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D&D General Background for strange Murder Mystery plot I'm developing

Trit One-Ear

Explorer
Hey readers,
I'd love some thoughts/reactions/insight to this plot I'm creating as the next adventure for my long-form campaign. It's a bit long, so thank you in advance for anyone who's interested enough to read the whole thing! Now that I'm writing it all out, it sounds like... a lot of things happening at once. Please let me know if things are overly convoluted, or any other thoughts you have.

PLAYER MOTIVATIONS: My party is currently island hopping, seeking out 6 temples, one dedicated to each of the chromatic dragon types (I have created a 6th type for my setting.) They have been directed to an island a ways from the main city they frequently return to, believing it to be location of the Temple to the Blue Dragons. Upon arriving at the island, however, they are involved in a murder mystery. They will have to help find the murderer to appease the leonin keepers of the temple to allow visitors to access it.

HISTORY OF THE TEMPLE: Aeons ago, the mightiest dragons each built a temple to the dragons of their color, each serving a purpose based on the wishes of their creator. The blue dragon found a cliff-faced island, with arid grasslands making up the majority of the top. In the center, however, was a lush oasis. The dragon rearranged the waterways in the oasis, and claimed the central lake area as the location for its temple. Its temple was fairly simple - a stone building with a few rooms, mainly reserved records of the brilliance of the dragon and their allies, and a collection of items/inventions made by their followers. Over the years, the few defenses failed, but the most deadly remained - if a person failed to attune to the altar within, the entire lake bed was flushed with a magical honey, thus preserving the attacker and adding them to the blue dragon’s collection. The idea was the blue dragon’s followers would regularly return to attend to the temple, resetting the trap (magically dismissing the honey), and capturing those caught within, but it has been centuries since that has happened.
The last time the altar was triggered, an angel was escorting a group of holy warriors to the temple. They wished to claim the dragon’s power to serve their god. However, their agent failed, and triggered the trap. The angel, acting quickly, protected their companions allowing them to escape, but it itself was captured within the honey. It has remained there for centuries, unable to escape.
The presence of the angel has altered the honey over time. Before, just a magical hazard, the honey now carries some of the holy power of the angel. Several generations ago, a tribe of leonin have inhabited the island. When the leonin tribe discovered the lake, they did not explore the depths, instead building a culture based around the powers given to them by this infused honey. Not long afterward, a tribe of gnomes also made this island their home. While the leonin live upon the top of the island, the gnomes have made their homes within the caves within the cliff faces. (These gnomes have evolved into a semi-hive-mind society due to reasons I won't get into here.) The two tribes over time have developed a society together, though classism causes conflict occasionally.

THE MURDER MYSTERY: Players arrive looking for the temple, and find the two villages preparing for a large celebration. A joining ceremony (effectively a wedding) has been planned between two prominent figures in each village. This marriage will hopefully strengthen connections between the tribes. As the PC's begin to learn about the unique situation upon this island, a great uproar disrupts preparations. The High Priest of the leonin, who was to officiate the ceremony, has been found in his tent, his throat slit by a stone knife left beside the body. Both tribes begin to accuse each other. It is not long before the heroes are asked to intervene as neutral third parties.
There are several leads they might investigate. Unfortunately, the high priest didn't see his murderer, so Speak with Dead etc. are of little help. (The priest also does not desire to be resurrected, as they wish to receive their reward in the afterlife for their lifetime of holy service.) There are other leads however:a group of gnome rebels has begun to organize against the "ruling class" leonin.Both the groom and the bride are marrying for political reasons, not love, and have their own ex-lovers who might be jealous.Some of the higher-up leonin harbor traditionalist beliefs, and do not want a gnome/leonin unity to jeopardize their traditions or control.And lastly, good old greed: A gnome attendant to the High Priest has gone missing, along with the priest's holy scepter.I have a cast of NPC's and encounters ready for the heroes as they question citizens, investigate leads, explore the island, etc. What they eventually discover however, is much more sinister...

