Today’s blog is the start of something a little different. Twice a month I’m going to be writing posts having something to do with the actual game of D&D. These posts will be collected and kept in a separate area of the site (in addition to being in the regular blog area) for the convenience of gamers who want to read about D&D stuff. I like writing about D&D, but I don’t want to turn off the folks who show up here for a non-D&D blog… so I figured twice a month was a good compromise.
Layering Your Mysteries
Running a D&D game has often been compared to herding cats. Frequently players want to run off in their own directions, and more times than not, it isn’t the direction you were hoping for. One cause of this is a world that is so deeply steeped in the unknown that it reduces the players’ buy-in. You want to give them all these great secrets to figure out, but the players feel like they know so little about the world that they are apart from it. That’s a bad sign. Once the PCs don’t feel connected, there’s nothing to hold them to the plot of the game.
Clever DM’s (like you!) who want to create investment in their players can create several different layers of mystery in their game. For instance, begin your campaign planning with the big one, the game ender. The Princess hired the dragon herself to kidnap her, in order to throw the feds off of her trail when her boyfriend the mind flayer killed the rightful heir to the throne. Later Princess framed the king for sleeping with the finance minister’s six year old son, leaving her way clear to the throne. While this mystery may get some teasers and foreshadowing, it should remain relatively obscure until the end of the campaign. This is kind of thing that should reveal who is behind the dark forces crawling through the world, and should as well represent an ultimate-type goal for the characters.
Next come the milestone mysteries. The relatively big deal items that mark a special place in the game when the players figure them out. You want several in a campaign, but (relatively) evenly spaced out so that everyone remembers them as something special when they happen. This is the stuff like finding out that the wolf attacks that have been ongoing since the beginning of the game are being led by the town’s werewolf bartender, or discovering that it was one of the PC’s family members that introduced the zombie plague into the city high school, or the fact that the city guard have always hated the PCs because the leader of the Thieves’ Guild has been paying the guardsmen to try and keep the party out of the way while they rob the churches blind. The key to these mysteries is that they are active and ongoing. They will be a thorn in the PCs’ sides until they dope them out, and the discovery should lead to some kind of concrete action the players can utilize to resolve the issue. (That’s what makes it fun!)
Finally come the everyday mysteries. Now these can be big things or small, “everyday” doesn’t have to mean unimportant. But they should be things that the characters can discover in less than one session of play… if they’re looking. If you just give all the answers away the players will stop trying to solve the problems, but if it takes too long to find out that the goblin who stole Mrs. Machickchucksenson’s tomatoes has a den north of town… then they may stop trying, or worse yet, simply become frustrated, angry, and sullen. Your goal with everyday mysteries is to give the players a relatively constant stream of rewards for making the effort. Everyday mysteries add up to lots of little feathers in a player’s cap, and bring a lot to his or her sense of place in your fantasy world. Plus, should a party of PCs choose to ignore an everyday mystery for too long, it might decide to upgrade itself to a milestone mystery.
Finally, once the mystery has been popped, one of the best things you can do for your game is to decide how to deal with the information and who knows it. Consider, players spend a great deal of time walking around asking NPCs about the world they live in. It makes it easy to feel that everyone in a game knows more than the PCs — this can also lead to players feeling pushed out of the game world. But… what if NPCs were coming up to PCs and asking them questions that the PCs actually knew all about? This gives the players a sense of place, whether they choose to answer the questions or not. (But it’s even better when the PC is friendly to the player and you get to hear some aspect of your game related back to you. That could be an article all by itself!) Now it’s the players who know more about the world than the NPCs. It’s a very empowering tactic, and one almost any player will appreciate.
Layering your mysteries requires a little bit of thought and planning on the DM’s part, as well as a willingness to trash whatever mysteries he has created and go back to the drawing table when the players destroy some aspect of the game in favor of a murderous pub crawl through a neighboring orc nation. But these things will begin to suggest themselves as your game progresses, and it’s easier to do than you think.
After all, who would have suspected the princess of kidnapping herself other than the leader of the Thieves’ Guild who was only doing a job for that tomato eating goblin in the woods north of town…
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