Investigations and Failures Pt. 2

24 Sep

Part one on this topic can be found here.

Last time I spoke about when and why it’s a good idea to allow failures on investigation rolls.  This time I’d like to talk about ideas for using those failures in ways that will not simply road-block your players.  The goal is not to give your players a free pass but to avoid a situation where they are defeated by a stack of books.  These ideas can be used singly or you can mix-and-match as the adventure dictates.  As always, use your judgement and be willing to improvise.

These suggestions assume that there is information to be found and the players have failed to find it through dice rolls, not bad choices.

1) Many Roads lead to R’Lyeh – The first and best solution for an investigation campaign is good adventure design.  There should rarely be only one line of evidence that will lead the players to success or failure.  Investigations are legwork, so let them get gum on their shoes.  If the characters find nothing at the local library let them try the newspaper morgue, or the local historical society, police reports, or church records.  With novice players you may want to prod them by saying, “your search doesn’t turn up anything here,” instead of telling them they don’t find anything.  Experienced players should come up with alternate ideas on their own.

Good investigations also encompass more than searching the library stacks.  Have clues through other avenues such as the local speakeasy, school professors, retired beat cops, and neighborhood busybodies.  A colorful cast of NPCs can offer a wealth of chances for determined investigators to find the information they need.

Improvising this is also a good solution for dealing with the unexpected.  Players will come up with ideas you never thought of and if those ideas make good sense you may reward their ingenuity.  They may not receive all the information they would have through more traditional means, but realizing that the railroad switchman might have seen what happened in the tunnel should be worth a reward.

2) Time Marches On – Another simple answer to failed research rolls is to tell the player they haven’t found anything “yet”.  Time is a valuable resource in investigation games and a lot can happen in a few hours.  In this case the players are forced to make a choice between moving on to other lines of investigation, taking the problem head-on without all the clues they need, or forging ahead with their current search.  Continuing the search means that the players’ enemies will also have more time to carry out their plans, which could have disastrous results.  The choice to burn more time can build tension in the game.

3) No Talking in the Library – The investigators need help.  There’s just too much material to go through and the cataloging method in use here is unlike any rational system they’ve encountered.*  There is a professional on hand; a librarian, curator, director, or professor who created this crazy organizational system and would be invaluable in helping search for the information.  Can the players convince the person to help look for such strange information?  Can they trust the person?  Are they putting this person at risk?

4) Things just got Complicated –  Failure in the investigation roll can mean something more than just not finding the information.  Investigations into unusual cases can draw unwanted attention.  Here are a few curve balls to throw at your investigators:

1. A cultist picks up on what the investigator is doing.  The character realizes that he or she is being watched.  The library is almost empty and closing time is coming soon, and it gets dark awfully early here.

2. Another researcher has the books the investigator needs.  This person is researching the case for his own reasons and doesn’t want to share.

3. The investigator catches the attention of a wannabe cultist.  Depending on how the encounter goes the NPC may mistake the investigator for a member of the cult and pester him or her for admission, or an enemy of the cult that he could gain favor from destroying.

4. A reporter shows up and smells a story.  He’ll grill the investigator for details.  He lacks all subtly about it and won’t let it go.  He won’t have anything helpful for the characters and will become a nuisance to be dealt with before he draws too much attention.

5. A local detective or sheriff shows up to lean on the investigator.  He may not be involved in the plot, he’s just doing a favor for a friend.

6. Cosmic entities have ways of knowing when mortals are interfering in their plans.  The investigator’s work has drawn such attention.  The character will be visited by omens, such as seeing the shadows move or clusters of flies appearing on the window.  If the failure is particularly bad the cosmic being may send something after the investigator.

7. There is a mundane complication, such as a power outage or a fire alarm.  Couple it with a sudden storm for effect.  Let the players wonder if this was random chance or if something more sinister is at work.

