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Author Topic: Designing and Running Investigation Adventures  (Read 7651 times)

BedrockBrendan

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Designing and Running Investigation Adventures
« on: September 17, 2014, 01:12:39 PM »
BY BRENDAN DAVIS

Investigative Adventures are a challenge to run but well worth the effort. A lot of GMs are daunted by the thought of planning a mystery or are worried it will all fall apart during play. Such adventures can be difficult to create but they are quite easy to manage once you get the hang of them and if you know what it is you are trying to achieve. Here is some practical advice based on my own experience designing and running mystery scenarios and counter-terrorism investigations.

First Know What You Want
There is a big difference between a game where you simulate a Sherlock Holmes story and one where you get to be Sherlock Holmes. There is also a difference between a game meant to flow like a great mystery novel and one where the player characters inhabit a setting in which mysteries happen to occur. On the surface, these are the same but they reveal very different sets of expectations. When dealing with some of the potential pitfalls associated with investigations it is important to know what you and your players want out of the adventure. If you want an evening that plays like an episode of Monk, then missed clues are going to be a huge problem. But if you and your players are more in the camp of this being a puzzle for them to solve on their own where failure is an acceptable outcome, then you won’t be as concerned about the possibility of missed clues not leading to a crucial part of the adventure.  

Knowing what you want also determines how you handle clue placement and acquisition. For example are you challenging your players or the player characters in your mystery? There is a difference and it shapes how you present clues to the party. Personally I lean more towards challenging the players directly. But both approaches are entirely fine. They just require different things.

If you are challenging the player characters then what is on the character sheet matters a good deal more and things like skill rolls to find clues ought to come up frequently (because even if Brian couldn’t solve a mystery to save his life, the character he is playing is an ace detective and knows how to find the clues). In fact whether the player is challenged may even be of no importance to you here. This means you may simply have the players roll relevant skills when they are in the vicinity of potential leads, and if they succeed they find the bloody knife or the hidden note.  

If you are challenging the players directly then things are different. You may still factor in skill rolls but the primary goal here is making the players feel like they are actually solving a mystery (and in fact they are). So in this instance you wouldn’t just have the players roll for clues when they walk in a room, you would make a point of describing what they see and allow them to obtain clues if they look in the right place or ask the right questions.

Again I don’t think either approach is right or wrong. I’ve used both methods as well a blend, but in the end what is more fun for me as a player is being challenged directly so that is what I gravitate toward as a GM. I’ve noticed many debates on how to run investigations arise when people don’t understand they disagree on this fundamental distinction between challenging the player and challenging the player character.

Know the Pitfalls
Investigations are famous for grinding to a halt or bottlenecking when the players either can’t find that vital clue or can’t make sense of the clues they have acquired. Whether this is a problem for you will depend on how your group handles the concept of an adventure failing and never being completed. It will also be dependent on what challenge level they consider appropriate for a party investigating a mystery. But there are solutions out there if you do need to get around this issue.

Many solutions exist but I think the most important one was created at the Alexandrian blog by Justin Alexander. This is the three-clue rule, which essentially states you should have three clues at any given point in the adventure. This helps avoid the problem where you have just one clue and the players miss it. It also opens up more leads which means it is easier to still solve the mystery even if some paths are missed. Personally I like this approach and I make use of it in my own games. I don’t employ it 100% of the time because for me it is okay if the players occasionally reach a crucial point where missing a clue can lead to disaster (I also usually have other things going on to keep the adventure functioning should the mystery go unsolved). But the important thing is I am aware when I am not using the rule of three. It is a conscious choice and one I know adds greater risks and stakes the session. I think that speaks to the usefulness of this approach.

Make Things Happen
My favorite solution to the above issue is to keep the adventure exciting even if the players miss clues by incorporating event timelines and making sure my NPCs take an active role in pursuing their agendas.

I make liberal use of events and timelines in investigations in order to keep them interesting even when the players haven’t managed to solve anything. Personally I am fine with the party not solving the mystery if they fail to do so, but am less fine with an evening of boredom. So for me timelines of events are an easy way to keep the game exciting and to give the players a sense of urgency. In my experience this really works well and I’ve used it again and again without any issues. It just seems to be a good tool for keeping the table lively in an investigation. Of course the details of the timeline are largely depend on the specifics of the scenario.

