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Well guys, following previous recommendations here I was able to build a Horror Themed Savage Worlds campaign that has made my players excited. However they're still getting used to the style, as well as I am. In order for them to hurt the major evils of the adventures they have to find their Form (physical appearance, name), Truth (How the creature came to be) and Reason (What the creature wants to), so they have to do research, kill lesser creatures, and run away from the big baddie of the adventure as they seek what it is.

Well, this is my problem:

How can I make them use skills significantly?

I'm used to railroading my players, even with mysteries, and I don't know how to put their skills for significant use. An example is, they usually require Streetwise or Investigation to gather clues and such, however, I wonder what to do if they fail the roll... If they fail they're not supposed to find anything, so chances they never finish the adventure are well, high, that and I have no idea how to give them additional, interesting ways for them to find the truth. So do I give it no matter what they rolled? How do I make use of their skills important and not just busy-work without having a failure on a roll completely stop their progress in the investigation?

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7 Answers 7

up vote 14 down vote accepted

If there is key information the PCs simply must find in order to advance the story, then you have to ensure that they find it one way or another. Following on from this idea, a fail on a skill roll doesn't necessarily have to indicate that you do not find anything. Instead it could mean a complication such as:

  • It takes longer than you thought it would
  • You are clumsy in your attempt and someone who you'd rather not know finds out about what you're doing. If what you were doing is illegal, then maybe the police are on your tail etc.
  • The information is incomplete
  • The information is partially incorrect
  • You get roughed up a bit
  • It costs more money in bribes
  • etc, etc

The key principle here is that you only make them roll when failure is interesting, and the above list gives a few ideas as to what 'interesting' might mean. If failure is not interesting then you should not make them roll at all.

On a side note, Deadlands Noir introduces some interesting mechanics for investigation focused stories, including tailing, patter, interrogation, beating the streets and hitting the books. The cost of failure is built into the mechanic for each of these, and they all tie into existing Savage Worlds skills.

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+1 for "a fail on a skill roll doesn't necessarily have to indicate that you do not find anything." I like the idea that failing the dice rolls leads to complications and more time, not outright failure. –  Greenstone Walker Jul 15 '13 at 21:38

Failing a skill roll shouldn't always mean that they totally and completely fail at whatever they're attempting. Skills in most RPGs are rarely Binary systems, and they work best if you have a sliding scale of potential success options. Think about a few real-world examples such as Driving (If you fail, it's not that you can't drive at all, just that you can't take the corners quite as fast as you want, or you bounce off of parked cars and guard-rails) or Investigate (If you fail, you might still have learned some amount of relevant information, but what you do know doesn't tie together right, or doesn't include a critical fact, or worse, includes critical facts that are wrong).

Sliding scales usually work best when you can offer success, but either at a cost or in an incomplete way. Their Streetwise failure might still get them the information they need, but the situation just got more complicated because the baddie they're asking about has now heard that they're looking for him and will be ready for them at the next encounter. Or perhaps the Intimidation check they just failed might still result in the target backing down, but now he's got a grudge against them and will probably show up in a later scene to make their life harder.

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they usually require Streetwise or Investigation to gather clues and such, however, I wonder what to do if they fail the roll... If they fail they're not supposed to find anything, so chances they never finish the adventure are well, high [..]

Failure doesn't have to mean they don't find anything. No adventure should hinge on a single roll to determine success/failure. Instead, successful rolls should provide bonuses or some other advantage, with failures leading to resolution in the worst way possible for the PCs.

With streetwise, the idea is you're walking around, talking with people (maybe bribing them) to get information. Let's say the PCs are looking for a guy that's been selling weapons illegally for the purpose of shutting him down. So some possible outcomes of the streetwise role:

  • With 2+ raises, the PCs setup a meeting via a trusted confidant. The contact is willing to vouch for the PCs, giving them an easy in.
  • With a single raise, the PCs have a time/place to meet the arms dealer directly.
  • With a success, they learn about an underling who can make the deal for them.
  • With a failure, the arms dealer learns the PCs are sniffing around and arranges to have them killed at their meeting.

Each of these outcomes leads to an inevitable confrontation with the arms dealer, but not all of them get there the way the PCs would want to.

