One of the answers in What better not to use Fate Core for? was that story lines where information is withheld from the players were less suitable for Fate. However, people commented they had been able to make Fate work with such mystery tales.

One of the comments explicitly stated the situation where both players and GM didn't know which way the mystery would go, and I can imagine how that would work in Fate. However, for stories with prebuilt mysteries, like whodunnits and conspiracy based games, what would be good ways to handle (the pacing of) discovering clues and facts, setting up red herrings etc. ?

One of the small tidbits that I thought might come in handy was Ryan Macklin's The Fifth Action:

So I propose the Discover action. In general, Discover covers revealing information, either with passive or active opposition. Depending on the nature of what’s revealed, you may uncover facts and information or you may uncover an actual aspect. Success gives you the information or aspect, and success with style gives you a boost or a free invocation. Unlike with creating an advantage, the aspect doesn’t inherently come with a free invocation, because you’re observing rather than applying change.

However, there's probably much more in other Fate-based systems and the collective Fate GM experience that can be used.

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Answerers, please remember that answers are better when they can cite actual game experience (yours or someone else's) that a solution really works, rather than just speculating about an untested suggestion. \$\endgroup\$
    – BESW
    Jun 29, 2015 at 0:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ Related to that 'Discover' action you brought up is this response from Fred Hicks on how it's already covered in the system. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 29, 2015 at 0:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ Related: How can I make investigation engaging for the whole party? \$\endgroup\$
    – Tack
    Jun 29, 2015 at 0:24

3 Answers 3


There's a huge Chekov's elephant gun you need to be aware of when playing a mystery game: The mystery is there to be solved! There's nothing interesting about not solving the mystery.

So since the players are going to solve the mystery anyway, the big question in the game shouldn't be about -if they can-. They can and will. It should be about -how they do- and -what it costs-. The former is your players' domain. The latter is (as the GM) yours.

Fate insists on sharing information with the players in the form of aspects. Players need to know about the aspects in the game, including aspects about your mystery, to be able to play as intended. So hiding away those aspects kills a Fate game quite quickly.

So you need to lay your mystery open on the table. And let your players tell you how they solved it.

Meanwhile, you should ask them a lot of questions about how they solved the mystery. And act on their answers. Challenge them, let them bleed on the way. Take your toll.

Put up obstacles and opposition they must defeat to get to the result, and make them roll. But never let failure stop them. Make failure cost them.

Mess with their characters as much as you can. Being "taken out" in Fate does not necessarily mean that the character is out of the game. It means that the player temporarily loses their control over the character. When you take them out, grab their sheet and rewrite one of their aspects. Swap some skills. Tie what you just did into the story.

One of the outcomes in Fate is "success at a cost". Offer them devil's deals whenever they roll poorly. Tell them that they can still make that interrogation subject sing like a mockingbird, but it is going to cost them their "badge of honor" aspect.

The mystery will eventually be solved, but the characters that solved it won't be the exact same characters the players began with. They will have changed along the way and the story will be about that change.

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    \$\begingroup\$ How has some of this worked out in play? I presume the players were quite OK dealing with a mystery they knew about but their characters didn't. This sounds like an exciting and excellent solution, and like you have experience doing this. On principle, we should probably be demonstrating that yeah, this has definitely been tried and worked well, so that we can separate the answers of "do this, it worked" from the answers of "do this, I've never tried it or even done anything like this but I'm sure it'll work" - and I'd be more comfortable upvoting this if it mentioned experience and success. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 29, 2015 at 2:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is practically the basis for the investigation-focused GUMSHOE system. Since the system is popular and successful, would that count as evidence that "the players are going to solve the mystery anyway" is a successful stance from which to run a mystery game with competent, proactive PCs? \$\endgroup\$
    – gomad
    Jun 29, 2015 at 6:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ I did test test this approach on Fate games. In my experience, its success relies on getting the players onboard with the idea. People who had only played D&D before were my biggest challenge, and brand new players who played for the first time were quite quick to get into the mindset. \$\endgroup\$
    – edgerunner
    Jun 29, 2015 at 8:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ "The players are going to solve the mystery" is a solid starting point for running mysteries in RPGS. But there are three ways to do this: Lay out the mystery, Fail-forward, or Co-create the mystery. "lay it out": the mystery is only for the characters, and players are telling the story of how they got it. "fail-forward": (Gumshoe, CoC7, D&D4), the players still solve the mystery, but they never fail to find the clues. Putting the clues together is fun, and so are complications. Co-creation: (SHU, A Taste for Murder), nobody knows the answer at the beginning; it's discovered in play. \$\endgroup\$
    – mneme
    Dec 18, 2017 at 9:31

Lisa Padol did run a fair number of mystery plots (we had a detective PC, which certainly helped, plus she tends to mine Call of Cthulhu and similar games for adventures) in her Kerberos Club Fate game (I played Alice), built with Fate v2 — but the rules are still fundamentally the same in Fate Core (v3) even with the reduction to the "four actions" — because the old "create an aspect" and "discover an aspect" actions are now both part of "create advantage". Avram Grumer also had some mystery plots in his (Fate Accelerated, ie v3) space game.

