Joker Clues

  • How I handle spontaneous mystery scenarios
  • How mysteries can be planned without too much preparation


When it comes to mystery scenarios, a variety of different problems can arise. What if players don’t find all the necessary clues? What if they don’t draw the right conclusions? What if they propose the wrong actions?

Different proposals have been made to address these problems – my two favorite by far are Justin Alexander’s Three Clues Rule, and Robin D. Laws’ GUMSHOE system, though the approaches are entirely different. While the Three Clues Rule focuses on providing PCs with enough Clues that they will eventually find them and interpret them the right way, GUMSHOE goes the other way and ensures that players will not be able to miss Clues at all. Regarding conclusions, it equips PCs with the shortcut of getting the right interpretation from the GM at the price of their sanity. Whenever you are going to run a well-prepared mystery scenario (for a one-shot or a larger scale detective campaign), I recommend using one of these two systems.

However, when it comes to mystery scenarios in free-form campaigns like those I prepare, you often don’t have the time or possibility to prepare such elaborate plots. Also, both systems assume that players will eventually go with the right interpretation of the clues, which is not always necessary in my kind of games.

Therefore, this article focuses on my proposal: An approach to mystery scenarios that can quickly be prepared and pulled off, are flexible to run and open in their resolution.

Welcome to Joker Clues.


The idea for this approach to mysteries is that whenever one arises, you can quickly come up with the setup and run it without much preparation. Now, do keep in mind that since the system relies heavily on improvisation, it’s not a good fit for well thought out and intricate crime scenes like in “Detective Conan”, full or twists, little hints, red herrings (which are not that desirable in RPGs either way), and only one perfect solution.

Rather, the idea is you can use the format to have players discover secrets, follow murderer trails, and collect clues about conspiracies.


Whenever you have to spontaneously come up with a clue-finding environment of some sort, first take a moment to assess the following (you can either do it while still playing if you are especially good at foresight and multitasking or ask for a 5 minutes break):

  • Core Secret: What is the core secret or revelation the players are getting at in this situation? For example, they could be close to discovering an Entity’s main secret, or they are tracing a murderer. Write down the final revelation they should have arrived at when the mystery is over.
    • For example, such a secret could be The magic-hating queen has locked up her own magic-using son in the dungeons.
  • Subsecrets: What revelations are necessary for the PCs in order to go all the way to the core of the secret? Try to find anything between 1 to 10 subsecrets to spice things up.
    • For the above example, these subsecrets could be
      • There is a prince.
      • There once was a magic-user in the castle.
      • Someone is locked up in the dungeons.
      • The Queen is grief-stricken and full of guilt.
  • Be Permissive: Now, whenever your players actively work on revealing the secret, have them throw the dice for each reasonable circumstance (you have to assess which are reasonable). A success gives them a clue for one of the subsecrets that you need to make fitting to the situation. Of course, you can also ask for (hidden) checks when there is nothing to be found, just to motivate them to keep going.
    • Now, let’s say your players are trying to find out what’s wrong in the castle and ask the queen’s handmaid. You ask the players for an interrogation check, they pass, and you have the handmaid burst into tears, telling them she fears the castle is haunted, as she hears constant mourning from the basement.
    • Yet at another situation, one of the players searches an empty chamber of the castle. You ask for an awareness check (or something more appropriate, like forensics or magic knowledge), and the success shows there are arcane burn marks in a corner of the room.

Following this simple structure, you are not forced to have the complete setup already in mind when you run the scenario – the coherences unfold right at the table (allowing you to flexibly adjust everything to the circumstances). Every player input will be turned into a valuable part of the scene, and play can proceed without any major disruption.

Another advantage I see is that you really don’t need a safety net for my technique. The clues are never really used up, and you can even throw some of them at your players as Gunmen events in case they are stuck. But then again, even if they don’t reach the right conclusion, that’s not problem all the same. The setting is flexible enough for them to engage with a different part of it (possibly later yielding consequences for not solving the secret), or for you to later get them back right into the mystery when you have them discover another spontaneously created clue. Since there is no definite list of clues, you can always suit everything to your play’s needs.

I always had lots of fun running this kind of mystery scenarios, as it fits my style of improvisation and greatly reduces preparation times.

Have you had similar experiences running mystery scenarios, either using this approach or another one? Tell me in the comments!


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