Behind the Screens – Mysteries & Revelations

At the end of PS265, Alex and I had a bit of post-show dialogue about how much mystery a GM could and should inject into his game and whether the players ever getting a chance to find out was a good or a bad thing. I’m not sure how much of that chat will make it into the show. I had to cut it short because of time constraints but I think this conversation merits a broader analysis.

Simply put, mysteries are inherently interesting by nature. Facts, generally speaking, are not. Take a puzzle for example. It presents a challenge that remains interesting only until solved. After you figure it out theres a moment of triumph. But the feeling fades in time and you discard the solved puzzle and move on to something else. The same is true of plot elements. Questions are cool. Answers are not.

Don’t believe me? How great was the TV show Lost? I remember watching the first episode years ago in college. My roommates and I were huddled around the TV afterwards with the general impression of, “What the heck did we just watch?” We weren’t sure. But our curiosity was piqued. Do you remember the series finale of Lost? Once you get the answer, once things are made abundantly clear. How much less intriguing was it? Leading up to the series finale, what would happen, what might be, that’s all anyone could talk about. Now, only five years later. Who cares?

The same could be said of Game of Thrones. We’re rapidly approaching the point in the story where the television series is going to outstrip the events of the novels. And all anyone can talk about is the speculation about what’s going to happen. Eventually those questions will be answered. And so too will GoT fade into obscurity in favor of more interesting and as yet unrevealed stories.

So how does this carry over into a roleplaying game? I’m glad you asked, dear reader. Mysteries are a great way of grabbing your players’ interest, much like TV shows grab a viewers’. If you leave enough tempting mysteries, puzzles, or enigmas lying around your players are bound to adventure after one of them. The crew at Paizo have become pretty adept at this. All one has to do is crack open any of their Campaign Setting materials to find literally dozens of half answered questions and blank locations marked with the proverbial, “Here be dragons (probably)”. From thirteen eyeless krakens washing up on the shores of Absalom to the ultimate fate of Choral the Conquerer, Paizo’s left their readers with questions and uncertainties all of which fuel the fires of creativity.

What these half-truths and mysteries do for GMs you can easily transfer to your players. Seed your adventure with rumors and riddles and your PCs are bound to bite one of them. You don’t even need to know the answer to a particular mystery yourself until the time times. For example:

  • There’s an ancient well by the edge of town. No one remembers how it got there but once every fortnight a faint blue light can be seen emanating from the bottom accompanied by a low-pitched wail.
  • Old Mother Hazel runs a local orphanage from her mansion on Attlewood Road. Her wards can often be seen playing in the yard or scampering around the porch. Last week all the kids were gone. Anyone approaching the house gets a frigid chill and turns back before making it to the front door.
  • The dragon Malebolge demanded tribute from the city of Fairhaven to be delivered to his stronghold in the mountains one year hence. The requisite time has passed and the city’s tribute caravan arrived at the dragon’s lair only to find it empty. Fairhaven’s citizens rejoice until the caravan’s attendants begin to succumb to a virulent plague and rise again as violent undead.

See? Mysterious plot points = potential adventure hooks. I’d caution you not to go overboard on the mystery though. Whatever you concoct make sure that a) the PCs are given more than one opportunity to solve it and b) when the mystery is finally revealed its done in a way that’s rewarding to the PCs. What I mean by that is don’t have a NPC come forward and explain the story to them. And don’t come out and tell the players out of character. Give them enough clues to let them piece out the mystery on their own. If their version of what the answer is ends up being close enough to what you envisioned, don’t try to correct them. Their answer is just as real to them as the one you made up. But they get to feel satisfied in having figured it out. You might even consider altering the story you came up with to the answer that they arrived at.

I’d also advise you not to spend too much time creating mysteries that have little to no impact on your players. Sure, coming up with the ancient histories and lore of the the Dwarven Empires of the North might be a fascinating thought experiment for you. But that doesn’t really have any bearing on your PCs if your adventure is set in the Gnoll Lands of the South. The exception to this, of course, is if you can somehow tie in the Dwarven Histories in with the Gnoll Lands. But then you’ve related the mystery to your PCs. So it’s all fine.

Eventually your players with have solved whatever mystery or quest you’ve thrown in front of them. So to keep their interest it’s important to seed another question or two into each answer that your PCs arrive it. So the PCs kick down Old Mother Hazel’s door to find that she’s in the middle of sacrificing her orphaned children in order to power a some diabolical machine. After defeating the hag, the PCs then discover schematics detailing how to assemble the machine but not its purpose. At the bottom of the schematics is a strange sigil they’ve never seen. Possibly a signature? Or other identifier? Who knows? But now the PCs get to find out.
Got any questions on how to better seed your game with mysteries? Or want to share a few mysterious plot hooks of your own? Let us know in the comments section below!


Anthony Li

Anthony Li has been pretending to be someone or something else for about as long as he can remember, which some people might consider a problem. He cut his teeth on 2nd Edition AD&D when he was 14 years old and his only regret is that he didn’t start rolling dice sooner. Due to an unhealthy addiction to Magic: the Gathering he missed the entire cultural phenomenon that was the 3.X era of D&D. After a brief stint with 4E, he was dragged kicking and screaming into the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game where he has since acclimated, adapted, and thrived. Most of his roleplaying experience has been behind in the GM screen where he has trained his dice to confirm crits on command. He always roots for the bad guys.

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