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Mystery Adventures

Running Mysteries

Source Starfinder #25: The Chimera Mystery pg. 42
If you are the GM, mystery adventures provide you an unusual challenge. You likely have to juggle a cast of NPCs, keeping their alibis and motivations straight. Here are a few elements to consider as you prepare to run your mystery adventure.

Establish Relationships

Source Starfinder #25: The Chimera Mystery pg. 42
Even if you are running a published adventure, it helps to sketch out the relationships between the victim and the suspects. Place the victim’s name in the center, surrounded by the names of possible suspects. Draw lines connecting the victim to each suspect, and draw connections between suspects if they have a relationship. Label each line with the nature of the relationship. For instance, if one suspect is the brother of the victim, you should write just that on the line connecting the two. In addition, write each suspect’s motive and alibi, noting whether the alibi is true, under their name. In addition, include a few words describing the NPC’s personality so you can more easily roleplay interactions with them. Include any other comments you think you might need. Don’t try to fit all the information about the mystery onto this map, however.

Keep your relationship map handy, perhaps clipping it to your GM screen. You can refer to it with a glance when questions arise or when you need to improvise a scene between the PCs and one of the suspects. You will likely need to use other notes or to refer back to the prewritten adventure for the description of the crime scene, the locations of evidence, and so on.

Stay Flexible

Source Starfinder #25: The Chimera Mystery pg. 43
Mystery adventures are usually more free form than other scenarios. The characters have a crime that needs investigating, a list of suspects that need questioning, and perhaps some locations to search for clues. Sometimes the suspects are confined to a small area, such as a starship traveling through the Drift or moon base cut off from the rest of the system by an ion storm, which makes it easier to keep track of the suspects at any given point. Other times, the PCs must seek out the suspects, perhaps in their residences in a bustling metropolis or while they perform their duties on a large space station. In any case, the players have the opportunity to pursue whatever leads they have in any way they see fit. A player might come up with a theory about the crime and fixate on it until it’s proven false, ignoring all other avenues of investigation until then.

All of this is to say that you need to be flexible as to where the players are going to take the adventure. In an exploration of a haunted space hulk, you might need to keep in mind what the PCs can find in the next few chambers. In a mystery investigation, you have to hold the entire picture of the crime in your brain. Remembering the details of the incident and the motivations of the NPCs, including the culprit, allows you to improvise when you must.

Your ability to be flexible is important when the PCs’ investigation begins to stall. If it looks like your players are growing frustrated with the way the evidence is piling up or running dry, you might want to spice things up with a little action that ultimately moves the plot forward. Starfinder is, after all, a game of laser pistols and mystical powers. Perhaps throw in a few ruffians the culprit hired try to warn the investigators off the case. When interrogated, these toughs disclose a vague description of who paid them off, narrowing the suspect list. Perhaps a piece of industrial equipment “accidentally” malfunctions, putting the PCs in grave danger. Examining the wreckage reveals a crumpled napkin from a bar the culprit frequents. Such a scene can jump-start an investigation, breathing new life into the adventure.

Similar scenes can be used to help your players get back on track when they start chasing dead-end leads. Red herrings are a staple of the mystery genre, but they introduce the possibility of leading players too far in the wrong direction. If it looks like your players are spending too much time on the wrong suspect, an action scene can bring in a piece of evidence that pulls the PCs off this false scent.

Ensuring that your PCs find enough clues can head off such problems before they begin.

Provide Clues

Source Starfinder #25: The Chimera Mystery pg. 43
In a good mystery novel, movie, or TV show, clues form a trail. Each clue leads the detective to the next until the investigator has that flash of inspiration that lets them solve the case. However, a mystery adventure needs to operate on a different scale. Since you aren’t in control of the PCs, you have few guarantees that the PCs can find all the clues. You also have no assurance the clues might lead players to the correct solution. Therefore, ensure that clues are an abundant resource.

A good rule is that for every important piece of evidence you think is necessary for the PCs to solve the crime, you should provide at least three ways for the PCs to discover it. For example, you want the PCs to know that the murderer killed their victim in a fit of rage. First, the state of the crime scene and forcefulness of the blows that killed the victim should be one indicator. A PC who succeeds at a Medicine or Perception check should notice the clue. Second, one of the other suspects might mention the culprit’s temper. A PC who succeeds at a Diplomacy check might prompt the NPC to relate an incident where the culprit engaged in an attack similar to the crime. Third, the PCs might stake out the culprit and spot that person venting irritability on a computer display, but doing so might require a successful Stealth check to avoid the culprit’s notice (which causes them to behave more calmly in front of observers).

With three avenues leading to the same piece of information, you help ensure the PCs can find it no matter what kind of skills they have and what methods of investigation they use. The PCs might also discover the same information in multiple ways. Doing so confirms the validity of that clue and likely stresses its importance. That reinforcement, in turn, helps lead the investigators to the right solution.

Equally as important is avoiding using a single clue as a focal point of an investigation, unless the clue is easy to find and essentially ends the investigation. If the PCs need a specific piece of evidence to proceed from an earlier point, they might not find what they need and the adventure can stall. You might be able to get away with such a design if the clue is dramatic, such as catching the culprit in the act of a second murder, but such reveals must be used sparingly in a campaign of mystery adventures.

Alternatively, you can reserve an all-important clue so that it appears wherever the PCs do their most thorough searching. In such a case, you are guaranteeing the evidence is found. This is where being flexible comes in handy, especially if you need to alter the adventure to fit your group.

Give Confessions

Source Starfinder #25: The Chimera Mystery pg. 44
When the players have pieced together all the clues and confronted the correct suspect, they deserve a denouement that makes all their work worthwhile. At this crucial moment, the culprit should confess to the crime in a dramatic fashion. This narrative element works in television and movies, after all! Whether it’s a tear-choked admission of accidental guilt or a gleeful declaration that they would do it all again if they had the chance, a full confession puts a neat little bow on the adventure. Often, given the action-adventure nature of Starfinder and depending on the nature of the culprit, a climactic battle ensues. You can use the confession to fill in any holes in the investigation, perhaps accompanied by the NPC’s smug gloating.

With the culprit’s confession, the PCs can be sure they have accused the correct suspect, clearing up any lingering doubts they might have about any leaps of logic they made. Even if the players have ironclad evidence, such an end to the adventure can be a cathartic moment that allows the PCs to cleanly move on to the next part of the campaign… unless any loose ends are part of an overall mystery in which the PCs are entangled!

On the other hand, if you are running a grittier, morally gray type of game, you might want to hold off on the confession and explore what happens after the accusation and the suspect’s arrest. Are the PCs members of a law enforcement organization, or did they call one in? What are the laws on the planet or space station where the crime was committed? Could the culprit, even if clearly guilty, walk away free from the repercussions of their actions?

Such aftermaths fall more under the genre of legal thriller than the mystery genre, though the two share some aspects. The PCs might be tasked with performing further investigations once the culprit’s legal representation begins muddying the water with false witnesses and coerced testimony. The PCs could uncover other crimes or start digging into cold cases where the culprit was a possible suspect but was never caught due to lack of solid evidence, leading to further mystery adventures. All these vagaries assume the culprit is a person of wealth or influence, or otherwise has the resources to corrupt the legal process.

Although this article doesn’t present any specific advice for describing what happens in the aftermath of a mystery adventure, you can adapt the advice given to help you craft other compelling scenarios full of intrigue and deception!