[RPG] Designing puzzle-based thesteries


I'm currently watching the BBC series Sherlock. In this episode, the central mystery is fascinating: first, there are symbols scrawled on the wall; next, these turn out to be a cipher; then, the cipher is revealed to be Chinese numbers; after that, the numbers are revealed to be a book code. And so on.

How can I design mysteries like this? What techniques or story structures will help me?

One problem is: how can I make a puzzle last for an entire scenario? How come the character don't just immediately solve it? But that's only one problem: I'm most interested in how to structure a story around a puzzle or mysteries.

(Note: A game like GUMSHOE will let me play through a mystery like this, but I'm specifically interested in how I'd design such a mystery in the first place.)

Best Answer

I keep the following principles in mind.

  • Make a list of clues that you can use in your story. One should be the crucial clue. This crucial clue is one piece of important information that helps finally solve the mystery. Other clues should build on that.
  • Think about "red herrings." Every red herring is an opportunity to have more roleplaying and cool scenes.
  • Suspense is an important ingredient in a mystery story.
  • Mysteries should begin with action, with suspense, with something interesting or exciting happening.
  • Start with the resolution first, then return to the beginning.
  • The different puzzles are plot coupons, way-stops that allow roleplaying. Unless you are actually having your players solve them, they have less importance then the roleplaying that comes from them.

Puzzles are interesting in tabletops. Unlike ARGs and Pervasives, where the puzzle is often a key element of the game (and thus real) the players don’t actually have to solve the puzzle (though they often should put the pieces together), they just have play through it. Unlike movies and tv we don’t need cool visual moments, we need cool interactions. So we’re closest to books, and if you want to really do well in this read some great golden age mysteries, for example.

What I do is usually develop a set of interlocking clues that lead from the central, crucial clue. Because I’m a big fan of suspense I also give interrelated stuff that is secondary but can help put the picture together. And because I’m a visual person I do this with a visual aid.

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I start at the end. In this case there is some horrible prophecy that will result in horrible things happening. Not the least the death of someone important.

Now we go to the beginning. Art galleries are fun. So we’ll have a scene at some opening of a painter, probably one I’d develop. There will be some art critic and a socialite and someone else to deal with. Probably my shadowy occult leader or an underling. During this scene someone in the group (the art historian type) will get a clue that is buried in the painting.

Our socialite/heiress will be kidnapped. There will be some clue that will force the players to the graveyard if they weren’t already on their way. Maybe they stop the kidnapping. Want to be prepared for that.

At the graveyard the players find Aramaic writing. Maybe they can read it, maybe they can’t. If this is a oneshot they wouldn’t be able to because that drives them to our professor of Aramic, which is another cool scene.

Somewhere along the way the cultists try to kill them. I'd keep this moment for when things slow down.

By this point we have a central clue trail (painting to graveyard to deciphering Aramaic) that tells the players what is going on. The heiress kidnapping and the attempts on their lives gives them supporting clues that allow them to show up and stop the cultists.

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