#RPGaDAY 2019 - DAY 13: "MYSTERY"

But above and beyond there’s still one name left over,
And that is the name that you never will guess;
The name that no human research can discover —
But THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never confess.
From "The Naming of Cats", by T. S. Eliot

I love watching magic shows...and I love trying to figure out how the magician is doing his illusions. I know about cut decks and 45-degree mirrors, forced choices and fake thumbs. But that doesn't mean I know how most specific tricks are done. And the reasons that magicians "never tell how a trick is done" is because that shatters the illusion and makes it less wonderful. There's a great illusion from the 1800s called "Metamorphosis", created by John Maskelyne, but made famous by Harry Houdini; I know how it's done, and it still impresses me because of the speed required by the trick...but it was so much better when I had no idea how it worked. Then, I was amazed by it; today, I can only respect it.

Mysteries are one of the great drivers of stories. If the reader, viewer or player get engaged in a mystery, they are hooked until either the secrets are revealed, they realize it can't be revealed, or they lose interest in the answer.

The first of these is where the mysteries exist until the secrets are revealed. This is the basis of the whole genre of mystery novels and is the basis for many RPG stories. Who did the crime? Where are the monsters coming from? Who tried to kill the nobleman? What's behind the portal?

As an RPG story, this can usually be broken into three parts: Understanding that there is a mystery or secret to be revealed, finding pieces of information to help reveal the answer, then putting the pieces together to solve the mystery. Along the way, there are challenges to overcome, and the challenges, the hints, and the ultimate resolution create an engaging storyline which is fun for the GM to create, and for the players to resolve. 

One of my group's current stories is "who framed us." We play hobgoblins representing our clan in guard positions within the human part of the world. We are generally looked down on, and somebody set us up to take the fall for a series of robberies. All of our good actions for several months were somehow just coincidental to the robberies, and all of our reports and character witnesses were missing. So two parts to the story. First, to do all the good things as new recruits, and then to have to find out who framed us and why. We eventually found the answer, and the combined story arc took us through eight months of engaging playtime.

There are certainly other mechanisms for creating a story and they are equally fun, but one of the best parts of discovering secrets is that you learn more about people and/or the world, and so everything is just a bit more real.

This leads me to another type of mystery, where there is no clear answer that can be achieved by putting facts together. Rather, the characters learn facts which support a view and over time, the players may come to a state of revelation where they firmly believe in that view, but there's never a time where they are told if they are correct or not. In our world, people wonder "what happens after you die" or "is there a God"...and there are stories and beliefs and people come to their own decisions. In a game world, people can wonder where magic comes from, and how did humans come to be in a world which already has other races, or it can be "who is behind all of this." People may uncover hints, people may spend their whole lives trying to find out...but the answers are often not knowable, and so only theories can exist. And sometimes there is ultimately revelation, which can come as the resolution of a long term story.

The advantage of stories like this is that if people are engaged in the mystery, they start looking closely at the world, trying to see how it works, and if what they're seeing gives them insights into the world itself. This can turn the campaign theme into one of discovery, and ultimately revelation.

My first large campaign was one that lasted seven years, and at the end of it, the party finally understood much more what had been going on for all those years. It led to revelation about the meaning of what they had been going through, and as they began putting other parts together, they understood how even small details fit. Their theories from what they had learned previously were either acknowledged as part of the greater effort or shown to be incorrect or irrelevant to the greater story. It was my most successful story completion--because there was a secret to be known, and the party finally understood most of it.

The third type of mystery is where you just can't know the answer because ultimately there really isn't one. This is extremely risky because if people feel invested in the mystery, and its constantly denied them they can lose interest in the story.

Numenera has this concept at its core. There are mysteries galore in the world, and in fact, you gain your experience from discovery not from killing things. But the core mysteries of that system, such as "Why is the world still around after a billion years?" and "What was the real purpose of this thing I found" aren't knowable. So there are mysteries that the players just accept how they relate to them, but make no effort to try to understand. At most, they sometimes say "that was weird" when some element of the world behaves differently than they expected. As a system, it works. There are plenty of things the characters can know, against a background of things they can't.

But if you try to get the players engaged in a mystery they can't ever solve, they will lose interest. This is where shows like X-Files and Lost went horribly wrong. They had mysteries, and it was fun to achieve revelation as the shows went on. But as the shows went on longer than expected, or people guessed the ultimate answer, the writers had to take viewers revelations away from them by moving the revelation goalposts.

This is why I can't stand "adversary" storylines, where the bad guy keeps being behind everything, and keeps coming back, no matter how many times he's defeated. If the party finds out that their best friend has secretly been "Morgo the Dark Lord" the whole time, that's a great revelation. They defeat Morgo, and the story comes to an epic conclusion. When they defeat Morgo, but discover that it wasn't really Morgo they defeated, or he had yet another boss, or whatever to drag the story out...that quickly becomes pointless as no real revelation is possible.

And that really summarizes my view of mystery in gaming. A small mystery will help drive a great story; revelation can drive a campaign, but basing a campaign on solving a mystery that can never be solved can undo the great work that went into the story.


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