I think that it is a duty of the DM to write adventures that provide players with a unique experience that a computer simply cannot provide. One genre that the video game world has never been able to reproduce very well is mysteries! Full fledged mysteries that keep us reading Batman stories, and Sherlock Holmes. An immersive world that puts the case into the hands of the PCs themselves, and they get to chose how they deal with it.
This of course isn’t an easy thing to do, and does require some work on the DM’s part, but once pulled off successfully, your players will be crazy not to come back for the next game! As a writer, I do take a writer’s approach when creating a dungeon . . . the word dungeon is used very loosely here.
The first thing that we have to figure out when creating mysteries is the motivations of all people that are going to be involved, primarily the Player Character’s motivations. You can do anything that you want, but if it doesn’t motivate your characters, then you are just wasting your time.
Player Character Motivations
Players are always motivated by money and fame, this comes to no surprise, so to this aim, PCs can simply be hired to solve the crime by local officials, or find a high bounty posted. Forming alliances and doing favors is always a great motivation that can further their group goals considerably.
Another motivation is favorite NPCs. A storeowner that the PCs frequent is falsely arrested for committing the crime, so the players must clear his good name before he is hanged. Barmaids at the PC’s favorite tavern are disappearing. An expert NPC is found murdered. A favorite NPC has been robbed. A deranged murderer has leveled his knife at the city which the PC’s use as their base of operations.
The motivation could also be personal. Somebody is framing the PCs for the crimes. Somebody is targeting the loved ones of the PC’s. The victims of a serial killer all share a characteristic of a PC. Somebody is hunting the PCs themselves. Then there is also revenge, players believe that the person behind this crime is a villain that has been dogging them, or somebody that they have offended in the past and treated unfairly.
Then there are emotional motivations. A crime spree that is so heinous and nasty that the PC’s feel obligated to help solve it for free, this can be something that upsets the player personally (be nice) or a crime that would upset the character on a personal level. A cleric would be disturbed by crimes of a religious nature, they are obligated to take a role is such circumstances of temple robbery, desecration of a cemetery, or the theft of church funds. Tailor the motivation to the PCs themselves, and you can get them to do the job for free.
Now that we know that we can get the players involved in the crime, we can begin to construct the crime that they are going to solve. While they have to go backwards, you need to be aware of what happened well before the crime happened. This requires a MO on your bad guy’s part.
For this exercise, we are going to focus on one crime, the biggest crime; Murder, as it requires the most attention, I will just take for granted that you can figure out for yourself the various motivations for stealing, murder on the other hand is its own animal. Why do people kill each other?
First, we go back to money. Rue the PCs who try to solve a professional hit, there will be no physical evidence, and an assassin will have to be found through violence, if he can be detected at all. But there is also greed, muggings going bad, street violence really doesn’t make the best mysteries for PC parties, the local authorities can solve these petty cases on their own, it is the baffling cases that seem explicable that they’ll need PC’s to help them with. White-collar crime does exist in the middle ages. If a financier is afraid that his ring of counterfeiters is about ready to be caught, he may figure out that these men will turn on him to save their own necks, thus he may start a killing spree to cover-up any witness that has information on him. Criminal organizations have their own brand of justice; these make great cases for PCs to pit their wits.
Villains may not see themselves as villains; maybe they think that what they are doing is helpful to somebody else. Their father’s carpenter business is suffering at the hands of a rival, so the son kills the rival. There are many reasons to commit murder, but few motivations.
Anger, compulsion, covering-up another crime, greed, jealousy, profit, protecting a loved one, revenge, lust, and for the shear thrill of committing a bloody act; these are the basic elements of any villains motivations. It is your job as a DM to hide these motivations from the PC’s, yet in a way where once they solve this simple question then they are that closer to solving the case.
There are basically five different types of killers, professionals, insane, intelligent, stupid, and weak.
Professional killers are cold-blooded, the only clues that they will leave behind is the ones that they are instructed to. This includes soldiers, and assassins. Not all professionals will bother covering up their crimes; a soldier for instance will make it known to everybody why the victim was slain.
Insane killers are equally as difficult to catch as the professional assassins are, but they make better game villains then assassins do, as there is always a similarity in their crimes. There are methods to the villain’s madness that are not at first obvious. Insane people revel in their crimes, depending on what fuels their motivations, a lust killer could also be killing for revenge. Unlike normal killers, they may have multiple motivations. They are not afraid of being captured, there crimes seem random and unpredictable, this is their weapon.
Intelligent killers are people who plan their crimes. They did not act out of passion alone; they will wait for the perfect opportunity, and may even go so far as to plant false evidence once they are finished. They will hide the bodies, and kill all witnesses that show up. They will do whatever it takes to protect themselves. Establishing a motive will be the only way that a character can catch these people, and an intelligent killer will hide their motives as well.
Stupid killers are people who do not think about what they are doing, not to say that a stupid killer is not intelligent, they can be. However, the crime itself they will commit in a passion. They will leave lots of evidence, and freak out, however later they will calm down and regain their intelligence. They may return to the scene and try to tamper with evidence. There crimes are done out of passion! The longer that these people get away with their crime, the harder it is to catch them.
Weak killers are also victims of their own passion, but they suffer from great guilt. They will leave lots of evidence, but won’t regain their intelligence, every waking moment they are haunted by what they did. They may wear a mask, but it isn’t very thick. Once cornered their strength will collapse and fall apart. If given time, the weak killer will typically be driven insane by remorse, and may try to kill himself to escape his madness, or perhaps commit more crimes.
Like motivations, some NPCs will share one or two characteristics of a killer type, and you may think of your own types to introduce as well. Primarily what this helps you do is set out clues, and define what the villain will do once he’s been exposed.
Now it’s time to construct your villain, flesh him out and make him real. Perhaps he already exists in your world? A NPC that has already met your players, perhaps somebody from the past. The most satisfying mysteries involve a villain that was there the entire time. Be creative, and once we have the bad guy ready, it’s time to send him off to perform his dark deeds!
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