How to make a D&D mystery is hard to get right without the proper steps. You need your players to learn the answers but not too quickly. There should be a process that lets the players feel accomplished when they solve the mystery.
In order to make a D&D mystery, you have to make it like a puzzle. Mysteries are just flexible multi-step puzzles.
If you are interested in how to make a great puzzle I suggest reading the puzzle article. We will be expanding on how to make a puzzle into a mystery and learn what needs to be added.
Mysteries multi-step puzzles
Now that you have read our puzzle article you understand the three clue rule and how to give proper hints. This will be crucial in designing our mysteries.
You should never expect players to go directly where you want them to go.
Players will zig zag and miss obvious clues to you. This is why you need to make sure that each location is connected, and that each location provides information.
If you have 2 mystery locations, you need them to connect to each other. Each location has a crucial piece of evidence to solve the mystery. Each location points to the other, and only after putting the two pieces together can the mystery progress.
But what if players cannot find the clues?
This is why you have multiple clues and make it so that players can work out how to find the evidence they need in various ways.
If your mystery hinges on the players finding one specific boot after talking to one merchant, then the mystery probably will not go as planned.
Instead, you need to make sure that there are multiple ways to get to that boot. Perhaps the players find a note that leads to searching the barn that houses the boot. Perhaps the players gain another friendly face to help them.
Give them more options! Players do not know what you know.
The part that makes mysteries difficult is that you have to do this multiple times and link multiple locations.
What if one location leads players to the next phase of the mystery?
At this point, you have two options.
1. Reward your players. If your players found out through some conspiracy logic where to go then let them. Most of the time this is because your mystery was poorly written and it is better to let your players succeed rather than frustrate them with poor design.
2. Shift the important clue. This happens when you are panicking or intentionally implant the clue in the player’s last location. If it is intended that is okay. Some people may disagree with this practice but it works. If you are panicking don’t do it. Let the players get rewarded for outsmarting you and move on to the next adventure. Just learn from your mistake.
When making mysteries multi-step puzzles, you need to remember an important step. Detailing your clues.
“Ya a murder happened. Some dude died I guess. He had a note that said I did it.”
How is that to start your D&D mystery? Enough to go off of or would you be a little lost?
This is not how to make a D&D mystery. Everyone should be lost if that is all the information given. You need to give a bit more detail about what is going on. How about this example?
“A murder happened today. No one has been in or out of the town and we have called forth special investigators (the party) to help solve our dilemma. Bob Ryan was murdered viciously, and we need to put an end to this! It is the second murder already!”
Now the party not only knows the name of the victim and that no one else has left the town or come in recently. The party also has a few things to go off of. Who was Bob Ryan? Did he have friends and family? The party has something to go off of here, but there is more.
The party was brought in by the mayor or constable to solve the case. This means that they are outsiders who are to be treated with respect. Your party can therefore go about asking people without being suspected, and your party knows that the death was violent.
What is more, this is the second murder!
At this point, your party has so many details to go off of that they can start from multiple points. Your group will not be lost and will instead be invested in the mystery.
A murder is a bit cliche’ but you can apply this to any mystery. See how I did not make things too vague for the party, but I also didn’t give anything away? The party knows the task at hand and has a few places to start.
We have talked about detail a bit, but when should you involve this much care for detail?
Clues and premise
Your clues and premise needs to have solid details for your party. If your party doesn’t have enough to go off of they will just give up. If the party doesn’t have enough details for clues they will be unable to finish the mystery and give up.
Do you see the pattern?
Your mystery hinges on your player’s cooperation. Don’t leave them in the dark, and make a D&D mystery that gives them something to go off of.
Just because you know something does not mean that your players do.
I cannot repeat this enough, but how much is too much?
Let’s say that the party goes to the scene of the first murder and finds information on the victim. They find out the victim had only one friend and that the friend’s birthday just happened. They went fishing and a friend’s bloody corpse was found later.
The player’s now know that the perpetrator is the victim’s friend, but how can they convince others?
