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Fair or Foul?: Spaghetti Mysteries

Posted By Walt Ciechanowski On November 7, 2011 @ 1:00 am In GMing Advice | 26 Comments

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?

About  Walt Ciechanowski

Walt’s been a game master ever since he accidentally picked up the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set in 1982. He became a freelance RPG writer in 2005 and is currently the Victoriana Line Developer for Cubicle 7. Walt lives in Springfield, PA with his wife Helena and their three children, Leianna, Stephen, and Zoe.

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26 Comments To "Fair or Foul?: Spaghetti Mysteries"

#1 Comment By palin On November 7, 2011 @ 1:15 am

On a side note, I don’t know which kind of spaghetti you use there in the US. Our spaghetti don’t stick to any wall when throwed. (Yes, I live in Italy) ;)

#2 Comment By Orikes On November 7, 2011 @ 2:24 am

Like so many things, it depends on who is actually playing – both the GM and the players.

I think if the GM is skilled enough to make a scenario flow seamlessly even though they’re winging it and taking cues from the players discussions, the game can be a blast. It can be tremendously rewarding for a player to feel like they ‘figured it out from the beginning’.

Conversely, a GM can’t rely on it too much (or players start to become suspicious) and they need to watch out for major inconsistencies. Either one can take a fun, flexible situation and turn it ugly.

As a player, I’m willing to forgive a great deal in a GM winging it if I’m having fun. I’ve had too many bad experiences with inflexible GMs unwilling to waver from the railroad track of their scenario to realize that the players aren’t having fun. I’d rather have someone making it up as they go and making it fun than someone who has a detailed, logical, consistent mystery that is just not very fun.

#3 Comment By Quirky_DM On November 7, 2011 @ 4:29 am

A lot of people had trouble with the board game “Android” for a similar reason. You didn’t necessarily solve a mystery, but decided who was guilty as the game went based on evidence played.

I agree with Orikes- it’s all about the DM making it seem like it was that way from the beginning. The players only know it’s improv if you tell them or if you can’t cover your tracks well enough.

I say they’re fair game, but the depth you go to is based on your own ability. For me, the spaghetti mystery would still have the same culprit and motivations behind it, but I would use improv to allow multiple methods to get to the villain, including setting up clue trails on the fly.

#4 Comment By danroth On November 7, 2011 @ 5:53 am

If you’re good at improvising, your players don’t even need to know that you’re making it up as they go.
Even if they do know, if it still feels the same (i.e., they still feel like they’re solving a mystery), then what’s the difference?

@palin – That’s kinda how food is in America; we go for quantity rather than quality

#5 Comment By pencilneckgeek On November 7, 2011 @ 7:40 am

I’ve not set out to a “spaghetti” scenario, but sometimes end up doing one.

The players will be be-bopping along and looking at the clues I’ve laid out and discussing the “evidence” when one of them will pop out with “well so-and-so can’t be responsible because of x, y, and z…”. Then I’m sitting behind the screens, smile plastered to my face thinking “Well, crap. They’re right. It doesn’t work.”

So then I let them lead me around a bit and I mentally reshape the adventure as I go. Most times, no one is the wiser. Like someone already said, it’s keeping them from seeing the man behind the curtain that counts. And if it’s fun.

#6 Comment By Tomcollective On November 7, 2011 @ 8:13 am

This all assumes the players know you’re improvising. Why would you tell them and break the moment?

The mystery genre has turned mysteries into things. So when we write them, our minds go first to building the puzzle. This is a mistake. A mystery is an explanation to an event we did not witness. Think first of this event (a murder, say) and the context of that event (who knew the victim, their job, last moments seen alive, ect) and of course the evidence left behind. Insert players. Mystery writes itself.

In other words, don’t try to write the investigation. Write what happened when the players weren’t looking.

#7 Comment By Norcross On November 7, 2011 @ 9:03 am

I think you can rephrase the question as: which would you rather do?
1) play a game where the players have fun coming up with a solution to a mystery
2) narrate to the players about a mystery you created yourself and already know everything about but don’t want to tell them because then the game would last all of five minutes

Maybe a bit harsh, but these are the two ways that almost every mystery I’ve played (or GMed) has turned out. Even the best GMs, if they decide there is one and only one solution to a mystery, devolve into showing off their amateur mystery writer talent instead of running a game.

