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I'm a fairly experienced GM creating and running a series of Delta Green games (a modern supplement for Call of Cthulhu). While my players and I enjoy the game, there are parts that bog down and get us stuck. Specifically, the beginning of most scenarios are set up in such a fashion that the players fumble around in a blind investigation looking for what they term a "live wire" to begin exploring.

While I realize that part of my role as the Keeper here is to provide them with breadcrumbs to come to the pertinent information, often I can't help but feel that I'm simply railroading them, or worse, punishing them unfairly for not making the same leaps of logic I made when crafting the mystery in the first place. I try to create many avenues for the players to come to the conclusions that need to be reached, but I often feel as though these methods fall short.

Do any GM's have advice based on in-play experience with how to craft an investigatory scenario or campaign that doesn't feel like railroading your players through a set plot?

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You have stumbled on the issue (or a primary issue) that prompted the development of the system. GUMSHOE is used for a number of games with investigative elements, including Trail of Cthulhu, a GUMSHOE implementation of CoC and Night's Black Agents, a spies-vs-vampires setting with a more militaristic bent. By extension, the solution adopted may work for you, regardless of the system. In a nutshell:

Never make the progress of the game wait for a successful roll

The GUMSHOE answer to this is exactly what's above. Let's get some details on it.

Since it's an investigative issue, it's important that a clue is well defined: A piece of information necessary for players to get to the next scene. That's the GUMSHOE definition and we'll stick with it.

In GUMSHOE, a character with an appropriate skill, in the presence of a clue, who takes an appropriate action gets the clue. There is no roll.

You have a player with a high skill regarding guns (I don't know Delta Green - is it "shooting"? "ballistics"? "slugthrowers"?). The clue is that the bullet holes in the aftermath of the battle are wrong - if they were enemy forces they should be a different calibre - the ambush was by friendly forces! So when your gun-knowing PC says, "I take a look at the bodies to see if anyone is still alive" or, "I try to figure out where the ambushers were located by checking out the trajectories in the rubble" or whatever, you give her the clue.

That's it. Now, there might be more information, juicy details like the fact that the rounds are teflon-coated, a sure sign of Major Tambert's involvement, or whatever. Go ahead and let extra goodies like that be rolled for. They give the players rewards for being good at what they do.

But never stop the game from moving forward for lack of a successful roll. You're just frustrating everyone while they wait for that "live wire".

This isn't about just giving the clue away. There are two conditions that must be satisfied before the clue is given:

  • A competent skill-user must be in the scene with the clue
  • They must take an appropriate action in the fiction that would reasonably reveal the clue

This provides some measure of flexibility. As GM, you know the nature of the information and therefore what actions would reveal it. You don't just give away the clue for walking into the space. You wait until something has happened that would reveal the clue.

The point is that finding the clue is boring. It's what they do once they know that's exciting. A clue can still be hidden. Papers could be locked in a safe, that safe could require safecracking or demolition to get inside. But if the forensic accountant gets her hands on the papers, and says, "I look for unusual activity in these accounts!" give her the clue - do not roll to see if the forensic accountant succeeds at this time.

BTW - In the above example, if a failed demolition roll destroys the papers, there had better be another way to get the information (or some information that leads to another scene) or you're just as stuck as if you hadn't provided a clue in the first place. A better result for a failed demolition roll has some other negative impact - it takes all of their detcord, for example, but still gets the clue free.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ It's probably also mentioning the idea of 'floating clues' - i.e. information you want the PCs to get but where you have left flexibility in how they get it \$\endgroup\$ – Wibbs Mar 11 '15 at 14:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ Great tip on using skills that may not classically be considered "investigative" to give players info. Follow up: in giving players clues, do you only allow them to get the information if they look in a pre-set location or way? I.e. "The only 3 ways the players will learn of Major Talbot's involvement are A,B and C" or do you react to player investigation and then give them the clue when it seems appropriate. The former stalls play, while the latter just feels so much like railroading (no matter what you choose, the outcome is you get this clue.) Thanks! \$\endgroup\$ – sillyputty Mar 11 '15 at 14:41
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Call of Cthulu, and by extension Delta Green, are horror games. They're not about strong heroes overcoming evil, it's about getting by with your wits, luck, and the skin of your teeth (or not). Call of Cthulu is as much about failure as it is about success, and as the DM it should be your duty to simply resolve the player's actions, not send them down the path to a happy ending.

Investigations are conflict. There's multiple outcomes to them, and more often than not, you won't get it right the first time. Whether the players find a red herring or can't make progress and have to seek out new leads, failing to find the "live wire" creates tension and builds action. When the players "fail" an investigation, some consequence should occur, but that consequence also acts as a second, third, etc. chance. The killer is still on the loose, so another crime scene is inevitable. The cult's plans advance forward, meaning more strange occurrences to observe. Over time the players piece together a web of clues from multiple investigations.

Not to mention, when the real possibility of never finding the culprit is there, players get more excited when they do find that one lead. It feels like the players did something themselves, rather than being part of someone else's story. If the players get the live wire on the first try, that's a fine result too. But the players never know if their conclusions will lead them closer to the truth or if they're actually dooming themselves. In Call of Cthulu, everyone should be expecting the worst, and it's up to you as the GM to give it to them when they deserve it.

If the players never find a lead or keep pursuing the first thing they find without thinking it through, then you should start giving them small hints. Serial killers can leave taunting notes or cryptic puzzles. Victims of eldritch monsters might have left notes about the horrors coming for them. These are timeless tropes that you can use to give the players a slight push when you need it, and if done right, it feels more like the world is leading the players than the GM.

Remember that the characters have tools to deal with these situations. A lot of the time, these tools aren't limited. Players can investigate every nook and cranny of a room if they so choose. Give back as much information as the players give you. For example, if a player searches the north end of a room, only give them general information. If the same player searches the drawers of a desk in the noth end of a room, give them more details.

To summarize,

  • Don't push the players down the right path. Failure builds tension and tension makes finding that big break so much more rewarding.
  • Do give the players chances to reexamine the clues. Build a web of clues between investigations that the players can use to make better guesses.
  • If necessary, provide small clues that can push the story forward, but try to phrase them within the world itself. Don't directly point the characters towards what they're looking for (cryptic notes rather than spotting the glint of a weapon hidden behind a bookcase).
  • Let the players use the tools they're given, and make their outcomes more detailed and revealing when the players put more effort behind them.
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I am an advocate of the Three Clue Rule. If you want the players to learn a piece of information, always place at least three clues that allow them to get that information. Let's say the player characters should check out an old magic tome: One clue could be an open book on a desk that has the name of the Tome underlined with a note at the margin "Ask if library has a copy"; another one could be a receip from the library for a request to get the tome retrieved from the archive; and a third on two photocopied pages from the tome which fell to the floor when the rest of the copied pages had been stolen. All three hints tell the players we should go to the library and take a look at that tome.

To make the adventure less railroady, also allow the players to visit different locations in any order they want to. Don't force them to go to the library first, but also allow them to investigate other possible leads. Instead of the library, the scene they investigate may also have clues that lead the players to the daughter of the missing scientist and to investigate a freight container in the harbor. Again, place at least three clues that lead to the daughter and at least three that lead to the container.

To make things even more interesting, don't put all nine clues from this example at the initial investigation scene. Put some of the clues at the daughters home and inside the cargo container. For example, when looking at the tome at the library, the scientist may have used a slip of paper with the ID-number of the container as a bookmark and forgot to take it out when he returned the book. And perhaps the scientist forgot his jacket when he last visited the daughter and the reciep from the library is still in the pocket.

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