A little while back, Trey from From the Sorcerer's Skull wrote about how he builds mysteries into his campaign settings, in response to a question I asked him. Ever since, I've been meaning to collect and share some of Trey's other advice about building a mystery-filled campaign.
I first noticed that From the Sorcerer's Skull had advice on campaign mysteries when Trey posted a list of six unknowns in his Land of Azurth campaign, and then a follow-up to check-in on how many his players had solved.
In The Cultivating and Care of Campaign Mysteries, Trey lays out five pieces of concrete advice for creating a mystery-filled campaign:
- Embed the mysteries at the time of setting creation
- Don't decide on all the answers
- Create recurring NPCs to encourage player interest
- Create treasures that connect to the mysteries
- Build on player ideas
The first bit of advice here seems obvious, but probably is worth pointing out explicitly. You need to decide on some secrets early in your setting design process, so that you'll be able to decide on hints and clues to get your players interested. "If you want the players interested in the mysterious background of your setting, it has to be there."
His second piece of advice seems to contradict the first, but I think the idea is that you should decide on questions, but shouldn't decide on all the answers. Some questions your players might never investigate, and so might never need an answer. Other questions, an answer better than what you might have originally thought of could emerge as a logical conclusion during play.
I feel like this relates to the advice to build on player ideas. By that, Trey means trying to connect the player character backstories to the campaign mysteries - giving the characters a stake in the mystery, or using elements of their backstory as clues. But I think building on player ideas can also mean building ideas that they propose while they're investigating. When they describe what they've learned so far, and what conclusion they draw from it, that might sound more correct than what you originally thought of, and that's okay.
Trey's other two recommendations here are to use NPCs and treasures to help get the players involved in the mysteries. NPCs who act suspiciously might suggest themselves as suspects. The search for a famous treasure might reveal clues that illuminate the setting's history. And both NPCs and treasures are things that players want to interact with and learn more about, making them a source for clues that players will want to learn.
This piece ties in well with some of Trey's other advice about campaign setting creation. Adventure Time and Campaign Construction is a defense and explanation of making some of it up as you go along, rather than making it all up in advance. Setting History Should Do Something is a more general discussion of what kind of setting material is most (and least!) useful to make up, regardless of when you do it.
Trey explains his reasoning for not creating too much of your setting in advance:
- The campaign should start simple to make it accessible
- Seeing what the players like and respond to can help guide your setting creation
- The setting should only be revealed a little a time, in ways that connect to the adventure
A lot of the idea here is to slow down the pace at which you invent setting details to help enforce a slower pace of revelation. You don't want to overwhelm your players with too much detail before they even start playing, and if you haven't written the details yet, then you can't over-share them.
In addition to your players proposing ideas and theories at the table, what they're interested in (and what they're not) can help guide you to only create the things they want and you need. Again, you don't want to reveal too much detail during each gaming session; leaving things undecided prevents you from revealing more than you should.
And again, Trey suggests using monsters, NPCs, and treasures as like "hooks" to try to attract player interest and to show you what they care about. When they start tugging on a string, it's time for you to start fleshing out whatever's at the end of it.
The idea here isn't that you make it all up along the way, but rather, you start with a strong foundation and build it as you go, rather than starting with the entire edifice (or starting with nothing!)
When you are writing some backstory for your campaign, Trey recommends that backstory should:
- Reinforce the themes, flavor, or mood of the setting
- Establish constraints or parameters for adventures
- Provide obstacles for players overcome or toys for them to play with
- Avoid describing events that are repetitive or don't directly impact the present day setting
One way to think about this advice is to not write setting material that isn't actually important to your setting; another is to make sure to let your players interact with whatever is important.
Eberron is a bit guilty of violating Trey's suggestions here, with its ten-thousand year backstory, its series of highly similar apocalyptic invasions by varieties of reality-warping demons, and its setting-defining war that's finished before the campaign starts. Carcosa suffers from this too - there are psychic powers you'll never roll high enough to receive, cool alien artifacts you can't use, rituals you're (supposedly) not supposed to perform, and even a titular city that isn't really even there to visit.
Even the core rulebooks of most editions of D&D are guilty of this is in a way - playing the way the rules suggest, by starting at 1st level and likely dying multiple times while trying to level up, the books are filled with class features you'll never receive, spells you'll never be high enough level to cast, monsters you'll never have enough hp to fight, and artifacts you'll never find as treasure. That's not just because there's too much stuff to include it all, but because so much of the coolest stuff is explicitly walled off where most players will never get to it without breaking the rules. (Plus NPCs who sound suspiciously like Gary and his friends - they're more powerful than any PC, and either you'll never meet them, or they'll totally overshadow you if your paths ever cross.)
