One of the biggest challenges in GMing a mystery is making sure that the clues actually point to what you want them to mean. You’d think that wouldn’t be hard, wouldn’t you? That as long as you know what you’re trying to say, that the players should be able to pick it up and follow it to the proper conclusion?
Think again. In many cases, a difference in logic processes is responsible for the GM-frustrating phenomenon usually referred to (guess who by!) as player oblivousness. What happens generally comes out to a simple problem: people don’t all think the same way, and it messes up the proper order of things.
For purposes of this article, I’m going to assume two general categories of logical process: incremental, and exponential. Incremental logic takes small steps to go down its path: it goes from Step A to Step B, from B to C, and so on and so forth until it methodically makes its way to Z. Exponential, on the other hand, is prone to taking longer jumps as it goes. Sure, it might start A to B to C, but at any moment it may leap over several steps, maybe more—and often, the more momentum it has, the more steps it will skip or combine.
The most game-freezing logic mismatch is incremental players with an exponential GM. In this case, you have a GM who’s prone to leaps of logic from not too much information, with players who prefer to take things step by step; the problem is, it hasn’t occurred to the GM that these steps are necessary. After all, she doesn’t need them.
On the other hand, an incremental GM with exponential players is going to have her own set of problems. This one has a plan, carefully coordinated as if she were writing it for herself, plenty of material—and then someone draws a conclusion that renders most of it redundant at best and irrelevant at worst. Frustrating? You bet.
But this kind of mismatch isn’t the only thing that can throw off a group; there’s also the kinds of conclusions that people are prone to draw, either through their expectations or through their prior experiences and areas of expertise. One player might be really good at reading social cues, but near-useless when it comes to political movements. Another lives for material-evidence sorts of detective novels, but you get them trying to reconcile too many accounts of what happened and they get all swirly-eyed. As a result, there are some sorts of clues that they’re going to understand perfectly and others they won’t make sense of; sometimes, even phrasing is going to be the difference between success and failure. (Watch out for idiosyncratic speech; you’d be amazed by how often I’ve seen it lead to the wrong conclusion.)
Another potentially problematic point is what happens if there’s a difference in logic process between the players, probably an entire issue of its own. That one’s mostly out of the GM’s hands, though she can help it along by finding ways multiple logic processes could get to the same conclusion and pushing them a bit (and possibly by mediating when they start griping at each other because the incremental evidence-oriented majority of the group isn’t quite getting the exponential connection-oriented player’s logic, or vice versa).
In short, many potentially mystery-foiling problems could likely be solved by observation or conversation with the players, trying to figure out how they think and how to shape your own clue-paths so that they’re drawn to think what you want them to think rather than something else entirely. It’s tricky, and it’s homework, but it’ll really help even outside of a mystery scenario; give it a shot!