In a lot of my counter-terrorism adventures I like to feature a countdown timeline to something awful like a bombing or massacre. The players don’t necessarily need to know the details, but as events arise in the game they will likely sense that things are moving toward disaster. But this could be other things like the culmination of a villain’s evil scheme or an ongoing series of murders that just keep getting worse. My favorite device is to eventually turn the timeline on the players themselves so whatever they are after comes after them if they take too long and are too obvious in their investigation.

Using NPCs in this way helps keeps the game interesting. If the players are snooping around trying to solve a murder, even if they don’t have a clue about the killer’s identity, you can be sure that your villain will take note and perhaps take action to thwart them. No one likes being investigated, particularly people who are guilty of murder. But the villain isn’t the only one with an agenda, other characters and suspects may take actions that involve the player characters. Perhaps one of the victim’s parents is worried the PCs will unearth an embarrassing fact about the family as they probe for clues, so they destroy evidence, threaten the investigation team or otherwise interfere with the player’s efforts.


Know the Details
Even if you are not so concerned about challenging the players directly, details are crucial in a mystery or investigation. Vague notes about three murders over the last four days or a body in the barn just won’t cut it. You will need to have more precise notes so you can answer the questions that our players will surely ask. Making it up as you go in a mystery is one of the most dangerous things you can do (it is doable but know the risk if you choose that path).

When I ran my very first investigation it rapidly fell apart and the players grew frustrated because I didn’t have my details down on paper. I had some vague notions about a Halfling killer stabbing people and the big clue being that all the victims were struck at an angle as if the attacker were considerably short in stature (I probably sprinkled in some other opaque clues related to halflings as well). The problem with this is once players arrived at the crime scene they were asking all kinds of questions: how wide is the knife wound, how much blood has the body lost, what color is the blood, what color pants is the victim wearing, does he have anything in his pockets, etc. Players have seen and read enough mysteries to know that even the tiniest detail can lead to the killer so they want to amass information (particularly at the site of a murder). While you don’t need a million pieces of data in your notes, you ought to have enough of an understanding of what occurred in order to answer questions that do arise.

The key point here is to know your background. I am not going to have a list of details concerning the state of the blood or the angle at which the sun fell when the victim died, but I am going to know how and when it happened. At the very least I will know what the murder weapon was so I can describe the wound when people ask about it. I will also have some understanding of the circumstances leading to the death, which will allow me to extrapolate when players ask more questions. Sometimes though you have to nail down specific details, particularly with things like forensic evidence. At any given crime scene there ought to be quite a few things the players can find if they look around.  

Who, Why, What, When, How, Where
Mysteries tend to occur around events: those yet to happen and those that have already taken place. They involve intelligent actors and locations. You need to know what happened, who was involved, why it happened, when it happened, how it happened and where it happened. And this is all just a starting point.  This not only applies to your central mystery but to each clue that becomes available.

Let’s say you are planning an adventure where the players must investigate the murder of an important bishop of a large city. You may wish to begin with the crime scene (the what) but really you may be better off starting with the victim and the person or person’s responsible (the who). Just to make things nice and dramatic you decide that the Bishop was having an affair with the mayor of the city and that her husband killed the bishop out of jealousy. That is simple, straightforward and easy to wrap your head around. It also gives you the central characters you know must be fleshed out: The Mayor, The Bishop and the Mayor’s Husband (who you decided to make a respected cop). This also takes care of the Why.

You then go to the crime scene itself. Again you decide you want something dramatic and flashy but you also want it to be a bit clever. You decide that because it is in the interest of the jealous husband to avoid jail time, he used his knowledge of the Bishop’s gambling addiction and mob debts to make it look like a mafia hit. The husband followed the Bishop, waited for him to spend an evening at an illegal card room run by an associate of one of the local crime families (likely drawing on his knowledge as a cop) he then came prepared with an untraceable gun wearing latex gloves and waited for the Bishop to get in his car, shooting him in the head as he started the ignition. For good measure he took the Bishop’s wallet and threw it in a nearby sewer so it looks like he was robbed, then dropped the gun at the scene. Then he walked two blocks, got in a taxi and arrived home before his wife returned from city hall.  You then decide on the times of each event (Husband leaves work at 3:00 PM, Husband Goes to Bishop’s house to follow at 3:25 PM, Bishop leaves house at 7:00 PM, arrives at card game at 7:45 PM, Bishop leaves game at 10:50 PM and gets into car, etc). After you have all this, it is your job to figure out what clues are present at the scene and also flesh out any additional characters needed as a result of the events. This takes care of what, when, how and where.

