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Mystery Adventures / Running Mysteries

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.