8. The player blacks out.  When he or she awakens many hours have passed.  Books with the information they had been searching for are laid out on the table.  There are notes written in the investigator’s book with all the necessary details and the pen is still in his hand, but the handwriting is not his own.  The word “Yith” is written in the margin.  The character loses 1d6 SAN points.  If this happens repeatedly it could become an adventure in its own right.

Do you have any more thoughts or additions for the list?  I’d love to hear them!


*I’ve heard librarians tell the craziest stories about different people’s personal cataloging systems.  My favorite was about a school library where the librarian organized the books based on the color of the spines.


Posted by on September 24, 2013 in Game Design and Mechanics, Gaming, Horror, Pulps


Tags: , , , , , , , ,

4 responses to “Investigations and Failures Pt. 2

  1. Matt

    September 24, 2013 at 12:34 PM

    Here’s one addition that I’ve used in my games that you played in (remember Agent Fredericks)

    The Frienemy — As the PCs fail their research, a shadowy and possibly long-term NPC swoops in and offers to give the PCs the sought after information for a price. In exchange for the information (though perhaps this first time will be free), the NPC will require the PCs assistance for a future, unspecified task. And if the PCs accept the Frienemy’s bargain, the Frienemy will give the PCs a means to contact him or her for future assistance.

    With the Frienemy, the GM gains a powerful tool. The Frienemy can be called upon in the future if the PCs fail their Research rolls (or wish to use the Frienemy as a primary research tool) to give them needed information, and subsequently putting them in greater debt to the Frienemy. Then at some point, the Frienemy can redeem the debt by making/forcing the PCs to go on a mission they would normally pass up or travel to a locale where they usually wouldn’t frequent.

    And who is this Frienemy? The Frienemy is someone (usually powerful and/or high ranking) who recognizes the PCs worth as tools and will support the PCs as long as their goals partially coincide, but the Frienemy long-term goals might drastically differ from those of the PCs and he or she might not be interested in the PCs long-term survival. The Frienemy could be a high-ranking government agent, a well connected scholar, an eccentric heir/heiress, a mafia don looking to clean up “his” city of the Eldritch elements, a cultist of a rival Elder God looking for other cults to fail while his succeeds, or even Nyarlathotep himself looking to thwart his fellow Elder Gods while having the PCs arrange things that will ensure the success of his own plan. The Frienemy’s identity and goals can provide a long-term mystery that can help drive a campaign with a clue or two being dropped here and there into the regular gaming sessions.

  2. Fractalbat

    September 24, 2013 at 12:43 PM

    Love it!

    And yes, I remember Fredericks very well.

  3. Matt

    September 24, 2013 at 2:04 PM

    And here are a few more.

    Fiendish Footnotes — Just like in real life, failing at Research or Library Use doesn’t mean that you necessarily walk away completely empty-handed. Reading a book or website that doesn’t have the information you’re looking for might turn up an interesting footnote about another book or source that does. This keeps PCs from being stone-walled and gives them some direction of how they can go about finding the correct source of information (which might be an adventure in itself).

    Terrible Translations — The library research turns up a needed book that was written in a language none of the PCs speak or is so badly translated that the PCs do not gain the full information they are looking for (or in the case of spells, wording that produces a magical effect). This could send the PCs off running for someone to translate the copy they have, a better translated source, or a cited source.

    Damnable Damage — Just because the players find an information source doesn’t mean that it’s completely intact. Books might have pages missing, certain parts of websites might fail or be unable to be accessed, and poorly stored journals might be rendered unreadable by water or other types of damage. Lovecraft himself made use of this method with Wilbur Whateley’s damaged John Dee translation of the Necronomicon.

    Malicious Misfiling — If the PCs are in the right location where the information they seek can be found and fail a Research or Library Use roll, have the records get misfiled, the book they’re seeking put on the wrong shelf, etc. etc. They can see where the information they seek should be and make additional rolls to find where it got misplaced.

  4. Fractalbat

    September 24, 2013 at 2:47 PM

    These are really good. Excellent stuff.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: