While ‘Base Under Siege’ and ‘Invasion’ stories might be what most people think of when asked about Doctor Who the series has a long history with the murder mystery. In the very first story (discounting ‘The Unearthly Child’) an old woman is murdered and the Doctor unmasks her killer.
Murder is such a basic evil act but has countless variations. We’ve also long come to accept that you need to be smart to solve a murder mystery, so what better way for our hero to prove his intelligence?
On television today there are many crime shows with eccentric protagonists. American shows such as ‘Monk’, ‘Psych’, ‘Castle’ and ‘The Mentalist’ delight in showing how these unconventional sleuths can solve the crimes that the police can’t. In the UK the updated ‘Sherlock Holmes’ series and ‘Dirk Gently’ show how being able to think differently allows the protagonist to see what others miss.
If the Doctor was exiled to Earth today the show could very easily be reformatted so that instead of helping a military operation he instead joined the police as a consultant or set up his own detective agency.
This makes it very easy to run a murder-mystery adventure or even a whole campaign. The format of these shows have a lot in common with Doctor Who with the main detective (the Time Lord in our case) being assisted by a companion, whose job is to act as a sounding board.
There will often be a group of police officers either assisting the main character or acting in opposition, trying to solve the crime before they do. This allows player characters who aren’t limited to being in the main characters shadow, they can act independently and do the real police work.
When the main characters have a formal relationship with the police it is very easy to start a new adventure. You can just begin a game with them being summoned to a new crime scene, one where the murder is so peculiar that the police know they need the detectives help.
If they are independent then they could be hired by a client. Occasionally they might simply be in the right place at the right time (or the wrong place at the wrong time depending on your point of view) when a murder occurs. If this happens too frequently they might come to believe they are cursed.
A murder consists of three elements. A murder victim, the method used to kill them and a a murderer. Determining who the person is, why someone would kill them, who might have done it and who did do it should help build a solid framework for the adventure.
One of the interesting things about the above detective shows is how much theorising occurs during a story. Almost immediately characters are guessing who and how the crime was committed. Some theories are discounted immediately, only to be revisited later as new evidence is uncovered.
This should be encouraged during a game and it can be fun to have characters trying to prove their own theory. This can be a source of conflict if the group is split into different parties, such as the detective and his companion versus the police.
In some cases the detective identifies almost immediately who the killer was, even if it is based purely on the fact that they take an instant dislike to them. The goal of the adventure is then to work out how they did it and prove it.
This was the format of ‘Columbo’, where both the audience and the detective knew who the killer was. The mystery was what would be the clue that sealed the murderers fate. The key thing to take away was that there was never a perfect murder.
‘Monk’ has several entertaining episodes where the title character is convinced he knows who the killer is, even when they have an air-tight alibi, such as being on live radio or orbiting the Earth at the time.
Talking to witnesses and suspects or collecting evidence can take the main characters outside of their comfort zone. In many cases whole episodes are built around putting the character in situations we haven’t seen before.
Frequently characters have to go ‘undercover’, whether it be in an office, a cult, a nudist beach or a store Santa Claus. This can be done for the comedy of placing characters in places they don’t usually go or to present an extra challenge, forcing them to overcome their own hang-ups in the pursuit of justice.
Interviewing people is vital in gathering information and narrowing down suspects but can become monotonous if it just become a series of meetings with lots of exposition. If the NPC has a quirk, or is involved in some kind of activity during the interview (whether it be playing a round of golf, trying to arrange a fashion show or while cleaning the windows of skyscraper) then it becomes a lot more interesting.
Such interviews should always progress the story. Not only should a suspect provide information to clear his name but they should also provide a clue that gives them another lead to follow. Of course one of the suspects might be lying and catching them in that lie can be enough to arrest some killers.
Since these murders will be committed in the Doctor Who universe it is expected that at least a few of these crime will have a science fiction element. The victim could be an alien, the murder weapon might be a laser gun and the killer could be a time traveller. It doesn’t change the fact that some one is dead and there are trial of clues that lead to the person responsible.
‘Dirk Gently’ is probably the best example of how to integrate science fiction into a mystery (including time travel, robots and AIs). Other shows have touched upon what detectives do when the crime has some unearthly elements, such as Holmes considering if he really saw a monstrous hound.
In a universe with such elements how quickly will a detective accept that a murder victim was abducted by aliens and not a criminal just using this as ruse? Might they accept the suggestion of alien life but not the existence of ghosts?
‘Medium’ illustrates how do a murder mystery where the main character has unusual abilities. This can be helpful when one of the player characters is alien or has telepathic abilities.
Both ‘Life on Mars’ and ‘Ashes to Ashes’ provide valuable examples of how to run a detective story where one of the main characters is a time traveller. This is perfect when running mysteries set in earlier time periods.
Ideally the climax of the story should be the unmasking of the killer and their arrest. Either the characters will have found enough evidence to insure a conviction or they trick the murderer into confessing.
Either the killer will give himself up, attempt to escape or threaten the detectives. The first option is easiest and good way to quickly bring the adventure to an end. The latter two are a way to bring a burst of excitement at the end.
To make murder mysteries more personal they can impact on the player characters directly (someone close to them is killed or implicated in the crime) or it could challenge their preconceptions (the detective thinks the killer is an Ice Warrior but is that just because they hate that race?).
Such stories take the characters on a personal journey, beyond just solving the mystery.