How I run investigation games (part 2: in-session)

Last time I wrote about how I prep investigation games. I’ll talk a bit more about that here, but I also want to move on to talk about what I do during sessions.

My aim in running an investigative game is twofold:

  • Make the players feel smart
  • Make the investigation challenging

Those two aims seem kind of contradictory, but in a way they support each other. You cannot feel smart if the game hands you everything on a plate. You cannot feel challenged if the game is simplistic or handled entirely through dice rolls.

As discussed in a previous article, you can break investigation down into various components:

  • Leads (where should I look next?)
  • Imprints (what clues are there?)
  • Patterns (how do the clues fit together?)
  • Conclusions (what is my theory of the case?)

I want as much as possible of the above to feel like they were investigated by the players themselves, using their own brainpower, without running up against the perennial problems of analysis paralysis and the thing that seems obvious to the GM not being at all obvious to the players. I’m not going to pretend those problems aren’t real – and more on how I tackle them below. But for now, let’s talk about how I handle the components above.

My initial lead is always given away for free. That’s a given: the game will be no fun if you can’t get started.

From that point on, I follow a simple set of rules:

  • If a clue is obvious, you don’t have to roll to find it
  • If a clue is hidden but you look in the place it’s hidden, you find it without rolling
  • You can find any clue with an appropriate roll
  • Once you’ve got the clues, it’s mostly down to you to figure out the logical leads, patterns, and conclusions

You can probably see for yourself how the above could easily lead to an investigation stalling. If the players don’t look in the right place, or roll badly, or can’t figure out the next lead, then everything grinds to a halt. There are three principal ways that I solve this:

  • Critical mass. I make sure there are enough clues available that it’s unlikely they’ll fail to find anything.
  • Keep some leads obvious. Signposting specific characters or locations as being of interest will ensure there’s always a next step to follow (but there’s always the potential to discover more)
  • Move the clock on. If the players are taking too long, then I look to the next event on my timeline and make it happen – so even if they get stuck, the story doesn’t

The aim here isn’t to make it impossible to fail the investigation. That wouldn’t be challenging, and it wouldn’t make the players feel smart. The aim, instead, is to make sure that they never get completely stuck – even if they’re failing, they’re moving forwards. So there’s always enough clues to find something out, and there’s always enough obvious leads that you have somewhere to look next.

Equally, my aim is to create a potential dividend from being smart, from being lucky, and from being quick. Players who get lucky on the dice find more clues; players who think their way around those clues and ask good questions discover patterns and start to reach conclusions; and those clues and conclusions can enable them to get ahead of my timeline. Those who move at the minimum pace enabled by following the obvious links, probably find themselves fighting for their lives at the finalé, having left a trail of murders in their wake. Those who leverage luck and judgement may be able to save some lives and catch the perpetrator unawares.

What this means is: being open to the players failing – so that another person is killed (or whatever consequences I established in my timeline happen); but also being open to them wildly succeeding, so that my villains fail and their plans are completely foiled. The critical mass of clues and obvious leads means that I’m hopefully leaning towards success over the medium-term, with occasional frustrating blocks that make that success more satisfying when it comes.

I cannot overemphasise how important it is for failure to come with consequences. If they get stuck, then those consequences mean that the game doesn’t get stuck; instead of their next lead being a witness they want to investigate or a place they want to investigate, the next lead comes in a body bag. And of course, this also means that when they succeed, they’ll know that it was earned, because they know what happens when they fail.

Very occasionally this means the players fail utterly. The villains complete their plan entirely, and escape. That’s great. It means there’s now a future recurring villain, who the players really want to take down, because they feel responsible for not catching them the first time. As long as things didn’t grind to a halt during the session, so there were always fresh leads to follow and tense pacing created by my timeline events, then failure is ok.

One last thing: do not let things drift towards out of character discussion of clues. To a degree all theorising is out of character, since you don’t actually have the skills, knowledge and brainpower of your characters. But try to keep people talking as their characters, because that will help to reinforce the sense that any frustration they may be feeling is fictional, it’s part of the story. They’re not sat on your couch feeling worn down by the investigation, they’re stood in a dark alley looking at a corpse and wondering when the next one will show up.

Author: Josh Fox

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.

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