'Barbarism is the natural state of mankind,' the borderer said, still staring somberly at the Cimmerian. 'Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.'

-Robert E. Howard
Beyond The Black River

Monday, January 7, 2019

The Search for Clues: How I approached Investigation in Conan 2d20

Introduction

Whenever I write a new adventure for my players I try and include things that are not simply hack and slash. Ways for members less adept at combat to shine and have a great time. I have worked with placing "Trials" into combat situations so the non-combat characters can contribute in a more meaningful way. I like the idea, but often my party tunnel vision's on monsters and villains and won't do anything else until they are vanquished. Generally what I want the trials to do, don't work in this situation.

In my last adventure I wanted the players to start their adventure arriving at an abandoned Asgard village. They would need to investigate the village and figure out what had likely happened and go forward with the adventure from there. Previously i've had things in the adventure that were available for players to find, maybe some ancient script on the wall that would reveal some deeper meaning to the dungeon they were in, add some more COOL to it. Nothing that really *NEEDED* to be found to progress.

With an investigation you want your players to look around and find clues, and then use those clues to draw conclusions about what they should do. If you make this difficult they might not find those clues and end up with no way to progress. What to do!? Well I, like you, went out to the Internet and read a few articles and watched a few videos on running investigative games. What I came up with is the idea that there should be some clues that are going to be found if the players walk into a place and do a cursory examination. These clues are the most basic information the players need to move forward with the plot. Other clues are there and can be found which will add information or a better path for the players.

The Clues

Since running the adventure I have had time to think about this methodology for investigation and might do a larger adventure with it, but until then I will tell you about how I broke down my clues. I felt each clue should have a few basic elements: where it could be found, what skill was used to uncover it, what difficulty it was, what was the result of finding it and what was the result of not finding it.

Finding & Using the Clues

I later decided that all clues should be found with an observation test, and once found a further test could be used to determine something useful from them. This way a player is always rolling against the same skill without the clue being hinted at. This will also allow the keen eyed character to find tracks and the expert tracker to follow them, allowing more non-combat team work for the party. ie A player makes a D1 Observation test to see the tracks, followed by a second D1 Survival test to learn about them. Of course common sense needs to be used, if the clue is a testimony from a dieing man, you probably don't need to find him.

There are times when you will want players to use a certain skill to gain knowledge about the clue, but what if they don't have that skill? Sometimes a secondary skill can be useful. If they found animal tracks, but don't have survival, you may want to allow them to use a skill like Observation, but probably with a higher difficulty.

Setting up the Clues

With this knowledge let's set up the clues following a set of five basic steps.
  1. Crime Scene: Describe what happened. This will give you a good founding of what went on in the scene and why clues are what and where they are. We see this all the time in detective and police shows, but from the other end, where the main characters have found clues and have pieced back together their version of the events that placed them there.
  2. Key Clues: Identify the key clues the players will need to find to lead them to the next phase of the adventure.
  3. Negative Effect Clues: Pick out things from the description that are key and build clues around them that might have negative consequences if not found.
  4. Informational Clues: Pick out further informational clues that have no real long term effect on the adventure.
  5. Red Herrings: Maybe a few clues scattered about to lead the players astray, and make things more difficult.
Step 1: Crime Scene.
Evening falls, and as most nights recently the village is huddled around their central fire pit for comfort and security. Something has been stalking them. Finally they hear a low growl as a giant cat appears on the edge of the fire light, with terror the villagers panic and run. Only the Shaman stands to stop the beast, striding forward he commands it to stop. He is struck down where he stands, as a giant claws tear through his flesh. The cat stalks the people while small dark humanoids chitter with glee as they pull down and bind villagers, the ones they do not capture escape into the cold night. The cat and the children of the night escape out towards the mountains, with the villagers for sacrifice by their Master on the coming Solstice. A light snow beings to fall..

Step 2: Key clues.
We know we need the players to find evidence that will lead them to the mountain. The easiest one is the tracks the cat and the little people leave behind, but with the commotion I think tracks might be harder to find, especially with the snow that had begun to fall. Instead we will see that the villagers have been stalked for sometime. Our first clue will be notes written by the chieftain about sending a party to the mountains and other similar information to make the players believe the mountain is important. We will place this note in the Chieftain's hut.

