Mystery Mistakes: The Undefined Suspect List

Many people run mysteries in their games, but not all of them are successful—and in many cases, the failure can be pinned on the GM. This week, I’m going to discuss ways the GM can inadvertently sabotage her own mystery.

One of the biggest ways to scuttle a mystery is an undefined suspect list. And I don’t just mean “the characters don’t know who all the suspects are at the beginning of the mystery”, or “the characters don’t know any of the people who are going to turn out to be suspects.” I mean “Even the GM doesn’t actually know the list of suspects”, or “the list of suspects is absurdly large and bounded by a condition rather than a list of names”.

It shouldn’t be too hard to see the problem with the first version. If you don’t know who the suspects are, you can’t stick them under the characters’ noses so they can look them over and then either consider or eliminate them. As a result, you might not have a very good idea what sort of path to provide, nor even what form the investigation is going to take. While not having a direction or even a clear crossroads in a game may not be the fastest way to frustrate the players, it’s certainly one of the most effective. You might instead end up with a scenario that turns into “Suspect one person, investigate person, eliminate person, move on” until they find the right one, and that’s likely to bore you as much as it does them.

Then we have “the list of suspects is absurdly large, and bounded by a condition rather than a list of names”. Particularly when not everyone in the list has been defined as a character, including the culprit. It may seem tempting at first—it’s certainly going to take a while for the group to figure out whodunit, particularly if you don’t bring attention to the culprit’s name either. But what that gives you, again, is people who don’t know where to start, and further discouraged by the sheer size of the culprit list and their complete lack of background on it. Imagine playing Clue with a 256-color cast, only you’re not entirely sure whether the color designations are RGB, CMYK, Standard Paint Brand or Crayola Palette.

Speaking of the culprit, whoever it is doesn’t have to be someone whom the PCs know, but it had best be someone the PCs know of. Having as culprit an unknown character can seem like a cop-out. If the unknown character hasn’t even been foreshadowed, it just seems like trying to toss in a perpetrator so you can get on to another plot; whether or not that is your actual intention, it’s not going to come across well to your players. It may not be cheating by the rules of whatever game you’re running, but it’s certainly a dramatic cheat.

Is it just suspects, you might wonder? Mostly. After all, with the right clues, the right questions to the suspects, and a lie detector, one might be able to solve a mystery without a defined witness list. Characters with a good spread of skills can either handle situations that might otherwise require experts, or might just come up with ways to avoid needing skills they don’t have. But if they don’t have any idea who they’re supposed to suspect in a given case, people end up suspecting nobody, everybody, or the first person who looks dubious, and none of those work too well.

In short: know your suspect list, don’t make it too big unless you’ve got a way to narrow it down, and above all watch for PC confusion.

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