So I'm about a year into a heavy investigation chronicle that I'm writing myself, and after two or three excellent experiences in running Investigations I thought I might pen a short column on how a GM might go about this.
Dark Heresy especially is geared towards investigation. Blindly rushing in guns blazing gets you killed quick, and even if you survive, you're left with a smoldering corpse instead of the next lead in the link of conspiracy.
However, open ended investigation adventures seem to be the most difficult to write and run for even experienced GMs. I think I've stumbled onto a good way to write and run the investigation however, and I thought I'd put it up for commentary. This is a setting-neutral column, and can work for anything from Call of Cthulhu onward.
Writing the Conspiracy
1. Start with the hook- Every conspiracy or investigation needs a beginning. Something needs to go wrong or needs to not add up. A building can explode, a ship disappears, someone is assassinated, a cult freaks out and starts taking hostages very publicly, whatever… It needs to be something that demands the player group or their organization to look into it. The bigger the hook, the more pressing and important the investigation is. In my game for example, the hook was an assassination attempt on a planetary governor that the players were pulled into to help stop. Midway through this mission the Inquisitor herself is outright killed and her protégé demands vengeance and uses the PCs as the implement of that vengeance. This sets up immediacy, pressure, and a reason to keep pushing even as the leads run thin. This hook also needs to have a starting piece of evidence that is given to the PC party and represents the goal of the first of three acts. In my game, the explosives and assassins used in the attack were traced back to a planetary system where the adventure was to take place. At all times in this first act, the players had a set goal: Follow the explosives back along the conspiracy chain and you’d find the conspirators.
2. Create the agenda- This usually happens sometime around the first point, but I like to flesh it out better after I have the hook. Should the hook have successfully been completed without interference, what would have happened afterwards? This involves creating a mastermind or minds and an agenda. I don’t flesh out the masterminds at this point. There’s a reason for this we’ll get to later. However, having a basic idea of who is doing what for why will let your players piece together clues and have their own “ah-ha!” moments. Don’t spend too much time on detailing out what would have happened had the hook not occurred, unless you have a specific idea you’re pushing towards.
3. Create the conspiracy chain one link at a time- I work backwards from the hook now that I have an agenda. Each link should be relatively straightforward depending on how professional the people involved in each link are. Using mundane civilians is great for avoiding attention to begin with and covers your tracks, preventing patterns from emerging, but these people talk, or have second thoughts, or motives of their own. Each link is essentially a scene or mini-adventure in its own right, leading further back into the conspiracy. Eventually you’ll get to the point where you link directly back to the conspirator. The conspirator(s) need to be several links away from the hook- maybe 5-7 major links will make a good investigation. Too short and the players will never feel like they’re unraveling a mystery. Too long and the inertia of the investigation stagnates and you get players who lose their focus and the game risks falling apart. Branching links are nice for this too. Every now and again create a “detour” in your chain, where you can follow sequential leads in one of two directions. Following them both takes up valuable time and we’ll discuss that later, however it may fill in gaps in the story you’re telling. By the time you’re finished, you should have a timeline that describes your conspiracy and the players, big and small, in the chain.
3a. Obvious links are obvious... And good- Each lead should be obvious once it's found. Definitely not in it's implications in the grand scheme of things, but when given a clue or a lead, the players should know exactly what they're following up on. Vague clues will sometimes fly over the players' heads, to no fault of their own. Keep the leads obvious- the evidence that they uncover can be nebulous and vague.
3b. Parallel Chains are nightmare conspiracies- Running two (or more!) chains of evidence and leaping back and forth between the two can sometimes work, but really is risking a whole metric ton of confusion. Save the fancy multiple conspiracies for a later date when you've got this under control.
4. Create a “police force” for your conspiracy- Conspirators are often risking everything on rolling the dice and trying to come out ahead. Therefore, successful conspirators will look to eliminate those chains of evidence that link them back to the hook, thus increasing their chances of success and survival. How will they do this? Through a number of means- Violence through thugs, gang members, private security, or “dark powers”, political pressure on the PCs, social pressures, etc etc… They don’t need to kill the investigators flat out: in fact this often is a delaying tactic as nothing raises a red flag like the investigators being killed. What it can do is buy hours/days/weeks while a new investigative crew gets back up to speed that the conspirator can focus on eliminating those links of evidence. However, because violence is a means to an end and not an end in itself, when the conspirators resort to violence, more clues need to be left behind for the survivors (potentially resulting in a branch in the chain of evidence).
