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Are You Designing Mystery Or Suspense?

Studio publicity photo of Alfred Hitchcock./Wikipedia

Studio publicity photo of Alfred Hitchcock./WikipediaIs your game mystery or suspense? Not doing mystery or suspense? Think again.

Every game is either mystery or suspense. These are not genres, they’re ways of handling information. To paraphrase Alfred Hitchcock: mystery is when you don’t know if there’s a bomb under the table, suspense is when you lift the tablecloth and see it but can’t leave the table.

Mystery is a search, suspense is a way to execute. In mystery you’re looking for the information that will lead you to the correct solution. In suspense you’ve got that information, you know how you should execute and you’re waiting to see it you’ll be able to carry out your plan.

Suspense needs Opposition

It sounds boring, waiting to carry out your plan. The reason it’s not is that you’ve got opposition, people who you know are competent but who you hope aren’t quite as competent as you are. You’re in suspense – you’ve seen the bomb under the table (the plan) and now you’re waiting to see how it plays out. Will it be the success you’re hoping for or will one of your opponents foil you?

One could argue that mystery and suspense can be translated into strategy and tactics. Your grand strategy is the mystery and once you figure it out you’re into tactics and suspense.

I don’t think that jives. Yes, there’s an element of mystery in strategy, but there’s also an element of suspense. I don’t think the opposite jives either: there’s an element of mystery and suspense in tactics as well. The main difference between strategy and tactics is one of scope, the main difference between mystery and suspense is one of knowledge.

A Progression from Mystery to Suspense

There is a clear progression from mystery to suspense. You start in mystery, figure out the limitations and resources the game gives you, take a look at any clues (like “do we fight for turn order?”, if so turn order obviously matters) and create a solution. Then you’re into suspense – is your solution good enough? Will it hold out?

Mystery is the building of heuristics, the solving of puzzles. Suspense is the application of heuristics, the resolution of puzzles.

Mystery is based on a lack of knowledge, suspense is based in unpredictability. You don’t expect a mystery to change on you in mid game (ok, if you’re reading mystery that’s what you expect, that the author’s placed clues that are so ambiguous that they lead you in the wrong direction yet so clear-cut that once you see the solution you can’t think of any other). You expect suspense to throw curve balls, to have Jason pop up with a chainsaw from behind the bushes, to have the monster burst out of your pal’s stomach during lunch.

Thus I don’t think that you can translate the mystery/suspense dichotomy into any of the present game dichotomies. Mystery/suspense adds something.

Fine. It adds something. But how do we use it?

Knowing when to Apply

Sherlock Holmes consulting detective box coverKnowing when to apply mystery and when to apply suspense makes a game viable in the long run. If you’ve got a mystery heavy game (like Sherlock Holmes, Arkham Horror or any number of pick-your-own adventure books) you’ll end up with a game that’s solvable. Designing a mystery you want solvable. You want your players to figure out the optimal strategies when faced with a given set of clues. Then you design add-ons that expand the mystery and demand that players change their heuristics. The interesting part in a mystery heavy game is the puzzle, not the execution.

On the other hand if you’ve got a suspense heavy game, like Ticket to Ride or Puerto Rico, you know the heuristics, you can apply them. It’s a question of simple actions, short action/reaction chains. Here the value to players comes from pitting their heuristics against each other. You still need some mystery – if everyone figures out the optimal heuristic you’ll end up with tic-tack-toe. But you’re relying on players feeding information into their preconceived heuristics and seeing how those stack up.

Designing Player Limitations

KeyHere you’re designing around two limitations: the player’s limited ability to calculate and predict all possible variations (this is where Chess shines – it allows players to memorize patterns and thus find points to apply heuristics; Chess is a suspense game) and the player’s limited ability to perceive and predict what heuristics the other players are using.

Without those limitations the game, no matter how complex, the experience will boil down to the luck of the draw. If each player can calculate the outcomes and uses prefect heuristics the game is solved – there’s no need to play as the results will be decided by pure luck (or set from the beginning if it’s a game without random elements, like tic-tack-toe).

Skill Decides

Something to remember is that a player’s skill decides whether they’re playing a game of mystery or of suspense. In the beginning all games are mysteries. We need to learn them at least to a certain extent in order to start forming heuristics. Thus the players can be playing different games even if they’re playing the same game, and this is one of the reasons why AP keeps cropping up – the AP player is probably playing more of a game of mystery than the other players.

It may seem that the progression is purely from mystery to suspense. But in my opinion that’s something that keeps shifting. You learn, then apply and execute, then refine (learn anew), then execute again. It’s a circle that keeps getting smaller and smaller until you’re skilled enough to hit the game’s mystery/suspense level.

But even then you’ll have elements of both in each game you play.

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