How do you run a good Mystery in D&D? I’ve tried it once. It’s a very different style to a dungeon crawl.
With a dungeon crawl, you have a setting, you have encounters within it, and you (hopefully) have a goal to achieve (even if it’s just “beat ’em all up and steal their valuables”). The links between encounters and the options available are determined by the layout of the dungeon.
With a mystery, it’s all rather more mysterious.
There’s the hook – somehow the PCs have to stumble on the mystery.
Then there are the clues – the PCs need to be able to find a trail that ultimately leads them forwards, hopefully giving them enough that they can put two and two together and get at least three and a half, which with enough luck (and some careful GM prodding) should be enough to lead them to the denouement.
All rather more amorphous and less structured. And easy to mis-judge, as I found out when I tried it.
The premise was simple – young women fitting a certain look were disappearing on a regular basis. This was supposed to lead to a slavery chain where the local thieves’ guild was abducting a young woman every month and shipping her to the Black Eagle Barony.
So, step 1: the hook. Missing posters for 6 young women, along with dates (pointing to the fact that it’s approximately every month, but with one or two gaps hinting that not everyone had been reported).
Then working out who might know about them, who the PCs could approach for more information as to who they were, what they did, and how they disappeared. Of course the situations of each was different – some were better known, some had lots of friends, one was reported missing by an uncle from another town – but they all had some background clues.
Having arranged all this information for the PCs, the next step was to try to make sure the different leads pulled together into one or more strands which would eventually point the way to what might be happening and who to watch/approach/follow to find out more. And then this would turn into a rescue chase, although we never got that far.
So how did it go?
I definitely found I needed to be quite active in providing concerned, interested NPCs guiding them on the way. Also, maybe adding red herrings wasn’t necessary… Finally, just going round interviewing people got a bit boring for both the players and me, so I had to introduce a chase and a rescue to liven things up a bit and provide some variety (and provide more clues as to the eventual fate of these women). And ultimately, I think the group wasn’t really up for an adventure like this. (Well, this was my family, where only my son was interested in playing at all, and my wife and daughter were just going along with it to humour us and as something to do together. So it was shortly after this I cut my losses and stopped trying to force them to be interested.)
I might dust it off for another group. But I would need to make sure there were sufficient non-talking encounters along the way.
Waterdeep: Dragon Heist is a bit of a mystery trail with a mixture of encounters, so could be an example to work from. Reading through it, however, I worry that the trail goes cold too easily – each theme is designed as a linear trail from one scene to the next, and sometimes the transition to a new scene depends on an ability check – which means if the group fail the check, they’re scuppered and need rescuing in some way. Better to let them get the information, but increase the cost/risk in some way if they fail.
Tomorrow we have “Guide”.