I’m a fan of intrigue in my games. It’s been a while since I’ve run any kind of standard adventure romp where there are clear cut villains and goals. Hopefully this is not to my players detriment. What I’d like to spend a little bit if time considering is where the line is when mystery stops being fun and is just an annoying lack of information.
I’m currently running the first case of my Dresden Files game, The Day of Bad Dreams. First off I just want to say how happy I am that I’m getting to run FATE. I decided for our first pass I was going to keep the scope kind of manageable, so I’ve made an effort not to go too crazy with the depth of secrets or conspiracy theories. The case is a kidnapping, but of course the group begins to discover that, like all things, nothing is ever quite as cut and dried as it appears. The current group lacks a true Wizard, so they’re having to resort to quite a few mundane methods for tracking down the victim.
So when setting up the breadcrumb trails for the team to follow, how does one walk the line between “simple solve”, “impossible secrets”, and “engaging mystery”? Give the PCs too much information right away and there won’t be a chance to have any sense of discovery and clue solving. Give them too little information and it can feel like an unsolvable puzzle box. Optimal engagement is difficult to maintain. A lot of it has do to with character abilities, and accounting for them in advance. For example, how do you meter out information when the party contains a wizard who is capable of scrying for the information? You can’t just shut them down, that’s not fun for anyone, but if they can get a full data dump out of the gate then there is no challenge, which is also not a lot of fun. So you have to plan for, or be able to adjust on the fly, reasons why those sorts of abilities work imperfectly if you want to maintain any mystery (sometimes you don’t, some times you just need to get them to the danger zone).
One important rule, it seems, is to always keep an avenue of advancement open. Even if it’s the wrong one, players need to feel like they’re moving forward. A wrong avenue can still provide an opportunity to provide a clue or an enlightening moment that puts the players back on a correct path. Games that hit brick walls of progression are games that players are going to check out of. I also, personally, really like having many layers of discovery. Sure, finding the bad guy is great, but finding out that she’s not the only bad guy is even better. It’s also a good way to keep a thread of continuity in a campaign alive. The more layers there are the easier it is to give up information without revealing the whole thing. That said, layers can be difficult to write for.
Mystery is good, but tough, if you can pull it off it can be very rewarding.