Let's play with the latter example for a while.

If this hook is suitably interesting, weird, or impossible, it should pique your player's interests, which is crucial to an engaging story. Try your very hardest to make these hooks specific and unique, as it should draw the players in, and therefore forms the backbone of your interest curve.  

Whatever the case, it is important that there needs to be no plausible explanation for your hooks. This raises a unique quandary: in a world populated by magic, nearly everything is possible, so how do you as an adventure writer, craft something impossible? This is normally a simpler matter than it seems, as you are the DM and can reliably inform the party which explanations are impossible, which should be most of them, especially if the event is strange enough. This is where your skill as a DM shines, as you flexibly invent conditions to reinforce the impossibility of the situation and guide the players away from simple explanations.

Write Leads as Plot Twists

When the party investigates, its important to give them several leads in order to dig deeper, but only incorrect possible explanations at first. When they investigate the hook, it's time to give them more data, which should allow them to form an hypothesis and investigate further. When they follow that lead, they can gain another crucial point of data, changing their hypothesis, and leading the investigation elsewhere, and so on, until the truth is revealed. This all sounds incredibly dry, but if each one of these data points is a swinging twist in the plot, it can leave your players spinning, questioning what's going on, and indeed, their very sanity.

Compose a list of facts to be uncovered which stand as interesting plot twists. Don't think about how things should fit together yet, just focus on making memorable, interesting plot twists. For example:
  • The players uncover an amulet with the crest of a long-dispanded sorcerer house in one of the small piles of sand leftover from the goblin attack.
  • The Orphan Court is a group of street urchins that meet in different back alley's each night to hold trials over those who have harmed the city's homeless children. These children know the face of every child in town - yet they do not recognize the boy spotted with the goblins.
  • There are cursed sandpits in the catacombs underneath the city which radiate necrotic energy, but are otherwise inanimate. Close inspection reveals carvings of the same sorcerer house crest as before.
  • Rare older people in town will recognize the face as a familiar one from their childhood, but few can place it.
  • A run-in with the goblins and child reveal that the child is impervious to attacks, as a spirit might be
  • A powerful sorcerer has come into to town to seek the hand of the governor's daughter. He's a slimy fellow, but his magic is causing a ruckus each time he is denied.
Now that we have a list of interesting plot twists, lets draw a conclusion that links this information together: perhaps the amulet is an artifact of a powerful, yet fallen sorcerer house, the House of Sandrithus. This artifact is protecting the wandering soul of a child (who would have been the heir to the House of Sandrithus) who was killed decades ago by a rival sorcerer house and whose body was thrown into the cursed sand pits. The spirit is acting up because the visiting sorcerer is a descendant of those who murdered him. The goblin problem can be solved either by removing the visiting sorcerer from town, or by locating the child's mummified body deep in the sand pits, and removing the matching amulet from it.

We don't expect the player's to just come across this conclusion on their own, after all, we just made it up! Instead, add to your list one or two more facts necessary to lead them to this conclusion.

Now try to lay these facts out in a limited number of locations that can be investigated, each with its own (not necessarily combat) encounter. It is crucial that you lay out the possible locations to your players clearly, and what going to each means. For example: You can go to the market place to gather information from the citizenry, or you can go to the library to investigate the crest on the amulet, or you can set up a stakeout in the middle of the night for the child...

Let Your Players Do the Work

If your players have their own ideas on how to investigate, try to roll with it and improvise, maybe relocating one of your twists to that location. However, in my experience, most players like clearly knowing some paths they can easily follow. As long as they have a variety of choices, they will likely be happy. Pay close attention to make sure the party always has a choice of another option to investigate if they get stuck.

Finally, have fun and make sure your player's choices rule the session. Your players will love you for letting them have a lot of agency over their game, and will be deeply immersed until the last die rolls.

Ask the Orc
Terry the Orc responds to your question:

Im not a smart ork, so I dont under stand most uv what u just said, but Im a big fan of Sherlock on BBC (I dont reed the books). Anywho, whenever Berkeley C***snatch goes on a case, thay all start with a murder. So u culd just kill evry1 in the partee. Make them wunder why you killed'em. Thers ur misteree.

- - -
If you have any questions for the DM, comment below or send an email to Your question can be about anything, really. We just need questions. The Orc will also answer your questions, whether you want him to or not.

Ready or not-- for the next week we'll be releasing Magitech sub-classes for the Magitech Update.


  1. Actually, now that I think of it... an adventure taking place in afterlife, with party figuring out who killed them, might be interesting...

    1. That is a very true... there's a new video game that does this in fact. However, returning to the plane of living might become difficult at that point haha.

  2. Great advice on Mystery. Going to include these in some of my adventures :o)