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Mystery Adventures

Source Starfinder #25: The Chimera Mystery pg. 40
Within the science fantasy setting of Starfinder, characters have the opportunity to battle evil horrors and explore strange new vistas throughout the galaxy. Many problems can be solved with a handy blaster or a well-timed spell, but not every adventure’s villain is a destructive warlord, twisted machine, or rampaging beast. Some work from the shadows, pulling the strings of a vast conspiracy, or perform their foul deeds behind the anonymity of a disguise to confuse and confound any who might stop them. Sometimes, the villain’s plot isn’t as obvious as it first seems or is a smokescreen operation for a much larger scheme. All of these scenarios can be classified as mysteries.

A mystery adventure involves the player characters engaging in an investigation to discover the culprit of a crime or other underhanded activity, following clues and interrogating suspects until the evidence points to one or more culprits. Such an adventure need not involve a locked-door murder, although that is one of the more popular examples of the genre. Mysteries can be structured around other crimes where the offender isn’t immediately obvious, such as theft of either physical goods or information, destruction of property, and abduction. Alternatively, a mystery might comprise a shady activity that isn’t necessarily illegal but that the PCs have a vested interest in uncovering or stopping, such as learning the true identity of a mole within an organization or locating the individual who posted an embarrassing holovid about them on the infosphere.

Often, a mystery adventure doesn’t include as much combat as an exploration of an ancient temple or a jaunt through gang-controlled city streets. That doesn’t mean that a mystery adventure lacks action, however. As the PCs come closer to exposing the culprit, they might have to chase someone through a crowded marketplace, get into a scuffle with a hostile witness, or survive an attempt on their own lives!

Researching an obscure topic, solving an esoteric riddle, or asking around to find a reclusive contact are problem-solving activities rather than full-blown mysteries. Such activities might be part of a mystery, though. Good mysteries can’t be solved with one successful skill check or divination spell. They usually require a synthesis of several pieces of information, like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. All the pieces might not be required to understand what the puzzle looks like, but one piece alone is a question that’s likely to be impossible to answer.

A Mystery’s Three Pillars

Source Starfinder #25: The Chimera Mystery pg. 41
Whether the mystery occurs on a high-tech space station or in a colony settlement on a backwater planet, the culprit has a means, motive, and opportunity to commit the crime. Some suspects might have one or two of these elements. However, the true criminal must have all three.

Means

Source Starfinder #25: The Chimera Mystery pg. 41
A suspect has the means to commit a crime if they are physically able to do so. Could they reliable fire a pistol to kill the victim with one shot? Are they dexterous enough to reach the only window that showed signs it was forced open? Do they have the knowledge to be able to create a malignant computer virus?

Some crimes are simple enough that all suspects could conceivably have the means to commit them. Other times, the means by which a crime was committed are unknown or indefinite. In such cases, discovering the culprit’s motive and opportunity become even more important. However, knowing that a suspect couldn’t possibly have had the means to perpetrate the crime is probably the easiest way to eliminate them from the list.

Motive

Source Starfinder #25: The Chimera Mystery pg. 41
A suspect’s motive for committing the crime should be compelling enough for them to want to break the law or at least act outside norms. Might they inherit a large estate when the victim passes away? Are they trying to keep the victim from revealing a devastating secret? Did they fly into a fit of rage at the mention of some past misdeed?

No criminal acts without a motive, even if the motive has little connection to reality. Money and love are common motives in classic mysteries. Motives might abound in a mystery adventure, and should in a good one. Then, it’s up to the investigators to determine which of the possibilities is strong enough to warrant the perpetrator’s actions.

Opportunity

Source Starfinder #25: The Chimera Mystery pg. 41
A suspect has the opportunity to commit a crime if they could have been at the location of the crime at the correct time. Were they having dinner with a large group of people at the time of the incident? Did they redeem a fare for public transportation in a city hundreds of miles away? Do the security logs show them entering the restricted building before the crime occurred?

Most perpetrators try to have an alibi for when the crime happened. It’s important for it to seem like they had no opportunity to perform the deed. Investigators need to sort through the alibis to discover which are true.

Playing Mysteries

Source Starfinder #25: The Chimera Mystery pg. 41
As a player, when you realize your PC is in a mystery adventure, likely when the first body turns up, you can help yourself and your fellow players by leaning into the role of investigator. The following tips aid in this process.

Track Information

Source Starfinder #25: The Chimera Mystery pg. 41
Your main goal and primary obstacle in a mystery adventure is information. You likely have a roster of suspects, each with their own personality and history with the victim. Take notes about your suspects and what you know about them, keeping in mind the three pillars of a mystery. Is this suspect capable of committing the crime? Are they motivated to commit the crime? Were they actually anywhere near the scene of the crime? In other words, did they have the opportunity?

