Tobold's Blog
Thursday, August 06, 2015
Investigative adventures

For those of my readers who follow my journal of my D&D campaigns (all three of you), you can expect the first real session (after a previous warm-up session) journal entry in three weeks, when we start to play again after the summer holidays.

As I mentioned earlier this new campaign uses the Zeitgeist Adventure Path from EN Publishing. The main advantage to use a pre-made campaign is that your adventures fit together into a larger story, better than I usually can accomplish when I string together a campaign from disparate adventures from different sources. The main disadvantage is that not every adventure might suit my particular group. The first adventure is bloody brilliant and a great fit to the playing style of my group, I think we are going to have a blast with that one. But the second one is an investigative adventure, and those have historically been a catastrophe with this group, having failed with different attempts by different DMs.

The players in this group simply aren't very interested in whodunit type of gameplay. Past attempts have included the death of one campaign in an adventure where after taking several sessions to question different NPCs all the players had completely forgotten what the NPCs at the top of the list had said by the time they had arrived at the bottom of the list. The one attempt I did was marred by the players disbelieving every clue ("can't be that one, it's too obvious!"), and finally running away rather than facing the villain because they weren't sure how that would work out and couldn't agree on a common approach. So when I see that adventure two of the Zeitgeist campaign has a list of 40 NPCs to interact with, I start getting panic attacks. This will never work!

Fundamental problems with investigative adventures with my group are two-fold: One is that we don't play every week, so the players forget clues over several sessions and thus have difficulty putting those clues together correctly. And two there is a lack of internal leadership, coming from both a reluctance of people to lead, and an even stronger reluctance to follow. So by the time finally somebody says "okay, let's go left", somebody else is sure to disagree and say "no, let's go right". Give them more options and my 6 players will come up with 7 different opinions on what to do next. And that usually takes forever to sort out into a real action.

There is a strong parallel here to MMOs: Classic adventures resemble theme park style MMOs, investigative adventures resemble sandbox MMOs. While on paper sandbox games can be great, they also can go very, very wrong. "Successful" sandbox games usually attract people by allowing them to be incredibly mean to each other, which has a certain attraction to a certain type of person armed with internet anonymity. Doesn't work so well in a fixed group of friends sitting around a table. And for every player who sees the sandbox as an opportunity to do anything he likes, there are several others who look at the same scene and just scratch their head, unsure about what they are to do next. Sandbox games simply aren't for everybody, which is part of the explanation of why their market share in the MMORPG overall market is so limited, in spite of every project always producing a lot of hype.

If your players are either lost or mean to each other in a sandbox, your choice is limited to either giving up, or removing a lot of freedom from the sandbox to move the game more and more into a theme park direction. I will see how it goes, but I might have to seriously rewrite that second adventure for my campaign.


I somehow made that adventure work with irregular bi-weekly group, who were in it for the action scenes. And that adventure has some great action scenes. It's been a few years now, and I've run it again since for another group that does enjoy investigation and dawdling around, so I'm not totally Clear on what I did to make it work.

If I have any advice, it's these two pieces: Stuff Happens Anyway, and the PCs work for somebody.

Stuff Happens: The adventure is split into three threads, and stuff happens even if the PCs don' interact With them. My first party totally ignored the smuggling thread and the dragonborn brothers, but we still made it through. The thing is, if they ignore something, something will happen until they cannot ignore it anymore. (In my first adventure fire happened, which is all I can say without spoiling more.) The adventure can still be completed.

Working for The Man: If the PCs get stuck, Stover Delft or others can order them do to stuff. If Your players are comfortable With it they can show him the Clues and ask for input, or he can simply order them to be at the Place you need them to be to progress the adventure (checking out the factory, going to the druid's henge, escorting Nevard to Cauldron Hill, run security at the rally in the square, check out reports of "stinky oil" in the Warehouse and so on). Maybe a different Group of investigators uncovered the smuggler's night, and the PCs are ordered to go break it up. This is railroading of a sort, but your players might prefer to be lightly railroaded at times to flailing around and not doing anything.
I think you might be able to use the GUMSHOE rules a bit for this adventure. If you're not familiar with them they're specifically made for investigative adventures and ensure that no clues are ever missed.

There's been some discussions on EN World about doing this. Here's one;
I was going to suggest something along the lines of "Working for The Man", but Ulrik beat me to it :-) I've played in groups where that has worked well... particularly when it was obvious why a particular "Man" would need a group of adventurers to operate as their legs during an investigation (deniability, lack of available resources, physical incapacity, etc. are all options to provide some plausibility along those lines.) So long as we *did* had a clear path to the next step, we were generally happy to go along with the flow.

As for forgetting clues - why not write them down? Put the text of each clue on a 3x5 card, and hand out the clues to the players. Mix in some red herrings or extraneous details as well. At that point, the players have a tangible object that they can keep track of and refer back to. If you think it would help, you can even tag the cards - ex, "Factory, 1 of 6 (discovered by ". Let them know that clue #1 is always the most obvious, clue #2 is a little harder to find, and so on. That might help them move things along ("We've got enough to figure out the next stage, no need to keep checking") or give them an incentive to revisit places when things get muddled ("There was something about the factory that we definitely missed...")
"And two there is a lack of internal leadership, coming from both a reluctance of people to lead, and an even stronger reluctance to follow."

Figure out a way to pay them to be followers. If no one will step up to lead, go with the previous suggestion of "Working for the man." But only if you have to.

Print out a cheat sheet of the known clues and pass those out for review before each session. "Reading the minutes" of the last meeting is a tried and true mechanic of getting everyone synched up fast.
I think there's more interest in your campaign posts than you credit, Tobold.

Some really solid suggestions there - keep us posted on what you use and how it goes.
Sorry for my lousily formated first post. My work computer insists on adding capital letters to anything written in english :(

The beauty of this campaign is that the PCs already work for The Man, as in, the Royal Homeland Constabulary. They have a lot of independence normally in how they solve their cases, but there are already several NPCs in the adventure that are their superiors (Stover Delft being their immediate superior, even if he's always checking the furniture for mimics). They can give orders to the group as needed, or let them do their thing if the group is chugging along nicely.
The obvious solution is for players to take notes during their adventures but yeah, if they just aren't those type of people then you can expect the main bad to always get away. :P
Have you confirmed that even if you, as a DM, is frustrated by the lack of solving, they may have enjoyed the investigation ? If they have fun, it is easier for you to accept a lack of solving the mystery, no ?

I am one of the three fan of your Roleplay post, Tobold. And even more the one where you described your diffuculty and solution.
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