Ari Marmell, aka Mouseferatu, is a novelist that many gamers know well. He’s written novels for the likes of Wizards of the Coast and White Wolf as well as RPG material supporting D&D 4E for Expeditious Retreat Press, Pathfinder for Adamant Entertainment and plenty of World of Darkness game material for White Wolf.
The Rodent of the Dark (to use Ari’s alternative full length nickname) does not just write to support roleplaying games though. His novel Hot Lead, Cold Iron, available via Titan Books, follows the adventures of private detective Mick Oberon in the 1930s. The catch? Underneath the detective’s fedora you’ll see his pointy ears. Oberon is a Fae who turned his back on the Courts except a case involving a mobster’s daughter and a changeling threatens to drag him back into supernatural politics.
Geek Native asked Ari whether he would share some insight in the delightful horror of blending mystery into a world with magic and whether he had any tips for gamers.
Augury, My Dear Watson
“The murderer, in fact, is none other than Lord Sterling’s own butler, Bensworth!”
Audible gasps. “But detective, how could you possibly know?”
“Oh, as to that… I cast a spell and it told me.”
Kind of anticlimactic, isn’t it?
Whether you’re running a fantasy game–D&D, Pathfinder, Savage Worlds, whatever–or writing fantasy fiction, you’ll find few storylines more challenging than a good mystery. In part, that’s true of nearly any genre; mysteries require a level of planning and careful orchestration that most other stories don’t. Unique to fantasy, though, is the magic dilemma: How do you create a challenging mystery when one or more of the players can speak with the dead, or read a suspect’s thoughts, or ask a few yes/no questions of the gods themselves?
It’s tempting to simply find an excuse to counteract those abilities, and in some cases, it’s appropriate to do so. At least some other people in this world doubtless know about such magics, and can take steps against them. Counter-magics to prevent mind-reading or detection by clairvoyance absolutely exist in most such settings, and a rich or powerful killer (or thief, or what have you) will certainly make use of them if possible.
Plenty of nonmagical counters exist, too. If one of the most common investigative spells relies on speaking to the body, then destruction of the corpse–perhaps by fire or predator–is a pretty big impediment. There are likely cultural and behavioral taboos about not subjecting one’s social “betters” to lie-detecting magics; it’s a smirch against their honor.
And these are all perfectly valid and sensible ways to go.
Not too often, though. Pull that trick over and over, you’ll wind up with frustrated players (or readers). “What’s the point of even having these spells if you never let me use them?” “Why is every murderer, even those who killed out of passion, always better prepared than we are?” And even if nobody complains, frankly, it’s just lazy storytelling to rely on the same trick over and over.
So the question becomes, how do you run a game or write a story where you allow for such abilities and still maintain the mystery?
Quite simply by not automatically assuming the characters know the right questions to ask, or that every answer is obvious even through direct observation.
The investigator can see through the eyes of the corpse, observing its last moments alive? Hey, great! That’s helpful… If the victim actually saw anything worthwhile. Poisoned, though? Stabbed from behind? Killed by a magical bolt of lightning? The characters will probably still get some sort of useful clue, but a direct answer? Not so much.
Will the detective’s magics allow her to see everything that happened in this room for the past 24 hours? Nifty! How much does that help her if the killer’s wearing a mask? She’ll get general size, build, all that, but again, no direct answers. Heck, even if the killer’s taken no such steps, if the spellcaster doesn’t know him/her/it, having seen the face is an advantage but hardly an instant solution.
What about illusions? Invisibility? Crimes committed by summoned demons or raised ghosts? Golems? Ancient curses? Mind-controlled patsies with no memory of what they’ve done, or at least of why they did it? A fantasy world provides all manner of options that aren’t specifically intended to thwart divination magics but still make things a lot harder for investigators. In almost all these cases, the spells in question will provide some useful information, but it’ll be in the form of a clue, not a solution. A next step, not an answer.
And that’s what you want in any mystery: A way for the characters to move forward, but only step by step, with effort.
In fact, the best fantasy mysteries don’t just allow for such magics, but make use of them. If you’re running a game and you know a player has these abilities? Design the mystery so at least one of the clues requires some sort of magic to obtain. Make the spells integral to moving forward; it allows the player or character to shine, to really feel those abilities are worthwhile, without handing them the answer on an electrum platter.
Incidentally, what happens next? Players often assume that, once they’re able to say, “So-and-so did it,” that’s the end. But is it?
Presumably, mystery plots are normally taking place within some form of civilization or another, as opposed to out in the wild. So characters can’t necessarily end the threat by rolling initiative. Killing another citizen outright is, well, murder. It’s not enough that the characters know who the killer is, they have to be able to prove it (or at least be awfully convincing). Whether the setting has something vaguely approaching a modern system of trials, or is more of a “take this problem to the baron and have him rule on it,” the fact is they’re rarely going to be able to convict a criminal based on someone’s magically obtained testimony. What if the character’s lying? Even if she’s not, once you allow for mystical witnesses, then you sort of have to allow for the possibility that what they saw was also influenced by magic, don’t you?
Even using magic just to confirm guilt can be harder than it looks. If Bensworth is accused of multiple murders, thefts, and contributing to the delinquency of an alpaca, how do you confirm that with a yes/no or true/false query. Simply asking “Is he guilty of the crimes of which he’s been accused?” doesn’t work. If there’s one charge in there where he’s innocent–that alpaca was already stoned when they met–the answer’s going to be “no.”
All of which is a very roundabout way of saying that magic–in gaming or fiction–is only the enemy of a good mystery plot if you don’t account for it. In, say, CSI, all the forensic tech and science babble isn’t a shortcut around the mystery; it’s the primary means by which the mysteries are slowly and (at least in the good episodes) satisfactorily solved. Write the magic in, rather than treating it as something you have to guard against or circumvent, and you’ll find everyone–writer and readers, or game master and players–a lot more satisfied.