This morning I figured I'd share one of my own Santicore contributions before we run out the door to a family party on the other side of the Chesapeake. Some blathering about conspiracy and mystery plots and techniques for weaving them into your game.
THE PLOT THICKENS
using classic mystery and conspiracy gimmicks
There’s no one-size-fits all way to get players (or characters) who aren’t into grand mysteries to fall in love with that sort of campaign, but thankfully there are myriad ways to try to hook their interest. When PCs come across a grand conspiracy or weird mystery, it’s evidence of a larger world beyond their own in-game actions. They may choose to ignore it or address it, but the mystery chugs along regardless; and in fact sometimes the best intriguing mysteries are those which aren’t real at all - constructed in the characters’ heads out of fear and coincidence. The central trick is to strike a balance between the characters learning more and more about the mystery, and the characters realizing that the mystery is broader and deeper than they had imagined. A good large-scale mystery is just another kind of labyrinth to be navigated by curious adventurers.
THE PRINCIPLES OF HOOKING ‘EM
* Make it personal. Tying the mystery to the characters’ allies, relatives, or the PCs themselves may be the surest way to engage their interest. It doesn’t guarantee they won’t try to stab the problem, but at least they’ll be addressing it. In some cases, the goal can be personalized in a more mercenary fashion - solving the mystery is the key to getting what the protagonists want in a material sense. You have to know the PCs goals and “care-abouts” before you can threaten them properly.
* Actual importance. The grand mystery has to matter enough that if the PCs don’t investigate to some degree, bad things could happen. This doesn’t have to be world-shattering stuff - and perhaps shouldn’t be - but the mystery has to exist for a reason, and the reason must hook the characters. “Oh, a multi-generational shark cult that’s been pulling the strings in this city for a century? Yawn.” For a mystery to be engaging as an adventure hook or the understructure of a campaign, it has to be more than just set dressing.
* Balance the deepening mystery with real progress. As PCs go down the rabbit-hole of mysterious conspiracy, they must be both impelled forward by a desire to see what’s next but also confident that they are, in fact, making actual progress. The illusion of progress isn’t enough - most players will not put up with endless sleight-of-hand, nor should they. If the mystery is a labyrinth, they should be constantly finding new levels and rooms, not just wandering the corridors aimlessly.
* Don’t bait-and-switch the tone. If your campaign began as one of heroic fantasy and action, don’t switch horses midstream and start running a completely dark, on-the-run conspiracy thing. If you change campaign tone before you have (explicit or implicit) buy-in, you will alienate players. If you’re mashing tones together, you have to blend them so you don’t abandon the original vibe of the game. Players who aren’t super-intrigued by the mystery will better ride along for the story arc if there are still strong features of the stuff they came for - action, adventure, combat. Try to balance the unknown with the familiar.
* Paranoia and Claustrophobia. If you’re going for a conspiracy-theory vibe, then at some point the PCs need to feel like their invisible adversaries really are everywhere, even if they’re not. The sensation of being watched; little things askew (“I thought I left my keys on the other table, but --”). Pairing this with a sense of claustrophobia - metaphorical or literal - will have the characters (and maybe the players) feeling trapped. And if you’re running a conspiracy/intrigue scenario, that’s a good thing.
INTRIGUING MYSTERY GIMMICKS
Below are some examples of classic gimmicks you can use to try to hook players (and their characters) deeper into an overarching mystery plot. I refer to them as gimmicks because they are just that - easy techniques or cheap narrative trickery which, combined and layered, can help in presenting a grand conspiracy, or making a minor mystery feel much larger.
* the mysterious symbol - “Wait, didn’t those other guys have scorpion tattoos as well? What does it all mean?” A mark on a fallen foe, a strange symbol pressed into the wax seal of a menacing missive - introducing a mysterious symbol is a great first revelation of a wider mystery, as it not only ties things together visually as the symbol shows up in different places, but it also characterizes the nature of the mystery through the connotations of the symbol.
* improbable repetition - “I see it everywhere - on clock-faces, street addresses. Yesterday it was in my lottery ticket.” Whether it’s the number 22 or the phrase ‘Naughty Coyote’, when the same words or images just keep turning up, inexplicably, characters will likely begin to draw connections between the appearances. Are they reading too much into it, or is there really a cosmic puppet-master behind the messages? A more mundane version of this trick is essentially “they’re everywhere” - the townsfolk turn out to be secret cultists, the villain actually owns the megacorporation you’ve been working for, all manifestations of sinister synchronicity which can make the characters feel like reality itself is out to get them.