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+1 for "No adventure should hinge on a single roll to determine success/failure." That's a big point that goes beyond just investigative/mystery scenarios. –  Dave Sherohman Jul 17 '13 at 10:30

This has been a problem since time immemorial - avoiding railroading and making skills useful while not letting investigative scenarios go off the rails. Robin Laws designed the GUMSHOE system specifically to empower investigation-based games - you get clues you must have to progress in the investigation automatically, but using skills gives you additional or enhanced information that can get you closer to the truth or convey other advantages. Its blurb:

In many investigative games, important clues are missed because of failed dice-rolls, resulting in play grinding to a halt. Using a “point spend” system, the GUMSHOE rules revolutionize investigative scenarios, by ensuring that players are never deprived of the clues they need to move the story forward.

The GUMSHOE System is player-facing, putting die rolling in the hands of the players whenever possible. It also contains full guidance on designing your own investigations.

I know you're not playing GUMSHOE, but the concepts are easily portable - they even already put out Lorefinder, a port of the GUMSHOE concepts to Pathfinder. I playtested it and it fits in easily enough.

As an example - the core clues will get you to "the killer is hiding in that warehouse." That's all you absolutely need to finish the adventure. However, "the killer is really a ghoul" and "ghouls are vulnerable to silver" are two bits of additional information that you really, really want to know :-).

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I actually did a quick port of Lorefinder to Savage World, and it worked quite well. –  Extrakun Jul 18 '13 at 9:02

While the question is about investigation at large, I think this issue comes up under a few very specific situations. A failure to account for the PC's failing investigations is present in campaigns that focus on solving a mystery. Indeed, even a single investigation-solved event is a tiny mystery. People get into the whole sleuthing, cop-show, Sherlock Holmes mode of story construction when they think about investigation in RPGs and I'm going to address this larger issue to address the issue of investigation in RPGs in general, because they are all part of the same underlying issue.

The seeming problem

Lately I've been thinking a lot about how to make satisfying investigation scenarios in RPGs. The typical advice is that the GM should construct their mystery with a set of clues that lead the PCs towards the final conclusion and provide a reasonable number of avenues for them to find the clue.

The problem with this is that even when a 'clue' is assumed to be a piece of information that could be gathered and the format of the 'clue' is assumed to be variable - The killer used a baseball bat, Old Tom likes baseball, and the PCs can discover this by finding his memorabilia in his room, or asking his wife, so on - you are left in a situation where a PC has a skill, and that skill is used to decide success or failure of uncovering the clue. Yes, they have more chances to uncover the clue, but that doesn't ensure success and - as you noticed - investigatory campaigns tend to treat success at finding clues as a prerequisite for advancing the plot.

I've also seen solutions to this problem in the form of simply giving the players the clues and not consulting their skills. This is probably a good solution if your game of choice doesn't model investigation, but a players that invests in investigation skills will feel cheated if those skill are never used. And while you can probably fake through a lot of investigation by letting them roll, fudging numbers and letting the bad guys make mistakes to help them along, these are all dodges to the underlying problem with investigation as modeled by those games.

I've also seen a lot of metarules that, rather than letting these skills control success or failure itself, these rolls/skills determine how much the GM explains about a given situation. So if they PCs all suck at investigation, they might get this text "The room is seemingly empty" and if they are good they might get "The room appears empty at first, but as you walk into it the floor squeaks" and if they are awesome at it they might get "The room is intended to appear empty, but a squeaky hidden trap door's outline is visible to you on the floor."

While the above certainly works to better model the ability of the PC's character by giving the player only the information the PC would notice, it doesn't take into account that players themselves have various ability levels. It also requires a lot from the GM. And aside from all that it still doesn't address the issue of what in the world happens when a PC fails!

The real problem

After a lot of thinking and research I've come to see this problem from a different angle. What exactly is the difference between an investigation and your typical RPG quest? From a world-building perspective there really isn't a difference. To see this it really helps to build your campaigns from the perspective of what will happen if the PCs aren't there. Take this example:

Evil McEvilson wants the gold in a secret room behind the throne. The King, Doofy Doofer, doesn't know this room exists but doesn't like letting Evil into his castle because Evil once told him he's ugly. So Evil disguises himself as Joe Everyperson and pretends to be a visiting dignitary. If no one stops him, he'll slip poison into the night guard's food, wait for night, and sneak off with the gold in the morning.

In this situation, the PCs have a variety of ways to blunder into stopping Evil. They might succeed on detecting his evil from the start, they might be in the room trying to steal things themselves, they might stumble on the guard, they might do any number of things that Evil will not like and that will win them favor with Doofy in the morning. But they also might do none of these things and be asked by the King the next day to investigate the strange room they found behind the throne.

