Kickstarter Zine Month: Unchained Mysteries


Earlier this week I launched a Zine Month (a independent spinoff from ZineQuest) project titled Unchained Mysteries. Unchained Mysteries is a toolkit for preparing, running and playing mystery scenarios that do not rely on the common linear or branching "clue-chain" structure common in many mystery based games. In many ways it's a companion piece to my zine from two years ago: Dungeons and Dilemmas.

It has already met its base funding goal but I have a pretty substantial stretch goal that will allow me to include a system agnostic fully fleshed out mystery scenario as an extended example. The title of the scenario is: Dead Celebrities Sell More Tabloids and concerns necromancy in old 1940s Hollywood.

I hope you check out the project: Unchained Mysteries

Jesse Burneko

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A friend of mine elsewhere asked me to expand a bit on my reasons for writing this zine. I answered him there but a lot of people have told me they find my answer very insightful. So, I figured I'd add that information here.


So, I really like mystery/crime/detective stories, even ones with supernatural elements. I maybe even like them more than most fantasy and sci-fi stories. So it shouldn't be surprising that I own a lot of games built around these genres. Not just big ones like most of the Cthulhu games or Deadlands Noir, but little ones too like Nowhereville and Locus. But there's something about all those games that I find a little off and it mostly resides in their scenario preparation procedures/advice.

A lot of the scenarios work by funneling players toward a single climactic threat, usually of supernatural origin. The scenarios aren't necessarily linear and can be quite complex in terms of branching. In may ways, it's not that dissimilar to a dungeon crawl. It's just instead of exploring corridors that lead to encounters, you're exploring clues that lead to encounters. It's basically an information crawl.

Some people actually call this "railroading." I don't actually call it railroading for two reasons. First, usually following up on the clues is really the only compelling thing to do. It's not like I have some burning desire to do something else with my character and then the GM steps in and says, "Sorry you can't do that." Second, usually any given encounter in the clue-chain is pretty wide open in how the players want to deal with. We know that guy knows something, do we beat him up, bribe him, cast a spell on him? Again, it's not that dissimilar to a dungeon adventure where you discover two skeletons are guarding a treasure, how do you get it?

The net result is that the situation feels very static. Everything is lying in wait for the characters to come to it. If there are reactive elements in the scenario they usually happen on trigger conditions: "If the players do this..." or "When the players arrive here..." If there is any sense of impending doom or consequences the players are trying to stop, it usually is designed to just kind of hover there like atmosphere, only escalates on similar triggered conditions, and is usually devised such that the players always arrive moments before it's about to happen, no matter what.

But that's not how most actual detective stories work. First, there's usually more than one layer of criminal problems both in the legal and moral sense and you never know which of the layers the story's climax will be about. If there are clues they are either mostly upfront and are used to setup the cast of characters or they reveal hidden relationships between characters. They don't often actually tell the detective "where to go next". What the detective/investigator character does most of the time is interact with people and often in a very normal ways. Sure, sometimes they are literally asking questions but also sometimes they're just hanging out trying to understand their perspective. Hell, a lot of the time characters go TO the detective freely because they're hoping they can get the detective on their side.

So the detective isn't following this static trail, they're swimming in a sea of active characters doing their own things, reacting in their own way, still trying to achieve their own agendas. And because of that detectives can fail and the story still moves forward because acting on a wrong assumption or coming at a problem the wrong way results in other characters actively exploiting the detective's error. I just finished reading a novel where the detective utterly blows the case. He literally hands the McGuffin over to the bad guy with a smile and a "thank god, you're here, take this and keep it safe." He only realizes he's wrong when the villain then pulls a gun and tries to kill him. The only reason the detective in that book isn't dead is because the character the detective THOUGHT was the bad guy shows up and rescues him.

This applies even to genres we think of as quaint or cozy. Sherlock Holmes gets owned by Irene Adler and if Conan Doyle hadn't retconned it gets himself thrown off a waterfall. My mother is a huge Agatha Christie fan and she used to say that Poirot was the biggest murderer because most second and third murders that happen in a Christie novel happen because Poirot makes a mistake. "Idiot! The grey cells have failed me!" is something Poirot says more often than you probably remember.

And honestly that's the kind of dynamic drama, stakes and consequences I want in a mystery game. If the players make a mistake or blow a die roll, the situation should escalate in a tangible way. If the characters naughty word up so badly they don't find the solution then in all likelihood that's measured in dead bodies and broken hearts and once it's gotten bad enough the solution will likely find them, probably with a gun in its hand.

So the zine is about how to do that. It's a collection of techniques and procedures for preparing, running and playing mysteries as dynamic dramatic situations where anything can happen.

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