How to run a murder mystery in D&D

Running a murder mystery in D&D

Running a murder mystery in D&D is something that many dungeon masters want to do at least once in their lives. The problem is that we do these events only once and most of the time screw them up.

Running a murder mystery in D&D is just like a normal mystery. You have an excess of clues, locations, and a plot that is not going to change.

This being said, you will want to consider some extra factors when running a murder mystery.

The mystery

A murder mystery in D&D is in many aspects just like a normal mystery in D&D. If you read this article on mysteries first and how to run them, then you will already be ahead.

Did you read the article on mysteries? It is important because I am going to mention some things that are in the mystery article.

When you plan a murder mystery you need to have the plot all laid out for your players ahead of time. This does not mean just planning out the traps, puzzles, and other things that will lead to a conclusion. You will need to plan out more.

Why did someone get murdered and why are all the extra people there? If your players are just told to find someone’s murderer they will need suspects. Each suspect is a normal person who has their own motivations and secrets. This does not mean that they committed murder. Each suspect just has something to hide and must be considered a suspect for a reason.

A completely different issue is that some dungeon masters focus too much on making each character. The dungeon masters who do this do not focus on the plot and this leads to another issue. Player’s can’t solve the mystery.

You are not trying to make a mystery that is truly mysterious and not meant to be solved. It should take a little bit of effort but your players should be able to figure it out.

Too many times the players encounter these scenarios. (2-3 minutes into the video.

If the dungeon master focuses too much on the characters and making stories have no evidence, players will come up with crazy ideas. In the 2-3 minutes mark the players came up with ridiculous ideas that were wrong, but in the next game the player figured it out. The dungeon master most likely focused on characters and the overall plot instead of all the minor details.

You need to strike a healthy balance of plot and characters in order to make a murder mystery work properly.

Considering a murder mystery

Dungeon masters generally want to run a murder mystery at some point during their career. They want to run it so bad that the dungeon master encourages the players to play the murder mystery, but finds out that this isn’t a good group for it. Or the players just don’t want to play this type of game.

That is why you need to let your players know what is going on before the game happens and understand your group’s needs/wants. If your group loves hack n slash games like in this article, then you should not run a murder mystery with that group. You will eventually find a group that will love murder mysteries, but not this one.

Your group might just not like puzzles or mysteries. I know a person who will just give up or break the game before attempting to solve a puzzle. They are a good player, but they just hate puzzles. Keep things like this in mind before you plan a murder mystery.

The other part that you need to consider before running a murder mystery in D&D is telling your players. Can telling your players take away some of the fun? Not really. It only takes away a fraction of the fun when they know beforehand that you want to do something different. It drastically increases the likelihood of your murder mystery being a success.

In the video, it talked about how the players first found out they were in a murder mystery. The dungeon master was annoyed that they figured out his brilliant awesome plan. The players didn’t take anything seriously, and it was a disaster narratively.

If you tell your players what is happening and speed up the lead into a murder mystery you won’t have players mocking your game. You will also not get angry at the players which helps everyone involved.

Telling them beforehand lets you know that they are okay with a murder mystery and that you don’t need to focus too much on the setup. The setup isn’t nearly as important as the mystery.

Conceptualizing the mystery

A murder mystery in D&D does not need to be about crime. Someone can die by committing suicide. The person can die by an allergy and then have their head hit the table. It looks suspicious, but it doesn’t need to be an actual murder.

That being said, you will probably still want to make it an actual crime.

If there is no crime it can really rub the group the wrong way when done incorrectly. I mention that it can be a murder mystery with no crime because I have seen some dungeon masters do this. A few have done it well while the majority have never told their players the truth or angered their players. People don’t like to do things without a purpose and this seems like something without a purpose when there is no culprit.

The one way that I have seen this work successfully is if the deceased either wasn’t actually dead or died for some purpose. It could be to claim insurance or frame an enemy in order to protect their descendants.

In short, have a culprit and a motive unless you have run a few murder mysteries in D&D.

As for a crime murder mystery, you don’t need to overthink it.