The way I interpret Trey's advice here is, basically, don't do that. Whether you're laying the foundation for your setting before the first game or adding details mid-campaign, figure out what's supposed to be important, and give the players the opportunity to encounter it right away. Whether that's as clues they keep running into, rumors they keep hearing - or as monsters, treasures, NPCs, or adventuring sites they actually get to see - give them the good stuff. (Because if you don't, a corollary of this idea is that whatever you DO give them is what your campaign is actually about - no matter what you intended.)
In a mystery campaign, presumably that means foregrounding the mysteries, the hints that lead you to wonder about them, and the clues that help you solve them. If you built mysteries into the backstory of your campaign, but the players never learn about, or find any evidence to help unravel them, then they're essentially dormant, and whatever your campaign's actually about, it isn't about solving those (unknown, unrealized) mysteries.
Azurth isn't a sandbox, it's got an episodic, mission-based campaign structure that gives Trey a bit more control over which part of the setting his players are interacting with each session. But he does have some ideas for building a setting where they player are more free to wander around looking for secrets. In The Weird Town: Investigative Sandbox, he offers some ideas for creating a compact setting where almost every major site holds a mystery.
- The town has many distinct secrets to investigate
- The town itself is weird and mysterious (not just a neutral site where crime coincidentally occurs)
- The player characters might be outsiders, but have a connection to town that gives the investigation some urgency
Finally, Trey also has some concrete advice for GMs to use to keep their players' investigations moving along. In The Simple Art of Mystery, he offers seven tips for GMs so they can facilitate (rather than hindering) their players' attempts to solve mysteries:
- Make sure the players want to solve a mystery
- Have a plan but leave some things open
- Always let the players find the most important clues
- Repeated interactions with the same NPCs always reveals new information
- If the players reach an impasse, an NPC will always react to their investigation so far
- Every NPC has a secret
- The players can solve mysteries without being Sherlock Holmes
The first piece of advice here is another bit that seems obvious but bears mentioning, which seems to be Trey's hallmark for starting off these pieces. Make sure your players know they're solving mysteries, and make sure they're on board to do that.
The next piece of advice here is another hallmark, you need a strong foundation in order to leave meaningful clues, but don't fill in every single detail in advance. Your players' guesses about what's going on might supply ideas worth including in the canon, and their actions during the game might cause you to invent details you couldn't have planned to include. When this works, it creates a sense that the players have discovered something true that even the gamemaster didn't realize before. But for that to work, these discoveries probably shouldn't contradict information you planned but never revealed.
Trey places a lot of importance on NPC interactions, which feels appropriate. Your players can search a room and find all the physical objects in it (and if any of those objects are clues, Trey recommends letting them find the object, rather than risking failure with a skill check) - but figuring out the meaning of those objects is probably going to require talking to NPCs. Just like every building in the mystery town houses its own weirdness, every NPC has their own secret. In addition to solving your main mystery, you can also make progress by figuring out what each person is hiding.
You probably learn as much from a clue-object directly as you're going to learn the first time you look closely at it (at least within the game!) - but you can always learn new information by talking to NPCs, even the same NPCs you talked to last time. If you have new questions, they have new answers. If you don't have new questions, because you've hit some kind of impasse, then it's time for an NPC to do something that generates new information. The mystery shouldn't exactly solve itself with no input from the players - remember, they're supposed to want to be here doing this - but it's a classic trope of the genre that having nosy kids start poking around spooks the villain into reacting. Canny investigators sometimes do things simply to provoke a reaction that will reveal a vital clue. Arguably, in fact, those villain reactions should happen with some regularity, even before the players have exhausted all their current leads. Just make sure that however the villain reacts, it actually does generate new questions to ask, new NPCs to talk to, or new places to look for clues.
Which is why Sherlock Holmes is probably a poor model for mystery solving in RPGs. In the popular imagination at least, Holmes is a guy who finds some ash from pipe tobacco on the ground, tastes the ashes, then calls on his voluminous memory of varieties of tobacco and where each type is sold across town and combines that with his vast experience with licking ashtrays to produce a list of tobacconist shops the villain must be a regular at. His shtick is that stuff that you'd normally need a crime lab for, he can do in his head.
But that's not how mystery solving goes at the RPG table. For obvious reasons, the players can't analyze the clues that way in their own heads. What they can do is ask the gamemaster "hey, would my character know which shop sold the tobacco that produced this ash?" But that's not nearly as interesting as getting the same answer by finding the genius perfumer who can discern the tasting notes by sniffing the ashes, then taking their findings to the blustering and self-important tobacco sommelier who knows all the shops in the city. In both cases, the players ask the gamemaster a question and get an answer, but it's so much more interesting if the answer comes out of the mouth of a fascinating NPC than if the GM simply states "sure, your character's a chain-smoker with pica, here's the address." In a game that's not about solving mysteries, maybe it makes sense to do a skill check, get the information, and move on, but if your purpose for being there at the game table is to enjoy the process of the investigation, then I think Trey's right, Holmes isn't a very good model for how that should go.