5. Figure out how much time pressure you’ll put on the PCs- Now that you have the cleanup crew/policing force for your conspiracy, you have a ticking clock. The longer they wait, the slower they go, and the more exhaustive they are in examining every single lead possible, the more likely they’ll have a harder time finding subsequent leads and chain links. Unless the PCs completely screw things up you should never break the chain completely, but put a little thought into ways you can complicate the PCs’ jobs. Don’t write anything specific for this stage, but be ready with some brainstormed ideas.
6. Create out-of-order leads- This is where things *really* start feeling open ended (but is secretly under your tight control). Your chain is a list of evidence that leads straight back to the conspirator. We don't want the players to follow this path. Instead, look at each of the links, and start creating leads between disparate links in the chain. Link A should have a lead that reveals link D (two people who go to the same social club and often play cards together), which might have leads that link to A and C (A is D's coworker, and C is D's jealous former fling), but the players only have time for one of those leads before the other is policed up. It's like working on a puzzle where you're given the pieces randomly. Some fit together and you work on those for a while, the pieces that don't fit anywhere are set aside until something *does* fit, and slowly you build the picture up by guessing what's in between the pieces you *have* finished. Don't be a slave to this initial map however, because your players will often start forming connections and leads of their own in the course of gameplay. Run with this. Consider these initial leads to be fall backs and ready when needed.
7. Figure out a good climax- This is probably the hardest part. Get a conceptual framework of a good, exciting climax. It doesn’t have to involve combat- often times the conspirators are not combat savvy and the PCs will outclass them entirely. You shouldn’t write specifics up yet though, because things are going to change a lot once you start running the game. When you're finishing up Act Two, your players should have given you an idea of what is satisfying for them. Maybe it's shooting the dude in the face, maybe it's arresting him in a big sting or turning his allies on him. The mood of the party at the end of Act Two and the beginning of Act Three will really help you write a good climax.
So now you have a conspiracy chain, a hook for your players, and an agenda that is getting interrupted. You basically have a skeleton adventure. How to you run it? That’s surprisingly pretty simple.
Running the Conspiracy
1. Start in media res- You don’t always have to do this, but starting out with a big, action-filled BANG engages players, especially new players. The satisfaction of starting out on a crescendo or doing something highly unusual will often keep players feeling warm and fuzzy about their participation while you lay the groundwork for the investigation. Hopefully by the time that starts to fade they’ve had their first “ah-ha!” moment and they’ll be hooked.
2. Throw clues at the players out of order- If you can manage it, those connections should introduce leads, clues, and links in a non-linear fashion. Too many links being discovered sequentially creates a trend, a direction the conspiracy is headed in. You’ll want that sometimes, but generally speaking players are bright and will figure the plot out well in advance if you keep moving that way.
3. Ambiguity is your friend- Give definite leads that go somewhere to the players to discover. Just make those leads seem to go in all different directions until most/all the dots are connected. When your players discuss “what do we do next? What’s going to pay off for us best?” and they have the conversation without frustration you know you’ve hit gold. Remember, you’re seeing links in a chain that you’re dishing out of order to the players. It looks overly simplistic to you because you have your timeline. To your players, it’s a real mystery because they can’t go from A to B to C and onward. They start at point G, go to B, stumble over F, trace that back to E, track down A, and so on.
4. Combat is a seasoning, not an entrée- Your PCs will probably start focusing on social abilities in an investigative game, but don’t be afraid to spice your sessions up with a tussle. Every group will have a different rate at which they burn out on the investigation and will want to knock heads. My group ended up wanting an action session every 2 sessions or so. It changes things up and is a quick/cheap shot of adrenalin to the story.
5. When the players run out of leads, attack them- Not necessarily with physical combat, but put a direct, adversarial challenge in their way that they have to focus on. In other words, give them a short term goal that can be achieved in a session or maybe two. Investigations are trying and can burn out players, so it’s important to give them a good bang to keep them engaged. These challenges should, naturally, have clues in them to rekindle the investigation. By hiding handouts in a direct challenge, players won't feel like you're spoon feeding them. Besides, it makes sense this is going to happen- they're mucking about and upsetting powerful people, interrupting agendas, and diverting precious resources towards covering up something that should not be an issue. They're going to get *someone* angry, and that someone will probably make a rash decision and try to stop the players.
