This post originally appeared on DyingEarth.com between 2004 and 2007.

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

For the past couple of installments we’ve been examining investigative scenario construction from a macro perspective, mostly looking at the way scenes interact with one another. This time let’s zoom in a bit and talk about a couple of other narrative devices you can use to add spice to the basic mystery format.

Red Herrings

From the investigator’s point of view, any mystery can be seen as a set of possibilities, which through probing, legwork and the occasional confrontation with interesting danger, is eventually narrowed to the truth. It is a process of elimination. In any investigative scene, the characters separate what might have happened from what did. Especially in the opening scenes of a scenario, they’ll be busily ruling out suspects, motives and methods.

From the players’ point of view, it is the various competing possibilities that make the mystery into an interesting puzzle.

To create a mystery, first decide what it is that the characters are investigating: a murder, theft, kidnapping, mysterious apparition, whatever.

GMs enjoy an advantage over mystery writers. They often don’t need to create red herrings, because the players create them for them. Players love to speculate, frequently generating wildly off-base explanations to connect what little information they have available to them. Sometimes this slows the action down, and you’ll have to remember to rein them in and suggest that they collect more facts before attempting to reconstruct events.

However, sometimes you’ll find yourself wanting to add complexity to the storyline, rather than subtracting it. There are two ways to build red herrings into your adventures.

The first is preplanned, as you create the scenario. After you work out what really happened, look at the facts that will be available to the investigators in the first scene or two. Take these and construct plausible (but wrong) alternate theories that connect these clues. Then prepare scenes in which the investigators pursue these avenues. In these scenes, the clues they gather rule out the false possibility, allowing them to move back onto the right track.

The second method of red herring generation is improvised, as a response to player speculation. Players will often seize on an alternate theory of the case that you would never have considered in a million years. Rather than see these theories as annoyances to be dispelled, capitalize on them. Invent evidence which seems on its face to support their theory, leading them into scenes in which they eventually find the counter-evidence forcing them to go back to the drawing board, and move toward the actual solution to the mystery. (Especially flexible GMs may decide that the players’ bizarre theory is more entertaining than that given in the scenario and adjust to make that retroactively true. Because it’s hard to assemble an airtight clue trail on the fly, this is recommended only for talented improvisers who breathe story logic like oxygen.)

Whether preplanned or made up as you go along, a red herring should either be extremely interesting in its own right, or so boring that it can be dispensed with quickly. In the first case, the scene makes no contribution to the actual story, and therefore justify its time in the spotlight by being entertaining and memorable in its own right. Invent a crazy character. Vividly describe a unique setting. Inject some social commentary or fun topical references. Parody absent friends or obnoxious public figures.

In a supernatural or fantastic setting, you can use a red herring scene to enhance the apparent reality of your world. Do this by taking a familiar situation or type of behavior and place it within your outlandish boundaries of your chosen reality. In a police procedural set in a superhero world, you might, for example, include an encounter with an enraged citizen wondering how to track down insurance information for the masked crusader who totaled his car while using it as a weapon against a rampaging mutant.

Red herrings can also justify themselves by shedding contrasting light on your story’s themes and images. First, you’ll need to identify your scenario’s themes and images, if you haven’t already done so. These are often inherent in the crime itself. The underlying crime behind The Esoterrorist example scenario, “Operation Slaughterhouse”, is abuse of power. The scenario in the upcoming GUMSHOE horror supplement, Fear Itself, is about madness, and the random nature of its onset.

Suitable red herring scenes should throw a different light on these themes. If abuse of power is the theme, the players might meet a witness (who turns out not to know anything) who has been the victim of shenanigans by high officials. Or he might be an apologist for government corruption.

You can also find imagistic inspiration for red herring scenes. If much of your scenario is set in a forest, a red herring encounter might be shaded with images of wilderness of vegetation. Maybe it takes the players to a hunting lodge, its walls festooned with mounted taxidermy specimens. Or inside a greenhouse, where a frail non-witness pours all of her life energy into her precious forest of rare plants.

Ticking Clocks

Although GUMSHOE ensures that the players have all of the tools at their disposal to solve the mystery-provided they look in the right places, it by no means ensures success. As mentioned last time, they can fall prey to all kinds of disruptive events, which, if they fail, keep them from crossing the finish line.

Sometimes the finish line itself can be a disruptive event. Make use of a classic trick of suspense narrative by putting a time limit on the characters. If they fail to solve the mystery in X amount of time, something horrible happens. A bomb goes off. A buried captive runs out of oxygen. An innocent man is executed.

The use of a ticking clock requires you to keep closer track of elapsed time in the game world than is typical for an investigative scenario. When the players are discussing what to do, you’ll need a clock to keep track of how much real time they’re eating up. During action sequences and cuts between scene, you’ll tabulate game world time, adding it to the total.

Ticking clock plotlines only work when the players know that they’re on a deadline. They can also create some tricky timing issues: for example, they lose steam if broken up over a number of sessions. Casual groups who prefer a relaxed pace and plenty of room to chitchat may flounder or rebel if you tighten the pressure on them in this way.

However, for a dedicated group of problem solvers, nothing gets the adrenaline flowing better than the old ever-present countdown.

In the Community Content Spotlight, each month I write up a short review of a community content title available on DriveThruRPG. See this page if you’re interested in creating something for our Community Program!


Stick around after the review for news about our Community Content Contest.

THE PHANTOM OF THE BASTILLE

The following review contains spoilers for Phantom of the Bastille.

