Investigating investigation

Due to popular demand (well, Blackrat demand), I am going to write a bit more about investigation and how it can be systematised.

Fundamentally, investigation in roleplaying is about searching for and discovering clues which can be used to draw conclusions about something happening in the fictional world of the game. If you over-mechanicise searching for clues (for example by making discovery automatic, as with Trail of Cthulhu) then you end up with something that feels like railroading. If you elide the discovery of clues and drawing of conclusions (something it’s easy for a GM worried about whether the players will be up to the task of deducing what is going on) then you end up with exposition rather than true investigation.

We can break it down further
– Following leads to direct the search for clues towards particular people, places, groups, events and so on.
– Finding the imprint left by the events one is investigating, especially if it is concealed (fingerprints, footprints, CCTV footage, a statement by a witness…)
– Identifying a pattern, an anomaly within a pattern or a definite lack of pattern (for instance, all the victims belonged to the same religion)
– Interpreting the imprints and patterns found so far to draw conclusions about what might have happened
– Making the link between an imprint, pattern or conclusion and a new lead, widening the investigation (a person whose fingerprints, footprints, etc were left at the scene; the local temple of the religious group being victimised, etc)
– Drawing a solid enough conclusion to allow a confrontation of some sort (arrest the murderer, grab the lost artifact, reunite the father with his lost daughter)

Each of these can in principle be broken down into appropriate skills or abilities (forensics, interrogation and so on), if the game system wishes, but most game systems don’t really use the above breakdown. Most systems concentrate almost exclusively on the second bullet: finding the imprint through awareness tests, while some that are more focused on investigation also move on to the third and fourth bullets, allowing skill use to draw conclusions such as “these footprints were made by a very large man”.

To me, at the heart of an investigation game is how you move through these steps, and how the elements highlighted in bold get you from one step to the next. What makes an investigation game enjoyable for me as a player (and vicariously as a GM) is taking those steps myself, not having the system do it all for me; but of course, since I am not in fact a forensics expert or arch-interrogator or whatnot, it must give me just enough information to make it possible for me to draw conclusions and decide on appropriate leads myself, rather than spoon feeding me.

Author: rabalias

Rabalias grew up wanting to be a pirate. But a band of evil bureaucrats kidnapped him and forced him to work for The Man. Even so, Rabalias was patient and cunning. He escaped by gnawing his way through the walls of his prison and concealing the hole behind a picture of cthulhu. He fled to the coast, and stowed away on the Black Armada, where he worked his way up to the rank of Admiral.

4 thoughts on “Investigating investigation”

  1. Nice. Thank you for bowing to my popular demand 🙂 Power to the People!

    I like your breakdown, but to me the key is in your last paragraph, where you point out the distinction between in-character and out-of-character skills. I think the most difficult thing for any investigation game is (as you touched on) balancing these two needs:
    1. Players should be empowered to make their own deductions.
    2. Players should not need to possess any specialist knowledge out-of-character in order to get the information required to make those deductions.

    So for examples:

    – “These footprints were made by a very large man”. While many players will have read enough mystery stories to know a bit about deducing people’s size and body shape from their footprints, really that is a specialist knowledge they shouldn’t be required to have. I’d like the game to tell me: “the footprints are large and remarkably deep given the terrain; they were likely made by a very large man”, rather than just telling me the first part and expecting me to deduce the last part.

    – “All the victims belonged to the same religion”. This doesn’t require any specialist knowledge. The game should tell me “X was a Presbyterian”, and shouldn’t (ideally) lead me by the nose by adding “just like the other victims”.

    Two big obstacles to that balancing act are:
    A. To avoid leading me by the nose accidentally, you need to hide pertinent information in plain sight, among other less-pertinent stuff. “It looks like X was a Presbyterian, but attended church only sporadically; she paid her taxes promptly; and she had a substantial butterfly collection.” If you just tell me about her Presbyterian status, it’s going to be obvious that that’s relevant, and you rob me of my own pattern-spotting.

    B. Deciding what is and isn’t “specialist knowledge” is really tricky. This is particularly noticeable when the players are deciding what to examine in order to find imprints. Sure, most players will think to look for footprints and fingerprints, say, but wouldn’t their investigation-expert characters also know a bunch of other avenues of enquiry that could be used, that the players won’t know about? (And what if the player *doesn’t* think to look for fingerprints when their character obviously would?) IME, being flummoxed because you don’t think to do something your GM expects you will think of is a common flaw in investigation games – systems would do better to assume their players know nothing about investigative practice, and give them all the imprint information pretty freely.

    So I guess I’d say:
    * Seed your mystery with heaps and heaps of imprint information, and even more heaps of irrelevant information.
    * Let the players pick which leads to investigate, but give them as much information (imprint and irrelevant) as possible about each lead that they do investigate. If the players don’t think of a particular method of investigation, suggest it to them.
    – To avoid obstacle A, this probably means coming up with a list of methods in advance, and filling some of them with purely-irrelevant information, so that they can’t assume that info from a given method is important just because you pointed it out.
    * Don’t give the players any assistance in putting that information together, i.e. spotting patterns, drawing conclusions, and identifying new leads. That’s where the fun is for the players, at least if they’re like me 🙂
    – But do, therefore, provide plenty of imprint information, to minimise the chance that they’ll be unable to do this.

    That all takes a *lot* of prep, though, which is why I doubt I’ll ever run an investigation game 🙂

    Note also that there are no stats / skills / dice rolls involved in the above. I don’t believe chance adds anything useful to investigative play. Players should be given *all* the information they look for (where their character is trained to find it) and *none* of the deductive steps. Adding chance is just asking for one of the two needs at the top to be broken.

    1. Well, I agree with most of what you’ve said. But to me, having to supply vast quantities of information for the players to sift through is one of the dispiriting aspects of investigative game GMing and something for systems to avoid if possible. Do you *really* want to have to sift through reams of personal data just for the satisfaction of noticing the victims were all Presbyterian? I think I prefer providing clues that individually don’t add up to much but taken together provide a deductive challenge, rather than require players to do the job of acquiring the clues – and “they are all Presbyterian” is a clue, not a usable conclusion – themselves.

      I think, therefore, I would not be looking to supply piles and piles of imprint information and leave the pattern detection to the players, but instead supply (or at least make available to discover) a more moderate amount of both imprint and pattern information, and leave the players to draw conclusions and make decisions about what leads to follow.

      On a separate note, I would query the extent to which one can legislate away decisions in the space of whether to look for fingerprints. The decision of where to shine their torchlight (which people, places, events etc to investigate) and how deeply to investigate each thing should be in the players’ hands. I think the particular example of fingerprint-checking is uncontroversial *provided* the players have decided to do a forensic sweep of some sort. What you don’t want is the players walking into a room and automatically getting fingerprints without saying anything (unless they’re CSIs entering a known crime scene – then it kind of goes without saying they’ll be looking for them).

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