THE MURDERER: Rumors of the magical honey springs have spread across the surrounding islands. A powerful Ulitharid, Gruduvex, learns of its existence, and delves deep into the history of the island to learn the true nature of the honey lake. They concoct a heretical plan - use the honey springs to birth new tadpoles, eventually becoming an Elder Brain that resides within the pool. Their theory - if powerful necromantic magics can make alhoons (mind flayer liches), perhaps the celestial magics of the pool will create a less despicable powerful variant of mind flayer.
Gruduvex takes a small number of mind flayers with him, and establishes a hidden colony in the base of the towering island. Here, they create a number of intellect devourers, with the goal of enthralling the two tribes of the island. However, they learn of the impending “joining” ceremony and worry the use of the lake in the ceremony might alert the natives to the presence of the angel trapped within. Not wanting to take any risks, and fearing the natives might free the angel should they learn of its existence, Gruduvex captures the sister of the groom, feeds her to the intellect devourers, and uses her to sabotage the ceremony plans. When that does not prove to be enough, they murder the elder overseeing the ceremony to buy themselves more time to complete the creation of more intellect devourers and to establish stronger control over the tribes. In order to protect their plans from being discovered (especially from the hivemind gnomes), they equip the sister with a Ring of Mind Shielding, which is likely to be how she is eventually discovered. Meanwhile, they have been making thralls out of the aquatic chuul that lurk in the waters below the island to defend the fledgling colony.
Once the players discover the groom's sister's true nature, they will be able to discover the Ulitharid colony below the island and confront the true villain of the story.

PHEW! Made it! I find doing murder mysteries in D&D especially hard, but really satisfying when done right. I'm comfortable, with enough prep, to play big sections of this fast and loose, as my party and I have been playing together for 8+ years, but with all the moving pieces, I'd love to hear any issues or flaws I may have overlooked. Also, if anyone has experience running murder mysteries for D&D, I'd love to hear your advice!
 

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Wow, good stuff!

A few bits you might already have covered. (1) If the PCs ask anyone for spell aid, supplies, etc., with the argument "you want our help so help us..."; (2) if the PCs decide "nah, let's just enter the temple while everyone is occupied with this murder"; (3) if the PCs decide it's easier to enter the temple if war starts between the two sides; (4) if the PCs use detect thoughts, zone of truth, divination, etc., early on and bypass all the investigation by getting lucky (knowing something is blocking their spell = guilty party).

My experience with murder-mystery is that you also need a good timeline so the PCs know time is of the essence. At 2pm, this happens. At 4pm, this occurs. Each event should contribute in some way to the difficulty, in this case, of stopping the bad guys. You also need to contemplate failure to solve the mystery and whether the PCs can still get into the temple.
 

Trit One-Ear

Explorer
First of all, thank you @toucanbuzz for actually reading the whole thing!

1) I think I'll plan to have some helpful PC's in place who are open to help, but the general population will be a bit suspicious of these outsiders. This can give me some control over what kind of external help is available without shutting the players down if they think to ask around for assistance.
2) This probably needs to be clearly defined, yes. I've been thinking of all kinds of powerful wards and spells that the leonin maintain to protect the lake/temple, but exactly what kinds of defenses needs to be pretty specific, as you're right, the players will probably at least try this if the investigation gets frustrating at any point.
3) This would be interesting... I don't think I'd punish them for this approach, though of course there will be consequences... and they'll still have to deal with the wards etc. from question #2.
4) My hope is to create enough suspects that have some secrets or guilt they don't want shared that aren't directly related to the murder that these kinds of suspicious NPCs are still worth investigating, even if they don't directly lead to finding the murderer.

My next steps are to come up with more specific details regarding the murder, and then lists of clues that support that. If anyone's interested I may post more about that process here.

Thanks again for the help and insight!
 

Stormonu

Legend
You have a very detailed setup, but what I see lacking is - what are the clues for the PCs to follow and solve the mystery?

  • How can they possibly trace the knife back to the murderer?
  • How might they learn about the true nature of the temple and what would entice them to investigate its history?
  • How might they learn about the existence of the ultralith and more importantly, it’s true goal?

Other questions

  • Can the PCs use Speak With Dead or other magic and attempt to persuade the dead priest to allow him to be revived?
  • Can a PC cleric/Druid/paladin conduct the ceremony? Will they then be targeted?
  • Why were the couple not directly targeted instead of the priest? Could the couple still be in danger?
 

Quartz

Adventurer
You have a very detailed setup, but what I see lacking is - what are the clues for the PCs to follow and solve the mystery?

+1

The only clue mentioned is someone with a Ring of Mind Shielding. Good luck getting the PCs to twig that. Bluntly, you and I and your players aren't Sherlock Holmes.
 

Trit One-Ear

Explorer
Thanks @Stormonu and @Quartz for the advice as well. This is definitely the next step in my planning - creating a list of Details Players can Learn and Clues to Explain the Details.
For clues, I'm thinking some classic things like: Murder weapon found, tracks in the surrounding area, missing items from victim's chambers, note written to victim that poimts to two possible suspects, etc.
Any other classic suggestions are welcome!