Rick Dakan’s Phantom of the Bastille is a lavishly researched, imaginative scenario for Fear Itself that takes players to Paris in 1789, the beginning of the French Revolution. Planned as the first in a series of French Revolution scenarios, we get a glimpse into the chaos of, and the different groups jostling for dominance in, late-1780s France.

Like many historical scenarios, Phantom of the Bastille latches onto a major historical event and then deep dives into an unusual idiosyncrasy. And that is part of the joy of historically situated gaming: major events (like the fall of the Bastille) always have strange surprises, particularities, coincidences, and falsehoods told about them. What Dakan has done is take a pseudo-legendary figure, the Comte De Lorges (who was supposedly a prisoner in the Bastille), and asked “Why do people report the existence of the Comte, when no such person ever existed?” Rick’s answer creates all kinds of new Fear Itself fodder: a new creature of Unremitting Horror; the unnatural, putrescent death of King Louis XV; the tragic painting of a family destroyed by the scenario’s inciting action. It was this last which I was personally most drawn to. I wanted to see how my players would respond to a fallen family of the French aristocracy — how would the characters be swayed, and what schemes would they devise in order to protect this pitiable family?

Interestingly, the scenario’s villain is also a sympathetic GMC (although I did find myself, after seeing the results of the villain’s actions, thinking that were I playing the scenario, I would probably have advocated for the character’s demise — it is the French Revolution, after all).

The pre-generated investigators are all Freemasons (or members of their sister organizations), which provides an easy “in” to the scenario and provides fodder both for more characters (should one of the PCs die — unthinkable!) and for information-holding allies. It was easy to see, even in the structure of this first scenario, how a whole campaign could be strung out from this framework ( “Headhounds of Paris,” anyone? Because of the guillotine… get it?… nevermind). Rick also employs a clever “counterespionage spend” mechanic by grouping three of the Investigative abilities, which spends of can “distract or counter the spies” of one of the scenario’s factions, and are increasingly costly. They got me thinking about other ways that abilities could be grouped and spent toward particular ends in new scenarios.

(As a sidenote, maybe my favorite thing about the scenario, as an eighteenth-century literary theorist, is tha

t there’s an opportunity for some very memorable roleplaying with the Marquis de Sade — yes, that Marquis de Sade, for whom the practice of “sadism” is named, although it’s probably notwhat you expect.)

The scenario is lavishly illustrated with period-sourced paintings and engravings, and was laid out by our very own Will Hindmarch. Rick has some great additional resources on his website whether you’re planning on running Phantom of the Bastille, Fear Itself, or another game set at the dawn of the French Revolution. Also consider giving him a follow on Twitter.

Title: Phantom of the Bastille
Author: Rick Dakan
System: Fear Itself, 2nd Edition
Price: $4.95 PDF

Community Content Contest

Last week I announced the GUMSHOE Community Content Contest, where one winning product will receive professional layout and a custom cover provided by Pelgrane Press. I’m happy to announce that the final deadline will be Monday, September 7th, 2020. (I’ve also updated the original posting to reflect this.)

For more information about the contest, please see the original posting, or get a hold of me either on our Discord or by leaving a comment.

Good luck with your entries!


The Pelgrane Press Community Program brings you into the fold with other GUMSHOE game designers, affording creators (whatever that means to you!) the opportunity to post and sell their own products on DriveThruRPG. We currently accept material for Ashen Stars, The Esoterrorists 2nd Edition, Fear Itself 2nd Edition, and TimeWatch. Have a kooky idea you’d like to write up and get out there? A flushed out scenario you think others would enjoy? The Community Program is the place to showcase these ideas. If you’re interested in creating something for the Community Program, read more about it here.


Fear Itself is a game of contemporary horror that plunges ordinary people into a disturbing world of madness and violence. Use it to run one-shot sessions in which few (if any) of the protagonists survive, or an ongoing campaign in which the player characters gradually discover more about the terrifying supernatural reality which hides in the shadows of the ordinary world. Will they learn how to combat the Creatures of Unremitting Horror from the Outer Black? Or spiral tragically into insanity and death? Purchase Fear Itself in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

The following adventure for The Dying Earth RPG originally appeared on DyingEarth.com in January 2005.

This short scenario seed by Steve Dempsey can be dropped into any ongoing Dying Earth campaign.

The adventurers are on the road traveling. It is getting late and night is drawing in. As they near their destination, they spot a lone tree from which hangs a gruesome bundle: the half-rotted remains of what may have once been a man. As the characters approach, birds of carrion flap their great wings and fly off in a raucous cacophony. The darkened sun is setting and the long shadow of the hanged man falls across one of the PCs. As it does so, a great dark patch passes portentously over the face of the sun, plunging all into near darkness. It is this shadow that triggers the events that will eventually come to pass…

Download In dreams what death may come


The Dying Earth — and its rules-lighter version the Revivification Folio — take you into the world of master fantasist Jack Vance, where a flashing sword is less important than nimble wits, persuasive words,and a fine sense of fashion. Survive by your cunning, search for lost lore, or command the omnipotent but quarrelsome sandestins. Purchase The Dying Earth or the Revivification Folio in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

Over the years, we’ve released a number of one-shot adventures for our systems during Free RPG Day, and we often get messages asking us for the PDFs. As we know everyone’s looking for more gaming opportunities at the moment, we’ve collected them all here, now.

All we ask is that if you download, run and enjoy these adventures, you consider making a donation to Doctors Without Borders, to assist in their efforts to fight the coronavirus COVID-19.

Donate to Doctors Without Borders