Every Story is a Mystery

Something threatens the characters or the world around them. They kill it. They get gold, experience points, and items.

Something threatens the characters or the world around them. They kill it harder with their new found abilities and magic. They get gold, experience points, and items.

Something threatens the characters or the world around them. They super kill it because they are super high level. They get gold, experience points, and items. They yawn.

Congratulations. You’ve become predictable. The players have become bored. Killing monsters has pretty much become a 9-5 and play has dwindled down until its become a dice rolling session. Role play? What is role play?

It’s easy to get stale when you subscribe to the above strategies. When you’re a first level character, leveling up and getting stuff is super awesome. You’re not going to be able to keep the player’s attention for long that way, however. Mechanics are fun, but RPGs are really about the story. The intangible awards of the tale told can be much greater than any magical item in the book.

How do you create engagement with your stories, however? Easy. Just write a mystery. If you’re writing your own campaign, chances are you already are and might not even know it.

A mystery is defined as something that is difficult or impossible to understand or explain. It holds a secondary definition of a novel, play, or movie dealing with a puzzling crime, especially a murder. For our purposes, I’m going to shoot somewhere between the two. While the classical mystery novel deals with some sort of unsolved crime, it doesn’t have to be so with your campaign. It just needs things that aren’t known and understood by the characters that they will strive to uncover.

Taunting the characters with the unknown can instantly hook the players. Fighting off a horde of goblins is all well and good. What if those goblins are employed by something greater, however? Hinting that this goblin raid is part of some bigger yet-unknown event will kick the PCs into high gear. The question changes from, “How do we kill all these goblins” to “Why are all these goblins doing this?” Parties will adventure solely to find these answers.

In mysteries, or any good story in my opinion, there is information not readily known. There are secrets and things yet to happen that aren’t foreseen in the current text. If everyone knew how the story ended, why bother to tell it? You have to keep people guessing, and a mystery does just that. It engages the analytical  and imaginative parts of the brain to keep it dreaming up possible plausible scenarios, even as more information keeps coming to light.

Let’s take that goblin example again and apply a little cause and effect. Perhaps the goblins are raiding the village because they were pushed out of their ancestral lands by a red dragon. That makes the little green folks just the tip of the iceberg of horrible that is drifting toward the PCs. This gives us secrets. The PCs don’t know that there is a dragon and there is no need to tell them… yet.

The last goblin convulses on the ground, it’s hands cover the mortal wound inflicted by your sword. As the light fades from it’s eyes, it looks up blankly. It speaks to no one in particular, it’s mouth moving with great strain. 

“The great beast of the west will come for you next.”

The who? The what? You’ve told the PCs that there is a great beast and you’ve told them the direction. Everything else at this point is just one big question that you can milk for a long time.

The next session, perhaps they are hired to guard a caravan to the next town. They run into some brigands along the way, maybe some wagons get stuck in the mud… create a little drama for them. The big pay off at the end is arriving at the town, or at least arriving where it should have been.

There is no town anymore, just smoldering ruins. It’s been burned to ash. Some scavengers and bandits could have moved in to give the PCs a fight, but this isn’t the real issue. The real issue is a dragon burned the town to the ground. Again, the PCs don’t know this. They just know that the town is gone. They might start to speculate, but they’ll be unsure without any proof. Fear of the unknown is so much worse than fear of the known.

Travelers with tales of the midday sun going dark as a huge shape flew over head.  An elk telling the party druid that it is running because it’s forest was set aflame. Strange evil beings arriving to the area to pledge allegiance to some new dark lord… none of these things come right out and say dragon. They do say that something is wrong and its only getting worse.

Information is a great currency and mysteries are a great way to play with the supply and demand of it. While you can write a mystery in the classical sense, such as the party investigating who killed a local lord, the principles are just as applicable to any story you tell. Let them guess and conjecture. It’s satisfying to see what theories they come up with. Suddenly, everyone is a detective as they try to solve the problem of the unknown that is at hand.

Every story is a mystery.

Digging in the Sand

Bones. So many bones. How many people have been buried here?

You find a rusty long sword and a small, golden vulture head worth 250 gp.

Red Sand

The sand here on the edge of the sacrificial ground is loose and looks recently churned.

Vulture Priest

The Vulture Priests are the enemy of knowledge and enlightenment. They seek to bring the eternal silence, the end of all things. Decay and obedience is their only god.

Armor Class 6 [13]
Hit Dice 1 (4hp)
Attacks 1 × Beak (1d4 or by weapon)
THAC0 19 [0]
Movement 120’ (40’)
Saving Throws D12 W13 P14 B15 S16 (1)
Morale 8 (11 when at their temple)
Alignment Lawful
XP 10 
Number Appearing 2d4 (1d6 × 10)
Treasure Type D
Immune to the Divine: The spells and powers of clerics and paladins have no effect on them.
Weapons: They frequently use wickedly curved daggers, which they use for sacrificial purposes.
Soul Clouders: There is a 10% chance that any Vulture Priest can use the sleep spell once per day. The targets are still awake, but they are beset by such a deep depression that it has the same effect as sleep. They may only watch what unfurls around them.