* the not-a-map treasure hunt - When characters are following clues hidden in something which is not-quite-a-map - encoded in an old book, following the movements of a strange pocketwatch, etc - there’s automatically an extra layer of secrecy added to the quest. Not only is the “treasure” hidden, but the “map” is also obscured in one or more ways - how much more fantastic must the goal be with all of this secrecy? Bonus points if special or secret knowledge is required to understand the map in the first place.
* the multi-part coded message - You can get some good mileage out of an encrypted message, especially if it’s multi-part; like an A-B-C quest, but to unlock a single message. The characters must accomplish various things in order to break each part of the code, or there’s a code within a code. Imagine the PCs having to find and assemble the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, only to find that they now must extract coded meaning from the picture revealed.
* the race against time - A deadline adds tension if the characters care about the results. Running to stop something from happening, or guarantee it, cranks up the excitement if done sparingly and meaningfully.
* stolen faces - Nothing freaks characters out like learning their companion or trusted friend was a doppelganger or simuloid all along. When were they replaced? For what purpose? Or perhaps someone is masquerading as the PCs! Related to this is the mistaken-identity or face-swapping problem; maybe the PCs get dragged into the conspiracy by accident, or have to abandon their old identities while on the lam.
* the dark mirror - Having a professional (or romantic) rival involved on the other side of the mystery is a classic means to increasing character investment. Indy would’ve tried to stop the Nazis anyway, but having Belloq involved made it personal and put it over the top. The more alike the PC and rival are, the sweeter the hatred; it’s the Spider-man vs Venom angle.
* I know your secrets - Being faced with a foe who somehow knows things about you which nobody else knows is disconcerting at best. Who is she, and how does she know that? Why didn’t they kill us when they had the chance? Even better is the foe or wild-card who claims to know things even the PC didn’t know - the identity of their real father, or the key to clearing someone’s name. This sort of thing is a massive tease, and if you use it, make sure you remember that it is a tease and shouldn’t go on forever.
* going legendary - Sometimes an effective reveal involves upping the stakes mid-mystery as the protagonists discover that what they thought was a small-scale problem is potentially a much larger-scale problem. That bandit king they’ve been working against just so happens to match the characteristics of the prophesied Doom Messiah; or the amnesiac girl they rescued bears a birthmark which just might suggest she’s the lost Venusian princess everyone’s talking about. Escalation is a window to bringing in new factions who care not only about the mystery, but about the PCs, as well.
* wheels within wheels - There’s nothing wrong with retcon if it’s done well - by which I mean, plausibly and in a way that doesn’t invalidate anything established so far. Perhaps an ally betrays the PCs, revealing not only that they were working for the conspiracy all along, but that everything the protagonists have been through has all been a part of this same scheme, even their seemingly-unrelated early adventures. The pinnacle of this technique is the “everything you know is wrong” reversal, which potentially flips everybody’s motivation upside-down.
* friend from the futurepast - Want to really mess with characters’ minds? If your game’s genre allows, introduce an NPC version of one of the PCs, from the future. How and why did he come back in time? What does he want with us? What happens if he kills his younger self? Did he come back to stop us from succeeding, because he’s seen the world that results from our success? This also works with a mysterious past version of a PC showing up, but as you can imagine it’s a bit trickier to explain away without doing memory-wipes or parallel timestreams. Imagine a scene where the younger version gets wounded, and a scar appears on the older version immediately; even better, the PC asks his older self where he got that bullet scar, and the older version replies “You gave it to me” and shoots the PC in that exact spot! Not to mention the potential Heinlein hijinks and assorted classic paradoxes.
* refugees from choices untaken - similar to ‘the time-travel thing’, you could also introduce an NPC who was a PC or PC ally, but from a parallel universe or alternate timestream where things occurred differently and other choices were made. “Admit it, you guys are starting to like Nazi me better than actual me, aren’t you. What is it, the cool leather trenchcoat?”
