Matrons of Mystery
Matrons of Mystery has garnered quite an initial following of fans and supporters after quietly appearing on the roleplaying game scene. Inspired by British television shows such as Miss Marple, Rosemary & Thyme, Agatha Raisin, Queens of Mystery, Father Brown, and to a lesser extent, Midsomer Murders, Matrons of Mystery roleplaying game recreates “cozy” mystery television shows of the last forty years. It uses Jason Cordova’s Brindlewood Bay (read our review here) as its foundation with a sleek refinement and a decidedly British flavor.
Inspired by television shows set in small towns and villages, Matrons of Mystery creates its own brand of murder mysteries while capturing the intimate small town or “cozy” feel—where the Matrons are part of the community. Our American readers may be more familiar with Murder She Wrote, also a “cozy” mystery show taking place in the small American seaside town of Cabot Cove, Maine.
Matrons of Mystery is for 3-5 players, including the Gamemaster. It also contains rules for one-to-one games. Unlike the television shows where the mysteries are solved in 30-60 minutes, these mysteries take 2-4 hours to play out. The duration is wholly dependent on the number of Matrons and suspects.
In Matrons of Mystery, players assume the role of an older independent woman, who with her friends solve murders in their village or perhaps while on holiday. The Matrons, as they are called, are in their 50s and 60s, single, intelligent, resourceful, and have plenty of time on their hand now that they are in their golden years. Like the shows that inspired the game, these lady sleuths find themselves wrapped up in solving one murder or another.
Matrons of Mystery’s steady increase in popularity is due to its modified use of D. Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World game engine. If you’re unfamiliar with PbtA games, it’s impossible to point you to a comprehensive system primer. I will do my best to give you a short and sweet overview of Matrons of Mystery’s mechanical underpinnings.
- Uses a character sheet in place of playbooks
- Players use Moves to propel the story
- Uses Advantage/Disadvantage modifiers
- Matrons have an investigative style; directly influencing stat arrangement
- No predetermined “bad guy,” determined through gameplay
- XP can be spent to add +1 to roll or to increase an Investigative Style
- GMs do NOT roll dice
- GMs do NOT have reactionary Moves, common in most PbtA games.
The game employs a simple 2d6+Investigation Style (attribute in other PbtA games) dice mechanic to determine the level of success or failure of a Move. On a 10+, you’re successful. On a 7-9, you are successful, but it comes with a complication. Rolling a 6 or less means you have failed to accomplish the task in the way you intended and is accompanied by a complication or condition (something that imparts a future disadvantage). No matter the result, even failing propels the story forward. The Investigation Style used for each Move depends on how you use the specific Move. For example, Investigating through physicals means is +Physical, whereas researching in books would be +Logical. Matrons of Mystery also uses an Advantage/Disadvantage mechanic not traditionally part of PbtA. Simply put, when you have an Advantage or Disadvantage, you roll three dice—Advantaged takes the highest two dice, Disadvantaged the lowest two.
Moves are specific actions triggered by the narrative to resolve something, moving the story forward. Unlike other PbtA games with basic and character-specific Moves, Matrons of Mystery only has nine basic Moves—available to all Matrons. Six of the nine Moves (Investigate, Interrogate, Take Action, Lend A Hand, Ask A Favor, and Put It All Together) are used to piece together the mystery. The other three Moves (Reminisce, Nice Cup of Tea and a Sit Down, and Go To Adverts) are Narrative adjacent and warrant a brief description. The Reminisce Move is a flashback scene where the Matron recalls something from her past that can help with the current situation. It is always paired with another Move. The primary Move gains advantage when Reminisce is successful. When two or more Matrons have tea together (Nice Cup of Tea and a Sit Down), they can remove conditions. Conditions are things such as a sprained ankle from poorly climbing out a window or getting soaked in beer from an interrogation gone wrong at the local pub. Finally, when a Matron finds herself in trouble, she can Go To Adverts. This Move stops the story on a cliffhanger like a television program breaking for a commercial at a tense moment. As a group, Matrons can then discuss how to get out of the current predicament when the advert ends.
In a game of who done it, not even the Gamemaster knows who the murderer is. There is no predetermined solution to the mystery. In the mystery’s opening scenes, the Matrons will encounter possible suspects. It is only through their successful use of the Investigate and Interrogate Moves that Matrons discover and learn secrets that will aid them in solving the murder using the Put It All Together Move.
When the Matrons are confident that they know who the culprit is, one of them initiates the Put It All Together Move. The Matrons use as many clues and secrets as possible when forming their conclusion. Unlike other Moves, Put It All Together does not use a roll+Investigative Style to determine success or failure. Instead, the roll’s modifier is the total number of clues and secrets incorporated into the conclusion, less the total number of suspects. On a 10+, the Matrons’ conclusion is spot on, and they get to take down the culprit in the game’s final scene. Their conclusion is also correct on a 7-9, but taking down the culprit in the final scene involves a complication or danger of some kind. While on 6- their conclusion is incorrect. The Gamemaster explains how and why their logic is flawed; they must continue their investigation. Only attempting Put It All Together again once a new clue or secret has been found.
Creating lady sleuths involves collaborative and individual efforts, which take no time to complete. Collaboratively, the players first give their village a name and establish where it is fictiously located in England. Players then individually establish their Matrons’ details. These include:
- Personal Style defines what type of person she is. Is she artistic, outdoorsy, etc.? A list of possibilities is provided.
- The Hobby is one of the things she enjoys when not solving mysteries.
- All Matrons have a past. Three Background questions identify her civil or marital status, her occupation before retiring, and whether she has grown children who reside elsewhere.
