D&D Murder Mystery

Our DM was away for a session, so I took the opportunity to run a one-shot. I didn’t want this to be a ordinary D&D game, and so wrote a murder mystery where each player was working against each other to find out who the murderer was first.

The set up was this: a wizard, in his new lich form, was furious with his death and demands to know who killed him. He’s already gathered evidence around his home and has bought the people he suspects most to his mansion. He then gives them the instructions to find out who killed him, and that only the first person that brings him back the correct answer will get to leave his home alive.

This is rather different from a normal D&D game: the heroes aren’t really heroes, and they don’t need to work together. In fact, working together will make it more likely that they’ll get stuck in this house as the lich’s guest.

The players were to hunt around for clues in each of the rooms in the mansion, and then later on share the clues they’ve found. Mechanically, they did Investigation checks in each room. Once in a while the lich would summon them to his dinner table again and allow them to question each other.

Each player has their own set of secrets to hold onto. They’re all either funny or incriminating. When a player asks another player about a specific piece of evidence, that might prompt the player to reveal a secret. For instance, one of your secrets might say “you must reveal this information if you’re presented with a beat up horseshoe”.

Only the murderer has three secrets to reveal that are relevant to the case. Find the guy with something to reveal about three secrets and you’ve found your murderer. You’ll need to race around to find the evidence before you can ask someone about it though.

(What’s the murderer doing during this time? The same as the players: investigating the rooms, but he’s only looking for ways to escape.)

Writing the murder was fun. In my mystery the solution was that one player killed the lich because he was in a relationship his parents wouldn’t approve of, and the lich was blackmailing him using that information. There’s hundreds of ideas for why someone might kill someone though. Once you’ve figured that out, it’s easy to pick the motive, the weapon, and make a player a murderer. Seed the house with lots of evidence (some red herrings, and some not) and watch them scramble to find it first.

The idea seemed great in my head, and on paper, but actually running the game had some issues I need to think on more to fix.

First of all, there’s quite a lot going on for a one-shot. The players have a lot of things to do (especially if the rooms are filled with puzzles). In my game, we were an hour and a half in before we got to our first clue. This was an issue. That gave the players two hours to get loads more clues – it didn’t seem possible. To “fix” this, I fell into a trap I’ve been in before: I made everything too easy to speed it up. The solution to the shadow-pit-fall-trap was easy to spot, the magmin died after two hits, and I gave clues out for rooms where clues shouldn’t have been found. The players definitely noticed this rushed type of DMing, which meant I didn’t get to have as much fun and they probably restricted themselves to the quickest action.

The issue is that turn based games – as I ran the entire game in initiative, as it was a race – are very slow. I should have accepted a piece of advice I was given during the game: let’s just carry on another time, don’t rush what we’re doing here. It’s fine to make the one-shot take two sessions.

I did have more combat and role playing planning, but skipped over a lot of it due to the timing issue. However, even with all the combat I had planned, there was still very little of it. That was strange to my players because I mislead them with a wonderful armoury where they could find tonnes of magic weapons. Why give the weapons if they weren’t going to be much use?

What I should have done is embraced it. Announced loudly that this game isn’t heavy on RP or combat which would have been totally fine! Lets focus on the story and the fun of investigating.

The next time I run this game I might just give out backgrounds to players, rather than having them come up with their background on their own and monkey patching on the backgrounds I needed them to have. This was another piece of advice my group gave, which makes sense. Players don’t mind being given a background, especially in this quirky format and setting.

I’ve listed a lot of the problems here, but all the players said they had a good night playing. One player said it was one of his favourite nights playing D&D, so that’s exciting! I feel like I’m on to something here, and will keep polishing it until it runs like a good, fun game for when you want to run something a little different but still within D&D.

The Water Dwarves

I’m on holiday where I’ve found myself with a huge amount of time to be writing.

I stumbled across an image of a man scuba diving which I couldn’t parse straight away – the seabed dust was being kicked up obscuring a lot of the photo. The man was holding a little machine to help propel him through the water. To my eye, in this hazy image, the man was a dwarf holding his pick in the murky depths.