In short, running mystery plots traditionally using Fate works fine (as much as running mystery plots traditionally ever worked fine; as Fred Hicks says, mystery plots require that the characters find the core clues, so you need to use "succeed at a cost" if it looks like they'll miss critical clues entirely). The key is that the players ability to create background and modify the world is directly limited by the GM's power to accept or reject compels, declarations, and actions.

So the mode of play is very similar to that of GUMSHOE or Call of Cthulhu run well. The GM sets up or preps a mystery plot, and hooks the characters in (using compels if needed, but keep in mind the tightened restrictions in Fate Core that something has to go wrong (or for an event-based compel, something unfortunate has to happen) for a compel to be valid). The players have their characters make actions — rolling Overcome Obstacle to get past obstacles that would prevent them from progressing in the mystery, Declaring things about the situation that make it easier for them to find things out (keeping in mind that the GM has veto on Declaration, so this can only work if it fits with what's already going on), and making Create an Advantage attempts when they do things that will give them a lasting advantage rather than just getting someone to talk about what they saw (note that Overcome Obstacle can be rolled into a Create an Advantage roll if an action will both clear a barrier and create an aspect with a lasting effect). Eventually, they'll solve the mystery — at which point you're probably going to end up some kind of action scene (wherein they may end up using some of the aspects they created in the mystery).

This may involve the players putting together the clues you've given them and figuring out where to go next. Or it may involve the characters putting the clues together using die rolls (create advantage and overcome obstacle again, as needed — although this might be a good place to use the Brainstorming rules in Atomic Robo, or the Montage rules in the upcoming Shadow of the Century RPG). But either way, it's all pretty straightforward.

This alone is enough to run most mystery plots. Another technique you can use is the "run anything as a character" rule (although due to what skills traditionally have the attack option, I'd make sure players knew you were using this for character creation — or be more loose and narrative-focused about what skills could attack in mystery situations). With that approach, you could treat the mystery as a combat, with a failure result in the players side being a less than good result like them getting captured or derailed with a significant red herring — and knocking out the mystery meaning that they succeed in solving it. I don't necessarily recommend this approach, but it does have the advantage of measuring progress towards a goal (solving the mystery) in a very easy to measure way — without giving out the details of the mystery beforehand.


Skill challenges

If you're asking about the more gameplay related mechanics in orchestrating a mystery in Fate, I suppose the best way to do so is to plan out the Mystery, determine who the killer was or what was stolen, create suspects to throw the PCs off of the trail of a potential Thief or Murderer, add clues that the Players can find that point towards one logical conclusion or Alibis that eliminate some of the suspects from being guilty. Assign each suspect a possible motive for action that the PCs have the chance to extrapolate. Once you have all this you're ready to host your Mystery.

Create a set of "Notice" or "Investigate" skill challenges to narrow down exactly who the murderer might be via ascertaining their alibis, creating possible motives, or discovering clues.

A failure in these challenges results in a character drawing the incorrect conclusion, if enough failures occur the wrong suspect could be arrested and the actual Murderer or Thief could get away Scot free. Succeeding at a skill challenge allows the PCs to safely acquire one piece of the puzzle towards nabbing the criminal. On a tie, the PCs are able to get a vital clue to the case, however the actual murderer or thief is able to either tamper or destroy another piece of evidence necessary in solving the puzzle.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I'd only ever do this if the murderer or thief was a PC. Otherwise...well, how often in -any- fictional media does the culprit get away due to a failure to investigate (ie, -not- an unsucessful result after a confrontation)? This approach would work much better if you have failed investigative rolls generate aspects that will help the culprit in a later confrontation, but still move the action forward. A contest is great to answer "do you identify the culprit before they kill again?"; not so good to find out whether you catch them at all. \$\endgroup\$
    – mneme
    Dec 18, 2017 at 9:39

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