Research
Research is very important in an investigative adventure. What you have to research will depend on the nature of the crime and the setting (is it modern, Victorian or fantasy). In this case you need to know about the mafia, the police, church structure, guns, ballistics evidence, basic forensics, etc.

This doesn’t mean that you need to provide thorough scientific details for everything or even be super realistic, but you do need to have enough information and forethought to answer some essential questions. For instance you want to know if there would be any evidence on the gun and what the killer would do with it (would he leave it at the scene? If so, why?). You would also want to know whether the killer would leave hair or shirt fibers in the vicinity. Would any gun powder have left residue on the killer’s clothes? How loud would the shot have been and would anyone have heard it in the area?

I recommend getting a copy of the FBI Handbook of Crime Scene Forensics. This is a very useful guide to how evidence gathering is conducted for different types of evidence and will give you lots of ideas of potential clues that could be left at the scene of a crime. (Available here: FBI HANDBOOK
). A free version is also available online here:
FBI HANDBOOK PDF

As you run more and more investigations, you will develop a better sense over time of what information you need and what you can ignore. I recommend being thorough until you feel comfortable running this structure. And much of this depends on you players of course. If one of your players’ is in law enforcement you’ll probably want to do more research into the legal stuff so it is all at a level he or she finds believable. If your players could care less about that, then you won’t need to worry about it so much.

Characters, Characters, Characters
Investigations are about clue finding but not every clue is to be found in a desk drawer or spilled upon the floor. In fact I think in investigations I run, my players spend the bulk of their time talking to NPCs. When you are talking about an investigation in a big city that can mean a lot of characters for the GM to juggle. I often have 19 or more suspects and witnesses fleshed out for a typical investigation.

Creating NPCs for an investigation is just like any other adventure but there are some things in particular you need to know about them. The most important is what they know. If players are going to question suspects and witnesses, you need to know what information each one is capable of providing. I prefer bullet lists myself but you can do this in any format you want. It is important to note down not just what the character knows but how the character came to possess that knowledge.

You also need to know how difficult it will be for the player characters to interact with the NPC. Some might be perfectly willing to share everything they know, others might lie to protect a love one or themselves. You need a sense of what motivates the characters and how they fit into the investigation. It can also be handy to develop seemingly random witnesses so their motives are complex and interesting. In the above scenario you might have a young group of teenagers who witnessed the Husband running from the scene but they were in a place they shouldn’t have been and lie to protect themselves unless the players can convince them to talk.

Because players tend to interact with lots of NPCs over the course of an investigation, it can be helpful to give each one a single really pronounced personality trait, just to keep them stark. You also want to flesh out their personal connections a bit when it is likely to come up. In the case of the teenage witnesses, you’ll want to have some idea of who their parents might be in case the players seek them out.

Work, Work, Work
Investigations are more work than some other adventure structures. They require planning, they require being intensely critical of your own ideas, they demand more preparation so you can provide players with adequate information when they explore a crime scene or question suspects. That makes running a string of regular investigations rather difficult and I don’t recommend it. Instead I recommend mixing in other adventure types and giving yourself about two weeks to prepare for an investigation (essentially expect to spend double the time preparing).

Learn from Your Players and Be Adaptive
The best teachers of what works and what doesn’t are your players. Expect to hit some rough waters your first time out. Your players will ask questions and come up with ideas you didn’t think about before hand. The more this happens the more you will start to understand what sorts of things can come up in an investigation. And this leads to a very important point: players will come up with workable solutions you didn’t think of or plan for.

As a general rule if your players come up with a clever way to obtain a clue or solve the crime, and it makes sense it would yield the information they are after, then let it.  One of the worst things you can do when running an investigation is become a slave to your own notes. Just because it isn’t written down in your binder doesn’t mean it wouldn’t work. Remaining adaptive to ideas from the players will carry you a long way with this adventure structure.