Since then I haven’t stopped thinking about an underwater dwarf civilisation, and how they would end up there. With a liberal use of the Water breathing spell by tribal-like sorcerer leaders, and a helping hand for a god or two, I think I’ve come up with a fun little story.

What’s most fun is that their isolation means that they can be there in your story, but never come up. Maybe there’s a legend or two of a ship travelling the ocean coming across the dead, bloated body of a dwarf where a dead dwarf has no business being. Or maybe a spark of wild magic transported a leugart onto dry land.

I added some notes in to make them possible player characters, but I quite like them being story-based, like the duergar.

Download the lore here.


Spoilers for the DM Guild adventure Giantslayer are below, so skip this story section if you’ll likely play it!

The sun shone through the canopy of the leaves above onto an eclectic gaggle of adventurers below. Adventuring often brings together the strangest of people, and this time was no different. Elves of all stripes, mingling with ruffians who made a name for themselves as pirates, and dark eyed gnomish thieves. There was as much kindness mixed in this group as there was darkness. Presumably, when travelling through the woods in these parts its best to go as a group – why else would these mismatched people be with each other?

They shortly ran into one family who did not take that advice. Two beasts cackled and berated the human family up ahead, stopping the family in their tracks. The satyrs seemed not actually to be doing any harm, other than their relentless bullying and fearmongering. The children in the back of the cart sat silent in stony faced fear.

Our adventurers rushed to the aid of the human farmers… at least, some of them did. The dark eyed gnome sulked immediately into the forest out of sight. Whilst the rest of the party helped to defeat the beasts, this gnome sauntered up to the family to “check on their wellbeing”, but not before swiping their coin purse.

A Hill Giant, from the Monster Manual.
A Hill Giant, from the Monster Manual.

Once the battle was successfully won, they gathered around the family to ensure their safety and were told their sad story. A giant had recently ransacked their village, and driven everyone out. With family in Frickley, that’s where they decided to seek refuge. Kindly, the adventurers stayed with the family to see them safely to their destination.

Once they had arrived though, it seemed that the giant – Bonebreaker they called him – had been busy. He had also been to this town and made similar demands: “feed me all your best food, or else.”

There was a mix of thoughts in the town. Should they flee right now, knowing that the giant would return again and again, or should they stay and deliver all they could? After all, with enough time they could send word to bigger cities to send aid. The inn keeper offered a third suggestion: how about they fight it themselves?

This, the populous decided, was a shit idea. Sure many of them were strong of body, but for the purposes of farming, not giant killing. But there was some hope – a legend really, which few knew if it held any truth. Jahia the Giantslayer. Likely an old lady now, but the inn keep remembered great stories about her. Maybe, if she could be found again, she would know the tactics to bring down the giant. Who better to send out to look for her than a hardy group of adventurers, who seem to have arrived as if summoned by fate itself. Also they had nothing better to do, tbh.

The adventurers agreed, and set out into the forest following a trail where rumour indicated the hermit giantslayer might be found. The forest took some time to get through. Dangerous rivers, giant insects, and odd druids (who refused to be mugged) stood in their way. But they did eventually make it to Weeping Rock, where their best guesses lead them. From a top the rock, they spotted a simmering chimney and a sleeping, old lady. As they approached they could see that she indeed was quite old now, but still looked tough in a way only fighters were born to be.

Jahia sighed in frustration at being asked to return to a role she had long since left. The party persuaded her though, reminding her of the thrill of battle, the honour of protecting those who need it, and some other genuinely heartfelt urges which I’ve forgotten.

They returned to Frickley just before the sun began to set. They chose to spend the time plotting how to defeat the giant. All night they had villages dig pits, which they filled with flammable hay, lying in wait of the clumsy giant.

They set themselves up to their satisfaction and held themselves steady, ready for Bonebreaker.

And then, Bonebreaker was killed pretty anticlimactically because we had to leave at 8pm, and I forgot to make him as dangerous as I should have! It didn’t help that he had been mostly blinded and everyone hid so well!

Although we didn’t quite finish the “thank you!” ceremony of the villagers (we’ll get to that next session), rest assured that the giant menace of Frickley has died off… for now. You can’t help shake the feeling that giants this far from their natural homes is a rather bad omen.

I’m pretty sure everyone had fun, and I really hope to be able to carry on the adventure with my colleagues every couple of weeks or so.

