I have an affinity for mystery/investigation adventures. I love setting up a crime scene and having the PCs uncover clues and follow leads until they reach the final confrontation with the perpetrator.
Mystery adventures require careful planning. All of the clues need to fit (or be dismissed as red herrings) and the players need to be able to weave them together effectively. A mystery that is too convoluted can frustrate the players or make them apathetic, while a mystery that is too quickly solved offers little challenge.
Designing a good mystery is more art than science and I’ve had several stumbles in my GMing career. I’ve let the players spin their wheels too long while trying to decipher clues. I’ve let players spend way too much time on a red herring, only for them to get frustrated three sessions in when they discover their theory was for naught. I’ve dealt with the sheepish frustration of players telling me that their theory fit better than mine because of a poorly fitting clue.
Scouring the net I’ve come across a GMing method that I call the “spaghetti mystery.” Basically, the GM sets up a crime scene and the initial clues but lets the players unwittingly decide the solution to their investigation. The GM listens to them string clues together and come up with theories, modifying the adventure to accommodate those theories. To follow my analogy, the GM throws a plate of spaghetti against the wall and plays with what sticks.
While I certainly see the appeal of this approach, I have to ask, is a spaghetti mystery still a mystery adventure? For me, a mystery adventure provides challenges for the players and their characters to overcome. Solving the mystery is a testament to their abilities. If I just “go with the flow,” then I’m not really challenging them.
For players that enjoy solving mysteries, a spaghetti mystery can feel like a cheat. It can lead to sloppy play and sloppy planning. Early clues may get pencil-whipped or contradicted because the GM chose to follow an awesome, but poorly fitting, theory. Where’s the satisfaction in solving a mystery if you know that the GM just went with your theory? How do you get better at solving mysteries if there’s no challenge?
On the flip side, spaghetti mysteries can be fun, especially for casual games. If your players are more interested in the challenges of character interaction or combats, then maybe they don’t mind if you’re “fudging” the mystery/investigative aspects. Maybe you’re a busy GM and don’t have time to craft air-tight mysteries, but you can certainly set up a “crime scene sandbox” and let the players have fun being creative with it.
Do you consider spaghetti mysteries fair or foul? Would you use them in your campaigns? Do you have any good or bad stories to share involving spaghetti mysteries?