I am GMing Dresden Files.

One thing I have found myself struggling with is how to make investigation fun and engaging. Being a huge part of the DF novels, I really want the idea of trying to understand what is going on to be a big part of the game.

So if the players have fought a couple groups of undead, and now want to find out why the dead is rising all around the city, how do I make that step more interesting than a run of the mill "make a check or three to find the answer?"

Similarly, if the players have a target they want to attack but want to do some planning, the most I have ever done is to simply have each player roll a "Create Advantage" to represent their prep. It works, but it has become a pretty rote pre-combat sequence that I'd like to shake up with some more interesting on the mechanics side.

Atomic Robo RPG has a really great set of "brainstorm" mechanics, which are really great for that science-oriented setting. I could just use that, but I am looking for something that is a little less about the players inventing what is going on and a little more about discovering something more pre-planned by the GM.

I'm hoping this is a problem that has already been solved in one of the other Fate systems that I could simply just borrow! Or hell, maybe it's even in the DF books and I overlooked it ;)


3 Answers 3


The best answer is not in FATE, but in a Gumshoe game!

Gumshoe is a tabletop roleplaying game designed with the focus on investigation; finding out whodunit in a Gumshoe campaign is given more or less the same attention as how you go about stabbing goblins is given in a D&D game, and I've found it's wonderful at letting mysteries unravel. The idea I found especially useful was in a variant of Gumshoe called Night's Black Agents, and it works something like this.

Imagine you were about to prep a dungeon for your prototypical group of kick-in-the-door murderhobos in D&D. You need rooms, and you need hallways connecting those rooms to each other, and you need an entrance, and you ideally want to have things get harder as you move through the dungeon until a boss. You probably have multiple branching paths through the dungeon. Some doorways are hidden, but most are easily spotted once you have a moment to look around the room. Each room also has stuff in it; maybe traps, maybe monsters, maybe treasure, maybe a bit of all three. Go ahead, sketch a quick little dungeon on a napkin or something.

Alright, now take all those boxes you drew for rooms and make those into places that could hold pertinent information to your mystery. A grisly murder in the local diner, a sketchy corporation's main office after dark, the automotive chopshop run by lycanthropes. Not all of these places will have useful info, just like not all rooms in a dungeon contain treasure! What all of these places do have in common is that they contain clues leading to other parts of your mystery map. (Just like each room in a dungeon contains doors that lead to other rooms. On your map, mark each connecting hallway with the clue(s) that lead someone from scene to scene.)

The entrance room of your dungeon? That's the opening scene of your story. The monsters in the room? That's the mob thugs waiting to kneecap do-gooders. The treasure? That's probably still loot. (Don't mess with perfection.) The last room is, of course, the final culprit of the mystery, who will likely provide your climactic scene when you point the accusing finger at them.

The vitally important thing to remember is that most doorways in a dungeon are not hidden. Look at the clues, and hand them cheerfully to whoever has the most appropriate skill for noticing that clue. This is still FATE, so you can tell the players "The corpse has had their canines removed and that points to werewolfy things" before asking "so how do your characters notice that?" You can also hint at it and tell the first player to ask questions about something related. You do not want these clues hidden. (A dungeon crawl where we run out of doors two rooms in is lame, and so is a mystery story where the trail goes completely cold two scenes in and never picks up again. It's a good habit to keep at least one floating scene on hand for such an eventuality.)

I'm going to delve into that floating scene idea for a moment. Lets say the mystery the players are investigating was secretly a bunch of fallen angels trying to steal a macguffin. If I were running that game, I would have a bunch of thieves hired to steal the macguffin that can show up if the players lose the trail, acting suspicious and therefore giving the players a way back in. Those thieves could show up at any point in the mystery they're needed, or indeed not at all if they aren't. Still, if you planted and then revealed your clues right you shouldn't need this too often.

So yeah. Gumshoe is cool, Night's Black Agents is awesome, and while both are great extra reading for running investigation games I find the conceptual framework above improved my mystery campaigns by orders of magnitude.