Use Magic
When players can read thoughts, you will need to account for that and be accepting when such tools are applied to the mystery. Perhaps even more important, you need to account for magic in your design of the mystery. Magic makes mysteries harder at times because players with the right spells can waltz through like nobodies business but magic is also a crucial aid to the GM. In a world where magic exists, new mysteries are possible. The methods and the motives of your antagonist expand greatly when magic is on the table. For example I recently made a mystery where the villain was targeting victims to steal their spells (and using elaborate magical schemes toward that end). You shouldn't have every mystery revolve around a wizardly murderer or sorcerous thief but you should consider them options in your toolbox.

Learn from Experience
I think the most important lesson is the one taught by experience. Just like your first dungeon probably wasn’t stellar, your first investigation may be a bit bumpy. This is normal and to be expected. If you are running one for the first time, it can be a good idea to schedule running it on a day that isn’t the regular session or with a smaller group. However once you start running them you will learn a lot each time. I honestly think part of the issue most people have with investigations stems from the fact that they are rarely used. Folks tend to run them once in a while or for special occasions. This leads to high hopes that just don’t match the GM’s experience running the investigative structure. You have to learn from experience what works and what doesn’t. So try to run a string of investigations knowing that you might crash and burn a long the way. Failure at the table isn’t always a bad thing. I think some of my more useful insights as a GM came from failed sessions or moments in play. I can assure you though once you run enough investigations they get a lot easier.

Investigations Are Settings
If you forget everything else I said remember this: investigations are settings in miniature. When you create a crime, suspects, points of investigation and a timeline of events, you are creating a little world. It is the world of characters tied together by a network of relationships and responsibilities. The people know they and places they go overlap and create the environment for your adventure. Treat it as you would any other world building effort and you should be fine.

***

If you know what you want before you begin and if you put the time into developing things like characters and the important details then investigations run more smoothly. If that fails you remember that investigations are really just settings built around characters.

While the above advice has worked for me, don’t chain yourself to it. Take from it only what is useful to you as you need. Investigations are a challenge, they do require a little more time and planning, but the rewards for a well conceived mystery are tremendous.

jibbajibba

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« Reply #1 on: September 23, 2014, 06:49:59 AM »
Brendan,

As you know I used to host Murder mystery weekends professionally so have some insight here.

Most of what you have noted is good stuff. Who, what, when, why , how, or Means, Motive and Opportunity are the key threads.

I work a bit differently to you. The clues are generally easy to find. Trivial in fact, look and there you go the clues (some caveats , see below). The hard bit is interpreting the clues. You might find a broken glass in the fireplace but what you decide to do with that glass or what you deduce from it that is the real skill.

So if I run a tabletop investigation I seldom roll to find the clues I give them away for free if you look in vaguely the correct place. Likewise no skill roll is going to tell you to take the victim's copy of Crime and Punishment down from the self and  read through the underlined sections, that is something you have to choose to do usually from a previous clue.
I often use an NPC or a crime squad in police procedurals to collect any clues the PCs have failed to find just a couple of days later.
Similarly the body, the body is usually the best source of clues, in a modern game it can be put through a full CSI Lab and autopsy in a fantasy game it can be interrogated or even raised. The clues drawn from being able to speak directly to the victim are pretty strong :) The key is to present them as clues not conclusions and in the case of raised victims remember their own character and experience. A guy who gets stabbed in teh back might well beleive it was the evil Half Orc from next door and swear blind they saw his reflection as the lights went dark but did they ? Memory is fickle and no one wants to think one's wife killed you ...

Character is in the end everything. The Perpetrator will carry out the crime limited by their own abilities, understanding and knowledge. So rather than plan a dramatic crime scene put yourself in the place of the perp and imagine how they would best commit the crime. Walk through the whole thing in your head step by step. This is so useful as if the PCs look for something you haven't considered you can instantly determine the result of their inquiry because you now exactly what the perp did. And if you forget something and you were in the perp's head when you planned it then the perp forgot as well. Sometimes having a perp try to hide evidence they have recalled can actually lead to their capture.

Oh and you can totally ad lib investigations so long as you can think through the perp's head. It takes seconds to think through the perp's actions and the PCs will spend the first 10 minutes checking he front door for traps and prints:)

The one advantage pre-planning gives you is props. Props are great for investigations. False passports, codes, old diaries full of cryptic notes, a scrap book full of newspaper cuttings... all fantastic but they time time to prep.
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BedrockBrendan

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« Reply #2 on: September 23, 2014, 12:11:50 PM »
Quote from: jibbajibba;788250
Brendan,

As you know I used to host Murder mystery weekends professionally so have some insight here.

