Tobold's Blog
Thursday, August 28, 2014
Investigative adventures in Dungeons & Dragons

I was reading this article on investigative adventures in D&D on Sly Flourish. Very interesting, especially to me right now, since in my campaign we will start an adventure like that next Monday. In the past, and with a different DM, we had adventures in which the players were supposed to investigate go wrong and stall, so this is kind of a danger zone for us. I think it helps to consider some human aspects here, starting with expectations.

We've all read or seen detective stories, from Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot to Inspector Colombo. Being familiar with the format evokes a certain set of expectations when you try to play through something similar. But the detective in such stories cheats. There is only one author who controls both the murderer and the detective, so the detective can't fail to find all the clues, in the right order, and to put together the pieces to come to the right conclusion. The moment that you turn that into an actual multi-player game, with the DM having set the scene, knowing who the killer is, and having set up the clues, while the players need to discover all that, there is a significant chance that the players won't end up as successful as a Hercule Poirot.

The first advice here, based on own experience, is that a played murder mystery has to be significantly less complicated than one from a book or TV show. There need to be less locations to investigate, and less witnesses to question. That is especially important for a group like ours, as we only play twice per month maximum. If it takes us 6 sessions to investigate all locations and speak to all witnesses, that means that by the time we finish with the last, we have already forgotten the clues from the first, which was 3 months ago.

The advice from Sly Flourish is related to that: The players don't usually know where the clues are, and might well investigate a location that you as the DM didn't foresee, or talk to an NPC that you hadn't considered in your murder mystery. If the adventure doesn't limit the number of locations and NPCs somehow (murder in an isolated location like the Orient Express, boat on the Nile, lone manor, etc.), but happens in the middle of a city, you could end up with way too many locations and people to handle. So the trick is to *not* first place all the clues, and then hope that the players find them. Instead just make a list of the clues as bits of information, and be flexible where those bits of information can be found. If the players have an idea to search a place or talk to somebody, and the idea is somewhat reasonable, just decide that the clue is there. That might feel a bit like cheating, but it ends up having a flow that corresponds to expectations: The TV detective doesn't lose endless time by searching the wrong places and talking to the wrong people either.

My final advice is in disagreement with the Sly Flourish article: Yes, "players want to feel like their decisions matter and their actions lead somewhere". But that doesn't mean that the game world and the villain NPC have to be passive and sit and wait for the players to work through all the clues. Instead the villain NPCs have to be handled like characters with their own motivation, goals, and means. The villain should react to the investigation of the players. Again that conforms to expectations, detective stories frequently have the murderer kill another victim because the detective came close to getting a vital clue from that person. Because this is D&D and not Agatha Christie, the villain NPC might have far more possibilities in a D&D adventure, up to and including attacks on the players.

I have this concept in mind of the "turn-based" approach to role-playing. Basically the risk in D&D sessions that are heavy on role-playing and light on combat is that certain players take the lead and go off on long solo performances, while the other players fall asleep and the story isn't moving forward. Thus I try to gently nudge the role-playing into a structure where I give turns to other players, and to NPCs. Thus if one player goes on endlessly negotiating with a merchant, I say to the next player "Okay, so while Bob's character is negotiating with the merchant, what do you do?". And once I've given every player the chance to act, I think what a reasonable response or action from the NPCs, especially the villain, would be. That concept is explained beautifully in the recent WotC adventures Murder in Baldur's Gate and Legacy of the Crystal Shard. The main advantage is that it kind of puts the adventure on a clock: The game world is alive and stuff happens, even if the players dawdle. Once the players realize that, it creates better drama, because they KNOW that they don't endless time to find the solution.

So the next adventure will be an experiment on how successfully me and my players can handle an investigative adventure in a city. If that doesn't work at all, I will have to rethink my idea for my next campaign, because the adventure path I have chosen has a lot of investigative parts as well. Dungeon crawls are comparatively easy, but I hope that we can do more than that.

Investigations are very tricky to run. People get sidetracked easily, often lack the mental discipline to interpret clues that they did find, and eventually they just lose interest. God forbid laying the false trails or destroying clues and witnesses!
An interesting topic, I haven't yet read the linked article but will give it a look later.

The issue of complexity of plot is certainly a problem I've encountered and also missed clues as well. The only thing I would add is just how disruptive magic, especially divinations can be to this type of adventure.

I ran the Eberron module Voyage of the Golden Dragon early this year for some friends and it was actually a very complex plot, at least for the poor players who are expected to unpick the web of plots and intrigues the module proposes!

I spent a lot more effort prepping that module than normal, including trying to memorise the large cast of suspects and laying out an "events timeline" so that if the investigation got bogged down something could happen to pick up the pace and to possibly provide the next clue. The timeline had to be flexible to avoid messing with the players feeling of agency but also it provided some much needed structure for me to DM the adventure. I think I remember something similar appearing in an early Warhammer RPG module.
As your players read your blog, isn't there now the risk that, since they know you haven't place the clues yet, they'll just end up searching in the location next to where they are standing, in the hope that you will decide to place a clue there?

Player 1: "I search my pockets".
DM: "You find somebody has slipped a card into your breast pocket bearing the name 'Colonel Mustard' ".
Player 2: "I search Player 1's pockets, too"
DM: "In his back pocket, you find a large ruby with marks on it where it had been previously set in a ring".
Player 3: "I search player 1's pockets, as well".
DM: "You guys! You know just where to look! You find a carved mahogany walking stick with a brass handle covered in flecks of blood in his inside pocket"

Of course it isn't going to be so obvious as that, they'll want to make you think that they thought deeply about where to look, but you get the picture. I think they do, at least!
Love the post. Can't wait for the follow up.
@Dacheng You could be right, but that would be optimising the fun out of a game to the max!

Would anyone actually do that?

Also, maybe this is Tobold conducting a psyop against his players - maybe he just wants to give them false hope before he dashes their dreams to smithereens.
I know what you mean, Michael, but once you realize that the clues have not been placed yet, and that it doesn't matter where you look, the fun of searching for clues has already gone. I think if DMs are going to do this, they had better not let their players know.
I have confidence Tobold is clever enough to work out a strategy. For instance, he has probably planned out where the clues should be and also how to construct a mini-breadcrumb path to assist the adventurers in finding them.

The approach outlined seems to be a contingency in case 5 weeks have gone by, and the adventurers (either through wilfulness, blindness or obtuseness) still haven't found the first one.

Remember, the adventurers have no idea how the adventure should play out - so Tobold has got that going for him.
You might also want to take a look at the Gumshoe system (design by Robin D. Laws, published by Pelgarne Press), which has the take that you cannot really fail any "investigative" skills (thus keeping the investigation moving).

It is its own system (SRD here), there are some games building on the system (Trail of Cthulhu, Esoterrorists, etc.), and there is a Fantasy\Pathfinder variant called Lorefinder (pdf here).

It's an interssting take on running investigative adventures (and all Call of Cthulhu adventures are primarily that...), but possibly more suited to use when starting a new game.
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