No Crime Is Too Perfect

When most people start planning a mystery, they see the clues as all being where the culprit made mistakes in covering her tracks, visible signs of slipping up. As a result, they have trouble running culprits who know the tricks and how to work around them. What they don’t realize is that for a sharp group (or characters with decent investigation scores and cooperative dice), the absence of typical traces can be just as much of a clue as the traces themselves, and the means of coverup equally telling.

First is the obvious. A good coverup tells you you’re dealing with a professional, someone who knows how to hide her tracks. Someone like that might be an experienced criminal, who’s covered traces before and learned from her own mistakes. On the other hand, she might be a trained detective, good at hiding her traces because of all her practice in finding other people’s. An incomplete coverup might be a moderately advanced version of one of the above possibilities, or maybe high theory and no practice, like someone who’s been absorbing mystery novels for most of her life. If you’ve got a scene that has one or two absurdly obvious clues but nothing else, or obvious clues and a few oddly contradictory smaller clues, there’s a strong chance that it’s a frame-up by an expert or near-expert.

In addition, the means of the coverup makes for clues, particularly when there might be magic involved. Let’s say you’re dealing with a thief who swiped a knife from a drawer in a dusty bedroom. An amateur might tiptoe in and take the thing, leaving fingerprints and footprints (not that the former are quite as easy to read in a low-tech fantasy world, but I can think of ways sympathetic magic could substitute). An expert would probably wear gloves and something without a recognizable sole, so as not to leave distinctive prints—she might even sweep the floor to hide her tracks, which could throw off print-reading and sympathetic magic, though it wouldn’t do much to hide her presence. But even those leave traces. On the other hand, someone with the appropriate magic might walk on the walls and ceiling to decrease the odds of footprinting (footprints, if they exist, in unlikely places, fingerprints as normal), use a spell that ensures they leave no traces (the results should be obvious), animate the knife so that it pushes itself out of the drawer to fly to them (possible magic residue, likely signs of impact on the inside of the drawer), open a hole in space under the knife to drop it into her hand or use a similar teleportation technique (no obvious signs, possible magical residue).

Remember the tricks for avoiding investigative magic? A lot of them aren’t exactly subtle to the people using the magic, and which trick a perp uses says a lot about her skills and resources. A murderer who mangled the corpse beyond the ability to speak or just made sure the victim didn’t see her is one thing, but one who destroys the soul beyond hope of return or plants memories in her victim’s post-consciousness is magically gifted and likely decently clever. Even someone who’s lie-detector dodging might stand out as much for what can’t be gleaned from her responses as what can.

For the GM, this is a perfect opportunity to make use of those investigation-related skills. Not only can they find the traces or lack thereof, they can be used to translate the apparent lack of evidence into something useful. Not so redundant now, are they?

So don’t panic if your perpetrator’s concept strikes you as too clever for the obvious mistakes. There are other clues she can leave.

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