This scenario could be presented either as an open-ended situation that just is happening in the world the PCs are in. Or it could be laden with clues and people of interest that know this or that and so on. Do you see what's happened here? Investigation stories are railroading!

What is railroading? Railroading is when the GM has a specific thing he needs the PCs to do to progress his own agenda for the story. They need to find X because finding X makes them want to do Y and Y leads them to Z which involves this other cool thing about blah blah. Railroading is when the GM's idea of what the PCs should do conflicts with what the PCs are inclined to do and so he has to encourage them to stay on the rails. Sometimes that's gentle encouragement in the form of an NPC insisting on something. Sometimes it can be as bad as the GM stating flatly they he didn't prepare anything down the left path (since it is covered in flaming blood) but there is so much fun adventure down the right path that is bathed in golden light!

Railroading is generally a bad thing. It isn't always, sometimes a campaign goes so far off the deep end that a little encouragement to get back into something more fun for everyone is in order. A good use of railroading is when the GM is just getting the players out of something boring (like if they decided to setup a store and now are dealing with endless waves of customers) and into something fun. But often railroading is simply how a GM avoids work or pushes the PCs into some adventure they have planned that they think is cool but there isn't sufficient motivation for that PC to really be interested in on its own.

A mystery is generally a very specific situation that happened in the past and that needs to be unraveled in the present in a certain way to keep it suspenseful. This means that if the PCs just knock down the wrong door, they will stumble on the captured maiden and ruin all the fun the GM had planned for them.

The reason it is so hard to create suspenseful mysteries in RPGs is that their construction is at odds with what being a fun campaign is all about! Injecting them into a game that wasn't specifically designed for running mystery games, is antithetical to the player-driven storylines of most other game systems. They overemphasis the role of the GM and diminish the choices of the PCs down to even the choice or possibility to fail.

Ok, So what can be done.

GMs are served well by designing their sessions around a potential future that comes from an already established past. So-in-so did this, and plans to do that, unless someone stops them. The great flood is coming, and it will kill everyone unless someone does something about it. If the GM is answering the underlying question for the PCs, then he is doing it wrong. It is fine for him to decide ahead of time what will happen if they do X. But they have crossed the line once they decide to artificially convince the PCs to do X.

This isn't to say that a little railroading is always a terrible thing, but that there is a difference between placing a coil of rope at the edge of a cliff and getting the PCs into a boxed canyon that leads to a rope already hanging down the cliff where there are birds that will come to peck at them and when they get to the bottom there is a river and a raft they need to take to... You get the idea.

A good GM will get to know their PCs over time and will be able to predict what they are likely to do so they can plan for those things more than the things they aren't likely to do. Given this, it is possible to construct a mystery that the PCs are likely to be able to solve. But as soon as you assume they will solve it, you've made a big mistake.

Consider this situation:

The PC's stumble on Evil McEvilson sneaking out of the throne room with the loot. Up until this point, they missed every clue that he was going to do this. They talk to him and he lies saying he just got turned around and was heading to his own room after getting a snack. The PC's buy it and go to bed. In the morning, Evil is gone! The King asks them about it, thinks they are idiots and demands that the PCs hunt down Evil to the ends of the Earth!

This is a total failure on the part of the PCs. They have not found any of the clues, they have not succeeded with any investigation skills, but the world went on without their success and now they are charged with redeeming themselves. This is still good story. It was a failure for them, but it wasn't a failure of the story.

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Players forgetting to use their skills

As I see it, there are a handful of ways to solve the problem you have here. The first one is to just talk with them. It might seem strange, but many a time pointing the problem to them, so they'll see it too, can solve it in and all by itself. "Oh, the GM said s/he has a problem with us forgetting our skills. Let's keep a mental note to remember it next time." If done right, you'll be able to continue the same way you used to before the conversation, but with them now using their skills.

Another way to solve it might be to give it to them without rolling, as you've suggested yourself. The trick with this technique is that you still ask them to search and investigate and all, but if they look for the clue in the right place, and they have the right skill, they've nailed it. A great place to see this in action is in the rule-system GUMSHOE which holds this idea as its premise. The skills are mostly there for extra clues, for extra information. After all, understanding what picture the clues create is much more difficult than finding them.

Another technique is to suggest to them uses for their skills. If they arrive at the scene of crime, suggest Interrogation for the witnesses and suspects; Investigation for the blood marks and so on. After some time with your help and suggestions, they'll probably learn what is expected from them, and as such will look for the info more closely to the way they should look for it. After all, mystery/investigation games are not a thing that we're all used to.