Many times players even come up with better solutions than the GM did. How do you handle it when the players notice some clue that makes the GM’s solution impossible? If you are going the first route, the players congratulate themselves on figuring something out. If you go the second route, you end up making things more and more convoluted to force the situation to fit your goal. And this will happen, almost guaranteed.

A mystery means it isn’t immediately clear what happened – so if the players come up with a perfectly plausible solution to the mystery, what makes the GM’s solution automatically the only acceptable one? Going the first route saves time for the GM and makes the game incredibly more fun for the players. I know I would much rather have players remember that time they solved the duchess’ murder, rather than that time some lady got killed or something – they don’t really remember what happened except the GM did a lot of reading while they wandered around aimlessly. Or worse, that time they solved the duchess’ murder only to find out at the last minute that their solution was completely wrong because they failed to notice that the third tapestry from the left had a small blue smudge in the corner and the GM made them keep walking back and forth down the hallway making Spot checks each time until a hireling finally noticed and the GM could finally narrate the “real” solution (that still failed to explain the bloody dagger found in the woods which our solution was based on).

#8 Comment By edige23 On November 7, 2011 @ 9:07 am

Actually the best example of a toolkit for this is “The Armitage Files” for Trail of Cthulhu. That’s a campaign structure built around a series of prepared ‘documents’ which the Gm can then use to improvise a mystery- it is a pretty amazing resource. Ashen Stars as well has a section on running improvised investigation games.

#9 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On November 7, 2011 @ 9:31 am

@palin – “Throwing spaghetti against the wall and see what sticks” is a figure of speech over here. :)

I’m only a quarter Italian, but I’ve never tested my spaghetti (which at this point would be covered in sauce) against a wall. It will stick to the side of the pot though.

@Orikes – You’re saying two things here about spaghetti mysteries. First, the players feel tremendous accomplishment for doing something they didn’t do, but ultimately you’d forgive a GM for it. Of course, if she told you, then the feeling of accomplishment gets ripped away.

@Quirky_DM – I’d say that allowing different methods to uncover the mystery still falls in the “traditional mystery” camp, so long as the mystery itself is set in stone.

@danroth – Presuming that you’re the GM, you’d know. That’s the question in a nutshell; are you comfortable with fudging it?

@pencilneckgeek – I don’t see this as “spaghetti mystery” as much as “damage control.” I’ve had several “crap, I messed up a clue” moments where I had to mop up as best I could. Sometimes that leads to rewriting the mystery.

@Tomcollective – I think you just laid out the basic building blocks of good traditional mystery (as opposed to spaghetti mystery) design!

@Norcross – I don’t see your two situations as mutually exclusive. Why couldn’t the players have fun trying to figure out the mystery you set before them without you changing the facts?

@edige23 – I passed on The Armitage Files because I thought it was just a pack of props. You’re the second person making me rethink getting it now.

#10 Comment By bonao94 On November 7, 2011 @ 10:19 am

I’m sure you could run a successful game like this, but I’d still call it foul.

Running a game without being honest with your players about how you are running it can lead to all kinds of problems. The common version of this is having a pre-planned story that your players don’t know about, and shoehorning their decisions into it while making it seem like they have agency. The spaghetti mystery turns that on its head, making the players think you have a pre-planned story/challenge when you’re actually creating the story as the group goes.

You already explained how this can be a problem in your article. Some players play RPGs for the challenge. In a spaghetti mystery, there is no game challenge. It’d be like running a game for players who were really into tactical combat, but deciding what happens in the combat on what you think would be coolest from a story perspective. If any of your players are playing the game primarily for the challenge, you are robbing them of their fun.

On the other hand, let’s say your players are really into the collaborative story telling aspect of RPGs. In that case, they’ll probably be happy with the spaghetti mystery style. Still, it isn’t your place as GM to decide what your players are interested in; you might think they’re interested in this sort of story telling, but have it turn out that they want something else. Also, if your players don’t know that you are basing the mystery on their input, they may get frustrated looking for clues that aren’t there and become bored/disengaged.

An interesting idea might be running a spaghetti mystery, but explicitly telling your players ahead of time that there is no pre-planned solution to the mystery. This would probably require special rules (or even its own game system) to turn it into a game, though. Otherwise you’d likely just end up with something like “It’s that guy! I cuff him” which is no fun.