Most dungeon masters get too complex with their plots and the players never discover 80% of the truth behind the scenes. With a murder mystery, you want your players to discover 80% of the plot and understand that there is 10-15% more plot they have not uncovered. The other 10-5% is just for things they will never know.

This is why you want the motive to be simple, but the deed and suspects are shrouded in mystery.

The suspects

Every murder mystery in D&D or any other piece of literature/media needs to have interesting suspects.

If your suspects are easily figured out they are written off. If the players can narrow down the number of suspects they will solve the murder mystery easily. Your players cannot narrow any suspects down, then they will just give up or go insane.

Understanding this, you need to give your players enough information to write off suspects but still be suspicious of them.

Your NPCs need to have their own motivations. In fact, I talk about how you should build the basics for a good NPC in this article. The article has a section about goals and motivations. This is the part that you need to read.

Each NPC in a murder mystery needs to have their own goals, motivations, and secrets. Why were they there? Mr. Fredrick might not have committed the murder, but he doesn’t want anyone finding out about his gnome fetish. He came to pay off the deceased so that his wife wouldn’t find out.

This NPC doesn’t want to tell the party why he was there. He wouldn’t tell them even to clear his name unless he was really pushed.

Every NPC should be like this. They should all have a goal for coming to the party, a motivation to not tell the truth, and a secret to hide. This also solves the ‘insight check!’ problem. Everyone has something to hide so no one is entirely telling the truth.

Once your NPCs have this the players will have a hard time figuring out who is the murderer, but they still can find out the answer. This is why you need to evolve the 3 clue rule.

3 clue rule

The 3 clue rule is originally found here in the Alexandrian.

I adapted the rule in my mysteries article and made it a little simpler. In a murder mystery, we need to do more than just having the 3 clue rule.

A murder mystery in D&D requires more clues than a normal mystery. All the talk of where to place clues and phases in my original mysteries article is correct, but you need to evolve this concept for murder mysteries in D&D.

The 3 clue rule applies to the overall plot points. The clues that you want the group to find.

There should be multiple ways to figure out a clue and they should all link to each other just in case.

For a murder mystery, you need to do more.

Instead of just using the 3 clue rule for plot points, we need to adapt it for every NPC. The players should be able to find out why every NPC is involved at this dinner party, ball, family gathering, whatever the setting is. You will need to link the clues for the mystery with clues about each NPC.

Instead of room 1 giving potential answers to plot point a, b, and c, you need to make room 1 give potential answers to plot points a, b, and character 3’s reason why they are here.

This makes the 3 clue rule turn into more of a web. You are not just linking phases to each other, but instead making every clue and reason why people are there linked.

This way the players will be able to solve the murder, but they also will learn about each suspect. Your players should also not need every clue in order to solve the murder. If your players find 2/3 of the clues they should be able to solve the murderer with some doubt, but 2/3 is a pretty good amount. If you are unsure, just add more clues. Speaking about uncertainty.

Red herrings

A red herring is a false trail. In good detective stories, red herrings are set so that the investigators will be thrown off. Your players are not good detectives. I would be impressed if they were just below average.

Because most players don’t play detective very often, they won’t be able to solve things easily. Your players will even make their own red herrings!

This is why you should not plant any red herrings in your game. Players are already going to have a tough enough time to solve a mystery on their own. With red herrings involved, there is almost no chance of success.

The players’ red herrings might be so bad that it will stop them from even solving the adventure. This is why you really should talk to them.

Ask them from time to time what they are thinking or just listen into their conversation. They might start deceiving themselves and believe that the gnome fetish was a coverup for the real reason! This is when you need to step in.

Instead of having 3 clues in an area just add another clue that re-affirms what they already know. It shouldn’t be too hard to do this. Add a note in a gnome’s journal entry about how the gnome fetish guy seems to be staring creepily at him/her. Just keep adding a few things here and there to help the players steer away from self-destructive thinking.

What you do not want to do in any murder mystery in D&D is to pull a Game of Thrones.

Changing the plot

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You have carefully crafted the murder mystery in D&D to lead to a specific conclusion. You made every clue, foreshadowing, and plot point lead up to the main culprit. If your players find out beforehand, don’t feel bad and don’t pull a Game of Thrones.

