I'm about to start a campaign that takes place on a pirate ship. Low magic fantasy setting, loosely based on the Caribbean in the 1600s. Much of the action is going to be centered around various elements of the pirate's code. As such, I'd really like to include a scenario in which the party has to identify the crew member who's been stealing and hoarding loot (or a government agent who has snuck on board. Not sure which yet). Once they catch the culprit, they'll have to decide whether to deal with him themselves or turn him over to the Captain's ... draconian policies.

I can think of a number of challenges that might be appropriate - talking to various crew members, setting up watches, searching bunks while suspects are elsewhere, but I'm worried that I won't be able to pull the scenario off while keeping all party members involved.

In the past, when I've tried to run investigation or diplomacy based scenarios, I find that the party-face character tends to dominate the action, leaving the less thinky characters to twiddle their thumbs. Conversation, unlike combat, isn't turn-based, so it's hard to make sure everyone gets a chance to be in the spotlight. Plus, investigation often necessitates splitting up, which is a pain in the butt to run while keeping everyone interested.

So basically, my question is twofold:

  1. How can I design investigative challenges that use a wide variety of abilities and reward teamwork?

  2. Is there a good way to handle parties splitting up to gather info without bogging down the game?

I'm using Fate Core, but would prefer system-agnostic answers.

  • \$\begingroup\$ What characters are your players going to play? I don't mean "party functions", I mean jobs, titles, social standing, etc. :) \$\endgroup\$
    – OpaCitiZen
    Jul 15, 2014 at 7:16
  • 4
    \$\begingroup\$ Spent half an hour reading the pirate's code. Didn't finish reading the question... \$\endgroup\$
    – m-smith
    Jul 15, 2014 at 11:23

5 Answers 5


To answer your two questions in backwards order, but easier context:

Scene Framing

Splitting the party is easy and fun when you don't let scenes drag. Just as much as movies and TV cuts to relevant points, you should aim to start scenes as close to the important action as possible. Don't spend long on the set up, get to the interesting point of the scene ASAP. Throw clues in their faces. Put hard choices there too. And, cut away quickly too. Scenes should be 5-10 minutes at most. Since we're not talking high crunchy combat scenes, cutting away is very easy to to do here.

Known, Sought, Given Information

So, you're doing an investigation adventure, right? Go watch some investigation shows, read a few books. What happens in these stories? There is NO WAY for the protagonist to NEVER get the clues, it's really only a question of how they get the clues, how beat up they get along the way, and whether the clues come in time to do something about it or not. (Usual Suspects is a great movie example of getting all the clues too late.)

Information comes in 3 ways:


Known information deals with things the characters ALREADY know. This can be inferred from their skills, their classes, backgrounds, history, etc. "You were a galley slave before being a pirate, you recognize the scars on the ankles from chains anywhere..."

Use this give each character plenty of context, plenty of "read" on characters or objects. ("He walks with a swagger, not the kind that comes with hardship, the kind that comes with having lived one's entire life at the top. You can see the difference anywhere. He's not one of you.")

Known information should often include lots of free clues or reads on things, because it gives players a feeling of expertise and competency for the characters. You can have dice rolls or whatever about specific questions or further clues, but start with the info their character can JUST SEE from the start.


Sought information has to be... sought out. This means it's not immediately obvious and either has to be collected ("pickpocket the letter tube from his bag"), or "processed" in some manner ("Scraping the iron shows it to be a softer type than normal. This was a cheap replacement, not the original.").

This is where character skills and player choices can be made, but since few players think of their characters as investigative types, you will want to provide some suggestions along the way. ("You've traveled far from home, but you're the best one on the ship when it comes to recognizing foreign plants. Maybe if you got a look into the doctor's herb bag you'd know what's in there...")

Also recognize that while a social character can con, trick, pressure characters into revealing information, the quiet high-perception character can often read other things about someone without directly interacting with them. Consider that a potential parallel method as well.

My suggestion is that if you have any kind of sought information available, make it something the players acquire/understand with just one skill check/dice roll/etc. Failure shouldn't mean "you don't learn anything" but it might mean "You get caught trying to get this", "The evidence gets destroyed/lost", "You only figure out what it means too late" etc.


Here's a thing few rpgs get from investigative stories - a lot of clues just FALL into the protagonists' laps. People spill the beans, come forward, tell the dirt on someone else to get them in trouble, the heroes just happen to luckily be at the right place to overhear some incriminating statements, they stumble upon a crucial clue left forgotten at a crime scene... this stuff happens a lot. The only reason other media gets away with it is that the heroes often suffer so much it's like "well, sometimes you gotta get lucky, right?".

One of the better rpgs to deal with investigation is Dogs in the Vineyard, which has a pretty simple bit of advice - have several characters try to GIVE the information straight to the PCs... lying or omitting just enough to cover their own asses or their friends. The other bit of advice is that straight out lying should have the GM say to the players, "You can tell they're lying, you're just not sure what the real truth is."

AS long as everyone is at least looking for information, one of these three types should be available to give clues or at least ideas on how the characters treat/feel about each other.

  • \$\begingroup\$ You can add that all 3 types of info can and should be distributed between the characters - maybe the "strong & silent guy" is taken to row the captain's boat and witness something, or the "clumsy oaf" drops/breaks something that reveals a clue, or some people on the ship talk a language only "the forigner" PC speaks - turn every PC to an info source to keep them involved. \$\endgroup\$
    – G0BLiN
    Jul 15, 2014 at 13:24
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yeah, sorry! That's part of why I listed them - these three types by trope, are useful because they can go to characters in a group to meet their different abilities even if it seems like they have little skill for it. Classic detective fiction w/one character is a pretty great example of using these to shore up what they're not good at. \$\endgroup\$
    – user9935
    Jul 15, 2014 at 14:48

Decide what constitutes an investigation.

