The mystery is in many ways an extension of the Western, translating the lone cowboy into the lone private eye and the dangers of the untamed West into the dangers of the untamed underworld. Even that greatest of all detectives, the Englishman Sherlock Holmes, had his brushes with the American West, although in general his alienation was of a more cerebral, artistic sort, fed by his genteel drug addiction. The classic mystery is a “whodunit,” characterized by a problem that can be solved through careful analysis of all of the clues or some sort of puzzle. These tend to be quiet, thoughtful mysteries, the preferred reserve of the armchair detective.
However, in the first American pulp detective stories, as in the American western, themes of the individualist, alienation, and redemption ran paramount. Modern mysteries have since moved away from those themes and embrace just about any possible type of detective. Still, the crux of the mystery depends on hunting down clues, which is often done by individuals rather than groups, and a final showdown with the criminal, which usually pits the protagonist alone against the villain. In an RPG, you’ll need to open things up more, since games usually have an ensemble cast — this may make it challenging for the GM, if the players split up to follow clues independently.
Mysteries can be roughly separated into the subgenres of “hardboiled,” “suspense/spy,” “cozy,” “forensic,” and “legal.” Hardboiled fiction was made famous by the likes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett, usually featuring male ex-cops who are hard-drinking, tough-talking loners who are suckers for a lady in distress and make their own rules. Suspense/spy fiction was made famous by Ian Fleming’s James Bond series and now features works by authors like Tom Clancy or Jack Higgins. It is filled with high-profile crimes (or crimes to be prevented), car chases, rescues, and violent final showdowns. The “cozy” or “traditional” mystery, in contrast, typically features homebody sleuths a la Agatha Christie’s Miss Jane Marple or Ellis Peter’s Brother Cadfael who quietly figure out mysteries through the careful observation of clues and character with a minimum of combat or personal danger. In these cases the crime is usually low-key, such as a local murder or theft, rather than world-threatening. “Forensic” fiction is similar, with the protagonist using modern science instead of more homespun wisdom to solve a crime; it is often gory, however, and serial killers are popular antagonists. Finally, legal mysteries such as those popularized by John Grisham’s novels and movies have lawyers as their protagonists and revolve around the intricacies of the legal profession.
Themes, Motifs, Settings, and Events
In a mystery, the Hero’s Journey is usually a conflict designed to right or prevent a wrong. Typically the protagonists fight to protect others, the “innocents” who are being preyed on by blackmailers, thieves, murderers, politicians, etc. In many subgenres of mystery fiction, the protagonist will eventually face physical danger, but brawn is insufficient to succeed in this genre—intelligence, analytical skills, empathy, and insight into human character are equally important. Mysteries often contain more than one villian—while trying to figure out the solution to one problem, the protagonist almost unvariably unravels a few other lesser mysteries, as well.
Detective heroes may work for the same organization or police force, be friends, lovers, or married couples. Some may use only their brains, but many will use all the scientific tools at their disposal, calling on a broad range of contacts to gain information. In all cases, the detective must be motivated by a desire to do good, even if that desire has been soured by cynicism or tainted by a tendency to use violent methods to bring about justice.
The mystery setting can be anyplace; from the distant past to the distant future. Most mysteries are set in a large city in the present day, but there’s absolutely no reason to do so, and exceptions abound in literature and cinema.
Mystery themes include a desire for justice, law versus chaos, the individual versus the corrupt or indifferent employer or society, and protection of the innocent victim. Some common mystery characters are cynical private eyes, corrupt older police, idealistic young police, femmes fatales, victims in distress, government agents, lawyers, mobsters, criminal masterminds, squealers, gang members, serial killers, forensic psychologists, forensic anthropologists, meddling kids, and the nosy media. Some common events are:
Fights (fisticuffs or exchange of gunfire) in a(n)
• gas station
• abandoned building
• remote spot overlooking the city
• fancy ambassadorial ball
• munitions factory
• super-secret laboratory
Daredevil showdowns between
• cars and/or motorcycles
• railroad cars
• parachutes or parasails
Gathering up or opposing a(n)
• police investigative team
• government special ops team
• international terrorists
• drug smugglers
• serial killer
• cat burglar
Escape from a(n)
• mobster’s hideout
• criminal mastermind’s death trap
• boring party
• vehicle plunging toward certain doom
• Set the game in an alternate Earth or another world entirely
• Use magic as a tool to replace scientific devices for, say, DNA testing or lie detection
• Use big monsters as the villain’s thugs or agents
• Local crimes are similar, but high-profile crimes might feature evil archmages or high priests, and threats to a kingdom
• Concentrate on personal combat with fists, knives, or crossbows, and avoid the standard swordfight or clash of armies.
• Set the game in the Old West
• Create NPCs who are consistent with the Old West, such as villains who are desperados, saloon owners, cattle ranchers, sheriffs, railroad barons, gold miners, settlers, etc.
