I love mysteries, I love them in real life, I love them in fiction and literature, and I love them in games. In this thread I tell you all about different approaches to mysteries and mystery plots. I am going to bounce back and forth between stories and gaming a lot.
The first mysteries I ever read and loved were the Sherlock Holmes mysteries. I am a bona fide Holmes fanatic. I have the annotated versions, a leatherbound version, three biographies of Holmes, two different series of Irene Adler books, the Inspector Lestrade books, the Mrs. Hudson books (!), the Moriarty books, two different series of Mycroft Holmes books, I have the Solar Pons series and the Creighton Holmes series, I have the Larry Millet 'Holmes in America' series, I have a Holmes vs. Dracula book, a Holmes vs. the Phantom of the Opera book, a Holmes vs. Martian Invaders book. I have Holmes horror and Holmes comedy and Holmes pastiche and Holmes parody. I have the Jeremy Brett TV series, I have the Basil Rathbone movies, I have the Arthur Wontner movies, I have "Young Sherlock Holmes" and I have "Without A Clue", in short, I know everything there is to know about Sherlock Holmes. (Actually only about ten percent.)
Yet a lot of people make posts like "well, Sherlock Holmes could never be a good gaming character, he's right about everything, good at everything, and anyhow nobody could make the deductive leaps he could".
I proved everyone wrong by playing Sherlock Holmes online for a good 4 years.
It was a superhero game.
Pick up any game system you like, so long as it has a power called 'Clarivoyance' in it. You now have a game that can handle Sherlock Holmes, no problem.
This leads me to my first mystery subgenre discussion.
Mystery heroes as 'supers'
Sherlock Holmes is hardly the only detective who is more properly classed as a superhero. Hell, DC stands for Detective Comics. Between the 30s and the 50s, a constant stream of masked, costumed, or just downright superhuman detectives streamed through the pages of paperbacks and comic books. In the 70s, the "psychic detective" became popular and still is today. The success of the Dresden Files shows that the supernatural and mysteries can feed from the same trough. And even today, plenty of superheros do crime solving and mystery solving work on a regular basis.
The mystery-superhero story goes like this:
1 - An evil mastermind concocts a bizarre scheme.
2 - The early effects of said bizarre scheme appear to be ordinary crime, although with unusual circumstances that attract the attention of the hero (and which either mislead or confound the authorities.)
3 - The hero investigates the crime, focusing on the unusual circumstances and using unique abilities
4 - (optional) The mastermind targets the hero as he is getting too close to the truth
5 - (optional) The hero goes down one or more blind alleys, even with his unique abilities, he is temporarily stymied
6 - (optional) A lucky break goes the hero's way and against the mastermind
7 - The hero confronts the mastermind and reveals the solution to the mystery and exposes the evil plan
You can apply this to (some) Daredevil comics, to "The Sign Of Four" and to many Golden Age mystery comics.
What does this mean for gaming?
The cool part about mystery-as-supers is that it's easy for players to understand. If you can pick up an object and read its history, that is a tool which can be used in many situations and is actually quite complex, but because it's "yours", you will be on the lookout for it. In addition, you can use this format in the modern day just as well as in Victorian England because the "true" crime is always bizarre enough that the authorities can plausibly be said to be stymied, giving good incentive for the player characters to jump in.
Next: the "room" mysteries - locked, drawing, and others.