What works in a whodunnit?

I’m currently tinkering with an idea for a modern NZ-set whodunnit for NaLaWriMo 2021. I’ve roughly decided on my victim, thought a little about the dirty secrets everyone has (and which should be revealed) to provide drama, and a little about what else there might be to do besides solve the murder (because monoplots suck). But I’m wondering how the characters should actually solve things. There are basicly two approaches:

  • Mechanical: every character has some ability to detect lies, force the revelation of a secret, or block one or other of these. Eventually, the murderer runs out of blocks, and is exposed (this technique is used in a lot of early Freeform Games products).
  • Pure deduction: the characters just decide for themselves whose story doesn’t add up.

If there is an Investigator, then they traditionally decide who the murderer is (possibly with a ritualistic phrase “you’re nicked”). If not, then it seems normal for the cast to just vote on who will be turned over to the police.

So, which style do people prefer?

(Note: I am not committed to this concept yet, and there are at least two other game ideas running around in my head. But my initial week to decide on an idea is almost up, so I need to commit soon).

I’d note that pure deduction almost never works in a roleplaying game. For a start it’s impossible to tell whether any inconsistency in a characters story is due to a mistake by the player or the character

1 Like

Having played paradise killer ( a complexish whodunit), recently, I’d say that mechanical is the much easier way, but possibly less satisfying. Having only limited ability to deal with suspicion, or worse, not enough resources to burn through blocks could leave the game open or stalled.

Maybe having evidence cards for the pure deduction style, where players could show others would cover some of the player mistake / inconsistency sort of thing. Cluedo style. This lets players know whats ‘true’, and what might be dubious, lies, or misdirection.

1 Like

I agree with Donna that a pure deduction game is difficult on players - it’s a lot harder in the middle of the game to process whether someone is acting shifty because they’re Guilty, or because they’re trying to remember a detail on their character sheet - and if they misremember, what then? Clues definitely need to be a lot simpler than you’d get in a detective novel or TV show where there’s always a spotlight on what you should be looking at now, that the author proxy detective will explain to you in the denouement at the end.

On the other hand, I find the mechanical style that you describe above to be unsatisfying to play. It encourages people to turtle up and play defensively, and have sore feelings with each other.

I want to suggest a third approach, which is used by story games like Brindlewood Bay (and I think there was an Agatha Christie style game that was making similar choices?), where you play to find out what the clues are, but there’s no definitive GM supplied answer as to whodunnit. In the end phase of the game, the mechanics that exist are to help players who have pulled the clues into a coherent story decide if they were convincing or not.

But I guess - instead of having mechanics to ‘force the revelation of a secret’, I think you’d get smoother gameplay if all the clues are given to people who have reasons to proactively share them (for instance, a character is upset because someone was moving around upstairs at night at a very particular time, so they’re complaining loudly about it the next day to everyone.)


Thanks for the comments. They’re definitely helping me work out some of my issues with this idea.

While I love Brindlewood Bay around a table, I know there are people who bounce very hard off it, and I’m not sure it works so well in a larp. I know that in the past players have been very dissatisfied when I’ve run a game with no underlying truth (Prayers on a Porcelain Altar), and I suspect people would be unhappy with being retrospectively deemed to be the murderer without remembering it (unless there was a particular reason why they didn’t remember, and that’s a great prompt for a game: amnesiac murder mystery! Probably needs to be SF and involve cold sleep…)

I’ve also been looking at Lady Susan, P.I., where everyone knows who the murderer is from the outset (so its Columboist, to use the terminology I learned from Mash), and the story is really about deciding whether they’re going to get away with it or not (via of course a vote). There’s also the option of it being about deciding what to do about it rather than a mystery.

There’s definitely a psychological horror game in the amnesiac murder mystery… am I the murderer? WAS it me???