Small Mysteries and how you run your RPGs

June 15, 2015

Humans are curious – it’s why we love mysteries.  I don’t necessarily mean the mystery genre, but what I mean is small mysteries, little things in a story, or a game, where you say, “Something is going on there…” and you really want to find out what it means – Two people shoot each other a meaningful look, someone pauses just so, something seems to not work the way it should….

There’s a lot of different approaches and it’s kind of a key point to know as a group, as each sets up a different play expectation.


A mystery as a puzzle is something to be solved, and the question is more about whether it should be solved in the short term (“figure out how the trap works to get past it”) or in the long term (“Find out who killed Colonel Mustard through investigating everyone…”)

A key expectation about treating mysteries as puzzles is that the mystery is only uncovered through actions of the protagonists (and, in RPGs, the players who control them).  With that in mind, it means players have to constantly ask questions, poke and prod at things, and act kind of an ass in general to figure things out.

This mirrors behaviors in adventure videogames where players poke at everything, “click on everything”, push/attack every wall or object, try to jump over walls, etc. because they have to try to find every secret.

This is common to dungeon crawl type play, but ultimately very weird and out of place for any other kind of media.  It works well when you’re mostly prodding objects, however, when it comes to investigating other characters, the sort of compulsive information squeeze doesn’t work so well.  You’ll also notice that this expectation can get players stuck on investigating non-interesting things, because they’ve projected onto it, some kind of importance or mystery.


A mystery as a promise is how stories typically do it – “there’s something weird” and you know the storyteller will eventually reveal it.  The mystery is presented as a tease, as suspense, and you know there’s going to be a reveal and depending on how it’s all done, you are either entertained, nonplussed, or annoyed.

When it comes to RPGs, treating mysteries as promises frees players from having to compulsively pick at everything – they can either let it pass, let their characters be ignorant/heedless of it, play into it even further, or check on it and be ok that it will come back later.   This is also true of players revealing mysteries about their characters, as well.

The nice thing about treating a mystery as a promise is that it lets you take time to find the most entertaining way to address it, and as a group commitment, allows everyone to work together to revealing stuff together, without necessarily requiring some kind of out of play conversation about it.

Window Dressing

Mysteries as window dressings can make for cool background material – the weird statue, the sound that seems to come from the walls, the character who acts strange for no apparent reason.   The problem is that a great number of old school dungeon modules would mix up the Window Dressing with the Lethal Deathtrap – so many gamers ended up developing habits of assuming everything is a Puzzle mystery instead.

Window dressing mysteries can add a LOT to the play experience – they are basically the style, or the aesthetic you build.


Bullshit mysteries are what I call it when a story or game pushes itself with mysteries as Promises and then turns them into Window Dressing or leaves them forever unanswered.  People tell me this is effectively what the TV show Lost, was doing.

Now, roleplaying games are great for being able to make shit up on the fly – until it gets stated or otherwise put into play, everything is unformed.  So it’s easy to set up mysteries or connections without knowing the answer when you do it – but you also have to bring it back and answer it at some point, and in a way that fits with the plausibility expectations of your game.

If you don’t deliver, or break/destroy key ideas that people have accepted as part of the story/world/setting, then people feel cheated.

Coordinating this all

One of the things I’ve done over the years when I run dungeon crawls is I tell everyone that there will be no traps or hazards that are not clearly visible as dangerous.  I’ve done this because I despise “check every 10 feet because the whole dungeon wants to eat/fall on you”, but it also ends up being a very clear communication of what mysteries to expect and deal with – if there’s going to be a Puzzle mystery, it will be clearly marked, otherwise everything else is Window Dressing.

I usually play explicitly Narrativist RPGs like Primetime Adventures, because the default expectations and rules set you up to get mysteries as Promises, and you can focus on the character development and events that form in play without having to poke or prod at things, and so on.  Flag Mechanics are effectively a way to set your character’s issues, goals and values up as Promise mysteries to deliver on.

(This post was mostly inspired  by watching Steven Universe and catching up on the Erfworld comic, and thinking about the ways in which they reveal their mysteries over the longer story form.  Yes, I’ll probably put together a short, simpler way of talking about this and jam it into the Same Page Tool later on.

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