How to handle bottlenecks

After reading the comments to your question, I understood that another part is necessary for the answer to be complete. As I see it, there are three ways to handle bottlenecks: 1) Eliminate bottlenecks from the mystery (which means that no clue is mandatory). 2) Give the info from the bottleneck without rolling, so the info will get to them no matter what. 3) Create other ways to get this info.

Eliminating bottlenecks from the mystery means that no clue is mandatory. It means that you create mysteries that don't need the use of all the clues in order to be solved. If, for example, you create a collection of clues in which every two clues create together a third clue the third clue can be missed by the players without you worrying. While it means that a third of the clues you've created don't amount for much, if they'll get all of them the players won't probably feel it, and if they miss some clues you'll thank the extra work.

Giving the mandatory info without rolling is a thing that is quite similar to what I've covered in the first section of my answer. It follows the same rules as there. If they look for the clue in the right place and have the right "tools", they get the info. Again, the greatest challenge is to combine the clues, so we don't normally have to make the players' lives even harder than they truly are.

The last one is my favorite. Create other ways to get the clue. While it does sound quite similar to the first way, it is different in that all the clues are still mandatory, but there are more ways to get them. If one can get the info in three, four or even five ways, one doesn't have to worry too much about missing a clue in one scene and rolling low in another.

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The Investigation Hurdle

Investigations are pretty hard to do well in RPGs. If you look at other media, like books, movies, TV, etc. which use investigations, you'll notice there's a lot of contrived ways the protagonists get information:

  • They just happen to accidentally knock something over/stumble upon a clue
  • They randomly run into, or overhear something of interest
  • A friend says something unrelated, that reminds them of an important fact to put together a lead
  • A person comes forward to tell them something when they get stuck
  • The protagonist remembers a fact on their own

...and so on. This usually is something you don't notice because of good pacing, action, and characterization, which is very tightly edited and put together. (Notice, RPGs are all improv, and not tightly edited...).

Assumed competence, partial information

So the thing to do is look at how you can mirror the idea of information being thrown at the players at all times.

Dogs in the Vineyard has a pretty good rule, which is nearly every NPC wants to tell you something about the situation, though they usually only want to bias it to protect their goals, their friends and family and themselves - but if nothing else, you're always getting some truth. If they out and out lie? The GM is obligated to say, "They're lying. You can tell they're lying..."

What this does is assume the player characters are competent and getting SOME information anytime they encounter something. Where the investigation and choices come up, is when the players want to get MORE information.

You'll also notice that this is about their choices as investigators, not their skills on their sheets... just yet.

"The victim had a bunch of fakey New Age Magick books, the kinds that folks who don't know real supernatural stuff tend to pick up. This looks like new acquisitions, so maybe he encountered something real and was trying to get info? Or maybe he was being suckered by something... some good possibilities would be to start asking his acquaintances if he got new friends or to start asking around the occult bookshops, see if anyone has any leads, heck, checking out his browser history might give you something too..."

And if the players suggest something? Go with it, unless it's really weird or far off (then it's just "After an hour, you realize this isn't a good lead. This guy just wasn't into sports..."). Try to make ANY research or investigation produce SOMETHING.

Now we roll the dice

After getting some basic, but useful info, the dice rolling happens when there is something at stake.

You never want the thing at stake to be "does this line of investigation close up?" because that creates dead ends and bottlenecks.

What you want to be the thing at stake are things like:

  • Do you leave yourself exhausted from staying up all night looking for a clue? (penalties)
  • Do you leave clues that you're sniffing around, so the perpetrators/monsters know you're looking?
  • Do you burn a bridge or piss off a friend, family or contact member in the process of getting favors/dropping responsibilities in your quest?
  • Do you lose/use up some equipment or gear in the process?
  • Do you only put together some relevant clues at the very moment you've put yourself in danger timing? ("Wait, these vampires only respect crosses of the Eastern Orthodox church! We're not safe here!!!")

What this means is that sometimes you'll hold off on rolling the dice until the moment BEFORE the actual event happens. So sure, the PCs may have spent hours researching in a library about the Monster of the Week, and you can give bonuses for this roll based on previous clues acquired and theories they may have... but when it comes to the actual fight and having to figure out if they've got the right protections/found it's weakness, make that roll just AFTER the initiative gets rolled.

Failure means... they thought wrong! But you can have a means for the correct answer nearby, it's just that it might be a pain to get to it while being chased. ("Ok, look, down the street there's a home decoration store, maybe we can get some silverware out of there?")

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