Image credit to Wizards of the Coast
Investigative scenarios can be some of the most engaging scenarios in role playing, regardless of genre. Interestingly enough, it’s also one of the most difficult types of adventures you can attempt write. Maintaining balance between withholding enough information but making it obtainable can sometimes feel like walking a tight rope. Luckily, with the fantastic community we have, there’s plenty of sources to draw on. I don’t claim to be an expert in this field, but I do have some pretty good tips that I’ve accumulated over time from various sources.
The biggest challenge when writing an investigative role playing scenario is usually the most blatantly important part; keeping what exactly happened straight. As a GM, you need a clear picture of what had actually happened in the situation, exactly who was involved and what little nuggets of information that were left behind for those pesky, meddling player characters. Making the series of events too predictable leads to a short adventure but making it too complex could have your players scratching their heads in frustration. Tropes can be fun, but in relation to an investigative scenario, it’s really important to not lean too heavily on them. Having the corrupt clergyman, government official or other influential figure can make for a predictable adventure but it can still be surprising if done right. A good example is Wes Craven’s horror movie Scream from 1996. While it’s now a bit of a cliche, having a similar adventure structure can be surprising.
Such an idea can be executed successfully by the fine art of role playing. If you role play your bad guy as a good guy, keep the grin caused by their clear cluelessness behind a veil, and stick with it, you could very well hide them right under everyone’s nose. Giving an innocent NPC a suspicious personality, though it’s easy to overdo it, could help serve as your red herring. In the example as posted above, you’re basically kept in the dark until the end. It can be good to use a red herring, but an ill placed one can be horrendously obvious. Picking someone very close to the perpetrator can be effective, especially if the two individuals have drastically different reputations. What can be obvious using this technique, however, is if the crime committed openly and directly effects your BBEG. Say that a killer in your murder investigation is the red herring’s best friend/drinking buddy or whatever else. If the BBEG murders the red herring’s girlfriend that he complains about all the time, and your BBEG has an apparent romantic interest in your red herring, well, you can see how that’d be obvious.
That situation specifically can skew things even more, by creating a red herring couple. That’s about the limit of the red herring thread, though. More than that and things may get frustrating, if you expect the PC’s to find your criminal themselves. However, having a bunch of very likely suspects and having your criminal slip up in the presence of the PC’s can be shocking and rewarding. It can also feel like a cheap reveal that the players didn’t earn if you’re not careful. Just as with most things, the structure comes with knowing your players.
This is where we get to the topic of clues. Clues propel our investigations forward. Without clues, your PC’s are just bumbling around hoping that they find something. I agree with the philosophy behind GUMSHOE based games; the important clues should be given but the clues that speed up the investigative process should have to be earned via rolls or spends, depending on what you’re playing. Essentially, your important clues should be placed in appropriate places and should be easy to find. If your important clues are exclusively obtainable by a skill roll, there’s a problem. With the possibility of failure, you risk having your investigative story running in circles trying to find that one clue or simply players sitting there in a stalemate with the plot. This is where most people get annoyed and lose interest in the scenario. A well placed clue that is vague enough to keep the players guessing but clear enough to point in a direction keeps them engaged and chasing the end game.
What can also make for a really fun game is leading your players into a trap because the BBEG knows they’re being watched. It’s a different take on the BBEG slipping up in the presence of the players that can feel a little more rewarding. Dropping little hints amidst it all telling them that they’re in trouble can be distracting from the important clues and can do a really fantastic job at making the players paranoid. Even if you’re not running a murder investigation, usually it comes to a head with a violent confrontation. It’s sort of the bread and butter of most role playing and the reason why that particular reveal can work so well.
Sometimes overlooked, the environment in which you place clues can be immensely important. If the players are paying attention, the clues themselves might be ambiguous but the places you find them could be the bigger clue, leaving behind a crumb trail leading to your criminal. Juxtaposition is a useful tool that can be used to great effect while still getting your point across.
For the tl;dr folks:
Modeling your investigative scenarios after known works can be really helpful. Look at film, books and TV with an analytical eye and you’ll be able to craft some really magnificent stuff while being sneaky!
Thanks for reading folks! And as always…
Stay Metal \m/