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I am intending to have a murder mystery for my next game, set in a high fantasy setting in 13th Age. The setting we are playing in is very close to Eberron in tone, where magic is prevalent and powers industry and economy.

The problem I am having now is coming up with a plausible murder mystery scenario in a setting where you have disguise self (hence any alibi cannot be trusted), illusions/domination (hence witnesses are not reliable), closed environment not really being closed (dimension door, teleport, pass wall etc.) and monster summons (hence not needing a murder weapon).

While 13th Age doesn't have many of those spells available, it is possible that NPCs have it, as implied by the setting. It's the sense of "magic can do anything hence there is an infinity number of ways the murderer could have killed the victim!"

How can I

  1. design a mystery that can be done via magical means, but any classes, not only casters, can solve it?

  2. design a mystery such that the players can rule out magical means without requiring an encyclopaedic knowledge of magic ("Pass wall couldn't be used here because it is the wall is lined with lead" kind of thing). I could have magical defenses, but I don't want too much contrivance ("Oh, it's the THIRD murder scene where it is warded against magic. How convenient!")

  3. explain why there still could be clues lying around despite it that there is magic (say, what sort of clue should a dimension door or magical portal leaves behind?)

  4. show the players that the murderer is using mundane means so that they won't suspect a caster did it -and- why the murderer could use mundane means when they have magic at his/her disposal.

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This kind of defeats the purpose of a magic setting, but the murder could take place in a dead-magic zone. On the other hand, a magical murder in a dead-magic zone is a very good mystery! –  Dakeyras Jun 15 '13 at 18:31
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Interesting. I was expecting this question to be completely the opposite direction - "How can you have a murder mystery in high fantasy when a mage-investigator can walk in, cast Retrocognition/Speak with Dead/Telepathy/etc. and solve it immediately?" –  Dave Sherohman Jun 16 '13 at 11:17
    
Well, Lorefinder has an answer for those spells - not admissible as evidence in court of law. But ya, that's an angle that could be covered in another question. –  Extrakun Jun 16 '13 at 15:49

4 Answers 4

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A few thoughts: unless your player characters are supposed to be on par with Sherlock Holmes, solving crimes based on nothing more than clues available at the scene, there should be quite a bit of legwork and talking involved in an investigation. It sounds like you're looking for a closed room murder ("all the windows and doors were locked from the inside!"), but if you set the murder on the night of a big party at the same location, you have instant access to a slew of potential suspects and witnesses. Even if the murderer wasn't attending the party that night (which might be a clue in and of itself: "why wasn't Lord Crawford at the party last night?"), you could easily place someone who knows something in the crowd.

Second, just because a murderer has access to magic doesn't mean the actual murder itself was magical in nature. Even a powerful wizard might turn to a dagger or nearby heavy blunt object in a fit of rage. A dagger in the back is clearly (though perhaps misleadingly, if it was placed there postmortem) mundane. As far as clues, the wizard may have escaped via dimension door, but perhaps footprints (ink from an inkwell knocked over in a struggle, or blood) leading away from the corpse suddenly vanish in the middle of the room, or a magical fetish or used spell components or what have you lie discarded on the floor. A murder, even a premeditated one, can be very unsettling to the murderer, who may not have the presence of mind to be very careful.

Lastly, you could provide the characters with a foil (an assistant or out-of-their-league detective, depending on why the characters are in charge of the investigation) whose purpose is to ask leading questions that you can use provide clues if they are struggling ("the murderer came in this window, right? Then why does it look like it was forced open from this side?").

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+1 Check out TV shows like Kolchak for examples of a totally mundane guy with good journalistic investigation skills using those skills to take out supernatural monsters. Solving actual crimes is hard work and exhausting. –  BESW Jun 15 '13 at 18:02

For each mystery you want to tell, there has to be some sort of constraint the players could work with. As Problematic points out, a lot of the details of murder mysteries will work even in a high magic setting. But here are some examples that tie the prevalence of magic in to the mystery itself:

  • The Winter King was killed in an area with powerful warding spells; only supposedly harmless magic can be cast within the palace. So exactly how did someone use magic to kill the king?
  • This foul murder was clearly the work of a particular evil cult's ritual. But it only works on members of your own family -- which of the victims relatives is a secret cult member?
  • Kazdah Ashborn can walk through flame unscathed -- no fire could touch him. So how did he end up with this hole burnt in his chest?
  • The watchmen of Alacarium have a ritual to trace any use of magic back to its wielder. So any would-be murderer in the city has to use mundane means to off their enemy.
  • The bomb was set to explode when magic was used anywhere near it. So the killer can't have used magic to plant it!

The basic formula is: lay out a set of rules for the use of magic, and then let the player's use those rules to figure out who the murderer was. (The first part of the investigation could be to figure out those rules in the first place!)