  • \$\begingroup\$ This is great prep advice, but only the third-to-last paragraph seems to address the asker's question directly and I'm not really seeing how it shakes things up mechanically during play. \$\endgroup\$
    – BESW
    Apr 22, 2016 at 3:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ I read the core question as "how to make investigation fun and engaging" with the constraint of being "less about the players inventing what is going on and a little more about discovering something more pre-planned by the GM." \$\endgroup\$ Apr 22, 2016 at 4:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ Looking at it again, I'm not 100% confident that is the main thrust of the question. It seems to have multiple questions? Hrm. Thank you for pointing that out. Maybe I'm just reading it badly. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 22, 2016 at 4:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ Haha @IgneusJotunn you are right that my question as stated does seem to be a bit disjointed. I think it implies that I'm looking for ways to shake things up in these non-combat scenes but I'm not exactly sure what it is that I want. Thank you very much for this answer! I'm going to give it a good long pondering overnight :) \$\endgroup\$ Apr 22, 2016 at 5:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ @OverloadUT If you find a way to re-organise your thoughts in the question, please do so! And if you'd like some help with that, or just want to talk about Fate in a more free-form context, the RPG.SE chat room usually has several talkative Fate players in it who'd be happy to help. \$\endgroup\$
    – BESW
    Apr 22, 2016 at 6:50

Unwritten features a skill action and complementary scene mechanic which I suggest you use for scenes and montages of investigation: Discover and Investigation. Together they combine to give structure to the process of uncovering secrets the GM has created.

At its simplest, the Discover action is usable with any context-appropriate skill (often Notice or Craft or Empathy). On a success, the player gets to asks the GM one question for each shift on the roll. Obviously the nature of the questions and the scope of the answers depends on the skill being rolled and the narrative context of the roll.

The Investigation scene mechanic structures a scene or montage around the use of Discover. It starts with a -like round where the GM gives players any clues or information that they'd reasonably discover without much effort (based on aspects, high skill ranks, stunts, etc). Inspired by those clues, the rest of an Investigation scene has players alternate rounds of rolling Discover actions to learn more, then using other skills to change the narrative (ripping out a wall, travelling to a different city, bribing a witness) so a new sort of Discover roll can be made and new questions can be asked.

Until players discover the secrets you've concealed, I'd recommend using Behind the Walls's secret mechanics: The GM can use an unknown secret to give a +1 to difficulties and rolls where the secret is an obstacle or benefit as appropriate. This gives the secret mechanical weight without revealing it.


Fate is about trying to avoid complex mechanics, so I don't think you're going to find anything 'more complex' for investigations. The mechanics are there to support and focus on the story.

The idea is to make the users tell the story. They aren't just doing skill rolls -- they need to tell the group how those rolls play out, what makes them successful (or not). Don't be afraid to lean heavily on the 'not', then let events catch up with them later.

  • \$\begingroup\$ This answer would be improved by an explanation of why you're encouraging the asker to focus on increasing narrative drama instead of giving them advice about the increased mechanical complexity they're asking for. \$\endgroup\$
    – BESW
    Apr 21, 2016 at 22:14
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Well, we do this already. Our group has no issue with the narrative depth part of the game. The issue I'm having is that the mechanical depth is a bit lacking for us. Sure, we can have each person make a roll and explain a really awesome story about how they did their investigation and what they found. But at the end of the day if we do an entire session of that, the game part of the game felt a bit boring. That's why I gave the ARRPG brainstorm example: it's great at combining awesome narrative control with a cool mechanical structure to it. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 21, 2016 at 22:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ @OverloadUT in that case, I'm not sure I have anything to offer. \$\endgroup\$
    – RonLugge
    Apr 21, 2016 at 22:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ Maybe an example of how you do it within the rules would be a helpful answer. \$\endgroup\$
    – edgerunner
    Apr 24, 2016 at 10:25

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