If you design an investigation to be purely socially interactive, you're going to be left with the party face on a solo mission.


The standard Q&A of investigations. You ask questions, you get answers. Either they tell you or they don't, either you believe them or you don't. This is The Face's job.


The not-so standard Q&A. This was only possible because your Sneaky Sam caught the target off-guard or your Bruiser Bill is politely suggesting they not leave without answering some questions.


Hide things in not-so plain sight. Make your players look for the murder weapon, the confidential files, the signs of struggle. You're going to need your Perceptive Pete on this one.


Sometimes searching isn't "legal" and you need your Sneaky Sam to let everyone in the backdoor.


Something The Face doesn't always have: Connections. Keep an idea of who knows who in the world. The Face can make friends, but if Basic Bob knows the Vice President of a relevant corporation, let him take the reigns from The Face.


How can I design investigative challenges that use a wide variety of abilities and reward teamwork?

Do not even bother. Even if you come up with twelve really smart things(TM) the players can do, they'll got with option thirteen! This is the no plan survives contact with the enemy.

Instead, I would focus on what has happened: How did the traitor do his deeds? What plausible evidence did they leave? What are the traitor's motivations and skills? So, you have a background, an actor, and now you let the players interact with it. Let the players (or rather their character) come up with ways to investigate things. Based on what you know of what happened before, you can let the character use whatever skills they choose. Now, what does the traitor do? they are going to react to whatever the player characters have done. How? How does that advance the plot?

TL;DR Let the players come with their own solutions to problems you put in front of them.

Is there a good way to handle parties splitting up to gather info without bogging down the game?

Out of the room can leave the rest of the players feeling a little bored. Sure, they could watch Black Sails but that's not the point of role playing. Unless the PCs interactions are Byzantine, then you might as well assume that all knowledge will be passed. I would ask the players if they are happy with this -- see the whole social contract. So, the rest of the players can offer constructive suggestions.

But why stop there? Let the rest of the players play NPCs in that scene. It can be a little tricky to do and will make things last longer but it does work. You, of course, need to prep this by having some background on those characters.

However, the most important thing is that all the players get interesting screen time.

Finally, I would be wary of having a CSI-style investigation. This was not how things were done in those days!


Are you worried that some players will be twiddling their thumbs?

Keep their hands busy!

Your plot seems to me perfect to make it simultaneous with another plot. So, if you have another in mind, start it and that way there will be work for anybody.

Speaking of job, there's plenty to do in a pirate ship. If you don't have another plot to keep the characters busy, use their obligations to make sure not everyone is available for everything. Anyway it's strange the captain would allow so many men to be only doing investigation, skipping the hard work. And for the traitor it would be suspicious to see, let's say, 4 crewman going from one place to another, talking to people, without doing any job.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Even more: lot of bussiness is the best way to make social characters not reign - they might get overwhelmed by other job. Also, place clues to areas where other PCs are "at home", while those "physical" find clues where they are "at home". An example from my game: a fighter PC went to wrestling arena and earned respect of an important witness, who told him "some interresting news" after the match. The witness would never trust party talkers to tell them (at least not without a lot of very hard die rolls). \$\endgroup\$
    – Pavel
    Jul 16, 2014 at 10:39

You mentioned Fate Core and I'm not going to ignore that, because Fate has the right tooling to make your job easier.

Most classical RPG's are segregated into two main aspects of play: "Combat" and "Other stuff". This (unfortunately) puts combat front and center, as it is the only part that matters for big-stakes scenes. Combat rules are elaborately detailed, while most other stuff gets glossed over as filler for the scenes between combat. (You need ~3 rolls to scratch a kobold but just one to invent a new rocket engine. I'm exaggerating to highlight the problem ;))

Although it may not be obvious at first glance, Fate blurs the line between those aspects of play. It reframes them as "Conflicts" and "Challenges", implicitly removing the default assumptions of "Elaborate combat" and "Quick other stuff". Depending on what's critical for your story, you can play anything elaborately as a conflict, or be done with anything quickly with a simple challenge.

So if you want to put investigation front and center, model that as an elaborate conflict. You can use the Fate fractal to inject things like mysteries to be solved, questions to be answered and lies to be exposed into the game mechanics. Taking one of them out may result in solid evidence towards the case, or being taken out may mean that an investigator is discredited enough to make continuing the investigation futile, or maybe that they "received an offer they can't refuse" in the process, making them unable to actually contribute.

Fate Core mechanics aside, there is another problem with all sorts of investigation games. That great big mystery is going to be solved. There's no way around that because "ok, you couldn't solve the mystery, game over" is a very boring game.

In about 25 years of playing and running games, I happened upon two viable approaches to that problem:

  1. Don't prepare a mystery. Don't have preplanned scenes, don't decide on what happened. Keep the actual mystery as much a mystery for yourself as for the players. Play to find out what happened. Let the players declare what they found, and let them act on that. Don't roll anything yet. Wait until the moment that they have to face the truth no matter what, and only let the dice fall then. See if they were right or wrong in the first place, and keep building on that.

  2. Let the players know everything. No mysteries. This does not mean that the characters know. They have to work hard to get all the right information and collect evidence. Every step they take for that puts something valuable at risk. This game isn't about what the mystery is. It is about what the characters are willing to sacrifice to solve it. (I have used this approach in a Fate game)


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