You might also want to draw a map of the relationships between the suspects and the victim, as well as each other. By consulting this big picture, you might spot a motive that has previously eluded you. See the Establish Relationships section of Running Mysteries below for a way this map might work out. The GM probably has one too.

Keep a separate list of the physical clues you’ve found so you don’t forget an important piece of information. When you find a new clue, you can compare it to this list to see how it relates to other evidence you’ve already discovered. Connections between the clues might make themselves apparent when you analyze the list.

In addition to helping you solve the mystery, your records can help you along in other ways. If the adventure runs multiple sessions, you can refresh your perspective by going over the evidence before each session—that way you won’t forget an important clue because of the time between games.

Search Everywhere

Source Starfinder #25: The Chimera Mystery pg. 42
You need to look everywhere for clues, especially at the scene of the crime. Perhaps a bullet casing fell behind a heavy piece of furniture, or maybe the victim hid some clue to their killer by typing a final message on a datapad. Culprits sometimes attempt to obscure evidence, especially anything that might directly incriminate them, but they aren’t always successful. Perhaps the culprit forgot to clean a spot of blood from their shoe, or maybe the supposedly deleted security footage can be partially restored. If you have the time and access to a place, search it thoroughly!

Trust No One

Source Starfinder #25: The Chimera Mystery pg. 42
Assume each of your suspects is lying about something, even if that person is someone you know and like. In a mystery adventure, everyone has their secrets, though they might not be directly related to the crime. By drawing out these secrets, you might uncover a new alibi that clears a suspect or discover the motive of an unlikely culprit. However, try not to fall into paranoia and baseless accusations. Such behavior can cut off your access to suspects, making your investigation much more difficult. Instead, a kind word, false assurances, or a bit of flattery might net you more information than you think.

Use Abilities

Source Starfinder #25: The Chimera Mystery pg. 42
When you become stuck in a mystery, it can be very frustrating. You might think you have all the clues, but something just doesn’t add up. Hopefully, your GM notices when the session starts grinding to a halt and can give you a nudge in the right direction. But if you think you need some help before that, don’t be shy about asking your GM if your PC can attempt a check or try an ability or spell that might shine some light on the mystery. Your PC is likely to have a much more experienced eye than you do, and a check is a good way to simulate putting the pieces together. Some spells can provide unexpected clues. Try not to overuse this help, however. You might find that solving a mystery on your own is far more satisfying!

Running Mysteries

Source Starfinder #25: The Chimera Mystery pg. 42
If you are the GM, mystery adventures provide you an unusual challenge. You likely have to juggle a cast of NPCs, keeping their alibis and motivations straight. Here are a few elements to consider as you prepare to run your mystery adventure.

Establish Relationships

Source Starfinder #25: The Chimera Mystery pg. 42
Even if you are running a published adventure, it helps to sketch out the relationships between the victim and the suspects. Place the victim’s name in the center, surrounded by the names of possible suspects. Draw lines connecting the victim to each suspect, and draw connections between suspects if they have a relationship. Label each line with the nature of the relationship. For instance, if one suspect is the brother of the victim, you should write just that on the line connecting the two. In addition, write each suspect’s motive and alibi, noting whether the alibi is true, under their name. In addition, include a few words describing the NPC’s personality so you can more easily roleplay interactions with them. Include any other comments you think you might need. Don’t try to fit all the information about the mystery onto this map, however.

Keep your relationship map handy, perhaps clipping it to your GM screen. You can refer to it with a glance when questions arise or when you need to improvise a scene between the PCs and one of the suspects. You will likely need to use other notes or to refer back to the prewritten adventure for the description of the crime scene, the locations of evidence, and so on.

Stay Flexible

Source Starfinder #25: The Chimera Mystery pg. 43
Mystery adventures are usually more free form than other scenarios. The characters have a crime that needs investigating, a list of suspects that need questioning, and perhaps some locations to search for clues. Sometimes the suspects are confined to a small area, such as a starship traveling through the Drift or moon base cut off from the rest of the system by an ion storm, which makes it easier to keep track of the suspects at any given point. Other times, the PCs must seek out the suspects, perhaps in their residences in a bustling metropolis or while they perform their duties on a large space station. In any case, the players have the opportunity to pursue whatever leads they have in any way they see fit. A player might come up with a theory about the crime and fixate on it until it’s proven false, ignoring all other avenues of investigation until then.

All of this is to say that you need to be flexible as to where the players are going to take the adventure. In an exploration of a haunted space hulk, you might need to keep in mind what the PCs can find in the next few chambers. In a mystery investigation, you have to hold the entire picture of the crime in your brain. Remembering the details of the incident and the motivations of the NPCs, including the culprit, allows you to improvise when you must.

