This is something that I write about in greater length in Hardboiled Follies. I’ll condense it here, but you can check out that game for a deeper dive into the topic. The simple way to run a mystery is to engage in bottom-up worldbuilding. You start with the question that needs to be answered, the conundrum that needs to be solved, and create all of the elements implied by that event.
The Simple Way to Run a Mystery
Let’s take a murder, for example. Not all mysteries have to be murders. They don’t even have to be crimes, but everyone is familiar with this plot. Someone is dead, and there is presumably evidence that this was not an accident or self-inflicted. The way that they die is now part of your canonical world, as is the evidence that this was foul play. You need to have a back story for the victim that established why someone would want to do them in. This implies suspects.
When you establish the crime scene, that implies who would have access to that location. They had opportunity. This creates more suspects, as well as potential witnesses. You need to establish alibis for them, and motives for why they would or wouldn’t, could or couldn’t, have killed the victim. This can imply other characters, other locations, and more worldbuilding elements.
The means used for the murder imply even more things. Who had access to the weapons, the poison, the elaborate death trap? Who knew how to use, or make, such things? More suspects, more locations, and more background has to be fleshed out.
Once you’ve got the answers, and all of the logical extensions of those answers, you’re ready to start the game. The opening act is getting the player characters involved in solving the mystery. The second act is them questioning people, finding evidence, and constructing theories. The final is them coming to a logical conclusion, confronting the murderer, and solving the case.
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Dancing Lights Press publishes story games that embrace a minimalist aesthetic in design and presentation. Our print books are affordable, at $10 or less. The 6×9 digest format makes them convenient to carry around. The spotlight belongs on the creativity of the players as they converse and collaborate on plot, worldbuilding, and character development. Roleplaying is an activity, not a book. Our titles are merely part of the delivery system.