Category Archives: adventure writing

Dungeoncrawls in 7th Sea

This started out as a response to Matt Wandcow’s post on the 7th Sea Reddit where he was gracious enough to convey his experience with running a “dungeon adventure” in 7th Sea 2nd edition.  The most I wrote, the more I realized that this really belonged on the blog.  So hang on tight!  It’s going to be a bumpy, slightly disjointed ride.  I’m sure someone is going to disagree with me.  I may disagree with me in a couple of months.  But as of right now, this very moment, here are my (barely coherent) thoughts on how to run a satisfying dungeon adventure with the 7th Sea game system.

Let’s be clear—all of this is just theory.  I haven’t run a 7th Sea styled dungeon crawl, though I have outlined one.  So treat this like everything else you read on the internet: with extreme skepticism!  Be prepared to discard or modify things that don’t work.  And when you do, don’t hesitate to post about it in the comments section.

First, let’s make sure we define what a “dungeon” is.  A “dungeon” is a closed (or self-contained) adventure environment with limited entrance/exit points. 

Traditional D&D-style dungeons do not work well in 7th Sea.  7th Sea really shines as a “scene-driven” game, where the players jump from scene to scene as opposed to moving methodically through a pre-planned labyrinth.  In fact, much as was stated in that oft-derided passage from the Vatican City sourcebook, a 7th Sea dungeon may work better WITHOUT a map.  (::gasp::shock:: swoon::) 

Instead, a 7th Sea dungeon is built on the follow two foundations: zones and set pieces.

  • A zone is an area of a dungeon tied together by a theme of some sort.  In old school dungeon design terms, a zone is kind of like a dungeon “level”.  The theme could be a monster, a feature, or a hazard.  The haunted mines could be a zone, as could the lava vents, or the eldritch machines.  Likewise, the kobold warrens or the troll lair could also be a zone.
  • A set piece is a big ticket feature, room, encounter, risk, or challenge in the zone.  The Throne Room of Asmodeus could be a set piece. 

Set Pieces exist within zones, but not all zones need to have a set piece.  A zone without a set piece is a good candidate for a Dramatic Sequence or a Hazard, as it is likely meant as an obstacle that must be passed through to get from one Zone to another.

Note: if you have been using Fate-style zones in play already, the use of zones here may lead to confusion.  In that case, simply substitute a similar word (sector, region, node, etc) and run with it. 

The 5 Room Dungeon

A good resource for set pieces is to have a look at the 5-Room Dungeon model.  The five room dungeon is made up of combinations of the same five components:

  1. entrance (guardian)
  2. puzzle/roleplaying challenge
  3. trick or setback
  4. climax
  5. reward/revelation

Each of these components make ideal set piece models.  In fact, each zone could be considered a single 5-Room Dungeon, with each “room” being a standout scene that can occur within.  This shouldn’t be taken as a hard and fast rule, there are always exceptions.  But if you are desperate for a model to hang these concepts on, you can do a lot worse.

It it helps, it might be worth thinking in terms of the Encounters outlined in Green Ronin’s AGE books — there are three types of encounters: combat, roleplaying, and exploration (or combinations of the three).


One of Matt’s initial concerns was which skills interact with dungeon exploration.  This is faulty thinking in my opinion.  The real question is not “how do the players use skills to navigate the dungeon,” but “how do the players use skills to circumvent the Risks they encounter while navigating the dungeon.”  After all, O/A/BXD&D had only a handful of inferred skills (open doors, find secret door, etc.) for exploring dungeons.  The characters were assumed to have a certain level of competency for such things, as are 7th Sea heroes.

Players get to decide how they want to apply their skills and traits (their Approach), so the GM really doesn’t have to concern himself with such things.

In D&D and similar FRPGs, the players would carefully explore the twisting labyrinth between set piece encounters.  In 7th Sea, I would suggest letting the players give shape to this connective tissue.  This is where Hazards come in.