6. Say "yes, but..." whenever you can- You’ve written an intentionally vague skeleton of an adventure for a reason. Your players are going to come up with solutions to problems and directions that you could never anticipate. Instead of doing the heavy lifting and railroading your players, listen to their discussions of what to do next and how, and let them do the heavy creative lifting. Say no most of the time to boring, straight-forward, unimaginative “solutions” however (I say most of the time because the times when you *do* say yes to those, everyone appreciates them more). The more outlandish the idea, the more you should try to run with it. Inject your own complications into their plans. You already know what they need to find out, you’ll be amazed at how often a player party will come up with the idea of how they’re going to find that information out. There’s no shame or problem with calling for a 15 minute break to generate up something that specifically came from a player’s ideas- in fact it’s rewarding for your players to know that their choices matter in the story.
7. Avoid total exposition- If the players uncover every link in the chain, no matter how minor, more power to them. However, they will probably skip links and forge ahead, with some parts of the conspiracy simply being a mystery to them while they chase after the conspirator. This is fine. In fact, this is excellent. Use your police force to keep them moving along the conspiracy and not focus on the minor details too heavily. This is another reason why you don't script the adventure out in advance: Adventures go off the rails all the time if they're scripted out with any real detail. I never write more than one session in advance, and even then I might only use 60% of what I write. Too much writing wasted is disappointing for the GM: It's double the work for half the payoff. Avoid it in the first place and only write what you need to find your way along the adventure.
8. Avoid dead ends- One or two increases the sense of pressure- it’s lost time. More than that and it gets totally frustrating. Use them sparingly.
9. Avoid Deus Ex Machina… Usually- Every now and then you can throw a left-turn into your conspiracy. Unexpected allies or enemies, divine providence drops needed evidence into the PCs’ laps, whatever. Try to make it fit within the frame of your adventure though, and try to foreshadow it if you can.
10. Chekov’s Gun- If there’s a gun on the wall in Chapter 1, it needs to be fired at some point in the story. You’ve got a lot on your plate. Foreshadow is fine, but keep your investigation fairly streamlined and don't introduce too much extraneous detail into your game. Your players are going to be muddled as all hell as is if you’re doing your job right. Extraneous details that need to be paid attention to are functionally equivalent in-session to dead ends. Thus this sort of ties into dead ends and DEM above.
11. Set Pieces- Once per investigation you should try to do something novel or even gimmicky. I’ve had the players design strike missions based off of an orbital map, or played a round of high-stakes cards, or any number of other things that tie into the story. It’s a big break from the investigation and gives players something novel to remember about the story. If you can’t think of anything, don’t worry about it too much. It’s cool to do but not vital.
12. Three Acts- Generally, plan for your investigation to consist of three acts. The first act is resolving the goal presented in the initial hook. At the end of this act you should have an idea that there is an agenda and a conspirator out there. Act two consists of tracking down and learning of this conspirator. You can use another evidence chain to great effect here, especially if you turn up the non-linear clues at this point. Let them form an idea of the mastermind by creating a silhouette of clues. By the end of act two they should have an idea of who they are up against. Act three is thusly the confrontation of the conspirator and can be again another investigation to find out where the enemy is or just a big blow out combat orgy. Your players will probably be ready for it.
13. The next step- Is that it? Is there another conspiracy that this links into? Every now and again I like to foreshadow/introduce cross-conspiracies into my storyline. The players make a note of it and say “when we’re done here we need to look into this” and that moves organically to the next linked story. Otherwise, consider a good epilogue. The conspiracy crumbled, the bad guys served out justice, the players praised for their diligence and quick wit. Either way, aim for an air of accomplishment and resolution at the end of your third act. The occasional disappointment in act three is fine as a twist, but should never be relied upon too heavily as it’s incredibly discouraging to the party.
Other things that probably don't warrant points of their own is to take copious notes. Write down names uses, make notes of major conversations among the PCs, and when you brainstorm, write all your ideas down in a journal of sorts. Later when you're running the session you can pick these ideas up and bring them into the story where appropriate.
Also, use time where the players are talking in character as a chance to catch up or prep for the next section. If you've split the party up and run separate leads down, the players will need to update each other on what's happened and that's precious in-game time they're having fun that you can be prepping the next scene.
And really that’s it. The trick is to write a timeline/evidence chain and then present it out of order to your players. Engaged, motivated players will do most of the heavy lifting for you. You just have to provide the scaffold for them to climb.