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Schematic of a Classic Murder Mystery

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Schematic of a Classic Murder Mystery

Start by drawing a relationship map of all the characters. Give each character a letter or short abbreviation so you can also make an indexed table with rows corresponding to these characters. Give the table three blank columns. Label the columns "motive", "means" and "opportunity".

           motive   means   opportunity
Char A
Char B
Char C
. . .

In a good mystery, there will be two people who have all three of those things; they will be the initial suspect and (twist!) the murderer. Everyone else will be crossed off the list over the course of the investigation as they are discovered to be LACKING one or more of those three things. The murderer will be winnowed out by one final clue late in the third act, often just preceding a climactic fight or attempted flight scene.

What about 'Alibi'?

In almost all the classic murder mysteries I can think of, the character who is eventually revealed to be the murderer initially appears to have a watertight alibi, e.g. they were seen by multiple witnesses at another place at the time of the murder. Is there a way of replicating this kind of reveal within the structure outlined above?

Great point!

Let's see how we can fit it in. Notice above I used the word "twist"? That's because the initial (wrong) suspect might possess all three requirements but they turn out to be merely circumstantial, AND/OR the real murderer might only seem to be lacking in one of those three departments, and then (twist!) that turns out not to have been true. Alibis would be a case of the latter type.

Note that I'm not just picturing a simple "Y" or "N" in each cell; I am picturing a short phrase describing the situation in question. So the real murderer might have a row that looks like:

           motive             means              opportunity
Char A     insurance policy   access to poison   victim's drinking buddy

Of the three requirements, alibis seem to mostly affect the "opportunity" column. The falsehood of a faked alibi would come to light in the "twist." During prep we might write the fake alibi under the "opportunity" column and denote its falsehood with an "F" or some other mark.

           motive             means              opportunity
Char A     insurance policy   access to poison   was in Reno that day (False)
                                                 victim's drinking buddy

In play, the suspect's initial presentation (or the results of the investigators' initial questioning/research) would at first yield this false response. Later we would need to add some event or detail that calls that earlier response into question (the mechanics for this will differ greatly by game, obvs)... and then further investigation would prove the falsehood of the alibi.

False Assumptions?

Another type of 'twist' reveals that the known circumstances of the murder are false, e.g. the time or cause of death, or in very extreme cases, even the identity of the victim. In this type of mystery, the details that eliminate a suspect from the inquiry are still true, but rendered irrelevant because the facts of the case are different thab those the investigators based their assumptions and deductions on... can this kind of reveal also fit into the structure given above?

(Also, great breakdown of the elements needed to gamify a murder mystery and I'm enjoying the intellectual/creative stimulation!)

Two tables?

Perhaps the "false assumptions" scenario requires two tables? We could have a "False Table" for the set of false assumptions (under this rubric certain suspects may seem to have had an opportunity when in fact they did not, or etc)... and then a "True Table" for the actual facts of the situation. I imagine the "Twist" then would be some event or new information that reveals how the investigators have been operating under the false assumption (i.e. using the False Table) the whole time, and points them toward the True Table.

Isn't this setup kind of

Isn't this setup kind of railroady? By pre-determining the situation, the players can only (a) stay on track with clues and inevitably solve the mystery or (b) get sidetracked by red herrings (or wild imaginings!) and go off the rails so far that the plot dies.

Way back in the day, folks looked at abduction as a way to run mysteries. Players posit HOW or WHERE they might find clues and, if the proposed clue doesn't violate the intended solution, then YEP: it's found. No need for a big matrix; and little need for 'skill rolls' to work on the solution. Lots more freeform/less prep.

But I don't want to derail. Just pointing out a way that's low-/no-prep.

Roll & Write?

Is it railroady? I was under the impression it was more a 'roll & write' system, with players filling in the details of the grid as they went around collecting clues and interviewing suspects, but maybe I got the wrong end of the stick? I mean, even if you started with each cell in the table filled in, no-one would necessarily know the right answer until the PCs had eliminated all but two suspects by undermining their claimed status in any cell and showing it to be false.


I'm an eclecticist. This is a schematic, not a mechanic.


Railroad is difficult to define. A definition where facts are predetermined is a pretty extreme. Railroads don't offer choice. Saying the background circumstances of a game are determined doesn't constrain the player's choices it just defines the conditions of the roads they drive down.

My own definition of a railroad is when the player's don't have the ability to choose or their choices are nullified. There's only one way to get from beginning to end.

So I'd say determining what the NPCs have done and what their strategies will be is not railroading. The players are free to find answers how they like.

Railroad potential

Looking at it myself, I wouldn’t worry about predetermining facts about a murder (no problems there!), but predetermining a false accusation bait and switch, could lead to some kind of unpleasant railroading. Then again, this could be a collaborative game for all we know so far, so that might not even be relevant.

Let's focus on schematic

I've given this topic also some thought lately.

So, for each potential suspect there may be evidence related to motive/opportunity/means. This evidence may have these states:
- no evidence so far
- incriminatory evidence, so far seeming true (potential clue)
- incriminatory evidence, proven wrong (red hering)
- exonerating evidence, so far seeming true (i.e. alibi)
- exonerating evidence, proven wrong (suspicion)

Something complex as an Agatha Christie murdrer mystery works probably just with a carefully crafted final reveal.
Detective serials however have the "PCs" plowing through hints, digging for evidence and verifying evidence - until after 42 minutes the real murderer is revealed.

Based on the 5 states described above, the game play and story could achieve suspense when:
- finding & pursuing hints, verifying evidence
- framing suspects, building theories
- twists: evidence proven wrong (e.g. red hering or false alibis)
- real evidence secured

Not my way

Trying to solve a murder in a roleplaying game would certainly be fan, but filling a pre-designed sudoku-type diagram, curated by the game master to solve the situation, sounds more boring than fun. Sure, talk to everyone, cross of stuff, why am I here again? Where is the abductive reasoning, making conjectures based on what I know of the world, the possibility to fail, and so on?

what way does this schematic enforce?

I'm not sure this schematic forces any particular playstyle at the table. It's more of a design/prep tool than a game mechanic, the way I see it.
But I will agree that it is a "simulationist" approach, since the data is all known by the GM before play begins.

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