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Instant Murder Mystery for the Grey

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2017 issue.

This is viewed by the author as a companion to his article “In the Grey: Starship Activities in Jumpspace”.

The ultimate locked room for a murder mystery story would be in Jumpspace. Whether it’s a large liner where dozens of suspects may be possible, or a small ship with just a handful of people reminiscent of an Agatha Christie weekend country house setting, the players may be cast in the role of having to work out at least who the murderer was if not the means and motivation as well. They may be formal detectives or investigators, or they may just be on the spot and want to know what happened, or they may all be suspects themselves and attempting to clear their own names by finding the real culprit. This last was the approach taken by the classic adventure Adventure 11: Murder on Arcturus Station by J. Andrew Keith although that wasn’t set in Jumpspace. Referees attempting such a scenario may well want to deconstruct that book for tips and ideas.

The following does not attempt to present an entire mystery in that vein, but offers some tables to kickstart a busy Referee’s thinking regarding the murder or murders to be investigated. Whilst these tables are not exhaustive, they do present the more reasonable or likely scenarios but that shouldn’t prevent more imaginative ideas such as creatures from Jumpspace or dimensional portals or some other complicated technological possibility – just as long as the players have the opportunity to find clues along these lines and aren’t presented with such as a disappointing climax with no warning.

There are around 1000 career specialities across all Mongoose 1st Edition books and no attempt has been made to represent every one of them here. This list includes all the Core Rulebook careers, Book 10: Cosmopolite (by Alex Greene) careers and a selection from the three Career Books from Spica Publishing (various authors).

Table 1: Victim’s Career/Background
D66 Career/Background D66 Career/Background
11 Agent 41 Colonist
12 Army 42 Corporate Citizen
13 Citizen 43 Militant Religious
14 Drifter 44 Space Patrol
15 Entertainer 45 Worker
16 Marines 46 Athlete
21 Merchants 51 Chancer
22 Navy 52 Companion
23 Nobility 53 Enforcer
24 Rogue 54 Media Practitioner
25 Scholar 55 Politician
26 Scout 56 Port Authority
31 Dilettante 61 Assistant
32 Artisan 62 Broker
33 Functionary 63 Inheritor
34 Pillar of the Community 64 Journalist
35 Medical 65 Mariner
36 Teacher 66 Renaissancer

Select the gender of the victim in any way that seems reasonable, accounting for any variations from the standard Male/Female pattern you choose to acknowledge.

There are two ways to determine the victim’s age: by terms served, or by rolling against a standard distribution chart. If choosing to use terms served, look up the total number of terms served in all careers on the first table below, and take the age associated with that number of terms.

This assumes that the victim is either still in active service at the time of death, or has recently mustered out—in either case, you may arbitrarily add up to three years to the age read from the table.

Victim’s Age (by service terms)
Terms Age Terms Age Terms Age
0 18 4 34 8 50
1 22 5 38 9 54
2 26 6 42 10 58
3 30 7 46 11 62

If you choose to roll the age from a standard distribution chart, roll D66 on the table below. While it doesn’t actually matter which die you choose to read first, the table is populated as though you will be reading down the left for the first die, then across for the second.

Victim’s Age (from standard distribution)
D66 1 2 3 4 5 6
1 0-4 0-4 5-9 5-9 10-14 10-14
2 15-19 15-19 20-24 20-24 25-29 25-29
3 30-34 30-34 35-39 35-39 35-39 40-44
4 40-44 40-44 45-49 45-49 45-49 50-54
5 50-54 50-54 55-59 55-59 60-54 60-64
6 65-69 70-74 75-79 80-84 85-99 100+

Generally speaking, murders don’t happen randomly. Either they are part of a discernable pattern, or the murderer and the victim have some sort of connection. While it’s not impossible for a “pattern murder” to happen ‘in the grey’, most such happen in places where the murderer has a choice of victims meeting his/her criteria. We will thus assume that a shipboard murder has a reason not related to a ‘pattern’, and that there is a real connection between the murderer and the victim. Choose or roll on the following table:

Murderer’s Relationship to Victim
1D Relationship 1D Relationship
1 Parent 4 Friend
2 Sibling 5 Partner
3 Offspring 6 Colleague

Decide if the relationship is known, and/or can easily be determined by routine questioning during the investigation. If you wish to determine this randomly, roll 1D; on 6, the relationship is secret and cannot be learned of by routine questioning.

Murder can be done in many ways. Sometimes it’s done so that it’s obvious that it’s murder, sometimes it’s done in a way that makes it look (at least surperficially) like an accident or ‘natural causes’. In any case, the referee should decide the method, or it can be rolled from the table below.

Murder Method
2D Method 2D Method
2 Psionic attack 8 Melee weapon (knife, cutlass etc)
3 Animal attack 9 Poison or Medically induced
4 Starvation 10 Radiation/Burning/Electrocution
5 Asphyxiation (including garrotting) 11 Disease
6 Blunt trauma (including falls) 12 Exotic
7 Ranged weapon (projectile or energy)    

Of course, at typical Traveller tech levels, murders aboard ship should be easy to solve thanks to technology. This means that some reason cameras or other sensors can’t help in the matter needs to be established early on. They may be non-existent (for cost or cultural reasons) or they may be non-existent in that part of the ship. Alternatively, they may not be working for some reason (perhaps through neglect or unfortunate chance) but more likely the murderer may have sabotaged them or spoofed them in some way. This in turn may narrow the range of suspects who have the ability to do this.

Reason for Security System Outage
1D Reason 1D Reason
1 Non-existent 4 Sabotaged
2 Failed 5 Spoofed
3 Sabotaged 6 Spoofed

Knowing how the murder was done isn’t always enough. Knowing why it was done can be key to solving the mystery. Roll on the table below for motive; as multiple motives may exist, optionally roll up to three times on the table. Note that there may be overlap between some of the listed motives.

D66 Motive D66 Motive
11/12 accident 41/42 sex
13/14 survival 43/44 drugs
15/16 self-defence 45/46 politics
21/22 protecting loved ones 51/52 assassination
23/24 keeping a secret 53/54 tired of spouse or other relative
25/26 revenge 55/56 hate
31/32 jealousy 61/62 inter-gang/family/tribe conflict
33/34 greed (money) 63/64 racism/xenophobia
35/36 greed (item or Ancient artefact etc) 65/66 psychopath

Of course PCs as murderers may well bring their own motivations and a large part of the Referee’s job will be to either develop backgrounds for suspect NPCs which can be explored by investigators to establish a motive, or working with players to incorporate their backgrounds into a connected whole.

Referees may also wish to consider whether further murders take place if the killer isn’t immediately apprehended and whether there is a denouement, traditional in murder mystery stories, where all those involved are faced with the detective(s) showing his/her/their reasoning. If the murderer is an NPC Referees should also decide on their reaction to being found out. Given that fleeing isn’t a possibility—unless the denouement happens after exiting Jumpspace—the options boil down to demurely submitting to incarceration or producing a weapon to hold everyone hostage.

The ‘instant’ of the title of this article is a little misleading in that this kind of adventure is anything but simple and quick to put together convincingly. However, the extra trouble can be very worthwhile in terms of a memorable and interesting session for players. There is nothing quite like the moment the doctor aboard reaches for a pulse and announces to those assembled “he/she/it is dead!” It is also possible to purchase ‘murder mystery’ games for an evening’s entertainment and these can be mined for ideas or converted to a Traveller setting if the above isn’t sufficient to get the creative juices flowing.