Hazards share a lot in common with Dungeon World’s dungeon moves, so let’s treat them that way.  A zone can be a Hazard and thus work to thwart the heroes.  It can spend raises to activate elements or to pressure the group to go astray.  If Dark Things lurk in the zone, you should set a clock to forecast their arrival.  And when they arrive, it should trigger a set piece encounter.  In many cases, it should be the players’ goal to reach the set piece before time runs out—if they don’t, the set piece becomes considerably more challenging.  This gives them an incentive to keep moving.

All of this could be handled as an action sequence (a running fight against those lurking things, or running a gauntlet of traps), a dramatic sequence (a countdown before something terrible happens), or even a chase sequence (if time is of paramount essence).  The Dramatic Sequence is probably most accurately replicates that “old school dungeon” feel, but each method has its advantages. 

The Mountains of Madness

This HP Lovecraft story involves the protagonists making their way through a vast, primordial “dungeon” beneath the frozen surface of Antarctica.  The ruins of Moria in Fellowship of the Ring also feels like this.  It’s really just a big travel montage when you break it down.  Nothing really happens beyond bucket loads of descriptive text thrown at the reader. This will probably be less satisfying for the players, but may feel appropriate to set the tone for particularly alien environments.  If you want to replicate this “mountains of madness” fee, there are three ways to do it:

  • establish the scene, then ask each of the players to describe one strange sight or occurrence.  This gives the players some agency and keeps the scene from becoming one massive scene of boxed text.
  • establish the scene and just let the players wander.  Embrace your inner boxed text writer.  Own it.  Throw in an occasional Risk to keep things interesting for the players.
  • Establish the scene and set a clock (at least 1 for each player—4 or 5 steps should do).  Let the players wander around.  Each time they ask a question or establish a detail, tick one step off the clock.  When the clock runs out, it triggers a set piece. 

Use this approach sparingly.  If you are using a dungeon with multiple zones, for instance, you might just use this method on the entrance zone.


As gamers, many of us have become conditioned to think of traps in terms of D&D.  A concealed pit trap here, a poisoned dart trap there, a falling portcullis, you get the idea.  In D&D, these isolated traps are meant to slowly drain the party’s resources (HP, spells, hirelings, equipment).  These sorts of traps do not work in 7th Sea.  So don’t even bother with it.

Traps in 7th Sea should come in three forms: obstacles (risks), grand death traps (hazards as villains), and complications (the room is on fire!).

  • Obstacles: obstacles are simply a risk that must be circumvented or navigated to get from one location to the next.  These should be treated as a simple Group Risk.  They should cause enough wounds to give them teeth (2-5 per hero) and a few related consequences and opportunities to keep the choices interesting.
  • Grand Death Traps: unleash your inner James Bond villain here.  A death trap should always be a hazard, but the encounter should be played out as an action sequence.  Think the opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark.  The Death Trap is triggered when the idol is stolen, followed by an action sequence where Indy has to run a gauntlet of smaller traps to avoid being crushed by a giant boulder.  Death traps are intricate, multi-part devices that fill entire rooms, halls, even zones.  A death trap is ALWAYS a set piece.
  • Complications: These traps work in tandem with another adversary in an action sequence.  A good example of this is the conveyor belt seen in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, where the heroes are fighting flying adversaries while dealing with the pitfalls of traveling on a moving conveyor belt.  While these traps can be treated as hazards, they can also simply be a collection of consequences (or group consequences).

Disarming Traps

Another fallacy that has come from modern incarnations of D&D is that all traps may be disarmed somehow.  This is simply wrong.  In fact, there is evidence that in the earliest form of the D&D game, the only traps that were meant to be disarmed were treasure traps (there is a poison needle in the lock).  Other traps (pits, snares, etc.) could be avoided but not disarmed.  In 7th Sea, disarming a trap should ALWAYS be a group opportunity, and available only where it makes sense or if you are feeling particularly generous.  As the GM, you have the option of saying “no, but…”

But Aren’t Traps Hazards?

