I love to GM mysteries and conspiracies. I have been running them for years, ever since I picked up the first edition of Conspiracy X in 1996. Players do not always enjoy these types of adventures, often finding them frustrating and confusing. The most common reason for this is because they lose track of the clues, and thus cannot reach the necessary conclusions to solve the mystery or uncover the conspiracy. Over the years I have tried a few things to help with this . Today I am going to talk about one of my favorite techniques, the clue map.
Connecting The Dots
The key to running mysteries and conspiracies (I am going to use these terms interchangeably now), is to figure out what happened first and then create a trail of clues (with the occasional red herring) which lead back to the event. During play your players will uncover different clues. Some clues may lead to other clues and some may be information that will be required to solve the mystery. If you need help in this area, watch the first 30 min of every Law & Order episode.
The problem players have with conspiracies is that they lose track of some of the clues, or they forget the relationship of a clue to the overall mystery. When this happens the players can forget to follow a key clue to gain more information, or they try to solve the mystery without one of the clues they found. Often confusion sets in, wild guesses start flying, or bored players begin to rock the boat with outlandish ideas.
My favorite technique for managing clues is to use a clue map. The map is a drawing that has the collected clues on it, with arrows that link clues to one another. The map starts with little information, and as elements are revealed they are added to the map and their relationships are created.
The map does two things. The first is that it contains an inventory of all clues. This allows the players to see everything they have as they are working the case. The second is that the map shows how clues relate to each other, showing if a clue has been followed to its conclusion or still needs investigating. This allows the players to make sure they have pursued every clue to their conclusion.
Clue Map Example
In this example the players are detectives who are investigating a murder in a hotel room. Initially the map is simple, there is a hotel room and body.
After some investigating the players reveal three facts: the drivers license (and name) of the victim, some blood on the floor, and a fingerprint on the front door.
The investigators then do some research back at the lab and are able to find: a hit in the DNA database and run a background check on the victim. The fingerprint does not return a result.
From this point the players can take a survey of the crime. They know who’s DNA they have and can follow that lead. They know that at some point they have to match up the fingerprint to someone. They can also investigate the gang that the victim was a member of.
It’s Good For GM’s Too
As a tool for players, the clue map is a great way to keep track of the unfolding clues of a mystery. It is also a great way for a GM to build their conspiracy during their prep.
You can build the map either starting from the conclusion and working out to the first clue, or from the first clue and leading to the conclusion. The technique helps to insure that there is a logical pattern of clues that will create the trail the players will follow.
Clue Map In Play
One of the best clue maps we had ever done was for an Eberron game that my friend Sargon ran. It was a complicated mystery that took several sessions to uncover. We wound up using a 4′ x 6′ dry erase board to keep track of all the clues. It was invaluable in keeping track of what to investigate next and what info we knew.
In my upcoming Corporation game one of my plot lines is a mystery, but the investigation is going to be broken up by various missions that the players are going to undertake for their Corporation (The Chris Carter  method). Because of the length of time for the mystery, and the fact that one of my players is a remote player, we are going to use a Google Drawing (part of Docs suite) to house the map. The players will all have view and edit privileges to it so that they can update it during and between games.
One Clue At A Time
The clue map is a great way to help players keep track of a mystery, and a great tool for a GM in developing the path to solving it. The visual tool can help organize information as well as direct players where to go next.
Have you ever employed a clue map in any of your games? If so, how did it work out? If not, do you think that your players would find this technique useful?