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Investigations and Failures Pt. 2

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!

MF-spy

*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.

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

 

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Investigations and Failures Pt. 1

I’ve been giving failure a lot of thought.

As depressing as that sounds, I’m talking game mechanics.  I come from the school of thought that player failures are an important part of adventures, especially in relation to dice rolls.  The chance of failing in combat is what gives the game an edge and forces the players to decide to engage, avoid, or flee.  Failures in diplomacy rolls can lead to new plot twists and challenges that will follow the party throughout a campaign.  Overall failure to stop an evil plot can change the course of entire campaigns, or begin all new ones.

In a recent episode of the excellent podcast Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff, Robin Laws talks about removing failure as an option for research rolls.  Laws is usually of the mindset that failure is an important and positive element in games, but not for the aspect of investigations.  In other situations failures mean something happens that changes the way the adventure will proceed, but failure in research rolls, such as the Library Use skill in Call of Cthulhu, is a null result.  No plot twists are created, no new challenges arise, it’s just a road block that stalls the game.  Worse, it might mean failure for the mission, not to a dramatic hail of bullets or blasphemous Elder God, but at the hands of a card catalog.

For that reason his Gumshoe game system doesn’t have a Library Use skill.  A player is expected to describe how the investigator is going to look for information; for example, “I will go into the library and look for books on alchemy.  Then I’ll read through them keeping an eye out for anything regarding the Elixir of Mercury.”  If that information is there, then the character will find it.  No roll is necessary, the player is rewarded for good planning, and the game continues.  If the player doesn’t get the information, it’s because it isn’t there and not because they failed a roll.

This is a concept that I agree with… to a point.

I love the idea of encouraging the players to be descriptive about how they are searching for information.  For similar reasons in my Lamentations of the Flame Princess game I give a bonus to searching for secret doors if the players give details.  “I search the room for secret doors,” gives then the standard chance but, “I check the north wall, especially the area around the book case,” will give them a +1 bonus.  This also adds to the atmosphere of the game and makes the characters more a part of the setting.

As to not requiring any roll on investigations, it depends on the game concept.

If the game is one that isn’t focused on research, then this is a fine way to handle things.  Dungeons & Dragons is a good example.  I would use the descriptive no-roll solution for a party trying to search an archivist’s library for historical information, or to find the lineage of the would-be heir to the throne.  Dungeons & Dragons has no research mechanic and isn’t an investigation based game, so I’d rather keep things moving and rely on the players’ creativity over cludging some kind of Wisdom or Intelligence based skill check.

Another case where I’d use this solution is when the characters are assumed to be investigators by nature.  In a game where everyone is playing a private eye then it’s reasonable to go with the no-roll descriptive option.

I don’t agree with this method in games where investigation is a major component, but where not all the characters are assumed to be investigators.  Call of Cthulhu is an excellent example of this kind of game.  In this setting I want a mechanic that allows the scholar-type character to shine.  I want the professor to be able to accomplish things that the marksman and the thief can’t, but by the same token I want the professor to face a risk of failure within their specialty.

Another benefit of the skill based research roll is that it allows for jack-of-all-trades characters, like the private eye who’s good with a gun or in a library, but not to the level of the soldier or the scientist.

For these reasons I value the possibility of failure in research rolls, within the scope of investigation games like Call of Cthulhu.  However this doesn’t remove the concerns Robin Laws brought up about the impact failed research rolls have on this kind of game.  In part two I’ll give my thoughts on how to better handle these situations to keep the game interesting but still have a price to be paid for failure.

A librarian is the investigator’s best friend.

 
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Posted by on September 23, 2013 in Game Design and Mechanics, Gaming

 

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More eBook Sources

In my previous post I talked about the glorious resource that is Project Gutenberg (projects Gutenberg?).

If that’s not enough to satiate your thirst for eBooks here are a few more resources.

The Eldritch Dark:  Are you a fan of Clark Ashton Smith?  If not, it’s probably because you haven’t read his work yet.  Smith was a contemporary of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert Howard, writing weird tales of horror and science fiction.  These day’s he’s not as well known as Lovecraft which is what the people at Eldritch Dark are trying to help correct.  Smith’s stories of the dying Earth setting of Zothique are some of his best tales and his necromancers stand up against any others found in pulp fiction.  I highly recommend getting familiar with Smith’s work.

For the most part these stories are formatted to be read on-line, but if you want to read them in another format a quick Copy/Paste into a file and saving them in your preferred format will do the trick.

The Cthulhu Chick:  Speaking of H.P. Lovecraft, the wonderful host of the Cthulhu Chick site has compiled his stories into an omnibus eBook edition which you can download from her site.  Lovecraft’s work is in the public domain so this is a great way to fill your library in one easy-to-use file.  The collection does not include the works he co-authored or ghost wrote for other people.  The Cthulhu Chick is also one of the hosts of The Double Shadow, a Clark Ashton Smith podcast.

The Baen Free Library:  Baen Books has an extensive store where you can purchase their books in eBook format.  They also have a sizable collection of eBooks they offer for free.  Often these are the first books in a series.  Not sure if you want to dive into David Weber’s Honor Harrington series?  Download the first book and give it a read.

Black Mask:  Looking for noir and pulp adventure that has fallen into the public domain?  Check out Black Mask Online.  Because it’s a blog it’s a little harder to navigate when looking for books.  Conversely the site offers more than just eBooks, regularly updating with news and discussion about pulps and writing.  Definitely a good site to add to your RSS feed.

One more often overlooked resource for electronic books is your local library.  Many public libraries now have systems to allow you to check out eBooks with the same ease that you check out hard copies.  Best of all your library’s eBook program won’t be limited by Public Domain laws.  Check your library’s web site and you’ll probably be happy with what you find

This is just a taste of what’s out there in the dark corners of the Internet.  It’s a great time to be a reader.  Got any more good resources?  Feel free to add them in the comments.

 
 

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