tabletop games

Running a D&D Murder Mystery

This last week, I ran my first murder mystery adventure for my weekly Dungeons & Dragons group. I have designed many adventures, written a handful of mystery stories, and critiqued many mystery book, but I had never quite combined those into writing a mystery adventure.

When I started planning for the session, I didn’t intend to write a mystery. The adventure idea started with the party traveling to Elturel, a city where a magical orb shines brightly above the city and wards away undead. The party had other business on the main storyline, but I wanted a side quest in town related to this magical orb. The direct effect of the orb was obvious (no zombie hordes), but in a real world, it would have other, surprising effects as well. What is an unintentional consequence of the magical orb that could seed an interesting adventure?

Amongst the ideas I worked through, the Cleric spell “Speak with Dead” wouldn’t work if spirits were also affected by the orb. Typically, player use “Speak with Dead” to discover how someone died, and city guards would do something similar. Without “Speak with Dead” available, Elturel guards might know that it was harder than usual to track down serial killers. Therefore, I had a guard become a serial killer.

For the guard’s motivation, refugees were trickling into Elturel from the surrounding area to escape raiders, who were the main focus of the players. Elturel locals might not like the influx of foreigners. A xenophobic guard begins murdering refugees to scare them away.

I had my core mystery done and worked out the adventure from there. During the session, my players enjoyed the game and successfully solved the mystery. However, I learned several things from the experience.

1. Be ready with all of the details.

Immediately after the first murder in the kitchen alley of a tavern, the party went inside to question the staff and patrons. Because these non-player characters (NPCs) weren’t relevant to my original narrative, I improvised what their personal details and what they had seen. However, the players recognized that I was improvising, so the NPCs couldn’t be suspects, anything I said was probably irrelevant. That broke the suspension of disbelief and pulled the players out of a character mindset and into a game-playing detective.

Dungeon masters (DMs) improvise most of an adventure, and typically, it adds to the plausibility of the world by filling in world details and generating realistic interactions. However, in a mystery, every detail is a clue to the mystery.Players will notice the difference between improvisation versus reciting scripted facts. Instead of adding the realism of the world, improvisation can take away from the realism of a mystery.

In short, I will prepare more when I run my next mystery.

2. … and then commit to whatever you say.

At the scene of the first murder, I intended to have the guards present when the party found the dead body. That would explain how the murderer (a guard) masked his footsteps amongst those from the other guards. However, I accidentally told the party that they arrived first, and on a poor Perception roll, they found no evidence of the murderer. Based on this information, they guessed that the murderer was a flying monster who left no footsteps. After that, I had to provide additional evidence to convince that they should consider other options.

Every detail matters to the players, so all of it must be intentional. The slightest mistake can derail and confuse the party, so try to avoid those in the first place.

However, DMs will make mistakes and need to recover from them. Not everything has to fit. Life is messy. Little, trivial mysteries exist even within another mystery.

I think it is best to commit to the mistakes. Ideally, the players won’t notice, but when a detail has broken the mystery, a NPC should fix it, not the DM. The DM is a game construct who resets the game and, again, break the realism. However, a NPC can deliver “new evidence” to the contrary. Hopefully players enjoy it as well by maintaining the fiction. They can live the life of an investigator and resist the desire to meta-game the mystery.


3. Player characters may not be brilliant detectives.

I love the TV show¬†Sherlock with Benedict Cumberbatch, but I also think the writers cheat. Sherlock Holmes is an eccentric but perceptive person, and this is spun into a story pattern. Holmes is behaving oddly. A client comes with a mystery. They begin investigating, but Holmes’s erratic behavior seems to hinder his ability. Suddenly, his shortcomings are exploited by the perpetrator, and he suddenly is in trouble. Then, Holmes corners the perp and reveals that his behavior was all calculated from the beginning. Everyone was fooled, but for him, it all went according to plan.

I hate when writers use “genius” characters who can anticipate what will happen next and therefore have “planned it from the start.” Instead of writing a mystery forward through deduction, they write the story backwards from the solution to the steps necessary to get there. It feels clever but breaks down under scrutiny and feels like a cheat. The character can know exactly what the writer knows, and the writer gets to choose what will happen next. That isn’t clever: that’s just circular logic.

That doesn’t work in a live mystery run in D&D. You can craft the same clues, events, and opposition used by Holmes, but your players truly know only as much as they know. They aren’t in your head and hopefully haven’t stolen your notes. The players can guess wrong and bumble their way along a clever but ultimately incorrect plan.

I recently heard the advice, “Don’t be a dungeon master if you want to be a writer because your characters won’t do what you want them to.” D&D games won’t have a story as clean and satisfying as a detective novel, but DMs (hopefully) spent significantly less time working on it. Also, DMs don’t have to entertain readers: they just have to entertain players.

4. … so keep up the momentum.

In one of my first sessions as a DM, I narrated through the party emergin from the Underdark onto the surface. I intended for them to take the road towards the closest major city, but I offhandedly mentioned a lone tower off in the distance in the surface description. I had no followup to it, so when the party ended up spending awhile trying to get into this tower with a reluctant owner and no obvious backdoor, the players eventually left confused and disappointed.

Even with all of the relevant details presented perfectly, the players still might not get it. Players enjoy a challenge when they feel like they are making progress. They might even enjoy arriving at the wrong solution and seeing everything go horribly wrong as a consequence if they felt like it was a fair process.

However, players hate being stumped. Ideally they have a lead. If they don’t have a lead, they should have enough to be mulling over what they know. If they don’t have that, they probably need a push. Since players will inevitably miss details, they need an abundance of clues so that they catch enough. When they stall, perhaps an NPC can deliver new information, or maybe there are new developments to change the situation.

Wrapping Up

D&D gives DMs and players tremendous flexibility in how to play and enjoy the game. A murder mystery is very different from tactical combat or dungeon crawling and might not be a good fit for a group.

However, my group happened to enjoy it, so I will keep that in mind as I plan future sessions. Since I backed myself into a mystery, I didn’t look up resources on writing mysteries or running RPG mysteries, but I’m sure more experienced DMs have great advice around it. However it happen, I’ll make sure I’m actually ready next time.

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