If your players want to make a mob hanging they can, but you should try to make the law handle things logically and methodically.
If these circumstances cast suspicion then the perpetrator should get desperate and start covering up some evidence. The party can then get involved with a game of wits.
If the perpetrator is cowardly make the players provide enough evidence to convince the authorities or they will not get paid.
Knowing that someone else is the murderer does not mean that the case is solved. It can be the first step in fully solving the mystery.
This is part of how you make the mystery flexible.
I know what you are thinking. Why do you want the mystery to be flexible? You went so much into detail so why flexibility now?
You still need to have detail when you make a D&D mystery and it still needs to have a good premise that will lead to an end.
How you get there is a completely different story.
Your players have decided to not care about the mystery. This is great if you are fine with them just doing whatever, but if you want them to solve the mystery you need to be flexible.
Make the mystery personal by having belongings stolen in the middle of the night. Make the perpetrator see that the players are trying to solve the mystery and do a preemptive strike.
Once you make it personal the players will most likely stay instead of leaving.
Part of being flexible can also be changing where some clues are placed.
To have a static scene and way for players to get clues is not realistic. Players may take an extra day and let another crime commence.
In addition to adding new elements to this puzzle the perpetrator can plant false evidence and thoroughly confuse the players.
Perhaps instead the players end up not finding a crucial piece of evidence because they got distracted talking to each other. You need to place that piece of evidence somewhere else or give them something new.
Being flexible in a mystery is important since most of the time dungeon masters who craft a D&D mystery create static locations and clues.
Being flexible is important, but there are some things that are fixed and should not be changed.
You need to adapt to your players. Players change things and plans go awry but that doesn’t mean that you should not plan.
When you make a D&D mystery you need to have a specific start, clues, and end to your mystery.
Having fixed clues allow you to have a pre-planned mystery. When you need to be flexible for your players it is all because they have done something unexpected, but you do not have to throw away these clues.
I mentioned a little bit in the flexible part about how you can re-purpose a clue. This is not changing the clue, but instead is changing where the players find it.
It is the exact same thing as re-purposing your content in order to not create more work for yourself.
Have you ever tried to make a mystery happen on the spot? Creating a single clue here and there is bound to create disaster! That is why I highly suggest that you create fixed clues that can be re-purposed.
But what should you do about each location where the clues are located?
Location spring boards
The players have found the first clue that points to location A. After the players arrive at location A they cannot find clues and now cannot progress in the mystery.
This is how many dungeon masters make a D&D mystery. One spot leads to another until players finally end up solving it. There is only one problem with this.
We do not design games where players have to do x in order to progress. Players tell the story, not you.
Why should a D&D mystery be any different? The answer is that it should not, but many dungeon masters decide to do so after watching a few detective movies.
In those movies (or books) the protagonist follows a specific trail in order to reach their conclusion. What dungeon masters forget is that this evidence was from the protagonist’s perspective and could be reached in any number of ways. Look at the two different examples:
“Of course it was you! I followed up on your aunt and found out from her tone that she suspected you. I therefore went to your house and found the murder weapon plain as day!”
“Of course it was you! I followed up on your aunt and found a note from your bank threatening foreclosure. I therefore went to your house and found the murder weapon plain as day!”
Notice how almost everything was the same since it was from the same person except for one sentence. Coming to a conclusion can come in a variety of ways. This is why locations should be a spring board to other locations just in case your players don’t read your mind.
To be safe, have other clues point to multiple clues. Notice how going to the aunt’s house allowed the player to find different clues that lead them to the murderer’s house?
I did not just give the players one clue and expect them to find it. That will lead to disaster!
In addition to this, have clues at one location point to other locations. If the aunt’s house is the first visit leave a clue that points the players towards the butcher where there are more clues. In addition to this, give your players a clue that leads to each location in this stage of the investigation.
You do not have to give players clues to every location if you have a lot. If you have this many locations then it might lead to other problems, but make sure players have multiple clues to work from. Don’t just expect them to get one clue and be fine. We miss things in real life and players miss things all the time. Expect it to happen.