Rookie DM D&D Prep

My enthusiasm for D&D caught on at work, mostly in the shape of curiosity. I was fielding questions like “but can I just say ‘and then I start flying up to a passing airship’?”. I suggested that I could run a game for everyone, and quite a few people said they’d like to come along.

A lovely drawing by Tim P., from a lovely photo by Maciej G.
A lovely drawing by Tim P., from a lovely photo by Maciej G.

The daunting challenge for me at this point was that I have never been a Dungeon Master before, and none of them have ever played before. Encouraged by the advice of literally every DM though, I decided to push ahead.

The first issue I wanted to tackle was writing an adventure. I’m a writer, so I figure I can do this. The writing went quite easily and quite well to start with. I asked for some advice from the reddit community and got some really good thoughts back. which lead me to tweak the story some.

Unfortunately, as the story tied up at the end, I didn’t like how it came out. The motivations of the NPCs seemed muddy, and so the moral choice for the players of man vs. nature wasn’t so clear. I like this story, and will continue writing it. However, it wouldn’t be done in time for the game at work.

I ventured out to look at the resources from the Dungeon Masters Guild. There’s a vast amount of content there, and with a bit of hunting around you can find exactly what you want. What I wanted was a one off game, which could be completed in a night, for 1st level players. I was in luck, and found Giantslayer. A whole adventure for just $1.95.

As a bonus treat, instead of reading through the adventure alone, I “played” the adventure with my partner as a solo adventure. Adjusting the combat a little on the fly, it went really well.

Using a premade adventure lifted a large amount of stress from the impending game. It was certainly the smart decision. As well as a verified one: other people had already played this game. I didn’t want to give the impression that D&D was too slap-dash just because of my inadequate writing. This adventure was a tried and tested one.

The other problem I wanted to tackle was some sheets in order to teach the players what they could do. I’ve completed the section on character creation, but the content is still quite long. I’ve also written the script to a video I want to produce telling new players about what D&D is, but video production is a lot of work, it turns out. Neither of these endeavours have been turned around in time for the game. Despite that, it didn’t seem like they mattered.

Instead of spending hours writing a helpful tutorial on how to create your first character, I should have simply turned to the premade characters. There’s quite a lot of them. Wizards have done a great job at putting the premade sheets together with enough information that a player with one knows quite well what their character can do. These sheets did much better than my 10 page document did. So long as you’re there to help out, a player with one of these premades doesn’t even need a Players Handbook.

So there you go. You don’t need to prepare very much to be a DM. The only required homework on my part was reading through the adventure, and then printing off a few premade characters… If you’re on the fence about starting an adventure, I’d recommend just doing it.

I’ll talk about how the actual game went shortly!

Fast and loose with the rules

My partner and I played the Dungeons and Dragons, but the board game version.

My quick review of this game is that you can play this and have fun, but only if you put the effort in. Much like tabletop D&D, without the enthusiasm, you’re just sitting around the table hitting a goblin with your sword each round. With the enthusiasm, the dungeon master can pull out a rather interesting story and give the cardboard a life.

It’s a cooperative game, for 2-5 players that feels a lot like Dungeons and Dragons. After playing this, you’ll likely wanna throw off the shackles of that rule book, and jump into real D&D. (Where, ironically the rule book is much bigger, but you’re far more free.)

Rules as building blocks

The rule book for this game isn’t very long. It’s intentionally kept manageable in order to be accessible as a family game. You won’t be spending hours reading the rules before you start, like you could when playing the original version. However, that doesn’t mean you’re stuck with just those rules. There are still gaps where they could probably add in more rules (looting a dead goblin, for instance), so we found ourselves making up rules as we went along to fill those gaps.

It’s interesting because it didn’t feel like the game was broken because we had to do that. We could have played entirely within the rules: “looting” isn’t an action that your character can do. It’s not mentioned in the book, so it’s out. That would have been fine. They couldn’t really call themselves a D&D game if the rules really were that ridged though.

There was one occasion where I wanted my wizard to fire her bow through a doorway, where a companion was standing. My partner double checked his rule book (the DM has their own copy, with extra content), and couldn’t find anything about being able to shoot through someone, narrowly avoiding them. So, on the spot, he made up a rule: you can do it, but roll this 50/50 dice too – on success, the arrow hits the goblin, otherwise, it hits your friend.