Your ability to be flexible is important when the PCs’ investigation begins to stall. If it looks like your players are growing frustrated with the way the evidence is piling up or running dry, you might want to spice things up with a little action that ultimately moves the plot forward. Starfinder is, after all, a game of laser pistols and mystical powers. Perhaps throw in a few ruffians the culprit hired try to warn the investigators off the case. When interrogated, these toughs disclose a vague description of who paid them off, narrowing the suspect list. Perhaps a piece of industrial equipment “accidentally” malfunctions, putting the PCs in grave danger. Examining the wreckage reveals a crumpled napkin from a bar the culprit frequents. Such a scene can jump-start an investigation, breathing new life into the adventure.

Similar scenes can be used to help your players get back on track when they start chasing dead-end leads. Red herrings are a staple of the mystery genre, but they introduce the possibility of leading players too far in the wrong direction. If it looks like your players are spending too much time on the wrong suspect, an action scene can bring in a piece of evidence that pulls the PCs off this false scent.

Ensuring that your PCs find enough clues can head off such problems before they begin.

Provide Clues

Source Starfinder #25: The Chimera Mystery pg. 43
In a good mystery novel, movie, or TV show, clues form a trail. Each clue leads the detective to the next until the investigator has that flash of inspiration that lets them solve the case. However, a mystery adventure needs to operate on a different scale. Since you aren’t in control of the PCs, you have few guarantees that the PCs can find all the clues. You also have no assurance the clues might lead players to the correct solution. Therefore, ensure that clues are an abundant resource.

A good rule is that for every important piece of evidence you think is necessary for the PCs to solve the crime, you should provide at least three ways for the PCs to discover it. For example, you want the PCs to know that the murderer killed their victim in a fit of rage. First, the state of the crime scene and forcefulness of the blows that killed the victim should be one indicator. A PC who succeeds at a Medicine or Perception check should notice the clue. Second, one of the other suspects might mention the culprit’s temper. A PC who succeeds at a Diplomacy check might prompt the NPC to relate an incident where the culprit engaged in an attack similar to the crime. Third, the PCs might stake out the culprit and spot that person venting irritability on a computer display, but doing so might require a successful Stealth check to avoid the culprit’s notice (which causes them to behave more calmly in front of observers).

With three avenues leading to the same piece of information, you help ensure the PCs can find it no matter what kind of skills they have and what methods of investigation they use. The PCs might also discover the same information in multiple ways. Doing so confirms the validity of that clue and likely stresses its importance. That reinforcement, in turn, helps lead the investigators to the right solution.

Equally as important is avoiding using a single clue as a focal point of an investigation, unless the clue is easy to find and essentially ends the investigation. If the PCs need a specific piece of evidence to proceed from an earlier point, they might not find what they need and the adventure can stall. You might be able to get away with such a design if the clue is dramatic, such as catching the culprit in the act of a second murder, but such reveals must be used sparingly in a campaign of mystery adventures.

Alternatively, you can reserve an all-important clue so that it appears wherever the PCs do their most thorough searching. In such a case, you are guaranteeing the evidence is found. This is where being flexible comes in handy, especially if you need to alter the adventure to fit your group.

Give Confessions

Source Starfinder #25: The Chimera Mystery pg. 44
When the players have pieced together all the clues and confronted the correct suspect, they deserve a denouement that makes all their work worthwhile. At this crucial moment, the culprit should confess to the crime in a dramatic fashion. This narrative element works in television and movies, after all! Whether it’s a tear-choked admission of accidental guilt or a gleeful declaration that they would do it all again if they had the chance, a full confession puts a neat little bow on the adventure. Often, given the action-adventure nature of Starfinder and depending on the nature of the culprit, a climactic battle ensues. You can use the confession to fill in any holes in the investigation, perhaps accompanied by the NPC’s smug gloating.

With the culprit’s confession, the PCs can be sure they have accused the correct suspect, clearing up any lingering doubts they might have about any leaps of logic they made. Even if the players have ironclad evidence, such an end to the adventure can be a cathartic moment that allows the PCs to cleanly move on to the next part of the campaign… unless any loose ends are part of an overall mystery in which the PCs are entangled!

On the other hand, if you are running a grittier, morally gray type of game, you might want to hold off on the confession and explore what happens after the accusation and the suspect’s arrest. Are the PCs members of a law enforcement organization, or did they call one in? What are the laws on the planet or space station where the crime was committed? Could the culprit, even if clearly guilty, walk away free from the repercussions of their actions?

Such aftermaths fall more under the genre of legal thriller than the mystery genre, though the two share some aspects. The PCs might be tasked with performing further investigations once the culprit’s legal representation begins muddying the water with false witnesses and coerced testimony. The PCs could uncover other crimes or start digging into cold cases where the culprit was a possible suspect but was never caught due to lack of solid evidence, leading to further mystery adventures. All these vagaries assume the culprit is a person of wealth or influence, or otherwise has the resources to corrupt the legal process.

Although this article doesn’t present any specific advice for describing what happens in the aftermath of a mystery adventure, you can adapt the advice given to help you craft other compelling scenarios full of intrigue and deception!