I play a lot of Dungeons & Dragons, and I am often the Dungeon Master, or the referee of the game. Because of this, I am constantly trying new things, gaining new experiences, trying to become a better DM. Here is what I learned from my latest experiment.
I ran a D&D Murder Mystery One Shot. Murder on the Eberron Express, by Orla ni Dhuill, is a short adventure you can get on DMsGuild.com for $6.95 as a PDF (this article is not sponsored). I ran the game recently, and I have some thoughts on the adventure itself, and murder mysteries in D&D in general.
Murder on the Eberron Express
The game premise is pretty simple. I’m going to give some slight background for those of you not familiar with the Eberron setting, as well as some basic information on the adventure.
Eberron is a steampunk-like high magic setting, where there are inventors, elemental based magical trains, and cyborg type robot people.
The game is set on one such train, and an inventor of a new silenced pistol has been murdered on the train, by his own pistol. The characters involved, which each come with a PreGen option if you don’t want to create your own character, are all people that are close to the inventor, who would each have a benefit to his death.
After his body is found, it is suggested that they go get his robotic bodyguard from the cargo hold, and the players have to figure out which of the randomly chosen characters was the murderer.
Now, for this adventure specifically, I would suggest having a few roles that are required to be played by somebody, because they are fairly crucial. I gave my five players the list of eight archetypes, and let them choose which ones they were most interested in. Somehow, no one picked The Spouse, The Loyal Retainer, or The Former Business Partner, the three characters that had the closest relationships with the victim. Therefore I, as the DM, had to run them, but still not get too involved, since I still had to run the game itself. The DMPC problem was very hard to overcome.
Then, when they go and tell the robotic bodyguard, he flies into a rage, and begins trying to kill anyone nearby out of his righteous fury. Then, he fades into the background, easily ignored for the rest of the game. Honestly, it was an awkward fight, that interrupted the pacing, only because the game wanted a guaranteed fight scene.
Which made me wonder, why did they want to make sure at least one fight would happen? Well, it’s because at it’s core, Dungeons & Dragons is a fighting game. A third of the rulebooks are exclusively monster stats, and half of your Character Sheet is all about your combat ability. So it would be silly not to have a fight.
However, looking at the characters, most of them weren’t even fighters. A business man, an academic scholar, an adulteress, why are these characters given fighting abilities anyway? The others, a veteran from the Last War, a kid who is a rogue, have narrative reasons, but ones that don’t relate to their characterizations anyway. These people shouldn’t be fighters, they aren’t adventurers, this shouldn’t even be played in D&D.
That was the conclusion that I came to. Every issue that I had running this adventure, was because there was no reason that this Murder Mystery was played using the Dungeons & Dragons system. Honestly, the Murder Mystery Dinner Party is such a common non-TtRPG game night, and it works so well, that it seems that putting this in D&D was more to just get more downloads.
Sure, Eberron is a system designed for D&D, but by no means is it required to be played with that system.
However, I will end by saying that if I ever had to run a Murder Mystery in D&D again, the biggest problem I would want to solve, is how to make all dice rolls secret between the roller and the DM. If someone is trying to pickpocket, or lie, and the other player can see the roll, and has to actively roll against it, then it ruins the immersion and illusion. Every problem that can be discussed with Player vs. Player play, is cranked to the max with this game style. .
Overall, if you want to run a Murder Mystery One Shot set in Eberron, feel free to use all of the characters, location, motivation, and everything else from this adventure, just drop all stats and dice rolls, and just use it for a system-agnostic game night. It would have been so much more fun had I just done that. The story is great, the characters are great, the mystery is great, just don’t play it with those rules.