The answer is no. 7th Sea actually distinguishes between Hazards (The New World) and Traps (Vaticine City).  Of course, both of them work almost the same way.  But you can choose between them in terms of what is a better fit for the scene.  Traps make for better Obstacles and simple Risks while Hazards make better Death Traps.  Either one can be used to generate Complications in a scene.  It really depends on how much flexibility you want as a GM.


Another complaint of Matt’s is that Théah is a 99% human world, which makes it difficult to set up a Keep on the Borderlands-style dungeon adventure.  I would argue this couldn’t be further from the truth.  Granted, D&D is full of tiered monsters designed to challenge PCs from level 1-14/20/36/??, which 7th Sea doesn’t need.  But monsters (and we’re talking weird Clarke Aston Smith-style monsters) have always been part of the setting.  And not just weird folklore monsters (faeries, djinn, oni) but weird science fantasy ones too (Thalusi, et al.).  Here’s the thing, don’t follow the eco-diversity model of D&D when making your weird dungeons.  Get weird, subvert tropes, add color and surprises.

In 7th Sea, the Caves of Chaos could potentially be found pretty much anywhere in Théah.  The themes of the region simply add color.  In Avalon, you have to deal with the politics of the sidhe, who might not take kindly to you wiping out an enclave of the unseelie host.  In Eisen, this ravaging horde takes on a more horrific quality.  In the Commonwealth, the cult of chaos could be a cabal of rogue Losejai and the monsters a sort of weird, sub-demonic host.  Truth is, almost every region of europe has its own folklore about goblins, kobolds, and dangerous fey.  A half hour of research online should net you plenty of redressing possibilities.

A word of warning: 7th Sea isn’t meant to be D&D.  So if you start littering the countryside with dungeon crawls, don’t come complaining to me when your game goes off the rails. 


Monetary treasure can be helpful in 7th Sea, but it’s not a focus of play.  So the purpose of your dungeon adventure shouldn’t hinge on it (unless your heroes are all pirates!).  So here again, we need to unlearn what we have learned from generations of D&D play and go back to the pulps that inspired it.  In the pulps, these sorts of adventures usually culminate in a single, massive horde, or the search for a particular treasure (the crown jewels, or a chest of cursed aztec gold).  So think big.  Tie the players stories into these treasures.  Send them on recovery missions for patrons and secret societies, not as rogue freebooters who are out for themselves (unless, again, they are pirates!).

Here’s a thought: borrow a page from Barbarians of Lemuria.  In that RPG, treasure is simply a means to earn experience.  After an adventure, the players take turns explaining how they spent their share of the treasure, and that nets them experience for advancing their characters.  You could easily do the same thing with 7th Sea.  If treasure hunting IS the point of the adventure, require each player to describe how she spends her share as the final step in their Story.  OR offer up a handful of strange, exotic treasures as keystones for new, short stories (1-2 Steps only unless a player has something bigger in mind for a reward).  Earthdawn is another good source of inspiration here: where each treasure has new powers that need to be studied and explored to be unlocked

Stories Hooks

The real magic to running a successful dungeon in 7th Sea are stories.  Tie the factions, villains, and treasures into the players’ character stories.  Give them a reason to be there, to find someone or something, to prevent an event, or stop a villain for completing a scheme.  Don’t just drop a bunch of goblins in the middle of the forest and expect greatness.  Stories (and Story Steps) are the real currency of the real when it comes to 7th Sea, so give your players a reason to invest in the adventure.

For good examples of tying your dungeon environment into your players stories, look to the Vaticine City sourcebook.  The lists on page 3-5 are pure gold and easily repurposed to this effort.

