Breaking the curse of the Investigation Roll

As someone who is a lore curious, deductive type of player, the phrase roll investigation on the room” weighs heavily upon me from years playing and running 5e. The following suggestions (especially the rules concept at the end) are not intended to be universal, rather justified for a particular combination of players, setting and campaign premise.

So, there’s been murder. Or a kidnapping. Or a theft. You get the idea.

Most player dice rolls in TTRPGs are either to:

  • Avoid failure (saving throw vs. Death, Into the Odd saves)

  • See what degree of success you achieved (any damage roll, BitD gather information)

  • Both (5e attack roll, PbtA 2d6, Mothership d100 etc)

And a system with decent advice for the referee will add some variation on:

Don’t roll unnecessarily, be clear on the stakes of a roll”

And for the most part, this works really well. Endless perception checks are avoided. Players can collaborate to avoid risky rolls with good planning and clever thinking, whilst maximising their advantages with tasks that can only be resolved by picking up the dice. 

But there are a few player actions that stand a little apart, and the one I find my mind drawn to is investigation.

In an ideal world, any kind of investigation roll probably wouldn’t be necessary (and many systems don’t include it). A referee describes a location in flawless detail, and the players respond with logical, plausible actions within this space that perfectly reflect their characters’ knowledge and abilities. All while asking intelligent questions and complementing the referee on their new haircut.

And for many OSR/NSR games, having no specific mechanics works just fine to solve puzzles in dungeons, find secret doors and so forth. Indeed it’s clearer and easier to rule on than the more widely used alternative, the aforementioned 5e Investigation skill:

[Excerpt from the 5e Player’s Handbook describing the investigation skill]

However, in my experience the go-to OSR advice of:

players should describe how they interact with the fictional space - opening desks, turning over bodies, looking for gaps where something might be missing”

Becomes less effective when some or all of the following apply:

  • The setting involves a lot of sci-fi tech, magic and/or niche real-world knowledge

  • 1 or more players struggle to imagine the world in a way that allows for such specific interaction.

  • The campaign has an investigation/mystery-solving focus (this exacerbates the previous two points).

Game design has already produced a number of solutions to this beyond simply adopting the 5e skill roll model:

  1. You can assume that players find a minimum level of information as used in GUMSHOE and its hacks (I do find that this system is slightly misrepresented in posts like this - it’s not quite as straightforward as hand all the info to the players” - they still need to be in the right place with the right skills to gain additional knowledge). 

  2. Or perhaps the players make theories, and rolls are to determine their truth as seen in Brindlewood Bay and others. 

  3. Finally, you can take credit for both rolls and actions - players can choose whether to interact via dice mechanics or description of what their character is doing, with the referee adjudicating accordingly. 

[1] is interesting - I think there’s a lot to be learned from the approach, but ultimately I want failure to be an option, just like in the real world. 

[3] is my preferred solution. If I run an investigation campaign I want players to feel their characters have distinct abilities far beyond their own (which I find rules out the baseline OSR/NSR approach) but as a referee I enjoy creating a Blorb mystery scenario with landmark, hidden and secret information for my players to unpick. This rules out [2] where the clue placement is entirely different

But here we run into another couple of problems…

Spam and Failure

Whilst there are many ways to generate time pressure in a mystery scenario (the killer might strike again, you are unofficial investigators and the legitimate ones will be here soon) eventually this strains plausibility. In such a scenario some players (and I have occasionally had to stop myself from this) will go at a fictional space like they’re in Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. No stone will be left unturned or indeed checked to see whether it’s a fake stone, a magic stone and what happens if you throw the stone out the window.

Regardless of whether you’re using the stone turner skill or describing your lifting and turning in great detail - you’re spamming. There is no in-game consequence to failure to find information, so the referee has to step in at some point and say “you’ve learned everything you can here, please leave the victim’s relatives to their grief”. 

But to defend the players in this scenario - they are well aware that failure is an option. If they keep looking in the wrong place, and not finding anything, then there’s an out of game consequence - and it’s that the game grinds to a halt! So they’re highly motivated to search for everything.

How do we solve both these problems?

You can, of course, build on the time pressure element and widen it to include all sorts of complications. The aforementioned Brindlewood Bay does this in classic PbtA fashion by allowing the Keeper to make all sorts of moves on a player failure using the Meddle Move.

