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.