As for some of your specific questions:
  • I'll give them some more details about the weapon, but it will point to a gnome, as they will be the society that mainly uses stone tools on the island.
  • Regarding the Temple's history: This is a great question, and one I'll need to think on more. Thank you.
  • My hope is once the killer is revealed (and her Ring of Mind Shielding discovered), they'll be able to get most of the information from her. The mystery will be solved, and the confrontation with the ulitharid will be a bit more action focused (as I'm sure my players will be ready to bash skulls at that point.)
  • Speak with Dead and other similar spells: Speak with Dead will be available, and I plan to sketch out what exactly the victim knows, but he won't know the killer's identity. As far as reviving the victim, he's a very religious individual, and would prefer to be allowed to enjoy his after life.
  • I would -love- if our cleric decides to oversee the ceremony. I think I'd allow that, and then yes target him as a complication to the villain's plan. That gives me a chance to drop more clues, as the heroes can then investigate the bodies of the failed assassins etc.
  • Regarding the couple and their safety: Another great question. I can see the groom being too risky a target, as any investigation into his death would closely involve his sister (the murderer) but maybe having an attempt on their lives in my back pocket as a way to move things forward should the party get stuck feels very useful.
Thank you again for the insight and questions!
 

Quartz

Adventurer
Just a thought, but have you run a murder-mystery before? The plot here is fiendish. If you haven't then perhaps you should try one with a far simpler plot, not only to gauge how difficult you find it but also to gauge how difficult your players find it.
 

fba827

Adventurer
This is a suggestion that is entirely group dependent, as it might help or might hurt depending on your players themselves, so take it with a grain of salt....

as you say, you do have a lot going on here. You could consider making a hand out for the players like a chart. Left hand side put down suspects (and leave spaces for others to be written in) and the right side column for motive and alibi and notes. I would even go so far as to prefill a couple suspect names of the people that are obvious suspects from the intro material given. This might provide focus and structure for the players.

But again for some players it might turn in to a ‘straight jacket’ limiting their thoughts rather than being a place to simply organize and focus. So judge your players before doing this handout.


next clues.... if victim didn’t see murderer, was it a ‘from behind’ attack? If so, make sure you communicate to PCs investigating the murder scene that the wound as well as the position of the body as it fell would indicate an attack from behind. This would help justify why speak with dead wouldnt be too helpful before hand rather than just hearing it after the fact and feeling like a wasted avenue.

if they do still push for a speak with dead, still give some sort of helpful clue like ‘I led a very blessed and community-focused life, I can’t think of anyone that would kill me for anything i have done”. Thus the speak with dead isn’t wasted and provides a hint that it isn’t about the priest’s personal life.

if your players watch csi type shows, also be prepared for questions like does the stab wound suggest someone tall or short, etc.
And that the entry wound was swift and precise ( suggesting someone doing this with a calculated purpose as opposed to someone doing an emotionally-driven murder nor defensive wounds nor extra stabs etc)

The plot does require more background knowledge than PCs just arriving on the scene could even begin to fathom. So you need something to signal to the players through their PCs to look beyond immediate information.

You mentioned a bloody footprint as a possible clue. Do the people there wear footwear or barefoot? Actually, this was a precise calculated thing, so it shouldn’t be a footprint but blood splatter on her hand - and possibly a little splatter on her blouse. That being the case was this murder in the open or in a building? If it a building there might be a partial bloody handprint on the door to leave , else if outdoor maybe a bloody handprint on a nearby plant/bush that the murderer lacrosses through to leave the scene of the crime.
Also deep in to the invesTigation if people start questioning specifically about the sister, maybe someone makes an off hand comment about how ‘ she is so particular she’s already changed her clothes twice , I guess trying to find the right outfit for her brother’s wedding”

I wouldn’t have too many clothes about the deeper plot. A hint yes but that’s not what would come up in basic questioning. About three fourths of the clues really should focus on the immediacy of the sister being the murderer though her motive would be the big question. Then when she gets confronted and her nature revealed is when the twist of the background and her motive can be revealed. I say all this because if you start giving history lessons in your clues, your players might lose interest as it’ll seem either unrelated or information overload. So consider it act 1 to identify the murderer and act 2 to confront and/or get motive and history. And try and keep some focus on what the PCs reveal

Anyway just sine off the cuff unorganized thoughts as I read this. Hope it helps in some small way and sounds fun. Good luck
 

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