Cthulhu Dark also has a neat solution to spamming - the more you roll the more likely you are to see too much of the Mythos” with all the consequences that implies. Brute forcing your way through that game at the cost of your sanity is practically encouraged. That seems very specifically Lovecraftian but you could run a dark, real-world game that way - perhaps where it represents the stress of the job. However, that might not be all that much fun. What we’re trying to evoke here is the trope of the world-weary detectives and private eyes in a city of crime more than career burnout and obsession. There are the easy solves, the day-to-day simple motivations… and then there’s the cold cases, the baffling murders. 

Firstly, I would always frame this sort of campaign as one with multiple ongoing mysteries at once and almost certainly run a percentage of them like GUMSHOE scenarios - you’ll always find something, it won’t be too difficult to put the clues together. 

This means that failure is an option. And that events can take their course in the fiction to keep a particular case open (the thief strikes again and steals something even stranger/more valuable). This isn’t a novel solution - for example almost 5 years ago to the day, Sean McCoy proposed it (along with an interesting idea of structuring deduction for the players).

But we also need something that encourages players to consider ending their time at the crime scene early - something that makes we’ve got enough to work with” the cue for the next scene more than we have wrung every possible piece of information from this place and its inhabitants”.

And as a bonus, ending scenes earlier saves time at the table (always at a premium).

A Mechanical Proposal

The Insight Pool

The players have a shared pool of insight, represented by tokens. When the players take on a case add insight to the pool (1 insight per player). 

Players add insight when they deliberately make their investigation more obvious, personal or otherwise complicated. Examples:

  • You ransack the room as you search it, even though this will make it obvious that you’ve been here. 

  • You know someone with specialist knowledge - but they are an academic rival who despises you. 

  • You realise the victim pulled you out of a bar fight years ago, time to repay an old debt.

1 Insight can be spent to ask the GM is there information we missed that would be helpful here?” If the GM cannot offer anything useful, your Insight is not spent and is instead returned to the pool.

(Note: I suspect Insight can be used to boost skill rolls or equivalent as well, representing the additional motivation of the complications pushing the players to dramatic success. Plus it prevents a pool of tokens hanging around uselessly when you already know whodunnit but you need to act on the information and bring them to justice or the nearest equivalent). 

The Pressure Pool

The referee adds to the pressure pool when the players exhaust a line of inquiry or otherwise fail to learn new information - be that from skill rolls or simply from interacting with the fictional space. 

(Note: Failures from non-investigative skill rolls do not add to the pool - they have their own consequences.)

The GM can spend:

2 pressure: remove 1 insight or amplify an obstacle (see examples below)

  • The Chief is on your back about questioning the Mayor’s Son - leave the kid alone or your ass is on the line

  • Even though you know he didn’t do it, the person arrested for the crime starts bragging for the notoriety - and the citizens want a swift hanging

  • Venris the Bloody is tired of your words and turning over of stones. A trial by ordeal shall settle this matter in front of the Gods.

Two metacurrencies!? In this economy!? My original thinking was to do Pressure with a Blades in the Dark style clock (or the Brindlewood Keeper moves mentioned earlier), but I think tokens give the referee more flexibility to choose when they deploy them, whilst the 2:1 exchange means players can’t ever be sure they’ll have all their Insight to spend (and encourages them to keep the pool low).

The intention is to make players hold off on scrutinising every detail and generate those information flashbacks” that are so common in the third act of crime dramas. Note that it still has to be information that the players could have encountered - we assume a failed roll in the past means they glossed over a detail that now becomes relevant. And it’s a shared pool since it should be a group decision to ask for a hint.

The amplify an obstacle” phrasing also ties into the Blorb principle. Rather than introduce a new twist/plot element” we build on the established setting - it could even be specifically detailed in advance as part of the Referee’s prep. The additional entanglements and complications are then shifted more onto the players - either to gain insight or as specific consequences for non-investigation rolls.

So there you have it - in the New Year I’ll be attaching this to a basic skill engine (perhaps 24XX) and sending players on some low fantasy mysteries. I’m thinking Inverted Lies of Locke Lamora” - a group of truth seekers and vigilantes working in a loose hierarchy to determine what justice looks like for them and the people the so-called law” of the city doesn’t care about.

December 7, 2023