#11 Comment By Clawfoot On November 7, 2011 @ 11:11 am

@bonao94 – I think you’re mistaking “honesty” for “transparancy,” and these are two very similar yet very different things.

I am honest with my players: as a GM, I will sometimes bend the rules in favour of the story, or a dramatic moment. This might mean that I cheat in “favour” of the PCs, or “against” the PCs, but each and every time I do so, I do to enhance the fun for the players. I do not always tell them when I do this. It may be as simple as not applying their NPC ally’s full damage against the big bad if it would be the killing blow (to allow a PC that honour), or it might be as sweeping as deciding at the last minute that hey, their theory is better than what I had prepared, so I’ll roll with that instead.

I am HONEST in that I tell my players that I will sometimes do these things (and if I have a player who objects to it, I won’t do it), but I am not TRANSPARANT about when they happen. I don’t tell them that I left the big bad with 1 hp so that they could kill it themselves, and I don’t tell them that I don’t yet know who killed the prince, because as you said, that would lead to a potentially boring game that may require different mechanics.

I think this method of GMing is fair, if the GM knows their players don’t mind it, and if it’s used judiciously. Everything in moderation: a GM who changes everything all the time in reaction to the players stretches the credibility of the game, IMO. But every once in a while, when appropriate, and when not against the “unspoken contact” of the game? Perfectly fair.

#12 Comment By Patrick Benson On November 7, 2011 @ 11:12 am

Fair, and from a certain perspective the “spaghetti” approach is a fairer alternative. Why should the GM be privy to the solution and the rest of the group needs to do all of the work in order for the GM to reveal his or her solution? There is nothing wrong with the GM designing the mystery just one step ahead of the players.

#13 Comment By OberonViking On November 7, 2011 @ 12:16 pm

The Three Clue Rule certainly helps here:
I try to use this in all my adventure creation.

#14 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On November 7, 2011 @ 12:21 pm

@bonao94 – IIRC, Primetime Adventures takes a similar approach to what you are suggesting. I’d recommend getting a copy. Even if you don’t want to run a collaborative game, PA is chock-full of good advice.

@Clawfoot – That’s definitely an honest approach. I think most GMs fudge from time to time and I’ve certainly caught GMs fudging when they insisted they weren’t.

@Patrick Benson – From a certain perspective, yes, I agree with you :)

#15 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On November 7, 2011 @ 12:25 pm

@OberonViking – You sneaked in behind me. :) I think I’ve read that article before. There’s some great advice in there!

#16 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On November 7, 2011 @ 12:28 pm

We always test our spaghetti by throwing it against the wall. Though my ancestry is Norwegian and English, so take that for what it’s worth.

#17 Comment By Sarlax On November 7, 2011 @ 12:35 pm

I think it’s completely fair. It’s just improv, which I think a good GM needs to do sometimes. However, I think it’s particularly important in a mystery adventure to conceal the improv; I believe it’s significantly more fun to think you’re *actually* discovering the truth, rather than know your fabricating.

#18 Comment By Roxysteve On November 7, 2011 @ 12:38 pm

No, a spaghetti sandbox is not a mystery in any way, shape or form, but it can look that way *if the players don’t know what’s going on under the hood*.

Personally speaking, as a player I find the concept that no matter what I do it will all work out in the end to be a very unsatisfying basis for four hours or so of my time.

But if I never get to find out that’s what’s going on I can believe I figured out something when (of course) I didn’t.

The real issue here is: How many GM’s, having pulled this trick, can keep their traps shut for ever, even when angry or being taunted by a player for running an “easy mystery”?

As a GM I sometimes use a combination involving a core mystery that is immutable and surrounding mini-mysteries that contribute – as in provide clues and leads – but that are fluid enough to be influenced by player buy-in.

But I use the Magician’s Code: Never Tell How The Trick Is Done.

#19 Comment By Roxysteve On November 7, 2011 @ 12:46 pm

@Troy E. Taylor – You could just make it “Al Dente”. Which you test by, you know, biting it. Even I know that and I detest pasta and won’t cook it.

#20 Comment By bonao94 On November 7, 2011 @ 12:47 pm


Just to be clear, when I’m talk about honesty, I’m specifically NOT talking about just fudging a die roll or changing the occasional detail in a game. I’m talking about communicating with players about the fundamental goal of the game.