Having space to make up house rules like this made it feel like real D&D, though I could definitely see it as a criticism of incomplete rules. Being able to make these types of rules feels like you’re building a game together, rather than just playing it. Ownership of these rules brings the player and the game closer together.

Monopoly has this same aspect to it, oddly enough. Go read the rules: you’ll probably find that your household has been playing it differently to the house next door. In our house, we liked to play with fines and taxes going to “free parking” and whoever lands on it first gets the money – pretty sure my dad made it up (or at least, that’s just how his parents played).

There are certainly games where house rules wouldn’t make sense. What would you change about Dixit or Blackjack? But when it’s on the table, I’d say go for it.

Ignore the baggage

The first adventure is a typical one. The sheriff has ventured alone into the old cave system to try and sort out the troublesome goblins. He’s been in there an awful long time though… Thank goodness you four adventurers have turned up, just in time to go and rescue him.

My partner – who insisted on being the dungeon master for this game – has never spent much time with goblins. Not much time with fantasy at all, actually. This was a concern of mine, initially. But he doesn’t know their typical tactics, or motivations. It turns out the DM’s guide doesn’t fill him in on any of this either, so he kinda just had to wing it.

We ended up with some very interesting canon being formed though. When I attempted to loot the first goblin, Tim’s reaction (after finding no looting rules) was to have the goblin corpse turn to dust. A little later a goblin, after his thousand year slumber, materialised out of a whirlwind of dust, and leaped in for the attack.

This isn’t how goblins are supposed to behave. They’re not thousands of years old, and they’re not dust creatures. But they are in this game – they are in Tim’s world. It was incredibly cool! This isn’t the same game as everyone else played. You want normal goblins? Go and player literally any other game. It was truly unique – which is surprising when this game, out of the box, feels a little stiff and railroaded.

One of the take aways for me from this game is that it’s cool to let the players build a world outside of the rule book. A game should somehow encourage imagination. Let the players figure out themselves why something is happening the way it is. Adding in the opportunity of talk about what’s happening in this world makes it very fun.

You’ve two choices when designing your game: write out the whole backstory, and have the players be part of that adventure, or have the players write the whole thing. When the players are writing, they’re more invested.

By the way, if you like the sound of that second option more, you should be playing real Dungeons and Dragons.

Story vs Adventure

Matthew Colville filled us in with his thoughts on DM’s leading with a story – a series of plot points which the players must hit – versus an adventure – scenarios the players take part in, which may or may not lead onto another pre-prepared scenario. A story is Harry Potter, but the adventure is Albus Potter sitting in the Gryffindor common room retelling it to his friends.

I was taking another read through the adventure I’m writing to play with my family. Unfortunately (at least from Matt’s point of view), it reads a lot like a story. The players meet in a tavern, and then get sent off on a quest into the woods, where one thing happens, which leads them to another thing. Maybe they can do these things out of order, but there are still plot points they do need to stumble upon.

I wrote it this way because it chimes with how other adventures I’ve read have been set:  describing the location, what the people there have to say, and where the next plot point is. I’d call this a story: a book you can read, but have no effect on the world other than artificial choices. By artificial choice I mean, like Matt mentioned, letting the players choose door A or door B. Eventually you’ll loop back and end up at the other door, so it doesn’t matter too much which they pick. I’m thinking here of (the short amount of) Out of the Abyss I’ve played, where I feel we’ll get through quite a few of the “choices” before progressing.

So I’m going to go ahead and call it: pre-written “adventures” are actually stories.

When playing Into the Quiet Forest with my family it definitely turned into a story though. My family went door to door in the town, something I didn’t expect. They drew our lots of the kidnapped girl’s backstory – found her secret boyfriend, who for some reason hoped to never see her again, learnt about her relationship with the towns people, and her father. What happened to her mother? None of this is in the story I’d written already. I had to make it up, on the spot. I had a partially drawn picture of the girl from the adventure’s text, but it was my job to on-the-fly colour her in.

It’s the DM’s job, but may even more so the player’s job, to turn an “adventure” into a real adventure.