As you point out, if literally anything goes, you can't have a good mystery. Isaac Asimov wrote a lot of SF mystery stories. Each mystery would hinge upon some unexpected aspect of seemingly straight-forward and absolute constraints, such as the Laws of Robotics.

In each of the examples I give, you want to restrict the problem space until its solvable, and perhaps provide a "twist".

  • Perhaps the evil cult forbids the use of teleportation magic, meaning that the suspects can have alibis more easily. Since blood ties are important, a surprise revelation of infidelity or adoption could be pivotal in proving guilt or innocence.

  • Maybe Ashborn's immunity to fire stems from his religious practice, so it's a matter of figuring out the rules and taboos of his religion. It turns out that someone tricked him into breaking one of those taboo -- not realizing it, he killed himself with the very fire he worshiped!

  • The Winter King's librarian has an exact log of what spells were cost on the premises in the last 24 hours -- what weird combination of useless spells did in the king?

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I've run a few murder-mystery style games and to me the following work fairly well:

  • Do not be afraid to shamelessly rip off a movie or TV show. One of the best instances of a good murder mystery I had was when I stole the plot to the Ben Affleck movie "Gone Baby Gone" and adapted it to medieval fantasy. If it's a movie nobody else has seen, that's great, but there's a good chance that as long as you mask enough elements, your players won't see through to your plot devices, at least not until it's too late.

    Other good sources besides movies include - and I know this is obvious but it must be said - good noir-ish mystery novels. This is especially the case with Eberron, as it is in some ways modeled after that post-WW2 era feeling, where the primary reason the US and USSR didn't fight over the carcass of Germany was that they were too exhausted. "The Third Man" takes place in post-war Vienna, for instance, a place which was literally cordoned off into different districts that the conquering nations each controlled. Other good fodder includes the work of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and, later on, Ross MacDonald.

  • "Know Alignment" type spells have no place in this world. Two reasons for this: one, noir is all about femme fatales playing PIs like a fiddle with their sob stories, double-crosses, and iffy morality on everyone's part. Alignment is to me more of a player's aid than a set-in-stone thing anyway, but the whole idea of being able to see the world through someone else's eyes is kind of anathema to the whole genre of the mystery. If you're creative you can find ways around it (for instance, The Dresden Files's equivalent, the Soul Gaze, is very perilous and only works on humans) (not that I'm a big fan of how TDF handles mysteries but that's another story), but frankly I think it might be easier to ban such spells. In a world like Eberron, where no race or class is intrinsically good or evil, they have limited appeal anyway.

  • In investigations, it is not necessary to make the encounters level appropriate. If the party decides they need to talk to a crimelord, that crimelord certainly does not need to be (party level + 3) or whatever the (big boss) level is. He could be (party level + 10) and have several lieutenants at that + 3 level, making the idea of a fight a bad, bad, bad idea. I think it's good and proper to have this kind of "what are we getting ourselves into?" kind of fear; it's a fairly major staple of the genre.

  • Sprinkle clues around and let the PCs find them. Coming up with clues which aren't so obscure that they make no sense whatsoever but aren't so obvious so as to let the party understand everything which is going on is not easy. Fortunately, if you're new to this, your party probably is as well so you don't have to be perfect by any means.

  • It's okay to hit them over the head with a clue if they aren't getting it. If they're just wandering around, talking to random people, and getting frustrated, there's no rule that says that one of those random people can't give them a major hint that gets them back on track. Mystery solving is really less about word puzzles and the like and more about unpeeling an onion, layer by layer, and seeing what is inside.

  • Incorporate ideas your party gets into the plot. This is my favorite trick of all: if the party becomes convinced that there is a lich king behind the whole thing, even if you just have a regular old human back there, see if you can make it a lich king or whatever instead. As long as the clues you've given out are compatible with the final result, the party has no idea what, exactly, you're planning until you spring it on them anyway. Think of it as a kind of fan service!

  • Above all, make sure everybody is having fun. Some players just want to beat folks up, which is fine. In fact, there is a lot of combat in noir. There is no reason why, for instance, a party hot on the trail of a murder can't have an encounter with a gang of thugs hired by the local boss to "dissuade" them from carrying out their investigation. Maybe you can even drop a clue on their person once the party dispatches them! Likewise, if your party likes to RP, the question-and-answer aspects of investigation should give them a great opportunity to do this. The bottom line is, just because you're running this kind of game doesn't mean you can't continue to incorporate those parts of the game you know the players enjoy.

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This is a good answer, but not to this question. –  starwed Jun 17 '13 at 18:14

Don't forget that the use of magic leaves traces that can be seen with Detect Magic. That can eliminate (or add) possibilities, and give a time limit, as they have to investigate before the auras fade.

I really like starwed's answers, but remember you can also limit things by geography. For example, if you are on an island in the middle of nowhere, it is unlikely the killer teleported in, killed someone with an axe, then teleported out, at least, at lower levels. Dimension door means they could move a few hundred feet, but not all the way to the mainland, etc.

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