A “Breadcrumb” game is a game that involves a mystery. The breadcrumbs are the clues that lead the PC’s to its resolution. The main conflict of these games revolves around uncertainty and the drama is generated by overcoming this uncertainty through the course of investigation.
The main advantage of this format of storytelling over the Encounter based method is that this provides the GM and players with more freedom and choice. This type of story is suited to a “sandbox” environment where the PC’s can explore and interact with a GM’s world more freely and openly, giving a greater level of immersion. Encounter based stories tend to be very linear while Breadcrumb stories have multiple locations that can be discovered in any order which provide players with different sets of information and conflicts which can lead to multiple other avenues of investigation. Like I said in our first installment, think in Parallel not in Series.
Before you start, ask yourself the basics:
Who is the evil mastermind?: Many of the same tools that you would use for an Encounter based game still apply to the Breadcrumb method. Most importantly is establishing your Antagonist. Remember, your Antagonist is key to creating drama and all the same rules apply. Create a villain. Understand his/her motivations and goals. Understand the structure of his/her villainous empire. Create his/her named and faceless minions as well as any functionaries/cats paws.
The mystery aspect of the breadcrumb method will require you to put a little more depth into your Antagonist than in the Encounter method since he/she is hatching a secret and nefarious plot that has yet to be discovered. The difficulty is not so much in creating the plot, but in understanding how your players will either discover the plot before it is hatched or ultimately discover who is behind the crime after its been committed.
What is the crime?: What has your villain done or what is he/she planning on doing? Murder? Theft? Usurpation of Power? Sew chaos and destruction? Calling fourth or producing some form of power that will enable him to perform any or all of those? Any of these or combination thereof works well. These are but a few examples though. The most important part of creating the crime is giving the players a reason to have a vested interest in seeing the Antagonist caught or foiled in some way.
When does the crime take place?: Has the crime already been committed or is the plan yet to unfold? Do the characters have a finite time limit to uncover the plot before all is lost or the Antagonist gets away? Time limits are a great way of creating tension, but remember you don’t really have to tell the players exactly what the time limit is, just allude to the fact that there is one. This give you the opportunity to create the tension without having a built in self-destruct button for your story. Remember, it’s a bad idea to have an argument with something with a self-destruct button.
Where is the scene of the crime?: Usually there is a starting point where the characters either discover the “scene of the crime” or discover something suspicious that leads them to dig further. This is the springboard for your adventure and a place that will most likely be revisited several times in your story.
Breadcrumb games revolve around “plot nodes”. These are places that hold a connection to your main plot and provide the players with a piece of the puzzle. They are the containers of your breadcrumbs. This would be node one and the place where you set the mood of the game and start the heroes on their journey. Revealing just enough to entice but not so much that the players begin unravel the puzzle too quickly is the real challenge of this kind of storytelling. Remember, this is more Agatha Christie than Scooby Doo. Unless you like Scooby Doo and have a strangely powerful attraction to Velma, but I digress.
WHY?: This leads us back to the ever so important Who. Not the Doctor but the Antagonist. Who could be a Doctor, but… once again, I digress. Why is your Villain on his/her path? The development of this motivation can really affect some of the things you may have to come up with on the fly. Greed, lust for power, kink for chaos, minion of evil, vengeance seeking, or seeking destruction are all great villain motivations. You can see more about these motivations here.
Once you have all of that figured out, you can start to deconstruct your plot. “Don’t you mean construct?” you might ask? Nope, I said what I meant and meant what I said. The best way to create a convincing mystery adventure is to write it backwards. Assume that your Antagonists plans have gone to full effect. MUAHAHAHAHA! Now that you know the result you can start going full on Columbo and figuring out what the jerk did to make that happen.
Watch Columbo rip Torn a new one as he deconstructs the plot
By retracing the steps of your villainous alter ego you can look at those steps in detail and determine what kind of clues the Antagonist may have left at every step. Are there witnesses? Was something left behind? Was there some kind of trace left by someone who did not belong at a certain location? Was a figure seen speaking to someone in hushed tones? What resources did he/she have to collect? What allies or minions did he/she need to employ? What places did he/she visit? With who did he/she share his/her plans with or at least bits and pieces of it? Who would know that he/she has the most to gain from this crime? Is there some sort of link between the victims and your Antagonist? Was there a tool or method employed that was a unique calling card to the Antagonist because of affectation, access to resources or prior activity? Whatever the case may be, it’s up to you to make this puzzle solvable and convincing. By retracing the steps of the crime you can not only invent a convincing caper, but you can structure the means by which the heroes can solve the mystery.
Now you have a villain, a mystery, and the people and places that hold the clues to solve the mystery. These people and places are now your plot nodes. Once you set off node one, you can react to what the players want to do. They will start asking questions, making perception or investigation rolls, etc. At this point, the PC's might jump straight to another node or might need some help. Clues don't need to lead players in a straight line. Anyone who has watched a good cop movie will know the basics, but if they don't remind them.
Motive: If they are solving a crime that has already been committed, the first place to start is Motive. Seek out the persons that would have the most to gain from that crime.
Opportunity: Find out who cannot account for themselves at the time of the crime, who had the available resources, knowledge, etc. to have committed the crime.
Discovering a Plot: If you are dealing with a plot, node one takes on special importance. It has to be something dramatic enough to entice the characters to go down the rabbit hole. I find what works best is to involve an NPC that already has a relationship with a PCs. Either that NPC is involved with the plot or falls victim to its machinations. Whatever device you use, the players will have to try to draw conclusions based on whatever clues you leave behind, question people that may be involved and otherwise break some doors down to find out what's going on. Don't feel like you have to lead the characters around. Give them some time to figure things out for themselves, let them stumble a bit. You will discover that the players are much more in the drivers seat of this plot than you are.
Here is a sample mystery from a write up for my old podcast. It starts with all the events of the crime in reverse order and goes on in further detail on how the adventure plays out. If you are interested in hearing the podcast itself, I uploaded the MP3 on my Google Drive.
Once you have all these things in line the second challenge of this style of game is making a convincing sandbox for your characters to play in. That will be the topic of part 4 of "So you want to be a GM?"