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View Full Version : DM Help So the party investigates. . . Now what?



Prince Zahn
2015-12-25, 11:04 AM
I'm currently running a D&D 5e game where the party's goals involve tracking down groups of wanted criminals and Bringing them to justice how they see fit, and I want tracking them down to be a challenge in it's own right. Though every time I say that I realize how little I know of actual investigation stories, because I haven't a strong grasp to understand how I might go about it, much less what the players would do if I gave them a clue.

For context I am a novice DM, I usually run an campaign maybe once a year. The adventure takes place in the Renaissance Era, ( historical accuracy is not a priority though) and is 2 sessions old as of the time I'm writing this post and I haven't got a solid understanding needed to fully predict my players yet.

Does anyone have any advice to offer on executing such a storyline where there the players need to track down a criminal before he strikes again?

falloutimperial
2015-12-25, 01:26 PM
Many people will tell you to include many clues. Way more clues than you'd expect to need, because players are going to miss most of them. This is a good idea. Typically, when a character is investigating a clue, they make some kind of check and you tell them a pertinent detail about it. I'd recommend also telling them a useful deduction from that detail.

An example:
The player characters, a special division of Churchtown police, are sent to a crime scene: a homicide in an alley. When they get there, the city guard has already arrived and cordoned off the area for them. They are told that there was a witness.

Sergeant Baskerville investigates the body, rolling a successful spot check. He notices the blood pattern on the wallet indicates that someone removed a business card from the victim's wallet after the murder, and deduces that he likely got that business card at his place of work. He fails an arcana check to understand that the wounds were caused by rapidly bursting welts, magically induced.

Detective Envald LeSuis talks to the witness, Aianna Dogget, rolling a failed diplomacy check. The witness says she saw the victim arguing with a stern-looking dwarf, but doesn't remember a vital part of the conversation that reveals that the dwarf was named Kober Cockshaw.

Detective Crakehall looks through the refuse in the alley, rolling a successful search check. She finds an officer's badge, indicating that the victim was a cop, but also that the killer was sloppy enough to ditch the badge at the scene. The cop's name was Ronas Penrose.
And so on.

snacksmoto
2015-12-25, 02:48 PM
Perhaps this article will help.

http://thealexandrian.net/wordpress/1118/roleplaying-games/three-clue-rule

Also, I would expand the dice rolls from the binary pass/fail into something with more gradients. Perhaps something like:
Nat 20 or 10+ success gives the player direct and clear information possibly bypassing intermediary objectives.
+9 to +5 success gives the player a good hunch to the next objective.
+4 to 0 minor success gives the player a clue to the next objective.
-1 to -4 minor fail gives the player a scant clue to the next objective.
-5 to -9 fail gives the player no clues.
-10 or Nat 1 gives the player a red herring or adds obstacles to the next objective.

A gradient scale such as this should help to keep the players on track with an expanded success range. Minor dice fails can be countered by additional skill checks and roleplayers who dig into the scant clues, thus being able to turn minor fails into minor successes. High skills/good rolls reward the players with behind-the-scenes help with advancing the pace with direct links instead of clues. The players can then get ahead of the culprit or get clear information on one or more of the big W's (who, what, when, where, why) which the players can turn into the ability to cut off the culprit long before the target is in danger. That lead could even be used by the players to notify authorities and have them ready to help the players catch the culprit in the act.

goto124
2015-12-25, 06:06 PM
I think the article linked there mentioned "no red herrings". Players are great at coming up with their own, don't make it even harder by intentionally sending them on a wild goose chase.

NichG
2015-12-26, 02:29 AM
The biggest danger is the game stalling out. So it helps to have a timeline in mind and have something at stake. E.g. if the PCs are stuck, there's another victim and another set of clues.

Prince Zahn
2015-12-26, 05:13 AM
Thanks guys this is fascinating stuff. From what I understand, I need to create an abundance of clues, and I understand that offering a reasonable is a good way to help them on the right track. If things get stuck, make an event that keeps the momentum going with a new set of clues, And to avoid planting red herrings, while letting the PCs make up their own if they get their own assumptions. Any further tips or advice?

Spartakus
2015-12-26, 08:29 AM
Take your time in designing some suspects. If you need a few seconds to think about a name, a motive, an alibi or a general concept for an NPC the players are likely to dismiss him as a suspect instantly.

Also an idea that turned out to be really good in my group: I asked a friend to join the group for a session and play the murderer. So my criminal was disguised as a PC.

Eisenheim
2015-12-26, 12:01 PM
Don't make finding clues the challenge, make interpreting them and drawing conclusions the challenge. Failing to find the clues grinds things to a halt. Drawing the wrong conclusions sends the party actively down the wrong path, but things are still happening.

Thrawn4
2015-12-26, 12:20 PM
Don't make finding clues the challenge, make interpreting them and drawing conclusions the challenge. Failing to find the clues grinds things to a halt. Drawing the wrong conclusions sends the party actively down the wrong path, but things are still happening.
I am in favour of this approach. You can also have some suspects and every clue the NPCs find either takes one suspect off the list or hints to several suspect, so that at the end there is only one suspect left or the hints strongly indicate that one person is especially suspicious.