• Feature chases on horseback, between stagecoaches, or on a train
• Run a mystery involving murder, most often, or perhaps theft from a train, bank, or Wells Fargo stagecoach.
• Emphasize gory, unusual deaths with an occult edge, or the sighting of ghosts or other creatures, as the mystery
• Let the detectives follow red herrings until they’re left with nothing but the supernatural explanation
• Ghosts of the victims may provide clues to the murderer
• Make it clear that the villain cannot simply be arrested, but must be destroyed or sent away through some unusual means
• Set the final scene in an appropriately spooky area; abandoned subway tunnels, an incomplete high-rise, a cemetery, a morgue, etc.
• Emphasize the use of technology, especially James-Bondesque gizmos
• Make the crime that has occurred or that must be prevented something high-profile and dependent on technology, like nuclear holocaust, theft of all electronic funds around the world, mind control, cloning, etc.
• Make the villain hard to take down simply by shooting — the villain is extremely protected, a government committee, a secret branch of a large megacorp, an artificial intelligence, an alien invader, etc.
• Show the characters’ vulnerability to technological tampering in their lives by the villains, who may cancel all their credit, rewrite their identity, take their children, and so forth.
• Create either “the perfect crime” that must be solved, or set the superheroes up to prevent commission of some awful crime.
• The villain should either be another super-person or some large institution that the superheroes will find much harder to combat, such as a government branch or large, public organization.
• Throw out red herrings to indicate that one of the superheroes might be behind the crimes, or members of their families, or some sort of important friend to the group
• In general, focus on forcing the heroes to use their brains rather than their super-abilities. Mysteries can be the great equalizer between superheroes and the rest of the world.
• Emphasize London fogs or the steam from city gratings; acid rain or grey, cloudy days.
• The protagonists should be cynical but good at heart; feel free to test their cynicism by putting innocents into danger. If the victims die, grind the protagonist’s face in it.
• Organizations such as the local police force, city government, the DA’s office, and so forth should be rife with corruption
• Dwell on the dirt, both real and metaphorical — emphasize inequality, bitterness, problems too large for any one person to solve
• The villains should be more likely to beat up the protagonists than to kill them, unless the protagonists are close to stopping them. Noir villains don’t need to set up fancy deaths — a shot to the head is sufficient.
• The “caper” subgenre of mysteries. Emphasize lovable but humorously incompetent characters, coincidences, and funny misunderstandings.
• Silly or overbearing relatives are often a feature of comedic mysteries — maybe a nosy kid sister or a gentle mother who is determined to “keep her boy safe.” Don’t put them into any serious danger; just have them bumble in at the wrong moment.
• Emphasize slapstick and/or verbal humor and incongruous events; here, mistaken identities are truly classic.
• Keeping throwing setbacks at the characters, but never in a way that will make the characters despair or that will turn the comedy into a tragedy.
• End on an upbeat note, with everything falling in place in the end and everybody getting their “just deserts.”
• Emphasize catastrophic events, such as riots, a recent disaster, a bad storm, or a police strike.
• Create characters with both good and bad sides; no matter how good the individual, s/he must have a tragic flaw that will lead to his or her downfall. In a mystery, this is often alcoholism, inability to trust others, etc.
• Emphasize a spiritual or moral struggle that accompanies the physical struggle. If the detective is part of the police force, make the detective choose between participating in a cover-up or squealing or running away; in general, make the consequences of solving the mystery something that will ultimately harm the investigator.
• Every time the detective hesitates, something else goes wrong. Another person dies, the situation worsens.
• Emphasize things falling apart or coming undone, an ending that may resolve part of the problem but doesn’t even begin to address the greater social issues, or an ending that solves the crime but costs the lives or reputations of even the innocents involved. Note that tragedy should NOT be used often in RPGs!
Romance• In a mystery, romance may spring between the protagonists or between a protagonist and a victim who comes to him or her for help. A romance between the protagonist and the villain would be difficult to engineer but might be interesting … although it could easily end in tragedy.
• Make the romantic interest good-hearted and good-natured, proactive, ethical, courageous, respectful, and resistant to pressure. In a mystery, the romantic interest has inner strengths and will encourage the protagonist to continue no matter how gloomy things become. If the villain is the romantic interest, they’ll need to have a very understandable reason for doing what they did.
• If the protagonist is cynical, use the romantic interest as a foil, showing him or her that justice can prevail, love can triumph, and good things can happen in life. While roleplaying the romantic interest, try to tease a smile or laugh out of the hardbitten detective!
• Have fun with romantic rivals, but try not to make the romantic interest the villain in the end, unless running a hardboiled mystery. This sort of ending oves the romance toward a romantic tragedy, usually not as satisfying for the player.
• Emphasize positive values, the healing power of love, and the growth that two people can help each other achieve. Both members of the couple should be equally strong and vulnerable, with neither always becoming the victim to be rescued, even though one may have begun as the victim.
Originally written September 29, 2000
Image Source: “The Adventures of Detective Barney,” by Harvey J. O’Higgins and illustrated by Henry Raleigh.