All to often, in my experience anyway, investigation adventures boil down to a pretty predictable formula:
- About an hour of set up and introduction
- Around 3 hours of Twenty Questions thinly disguised as “roleplaying”
- A single boss fight that runs 30 minutes to an hour, but no one cares because everyone is tired
Now, there are probably a few people out there who read this and think, “Rolelplaying! Hooray!” I’m not one of them. I find this whole process especially tedious and BORING. Not only does it flow contrary to every other form of popular entertainment, but your game becomes very prone to disruption – probably from people like me!
What’s even worse? I do it too. And it pisses me off when I do. Because at the very least we GMs should aspire to run games that we would enjoy.
And the real pisser is that breaking out of that formula is so damn simple the only reason we don’t is because we’re lazy…or, for you parents out there, tired.
But lets say you’re reading this and saying, “well what should I be doing instead, Mr. Know-It-All?!” Glad you asked.
We’ll talk about pacing here in a moment. But first, let’s give a hat tip to Robin Laws and Gumshoe, who put to print what we should have been doing all along (and plenty of non-published GMs were probably already doing). When running a mystery or investigation, the first clue is always free. No skill roll necessary. Your game should never grind to a halt because of bad dice rolls. Dice rolls can elaborate on clues, or find secondary (or tertiary) clues, but the first clue is there for anyone with the presence of mind to say, “I search the room,” or, “is there anything interesting about…” Because as a player nothing is more infuriating than missing an “obvious” clue. And because as a GM nothing is more irritating than arguing with a player about what is “obvious” or not.
But lets get to pacing, because that’s where everything really breaks down. Games that trudge along from A to B to C do so because of poor pacing. A well paced game should play out a bit like a good piece of cinema or literature, with peaks of tension followed by a bit of relief for the players to catch their breath and consider what’s going on around them. It’s not exactly the same – because those are passive forms of entertainment while gaming is active – but the principles remain the same in both.
To keep the primary investigation interesting and tense, you need to break it up a bit. You do this with sub-plots and unrelated encounters.
Any time I prep an adventure session, I have a pretty good idea what PCs (and what Players) are really going to take to it. Rather than leave the rest of them to stand in the shadows, I make sure to set up a subplot or two for 2 or more of these players. I don’t script these out, or even create a resolution. They usually start out as nothing more than a hook: A young poet becomes enamored with Tamsin and is willing to risk anything for her. Or Raphael meets up with someone important from his past. These don’t have anything to do with Plot A, but interjected at dramatic points they give a different player a chance at the spotlight while the rest of the crew reflect on the last clue. This keeps everyone involved in the game, not just the characters who are hyper optimized for the scenario.
Subplots work best when they focus on a single character or small group. You want to use them to jump away from the main action, giving the rest of the group a brief pause, either to relieve or heighten tension. In an RPG, it gives the other players a chance to think too, to ponder their next move. Used judiciously, this technique cuts down a lot of your “ummm” and “uhhs” time.
Done this way, subplots are sort of mini-solo adventures. And you want to keep them short. Don’t cut away from the group to focus on a single player for 30 minutes. This is about creating space and tension as well as moving the spotlight around. 10 minutes is probably as long as you want to spend on a subplot at any given time. Again, not a hard and fast rule, but you need to have a grasp of the drama of it.
Subplots can be completely unrelated to the main adventure, but they can also compliment or conflict with it. This is another way to create a sense of tension at the table. Since a subplot often focuses on one player, his or her actions alone can be a boon to the whole group or put one more hurdle in their way. When you do this, do your best to keep table-talk to a minimum. It doesn’t matter how good a grasp Jeff has on the mystery, if his character isn’t present he shouldn’t be allowed to interject. This will almost always illicit groans or cheers from the rest of the table depending on how things play out, plus watch as the group performs all manner of logic gymnastics to “come to the rescue” as it were.
One last word on subplots: use them to spotlight and empower the player, not to create a damsel-in-distress moment. That is, don’t use them as an excuse to kidnap, capture, or otherwise confine the player’s character from the rest of the action. “Sorry guys, I wish I could help with exploring these mysterious ruins, but I’m stuck in this deathtrap,” is not going to be popular. Of course, if the player’s actions lands them in hot water, that’s a different matter. But you never want your subplot to derail your main plot, player agency notwithstanding.
You know what raises the stakes more than knowing the villains behind the conspiracy are out to get you? Knowing that the mafia is to. Because now you have one more thing to worry about. It’s a distraction, and possibly worse. So yes, in the middle of that high stakes race against time to diffuse the bomb, why SHOULDN’T PC A’s Enemy show up? Why shouldn’t that street gang you smacked around two sessions ago come looking for revenge? Why shouldn’t the Inquisition leap from the shadows (cue Monty Python jokes)? Don’t overdo it. These sorts of encounters work great with mooks and minions. This isn’t about soaking the players’ resources, it’s about giving them something unrelated to Plot A to worry about and give them a brief break from that tension to knock some bad guys around. That’s not to say these encounters can’t be dangerous, only that they shouldn’t overshadow the main goal. You don’t want to hit your players so hard they decide to forget the investigation and go looking for revenge.
A Pacing Formula for Success
This isn’t hard science. I’ve broken it down to times here, but that never works in practice. Introduce things at dramatic intervals. When every player at the table says, “holy crap, what does this mean?!”, that’s a pretty good sign its time to shift gears for a minute. With that in mind, here we go.
- Bonus Points: Kick off the scenario with an unrelated conflict, Indiana Jones style.
- Break for a subplot every 30-45 minutes, or after a major clue has been realized.
- Introduce an unrelated conflict about a third of the way through the session (in a 4 hour game, around the 1:30 hour mark). Have a second one prior to the climactic encounter(s).
- The “Big Fight” should actually happen just PRIOR to the confrontation with the big bad. That’s why villains keep henchmen after all. If you have complimentary subplots, this is where you tie everything together. If possible, this conflict should be TOUGHER than the climactic conflict. In resource management games like D&D, it means the group will not be going up against the big bad at full strength, creating even more tension and encouraging alternative strategies.
- DO NOT give the group time to regroup, rebuff, or recuperate before the climactic encounter. Time is of the essence. If they pause to regain their strength, the main villain gets away or has time to implement plan B. It shouldn’t mean the group fails, but their victory isn’t clean.
Formulaic or no, this approach is guaranteed to add spice to any investigation scenario you run. Some of these tricks are easier to do than others, and its worth changing them up a bit once you get comfortable with them. You never want things to get too predictable.