Another idea: If you want to increase the challenge, give the players the opportunity to fail. They don't have to necessarily find every culprit to solve the overall problem.

Milodiah
2015-12-26, 12:25 PM
An important thing to keep in mind when designing an investigative game is the rule of three.

Basically, for every "link" you want the players to make, ensure there are at least three ways for them to make said discovery. I've seen a lot of GMs complain that their players crashed the session by doing x or y...in most people's opinion, it's a sign of a bad GM if the entire plot progression hinged on them not killing NPC A or not missing Footprint B.

I'd recommend physically drawing out this resulting web on a big-ass piece of paper, too. When I design Delta Green scenarios, which are usually at least 2/3 investigation, I ensure every connection, every clue, etc. is mapped out. You don't necessarily have to refer to it during the session, but it seriously helps in the planning thereof.

Also, I sort of agree with the "don't actively make red herrings" approach, but it's important to ensure that there's a lot of information that's simply not relevant for the players to interpret into a red herring. Don't go about making a designated red herring such as a person with no alibi, confirmed motive, possession of the murder weapon, and overall more evidence pointing to them than the actual perpetrator. That's just silly, and the players will sense it was a conspiracy by the GM to derail them rather than their own investigative errors (which is totally true). But ensure it is nowhere near cut and dry; life is never simple. Witness descriptions may not match up, people may act suspiciously due to unrelated secrets that could be revealed, organizations may be uncooperative out of simple prejudice, etc. etc. Make sure things are fleshed out well enough for there to be potential red herrings, while at the same time not going out of your way to deliberately design them.

veti
2015-12-26, 09:17 PM
One issue I always have with investigative-style games - and I honestly don't know the answer to, so I'd be interested in any insights - is: "why does it take five people to do this?" Police detectives tend to work in pairs, and most fictional detectives are one detective plus one sidekick. Without splitting the party - why, exactly, does it take so many of them to follow up on a single set of clues?

The Grue
2015-12-26, 11:09 PM
...describes critical passes/fumbles on skill checks...

Please no.

goto124
2015-12-26, 11:19 PM
Make sure things are fleshed out well enough for there to be potential red herrings, while at the same time not going out of your way to deliberately design them.

I kindly request concrete examples of both potential and designed red herrings, to illustrate the difference.

Isn't everything a potential red herring anyway?

NichG
2015-12-27, 04:28 AM
I kindly request concrete examples of both potential and designed red herrings, to illustrate the difference.

Isn't everything a potential red herring anyway?

I suppose a designed red herring is something like 'I'm going to make the evidence point to the wrong guy, but then hide something that makes that conclusion impossible to be true'. It shows up a lot in investigative dramas - there's someone who is the obvious suspect, but only the brilliant, plucky detective realizes that something is wrong and perseveres to find the truth despite the fact that his boss is urging him to just book the guy and close the case.

PersonMan
2015-12-27, 08:28 AM
One issue I always have with investigative-style games - and I honestly don't know the answer to, so I'd be interested in any insights - is: "why does it take five people to do this?" Police detectives tend to work in pairs, and most fictional detectives are one detective plus one sidekick. Without splitting the party - why, exactly, does it take so many of them to follow up on a single set of clues?

What I would do is either make clues that are encased in layers of skill checks and other things - say, a Diplomacy check to get the lead, then a bit of Stealth to get a key for the next part, then a brief brawl to knock out a guy sent to eliminate the evidence, which is a text written in some kind of arcane code a spellcaster can make sense of, which leads to a temple that a divine caster has the connections to get into; now everyone is needed at some point, and it makes sense that you need at least 3-4 people for it because it takes a variety of unrelated skills.

Or you can make there be a variety of clues that each require one skillset; if you can make sure people don't get bored, you can have one clue require the skillset of one character, thus requiring a number of unrelated skills to progress - something that could make sense, if the person on the other end has a lot of resources or is trying to cover their tracks.

GrayDeath
2015-12-27, 08:42 AM
The most important part, and hence it cannot be said often enough, is:

DO NOT MAKE PROBLEMS/CHALLENGES WITH ONLY ONE WAY TO SOLVE IT!! EVER!!


Anything elsse can be argued about, as it contains a lot of personal preference, but this one part is vital.

If there is ONE culprit, and only one, make sure there are enough ways to reach the conclusion that its him/her/it.
But if you make up the whole thing, better aim for at least 2 perpetrators. :smallcool:

Milodiah
2015-12-27, 03:09 PM
I kindly request concrete examples of both potential and designed red herrings, to illustrate the difference.

Isn't everything a potential red herring anyway?


A designed red herring is sitting down and saying, "I want the players to definitely think it was this dude, until they (might) find the small bits of evidence that contraindicate it.

Let's say some guy named Max was murdered.

Bill was seen having a very heated argument with him the night before, was the last person to see the victim alive, purchased the murder weapon, is undergoing court-mandated anger management therapy, has no alibi, has allegedly told close friends that Max makes him so angry he could just murder the guy, was seen speeding off from the location of the murder only an hour before the victim was found, etc. etc.