What you suggested (spontaneous fudging for dramatic effect, with general forewarning) isn’t at all dishonest. However, allowing a player to believe that the game you are running is about strategically overcoming challenges, when it is actually about collaborative storytelling, is somewhat dishonest, and harmful to the game.

@Walt Ciechanowski
Thanks for the suggestion, Walt. As it happens, I am interested in collaborative storytelling type games. I’ll have to check PA out.

#21 Comment By Clawfoot On November 7, 2011 @ 1:21 pm

@bonao94 – Okay, I see your point; there is a difference between fudging the occasional fact and decieving your players as to the fundamental nature of the game they’re playing. Different players get their fun from different things, however, and some players (like you, I gather) would not appreciate this approach and feel cheated out of a more authentic experience. Other players (like my current players) don’t really care about the mechanics that go on behind the GM screen, and wouldn’t mind if they found out somehow that I was making things up as I went (I’ve known one for 20 years; the other for 15. I’m pretty sure I have a good handle on what they like and don’t like). I think it would be more fun if they never found out, and I strongly believe they’d agree.

Neither approach to fun is superior to the other in any way, of course; it’s completely subjective. I’m not trying to say that you’re wrong for thinking this would ruin your fun. But I think my players would like this, especially if they didn’t know about it. So, to me, it’s a valid method of running a game.

Your mileage varies, obviously. Nothing wrong with that. :)

@OberonViking – Thank you for that article! That’s some great stuff, there. I’ll be exploring the related links for a while, too, I think. :)

#22 Comment By bonao94 On November 7, 2011 @ 2:25 pm

@Clawfoot – I think we’re in complete agreement about subjectivity and fun. :)

If your players are primarily interested in gaming for the purpose of participating in a cool story led by their GM, then there’s nothing wrong with running this style of game. Given how well it sounds like you know your players, I’m sure you have a good handle on what is fun for them.

I would just encourage anyone thinking about running a game this way to be very certain about their players’ interests beforehand. If it turns out your players had other ideas about what kind of game you were running, you will have a very boring and frustrating game.

#23 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On November 7, 2011 @ 6:05 pm

@Roxysteve – Not as much fun as throwing it against the wall, though!

On topic, though. I think this is a really cool tool for a GM toolkit. For my mysteries, I prefer the Riddler approach. You know the Riddler. He always tells the truth and offers clues until he’s caught. That’s how I approach most mystery scenarios. I keep feeding clues (finding objects or NPC information) until the lightbulb clicks.

But if time were a factor, or if I saw the PCs losing patience/interest, I can see where a few spaghetti threads would really move things along.

#24 Comment By Redcrow On November 8, 2011 @ 2:15 am

Many of the mysteries I have run were improv. Usually its just me getting the ball rolling with only a vague idea of where it is going and tossing out a couple of clues. At certain points I stick with my own ideas and sometimes I go with whatever the PCs have dreamed up. Some of my fondest memories are from games I’ve run that way.

I’ve always just assumed this was an old and common GM tactic.

I’m completely honest with my players when it comes to technical aspects of the game, but as far as the narrative goes I lie frequently as IMO any good GM should. YMMV.

#25 Comment By Tsenn On November 8, 2011 @ 10:37 am

I would much rather have three potential trails that lead to the single solution and a consequence for failing to solve the mystery than have the the GM or players get adventurous with pasta products and expect a reward at the end. A mystery is a conflict. The opponent is the protagonist, the clues the terrain. Without a consequence for failure what value is there in victory? The spaghetti method feels too much like just letting them have dessert without eating their greens.

#26 Comment By GiacomoArt On November 9, 2011 @ 8:43 am

Being subjective and spontaneous is actually what being a game master is all about. If you want cold, hard answers, you turn to a rule book, or to a computer moderator. Even a GM who only runs pre-packaged adventures and runs them strictly by the book is there to make subjective decisions and let the players riff off of the material, doing cool stuff that the authors could never have anticipated. Individual groups and GMs will set different expectations on the limits of spontanaeity, but this is a very legitimate approach to an RPG “mystery” adventure.

If I had to pre-plan every detail of my games before starting just in the interest of offering the players a “fair” challenge, we’d never actually start playing.

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