- Assigning the fixed array of Investigative Style modifiers determines her primary approach to mystery-solving—Physical, Logical, Intuitive, or Gregarious—and is given the largest modifier. The remaining modifiers are assigned to other Investigative Styles.
- Everyone knows someone and a Matron’s Contact is someone she can call upon for assistance during a mystery.
At the end of Matron creation, players will introduce their Matrons to everyone at the table and collaboratively decide how they all know each other. This could be through personal friendships, book club, bridge club, etc.
Using the framework of Cordova’s Brindlewood Bay, Matrons of Mystery is a unique game unto itself. For those familiar with Brindlewood Bay, you will notice some of its defining aspects have not been carried over to Matrons of Mystery. Most notably, there are no Mythos or cult connections, no Matron-specific Moves, and no Gamemaster-specific Moves. Finally, the sometimes clunky pre-game or multisession actions needed for story continuity have also been omitted.
Matrons of Mystery contains several short chapters comprising a Gamemasters’ section. Here you’ll find instructions on how to write your own mysteries from scratch. The accompanying advice shortens the work of mystery writing and helps to give it that “cozy” British feel. There is also clear and concise advice on how best to run mysteries, whether in-person or online, and optional rules that further facilitate gameplay.
Need help getting started or inspiration? Take a look at the television shows that inspired the game. Read how each influenced the game’s design in some way. Get into the right mood. Find and watch these shows on your preferred streaming services were available. Last but not least, there are three sample mysteries included to get your players to the table now.
- Gardner’s Question Crime – The head of the village gardeners’ association convinced the popular radio show, Gardeners’ Answer, to hold its annual garden party on the grounds of Hatherly Hall. Nearly the entire village is in attendance for the chance to meet celebrities and ask questions. Guest speaker Alan Jefferson, a celebrity gardener and star of the TV show Gardener’s Life, collapses dead on stage as he is about to take the microphone.
- Dicing With Death – The village is overrun by nerds in place of the usual tourists when a roleplaying game convention takes over a local hotel. Scott Sallow is an award-winning game designer and one of the biggest names in horror gaming right now. On the morning of the convention’s last day, he’s found dead with dice stuffed into his mouth.
- Ding Dong Death – The national bell ringing championships are right around the corner. Today is the last day of practice before the big event. The village’s lead bell ringer, Walter Bell, is found hanging upside down from one of the bell ropes.
Matrons of Mystery comes as a softcover A5 (148 x 210 mm / 5.83″ x 8.27″) perfect-bound book with clean black and white interior pages with minimal art. The book uses a slightly larger font size, making reading easy on the eyes. The front cover features a scene of an idyllic English village that seamlessly blends into the surrounding. The white copy on the black background really pops!
The physical durability of the book is questionable. I purchased my copy from Lulu, and after reading it, the glued spine is beginning to weaken and split. I remain hopeful that this is just an isolated incident.
At The Table
I was able to get Matrons of Mystery to the table for two players, and I am happy to report that it plays wells. I presented them with the Dicing With Death mystery simply because it was roleplaying themed, and the setup seemed easier for me. Our Matrons were Margaret Butler, a retired estate agent, and Justine LaNasa, a retired primary school teacher.
The mystery unfolded as you might expect; they began looking for and talking with several possible suspects they knew had access to the game hall after hours. The mystery took on a very social tone due to all the questioning–resulting in little opportunity for physical evidence to be found.
After four hours of gameplay and armed with quite loads of secrets and just a few physical clues, they Put It All Together and drew their “whodunit” conclusion. They successfully solved the murder and drew the mystery to a close.
We all enjoyed the game experience, but there was unanimous agreement that getting enough clues and secrets to draw a viable conclusion was quite challenging with only two players. We felt three factors contributed to this conclusion. First, the case has eight suspects, and every time they talked one, it only served to muddy the water. Second, some clues are vague by design, but players will always ask questions. Not wanting to leave those questions unanswered, I provided plausible answers – I probably shouldn’t have. Finally, with only two players and eight suspects, they felt compelled to speak to them all and spent a great deal of time doing so. Had there been more players, more things could have been done in a shorter time.
I would offer three bits of advice: first, if you have less than four players, try removing some of the suspects to help your players stay focused. My idea has not been tested, but in the same situation again, I would have five suspects for two players, six suspects for three players, and a full complement for four or more players. Second, let vague clues remain vague. This is a hard concept for me and likely most Gamemasters to contend with. The idea behind it is, the players can later define the clue’s details when drawing their conclusion. Third, this game requires active participation on the part of the players. Clues needed to solve the mystery are not just scattered about for players to find as in other games. If you find your player falling into that mindset, find ways to encourage them to become more active and less passive. One way I do this is by using the “camera technique”. Start by framing the scene by saying, “as the shot comes into focus, we see Mary standing in front of the vendor stall; before her is an array of gamebooks, dice, and other gaming accessories. Behind the table is a middle-aged woman wearing a company shirt with a broad beaming smile.” “Mary, what would you like to do?”
In the end, it was still a fun game that provided us with lots of laughs and some great memories.
I’m admittedly a fan of Brindlewood Bay. As good of a game as it is, I don’t particularly care for some of its design elements, like its dependence on a looming Mythos horror, which takes nearly ten mysteries to materialize fully. Matrons of Mystery strips away that and more, taking the game down to its fundamental core—solving mysteries. In focusing on its core principle, Sue Savage has created, in my opinion, a beautifully executed game that hits all the beats. It emulates the “cozy” mystery shows I have enjoyed for decades.
If you like Brindlewood Bay, but not some of its more esoteric aspects, or if you’re a fan of murder mysteries, Matrons of Mystery is sure to become your go-to game. Move over Brindlewood Bay; Matrons of Mystery does “cozy” mysteries better!
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