Most of what you have noted is good stuff. Who, what, when, why , how, or Means, Motive and Opportunity are the key threads.

I work a bit differently to you. The clues are generally easy to find. Trivial in fact, look and there you go the clues (some caveats , see below). The hard bit is interpreting the clues. You might find a broken glass in the fireplace but what you decide to do with that glass or what you deduce from it that is the real skill.

So if I run a tabletop investigation I seldom roll to find the clues I give them away for free if you look in vaguely the correct place. Likewise no skill roll is going to tell you to take the victim's copy of Crime and Punishment down from the self and  read through the underlined sections, that is something you have to choose to do usually from a previous clue.
I often use an NPC or a crime squad in police procedurals to collect any clues the PCs have failed to find just a couple of days later.
Similarly the body, the body is usually the best source of clues, in a modern game it can be put through a full CSI Lab and autopsy in a fantasy game it can be interrogated or even raised. The clues drawn from being able to speak directly to the victim are pretty strong :) The key is to present them as clues not conclusions and in the case of raised victims remember their own character and experience. A guy who gets stabbed in teh back might well beleive it was the evil Half Orc from next door and swear blind they saw his reflection as the lights went dark but did they ? Memory is fickle and no one wants to think one's wife killed you ...

Character is in the end everything. The Perpetrator will carry out the crime limited by their own abilities, understanding and knowledge. So rather than plan a dramatic crime scene put yourself in the place of the perp and imagine how they would best commit the crime. Walk through the whole thing in your head step by step. This is so useful as if the PCs look for something you haven't considered you can instantly determine the result of their inquiry because you now exactly what the perp did. And if you forget something and you were in the perp's head when you planned it then the perp forgot as well. Sometimes having a perp try to hide evidence they have recalled can actually lead to their capture.

Oh and you can totally ad lib investigations so long as you can think through the perp's head. It takes seconds to think through the perp's actions and the PCs will spend the first 10 minutes checking he front door for traps and prints:)

The one advantage pre-planning gives you is props. Props are great for investigations. False passports, codes, old diaries full of cryptic notes, a scrap book full of newspaper cuttings... all fantastic but they time time to prep.


I think you make some excellent points. I don't think my way is the only way by any stretch (and I believe with investigations doing what works for you and your group is crucial). I do want to clarify though that I didn't mean to suggest each clue should naturally lead to a conclusion. I don't see an investigation as simply being a string of clues tied together creating a linear path. Rather I assume people are meant to interpret the clues and figure out how they may connect. But I was not clear about this in my article.

Having the clues be readily obtainable is certainly a workable approach. I see it more as a scale though. For me some clues will be automatic while others may be hidden and part of the fun is finding them (and I think using either skill rolls or simple interaction with the environment both can work here). So a dead man in the living room with an axe in his chest and thick trail of blood leading to the kitchen is going to be obvious to anyone walking in. The hidden clues would be the things not readily apparent. But again I think the approach of giving clues to characters assumed to be skilled enough to obtain them works just fine. I don't object to that approach it just isn't how I tend to do things myself.

jibbajibba

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« Reply #3 on: September 24, 2014, 09:34:17 PM »
The key thing though is to put yourself int eh mind of the perpretrator. By doing that and walkign through the crime in his head you quickly observe the mistakes which themselves lead to clues and exposure.

I often have clever villains levaing false clues, however if you use this method you see that even they make mistakes.
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BedrockBrendan

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« Reply #4 on: September 25, 2014, 07:26:14 AM »
I do agree agree getting into the head of your villain is very important here. While I still am not a fan of ad libbing a whole investigation, you are going to need to do many things on the fly during play and this is really the only way to get a handle on how your NPC would act. I would extend this further though and say you need to get into the head of anyone involved at all in the crime (even witnesses and possibly victims). Generally speaking this is a good habit to get into with NPCs I think.

J.L. Duncan

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« Reply #5 on: May 31, 2015, 11:37:59 PM »
Great Article.

Running investigation style stuff can be pretty hard. And your article makes for good reference in the sorts of things you should be thinking about to run such a game.

Pretty hard, especially in games (fantasy/science fiction) that don't have rules and ideas to play such a game. Truth is, you can play an investigative game in any setting, but you have to be prepared.

Also a lot of games have check mechanics and such that a GM should strongly consider throwing out-in order to keep with the investigation theme.