In the TV series Game of Thrones, they foreshadowed and put forth little clues. There was a specific ending in mind and some people saw it coming. Since some people saw it coming the whole ending was changed.

This made everyone feel betrayed, that a master story was destroyed, and the ending at worst made the whole series forgettable since it betrayed it’s audience.

This is why you do not want to change the plot!

Adding a little bit of guidance as we talked about above is only changing 1 thing to help players realize the narrative. If you change the endpoint you are not changing 1 thing. You are changing everything.

This is extremely bad and should never be done.

Now with all this being said, there are some specific D&D problems with murder mysteries in D&D.

5 Specific D&D problems

Your players are not detectives. They cannot find a bloody piece of paper and figure out who committed a murder. If you have a specific idea in mind your players will not follow it. You are playing D&D, not writing a book. That is why you need to keep a few things in mind.

  1. Give extra time.

When players try to investigate they will dally. Instead of chasing a suspect they might decide to go shopping. That is why they should be given extra time when trying to figure out the murder. Do not expect a whole murder mystery to be solved in 2 hours. For every player add at least 1 game to solve the mystery. If the mystery is laughably simple it will be solved in 1 session or you did something wrong like focus too much on story and not have enough characters to keep your party guessing.

This is why you need extra time. Any decently done mystery will require extra time for your amature detectives to work out.

2. Don’t have too many suspects.

If you have too many suspects it will overwhelm the players. Instantly narrow it down. Make the players know about 2-3 suspects and build from there if you can. At most, have 10 NPCs. When you have 100+ suspects the players will most likely move on.

If something is too hard the players will give up and do something else.

3. Give the players the authority to investigate.

If players don’t feel like they can investigate they might not do so. This could be trouble and why should they feel responsible for someone’s death? It is just a random dude when the players kill dozens of things a day.

At worse, the players might just break and kill everyone to get out of there.

This is why you need to give them the authority to investigate. Killing a guard would make the party feel like they have authority because no one is in charge now and they don’t want to get blamed for the murder. Players could be told that they are able to help investigate. Whatever you need to in order to get players to cooperate.

Players are not fictional characters that will go out of their way to help people. If you push authority on them then no group, even a shy one, should just abandon the job of finding out who did it. (unless it was too hard, the evolved 3 clue rule wasn’t followed, or they had too many suspects).

4. Plan for magic

Murder mysteries in D&D should easily be solved because of magic. Zone of truth and speak with dead are 2 big ones. “Who killed you?” solves most murders. Why wasn’t the person able to see their killer? Everyone doesn’t want to tell the truth about everything so no one will want to be in a zone of truth.

Think of reasons why big spells like these will not just solve the mystery for the players. Plan for game-breaking magic like you are designing a high-level dungeon even though you might be doing a low-level game.

5. Adjust for your group

Not every group wants to just solve a mystery with their minds. Some groups have barbarians and people who want to adventure even when solving a mystery.

For these groups, you can have a climactic fight or hide clues under fights. You have multiple clues and areas pointing towards the truth or motivation of one character so having a few clues tucked under traps and monsters might make the game more interesting. Perhaps the monsters themselves are clues.

Adjust to your group so that the mystery is right for your party when needed.

Conclusion

I was going to extend on the last 5 things to consider for D&D murder mysteries, but this article is already pretty long.

If you are still unsure about how to run a murder mystery, our affiliate at Dungeon Vault has a great murder mystery to give you a template to work off of or just use as your own here. I started designing dungeons with old D&D modules as a guide to learn and I would have loved this back when I was trying to run my first murder mystery. I leave you to decide, but it might help you out or just be very interesting to you!

If you are running a murder mystery in D&D make sure you look at the 5 specific D&D problems and our article on mysteries. If you read just two things from this article those are the most important.

While those are the two most important things, you still should implement every aspect of the article when creating your murder mystery. You have not run quite a few murder mysteries yet and should keep basic things in mind like

-don’t change the plot

-talk to your players (at specific points)

-Red herrings

-NPCs and how to properly make them for a murder mystery.

If you keep all of these things in mine and read the article you should make a successful murder mystery and not run a failure murder mystery like many other dungeon masters have run.

This has been Wizo and keep rolling!

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