Clue
Location
Skill & Difficulty
Found
Not Found
Chieftain's Notes Chief's Hut Observ. D0 Notes describe The Chief's council with the village
shaman about omens in the mountains.
A party of warriors investigated and found
ruins of an ancient fortress inhabited by snow apes.
N/A

Players entering the hut and making a basic cursory look into the place will find this clue. It is possible they don't search all the huts and in the end don't find this clue and end up not knowing what to do. As much as I recognize this to be a possibility, I think players who have not found a plot hook and haven't searched all the huts deserve to be stumped a little bit. In short I think they should have to do something to get the clue, even if once that is done there is no dice rolled.

Step 3: Negative Effect Clues.
Now that we have this basic clue let's work from there. We know the cat and little people and villagers would leave tracks. We can make it more interesting by placing this clue in a few areas, maybe in the village where they are hard to find and outside the village where they are easier to find. If the players find this clue we should reward them, maybe give them a safer, faster way to the mountain fortress.

Clue
Location
Skill & Difficulty
Found
Not Found
Animal Tracks Outside the Village Observ. D1 ->
Survival D3
Observ. D5
Tracks of a large animal lead away.
Players use the easy passage through the ruins.
Players use the dangerous passage through the ruins.
Animal Tracks Inside the Village Observ. D1 ->
Survival D1
Observ. D3
Tracks are obscured by other tracks in the village
Tracks of a large animal lead away
Players use the easy passage through the ruins.
Players use the dangerous passage through the ruins.

We had a couple of other things happen in our description. One was the shaman being struck down. Perhaps he managed to drag himself to his hut and as the beast crashed in to finish the job, he managed to ward it off with some spell or alchemy? We can add clues to handle this as well.

Clue
Location
Skill & Difficulty
Found
Not Found
Blood Entrance to Village Observ. D1
Covered in snow
Blood stains in the snow.
Lead to Shaman's Hut
No effect.
Shaman Shaman's hut Auto find ->
Healing D1
Persuade D2
Tells of the battle with the cat &
solstice sacrifice.
Cat doesn't cause FEAR 1 when
the players encounter it.
+1M Gives the players a talisman
to ward off the cat.
On a failed test:
Shaman croaks a single word, "The Mountain."
and dies.
Star Charts Shaman's hut Observ. D1 ->
Lore D1
Observation D3
Shows how far away the solstice is.
Solstice is one day closer than previously determined.

Now we have three clues associated with the Shaman, one simply leads the players to him, and the others provide information and perhaps a little bit of advantage if the investigation here goes very well. I haven't included basic things such as claw marks on the body or the damage on the hut, but things like this should be improvised pretty easily based on your knowledge of what happened here.

Step 4: Informational Clues.
We also know there was struggles and villagers being bound and taken against their will. Players will probably make this assumption, especially based on other clues, but you can sprinkle a few things around the village to given them a deeper investigation.

Clue
Location
Skill & Difficulty
Found
Not Found
Bindings Next to one of the huts Observ. D1
Covered in snow
Iron shackles with arcane
glyphs.
No Effect
Small footprints Around village Observ. D3 -> Survival D2 One of the Children of the Night
erupts from the snow and attacks.
No Effect

Step 5: Red Herrings.
We know villagers ran off into the night from our look at the crime scene. We know not all were taken by the wizard. What happened to them?
Clue
Location
Skill & Difficulty
Found
Not Found
Blood West of the Village Observ. D1 ->
Observ. D2
Survival D1
Covered in snow
Blood stain leading southwest.
See BEAR ENCOUNTER if followed
No Effect

With a fairly simple crime scene description we are able to come up with 9 clues of varying merit, and at least one that will lead the characters the right direction. Hopefully this will give you some inspiration on ways to add clues and investigation into your own game. If you do I would love to hear how it worked out! Of course if you have other ideas or comments on this methodology please drop me a comment below.


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