* flashback - Everybody’s seen flashbacks in movies and on TV, but not everyone uses them in their campaigns, especially traditional-style games. But when you’re pursuing a grand mystery, a flashback sequence can be a good way to reveal extra details (especially if you’ve just added them in hindsight!) or remind the players of something they’re discounting. In fantasy and sci-fi games, you have added ‘flashback’ potential in the form of speaking with the dead, reading people’s minds, and the like. And don’t forget dream sequences have their place as well, especially in a mystery - the subconscious mind may very well assemble clues in a very different manner than the waking PC. Or even “past life” shenanigans! These techniques can be something the GM narrates to provide detail, or in some cases it might be appropriate to actually play out the scene in some way.
* flash-forward, or “splash page” - The flash-forward is a narrative technique that doesn’t always work at the table - there, you’ve been warned. Basically the gimmick is thus: you open the session (or the entire campaign) with a drastic cut-scene; an example would be the villain standing triumphant atop the corpses of the PCs. Then you announce “Five hours earlier...” or “Two years ago...” and start your regular campaign action. Some players will eagerly work to get themselves in a position to “see” the flash-forward actually happen, although it may turn out the ‘splash page’ image wasn’t telling the whole truth; other players just plain won’t bite (this is why it doesn’t always work without player buy-in). Regardless, the idea is to sort of set an extra goal for the players to head for, to keep them moving forward even if they’re not sure what they want to do next. You can use this technique to snap a particular player to attention, as well - imagine if you started a session with “Bruthark the Reaver stands, bloody and beaten, in the driving rain, one eye nearly swollen shut; his grip on his famous axe is slack. Then the voiceover: ‘I am Bruthark the Reaver, most feared warrior in all the five realms. And this is the story of the day I died.’” You’d get Bruthark’s player’s attention right quick. Keep in mind I’m not advocating railroading any particular results here other than generating an eventual scene that looks similar to the flash-forward. Maybe Bruthark “dies” for an instant before being resuscitated, perhaps we’re just seeing him during a moment of self-doubt; maybe they end up faking his death for some scheme, or he dies metaphorically by starting a new life as Bruthark the God-King - anything’s possible.
MYSTERY/CONSPIRACY GIMMICK GENERATOR (d30)
Below is a random table with bits of mystery and conspiracy tropes and gimmicks, which may prove useful for brainstorming or - if you’re brave - rapid plot-turns at the table.
1 mistaken identity - the target isn’t the target
2 mysterious symbol - villain wears a strange mark linked to the mystery
3 I know your secrets - villain or wildcard has unusual info about a PC; blackmail?
4 dark mirror - a PC’s despised rival plays a role
5 more than they seem - PCs uncover new info about an NPC which changes the whole picture
6 mistaken identity - a PC is thought to be someone else
7 break-in - PC HQ is ransacked, either searching for something or for intimidation
8 pack your bags - fresh info suggests the PCs are completely in the wrong location, and time is short
9 you’re off the case - any authority the PCs had is taken from them
10 for your own good - an NPC screws over a PC, but in the long-term it’s helpful
11 claustrophobia - opportunity to get locked up or otherwise trapped, ramping up tension
12 paranoia - sense of being watched or followed, or tangential evidence of same
13 right in front of us the whole time - an important clue is hidden in plain sight
14 one of us - allies are actually in league with villains, try to ‘convert’ one or more PCs
15 dying messenger - information is passed, but what does it mean?
16 mysterious symbol - a location is marked
17 vanishing village - a massive cover-up erases the PCs best evidence
18 the game is afoot - a spectacular chase or race-against-time
19 stolen faces - someone is masquerading as a PC
20 we have your sister - villains threaten PC dependents or allies
21 wheels within wheels - ally betrays the PCs
22 this goes all the way to the top - an authority figure is corrupt and involved
23 this is not a proper map - good information is encoded in something unusual
24 more than they seem - a legendary revelation (new info) raises the stakes dramatically
25 narrative revelation - a flashback or cut-scene adds details previously unknown
26 infiltrator - a PC or ally is actually a villain/monster
27 paranoia - the PCs risk ending up on the wrong side of the law or hunted by authorities
28 wildcard - an NPC arrives on the scene, but which side is she on?
29 hello again - someone from a PCs past shows up
30 duck! - they’ve sent someone to kill you