Order of arrival is irrelevant.
Players shouldn’t need to go from one location to another in order to solve the mystery right? Then why does it matter when they arrive at each location?
Some parts of a mystery are time sensitive. I would not recommend making visiting a certain location time sensitive if it is not leading to a new phase of the investigation. Players should be able to arrive in any order.
Players are not able to follow a straight line most of the time and like the option of choice. If you give players a choice to visit multiple locations they will chose what is convenient for them.
I am not just talking about distance. Players may want to visit the blacksmith even when it doesn’t make sense to you. If they want to do so then why not let them? The clues are still in that location aren’t they?
The order of arrival for your players should be irrelevant when you make a D&D mystery.
If your players are able to do as they please they will be more likely to uncover the mystery and want to do so.
This applies to normal locations, but why do I have it stop at number 4? When should you not be flexible for order of arrival?
Players can go to any location in any order, but to progress they need to do something specific.
Perhaps after the clues are all gathered they need to talk to the perpetrator’s accomplice. They gather clues now to find the accomplice and then have a confrontation!
That confrontation is the 4th order of arrival in the paragraph above. Players have to get here and all the clues lead up to this stage.
Some D&D mysteries end when the players collect the clues in one stage. This is fine as well, but others have multiple phases.
After the players have encountered the accomplice they get information and move onto a few more locations that can provide clues.
This leads players onto the next phase.
Phases are just self contained clues that lead to a revelation. Doing multiple phases is a bit difficult but as you just saw it is possible. Once the accomplice is found they can give the players information on a few new locations for them to explore.
This can happen from the accomplice, objects in the apartment where they found the accomplice, anything. Give your players multiple opportunities to progress like before with extra clues that we talked about.
What if the players do not find out about all the locations? The locations should point to each other which solves this issue.
Creating multiple phases is difficult. You need to have a climax at the end of each phase that involves a chase, fight, revelation, something of the sort.
These phases are like scenarios in a campaign, but instead for a mystery. Like any campaign though, if you end up stringing your players along for too long they will get bored or at least increase the chance of them wandering to do something else.
Using phases is a bit of an advanced stage to make a D&D mystery, but let’s talk about wrapping things up.
Wrapping it up
Let’s wrap up this mystery! Your players have gained all the clues and are going to finally solve the mystery. How should you go about this?
Wrapping up any mystery is like wrapping up any other story. You should have it be climactic and exciting. This does not necessarily mean combat.
When you make a D&D mystery, it can be solved in different ways. If it is a game of wits then the players can accuse a noble at a dinner party and present their evidence of fraud. Other guests can be surprised and press the party to tell everything. Getting a sense of superiority and satisfaction for your hard work is a great climax.
Finally revealing a convoluted mystery is also a climax if the mystery is revolutionary. For example, finding out that the gods are actually just aliens would be a huge payoff. Clues could lead players to a location where this is fully revealed, but there are some potential pitfalls.
If you are doing a climax that is based on a twist like the god’s being aliens, make it understandable. No one likes it when a story just takes a nose dive into ‘wtf?’ territory.
If the gods for example are aliens let your players uncover little clues about it in the investigation. You do not need to make it obvious, but there should be enough small clues that when the twist is revealed players will revel in how it was foreshadowed.
If your players guess the answer to the mystery beforehand that is also okay. Reward them and do not punish your players for being smart. Like I have said, figuring out the answer is not the same as properly solving the mystery.
Just do your best to make the conclusion interesting and somewhat climactic. Speaking of conclusions.
There was a lot to cover with making a proper mystery, but it can be boiled down to:
Do not make linear only progression.
Allow your players to find clues in different phases.
Be flexible if you need to with players.
Incorporate the puzzle rules since mysteries are just multi-step puzzles.
I hope that this helped you make a D&D mystery this is done well and avoid some of the pitfalls that many dungeon masters fall into.
This has been Wizo and keep rolling!