Running RPG Investigations

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I recently finished writing the section of M-Force that deals with conducting investigations. Since investigation scenes are common in all types of RPGs, I decided to share it here. Since the details are more about process than mechanics, it should be fairly easy to adapt this to other game systems if for some reason you don’t use QAGS. This hasn’t been through the Hex editing machine yet, so if it’s a little bumpy or there are errors, that’s entirely my fault.

Investigation is one of those weird borderline areas of RPGs where the line between players and characters becomes very thin. For most players, solving puzzles is part of the game, so having the characters find the solution with a roll of the dice isn’t very satisfying. On the other hand, the characters have a lot more experience conducting investigations than the players do and they’re actually seeing and hearing what they’re investigating, not getting all the information through an intermediary. The GM’s thankless job is to find a balance that lets the players enjoy some sleuthing while still allowing the game mechanics to fill the gaps between player and character knowledge.

Role-Play Before Roll Play

When characters begin an investigation, role-playing should come first. The GM should describe what the players see, role-play the GMCs they interact with, and give the players a chance to pick up on clues and ask questions on their own before she has them roll any dice. If the players are satisfied after the initial scene investigation or interview and all the vital clues have been found (if not necessarily recognized as clues), move on to the next scene. If there are still missing pieces that the PCs will need to solve the mystery, or if the players want to conduct a more in-depth investigation, let them roll some dice.

The Clue Hierarchy

To make the mechanical end of looking for clues easier, we recommend that the GM create a clue hierarchy for every investigation scene. To create a clue hierarchy, the GM makes a list of clues that the characters can discover from investigating an area or interacting with a particular witness. She then groups the clues into categories based on how difficult they are to discover or recognize. The groups we recommend are:

  • Obvious: These are things the characters are going to notice immediately, like dead bodies in the middle of the floor and swarms of flies covering the walls. Obvious clues should be included in the GM’s description of the scene or in the GMC’s dialog.
  • Gimmes: Gimme clues aren’t immediately obvious, but are usually in places where someone will think to look. Answering machine messages, bodies stuffed in closets, and anything in a victim’s underwear drawer are gimmes. In terms of witness testimony, gimmes are pieces of information that the witness doesn’t include in their account but will reveal if asked the right (and fairly obvious) questions.
  • Easy To Miss: Easy to miss clues are either somewhere the investigators might not think to look or out in the open but hard to spot. Things between the couch cushions, small scratches on the furniture, or tiny spots of blood are examples of easy to miss clues. Minor inconsistencies in a witness’s story or details that are downplayed or mentioned in an off-hand manner would count as easy to miss. This is the middle tier of the hierarchy, so if you’re not sure where something should go, stick it in this group.
  • Inconspicuous: Inconspicuous clues are very difficult to notice, and in some cases merely noticing them doesn’t necessarily get the investigator anywhere. Examples include a spot on a shelf where something is obviously missing (it’s a vacation photo, which the demon stole to use in a spell against the victim) or the fact that the fireplace was recently bricked up (because that’s where the body’s hidden). In witness testimony, inconspicuous clues are usually hints to things the witness is hiding, either intentionally or subconsciously.
  • Conditional: Conditional clues are ones that are nearly impossible to stumble upon accidentally. They can only be found if the investigators take specific actions, either independently or in response to other cues. The body hidden in the fireplace is a good example; Unless the investigators tear out the bricks, they’ll never find it. Other examples include email on a victim’s computer, security camera footage, and things hidden in places where investigators would not normally be expected to look (a crawlspace, for example). Conditional witness testimony is anything that the witness will only reveal under very specific conditions.
  • In some cases, a single clue might occupy multiple spots on the list. For example, the fact that the wall is covered with blood is obvious, but the fact that the splatter pattern reveals that the victim was killed by something 10 feet tall is at least easy to miss and possibly conditional on investigation by someone with forensic training.

In addition to categorizing all the clues the characters may find, the GM should make a note of which clues are vital for solving the mystery. A vital clue is one that the PCs are very unlikely to solve the mystery without. If the story will (or is very likely to) come to a screeching halt if the characters fail to discover a clue, it’s vital.

Last but not least, keep in mind that for purposes of RPG investigations, “clue” means anything that might be important to solving the mystery. Not all clues are guaranteed to pan out, so make sure to include a few red herrings in your clue hierarchy.

Finding Clues

The first die rolls the characters make are for noticing clues. For crime scene investigations, players may use M-Forcer or Brain, whichever is better. For witness interviews, they may use M-Forcer or Nerve, whichever is better. This roll allows the characters to recognize things that might be important (in the case of a crime scene investigation), or recognize inconsistencies, missing details, or items that need clarification in a witness’s story. Players get one roll at the end of the initial scene investigation or witness interview. If they conduct a more thorough search, expand the search area (by searching the whole house instead of just the room where the body was found or canvasing the neighborhood for additional witnesses, for example), or ask more questions, they can make additional rolls. If the amount of time the characters spend on the investigation is important to the story, assume 30 minutes for the initial “once-over” investigation (including talking to witnesses at the scene) and an hour for each additional roll.

Players find clues based on how well they roll, as follows:

  • Obvious clues should be given to the players regardless of what they roll.
  • Players with low Success Degrees (5 or less) find a gimme clue.
  • Players with medium Success Degrees (6-12) find an easy to miss clue and a gimme.
  • Players who get high Success Degrees (13+) find an inconspicuous clue, an easy to miss clue, and a gimme.
  • Conditional clues can typically only be found if the characters take an appropriate action, but in some cases a Lucky Break may lead to an unlikely series of events that reveals a conditional clue more or less by accident.
  • Vital clues should be found first, and the GM should try to give them to players who rolled appropriately (this is usually easy to do if there are several characters investigating the scene) and mix them in with some non-vital clues so it’s not immediately obvious which clues are most important. If PCs fail to find a vital clue, the GM should try to find some way to introduce it, either during the investigation or later on (for example, by having a police investigator GMC notice it later). Since only doing this kind of thing with vital clues will meant the players know anything introduced in this way is important, it’s a good idea to occasionally have non-vital clues and red herrings turn up without a roll as well.
  • If  there are no clues left in a category that a PC’s roll has “earned,” the GM should give him clues from lower categories first and higher categories only if they’re the only clues left uncovered. If all the non-conditional clues have been found, inform the player that there doesn’t seem to be anything left to discover.

When giving out clues, the GM should take the players’ descriptions of their actions into account. For example, if a player states that his character is going to search the kitchen, that character should only find clues that are in the kitchen or that the character is likely to notice on the way to and from the kitchen. If there aren’t any clues in the there, that character won’t find anything regardless of what he rolls.

Interpreting Clues

Once the characters have found some clues, the next step is to try to figure out what they mean. In most cases, that’s entirely up to the players and doesn’t require any rolling, but there are two exceptions:

  • If interpreting the clue requires the character to perform some sort of analysis, research, or other action, the player should make the appropriate roll. Examples include testing a slime sample to identify what kind of monster it came from, analyzing blood spatter, and searching through The Herrick Pocket Guide To Cults and Secret Societies in hopes of identifying that symbol that was drawn on the wall in blood.
  • If properly interpreting the clue requires knowing something that the character would probably know but the player doesn’t (or that the player seems to be forgetting), the player may make the appropriate roll (usually Brain) to remember the necessary information and recognize that it’s probably pertinent to the investigation.

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