But he's innocent according to the GM. Bill's never hurt a fly, bought the murder weapon as a gift for Max but the actual killer found it in Max's home, was only in anger management due to a vindictive judge railroading him, was being sarcastic about the "would murder him" thing, was speeding off because he forgot about an important appointment, etc. etc.

The real murderer was just some guy after a rare statue Bill posted a picture of on Facebook a few days before, and the only clue that the GM initially threw out in that direction was that said statue was missing from the scene. Then the evidence against the actual murderer is passed down halfway through them hunting down Bill.

That's an engineered red herring there (an overengineered one at that, but that's just to showcase the point.)

Potential red herrings are generally facts that the GM decides to mention because it would be simply negligent to not tell the players, and simply unrealistic if not included. If the murder weapon was a 12 gauge shotgun, the players should be able to find out how many people Bill knew/didn't like had a 12 gauge. The last person to see the victim alive is always an important bit of information, and should be included.

Generally, if the GM has planned an entire story arc of the players chasing down the wrong lead, and designed it to where it would be likely to happen, that's an engineered one.
If the GM is deliberately laying the bread-crumb trail in a different direction and expecting the players to pull off the hair-pin turn halfway down it, I consider it rather poor GMing. But if the GM is dumping a field of bread crumbs (which may or may not link together into a potential chain of thought) surrounding the actual trail and giving the players the chance to sift through it themselves, that's just called introducing detail.

Arbane
2015-12-27, 06:37 PM
Remember Chandler's Law: "When things start to drag, have a guy come through a door with a gun."

The 'guy' might have to be an orc hit squad, and the 'gun' might be battle-axes, but the principle still holds.

mephnick
2015-12-27, 06:41 PM
Red herrings don't work. Just don't use them, please. They either stall the game completely or feel like a cheap "gotcha" from the DM. Everyone will leave unsatisfied.

"But, mine is cool! And it will blow my players' minds!

No it isn't and no it won't.

jinjitsu
2015-12-27, 08:19 PM
If things get stuck, make an event that keeps the momentum going with a new set of clues...

In my experience, the most likely circumstance for the game to stall is when you try to make one big mystery with a lot of clues pointing toward a single answer. The idea that "you can never make things too obvious" is definitely a good one to follow, but you also run the risk of deflating the adventure if your players prove clever and end up solving it too quickly. I like to build "pyramid mysteries" - there are several clues to the big mystery, but each one is found by solving a smaller mystery. You can layer these as much as you like, making each sub-mystery require even smaller mysteries to uncover its clues. You just have to make sure that while the PCs can stumble across the initial clues (and you want those to stand out), they MUST solve at least one or two sub-mysteries to get the clues to solve the big one.

Typically, the instinct in a "catch the murderer" scenario is to enforce urgency by having him kill again. From experience, I can tell you this is not the best idea: instead of heightening the sense of urgency and making the players buckle down, this causes panic and makes them miss clues, especially if they have any investment in the murdered NPCs' lives.

Prince Zahn
2015-12-28, 09:10 AM
Okay, so I am getting a few things from you guys, I'll try to round up the good advice:

first and foremost: every conclusion I want the players to get should have at least 3 different clues that could lead to it. this is to make sure that the players will have multiple means of finding the correct answer
if the game's momentum begins to slow down to a halt, bring in a rather blunt threat to their mission, such as a man with a gun hired to kill them. (early guns are acceptable I'm the setting in question, because Renaissance)
avoid planning red herrings. describe all the details that give the story life, let the players make their own red herrings, and their own list of suspects.
because #1 (to my understanding) deserves reiterating: avoid making problems with only 1 solution at all costs.
the clues are a means to my end, and should not be too difficult find if the party looks for them. I. E. Repeated skill checks to find an important clue that I want them to find.)
when the players find a clue, describing a reasonable deduction from it can help move things along.
a big whodunit mystery is better (in my case) when composed from a chain of interlinked smaller mysteries.
It will also give the party a sense of accomplishment as they build up to the biggest revelation of all.

So for a sake of examples for if I understood the advice given so far, yeah? The party needs to track down this criminal's whereabouts after committing arson. If it was a tiefling on a horse or something. To learn that s/he started the fire by throwing lit brimstone rocks/bullets iinto structures, then A) the players can smell the burnt brimstone, which can be deducted as not local to the area. B) they might meet a survivor who reports hearing glass break and smelling the noxious smoke and alarmed everybody, and C) they might find a brimstone rock/bullet nearby that didn't catch fire. They might also stumble upon the idea that he rode a horse with A) Hoofprints. B) A wino outside taking about nearly getting runover by a speeding cloaked guy on a brown steed. or C) reports that a horse was stolen the night before.

I should include various victims, and the local fire force. They might find burnt pages if I decide on a library, or the smell of burnt liquor if it's a tavern etc. I imagine that this villain has particular beef with the players, or their goals, and that might emerge as the crimes increase. This baddie actually have been hired by someone else, and then they need to find out whom, as they climb further up the chain of command and learning the small culprit's associates up to the bigtime patron, each step having multiple clues they could find that could help them find the true culprit and engage him.

So far so good or am I doing this wrong?