Frame-Up Plots in RPGs

I’ve talked a lot already about mystery plots in general, but there’s one subset of mystery plot that strikes me as needing a particular attention: the frame-up plot. Character or group, usually one important to the PCs for whatever reason, is wrongfully accused of some sort of wrongdoing, PCs decide to Set Things Right, and things get complicated.

Why do we use them? They establish threat without having to go too far—a character can be targeted by this sort of plot without being killed… at least not yet. This means that unlike a murder, it can target a PC (okay, resurrection mechanics might allow a PC to engage in posthumous investigation, but that gets a tad awkward), or be used to merely dangle a sword over an NPC’s head rather than going for the “You killed them! VENGEANCE!” approach of a straight-on murder mystery, while still having a bit more punch than a standard theft plot.

The first thing to keep in mind is that any given frame-up plot has multiple possible endings that could be considered positive resolutions. One, of course, is proving the innocence of the character who was framed. Whether or not it actually implicates the guilty party, or even determines who the guilty party is, the point is that the framed character can be proven to have not done it, whatever it may have been. Tricky though it can be to prove a negative, this still has its uses: it allows for establishing a running antagonist while still giving the PCs some level of victory in the scenario (“You can prove it wasn’t him, but you can’t prove it was me”), and it can lead to interesting options for a party that isn’t quite as concerned with justice, per se (more on this tomorrow). On the other hand, there’s the resolution in which the real culprit is found and proven guilty. It’s not quite the same thing—for one thing, the person who actually did it isn’t always the person who framed the character who got the PCs involved, and for another, one can’t always prove they’re guilty of both. Yes, this isn’t a particularly common ending, but it’s not something we should necessarily discount, either.

The most important difficulty (and the one most needed to take into account when looking at the others) is figuring out what the PCs can actually do about the frame-up plot itself. It’s hard enough writing one of these plots when writing the main characters oneself, knowing who they are, what they’re capable of, and how they think. With PCs, you can’t even count on that kind of knowledge. At the very least, though, figure out what sorts of skills and abilities they can throw at the problem, particularly those ones that will allow them to succeed while others around them cannot (or, making it slightly more plausible, will not). Got that? See if you can find a way to make sure they know those skills should come into play: the arcane knowledge over here, the understanding of alchemical substances over here, the former connections with this group or that bizarre spell with the astral pinholes or the pickpocketing or… you get the idea.

Frame-up plots may be complicated, but they’re still useful, and still interesting.


  1. Michael says:

    That’s an intriguing thought. I haven’t really done anything along those lines myself (even in my writing, where I don’t have the extra complication of dealing with PCs) but I would like to, if I ever come up with the right context for one….

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