In Closing

So there you have it, my recipe for running successful “dungeon” adventures with the 7th Sea rules.  Perfect for syrneth dig sites, Montaigne catacombs, extensive Sarmatian cave systems, and lost cities in Aztlan.  Be flexible, and be prepared to experiment and improvise—not everything I’ve recommended is going to work, and some of it is going to require fine tuning.  As of this writing, there are very few published models of what can be considered dungeon crawls in the 7th Sea sense.  Until we get a few of those, its really hard to say what works and what doesn’t.  But don’t let that stand in your way!

And be sure to report in the comments what works and what doesn’t.  I’m eager to hear about it.

Resources and Inspiration

6 Methods for Making Dungeons More Interesting (Roleplaying Tips)

The Nine Forms of the Five Room Dungeon (Gnome Stew)

How Making Up A Dungeon On The Fly Is As Simple As Counting To 5 (Nerds on Earth)

Crawling without Hexes (Hill Cantons)

Pointcrawl Series Index (Hill Cantons)

Encounters vs Scenes (What’s He On About Now?)

Dungeons in FATE: Scenes and Scenarios (RPG Stuff)

Node-based Dungeon Design (The Alexandrian)

Warts and All

Back at the turn of the century, I took a gig as part of the Living Greyhawk triad for the Texas/Oklahoma region (the notorious Bandit Kingdoms).  I learned a LOT about adventure writing during those two years.  But the most important lesson I learned was this: when you finish your draft, sit in an watch a different GM run your adventure for a new group.  This will reveal every unintentional red herring, weak spot, and broken element of your adventure.  It really is by far the best bang for your buck in the editing process.  You’ll be amazed at how much of your adventure is in your head and not on the page.

I remember sitting down and watching a new group tackle my first published adventure, The Bleeding Moon, which I’m still proud to say enjoys some notoriety in old Living Greyhawk circles (with its baby mimic and hasted-spider climbed-stone skinned zombies!).  I probably came away with 4-5 pages of handwritten notes after that session, including what happens if a player wants to learn necromancy from the villain at the end.  It was a humbling and eye-opening experience, and the final product was infinitely better for it.

Bloody Misadventures

Bloody Misadventures: Dramatic Battles on the High Seas

Of course, its easy to find playtesters when you are writing for a big organization like the RPGA. Flash forward 17 years to last year when I was putting the finishing touches on Bloody Misadventures: Dramatic Battles on the High Seas, a sea battles supplement for 7th Sea I published through the Explorer’s Society.  The playtest of the first draft with my group was an abysmal failure, with the whole thing falling apart inside of the first action.  The second playtest went better, but revealed a flaw in my thinking as the players were all to eager to pool Raises to unleash monstrous amounts of hits on enemy ships.  Meanwhile, I was seeding drafts with a handful of folks, trusting them to play out scenarios with their groups.  Each time I’d get little snippets of feedback, bringing the project closer and closer to completion.

In the time it took to write Bloody Misadventures, I finished three other products for the Explorer’s Society!  That’s how much fiddling I took with it.  An idea would hit me and into the book it would go, sometimes only to be ripped out and shredded days later.  In the end, I took Nancy Pelosi’s advice: I had to release it to find out what was in it.  So the project that started in April of 2017 was released from its cage in the lab in November!  Initial Sales were good and have remained consistent.

So last month, Tabletop Radio Hour did a review of Bloody Misadventures on one of their shows.  The Cast were positively intrigued and promised to feature a sea battle soon on their Actual Play podcast.  About two weeks later they delivered.  I was heading home on a road trip through the Texas Hill Country when the episode dropped and I listened.  Boy, did I listen!

I listened to every pause.  Every rules reference.  Every indecision.  Every shrug.  Every misstep.

Yeah see, its amazing what you find out when you listen to someone else run something you wrote.  You’ll be amazed what’s in your head and not on the page.

Oh don’t get me wrong.  It wasn’t bad.  Most of it played out really well!  Everyone seemed to have a good time (I’ve no doubt they’ll reveal all in a follow up review).  But there was way to much head scratching for my tastes.

So when I got back to the home office, I wasted no time doing additional edits to clarify the text where it needed it.  Because I didn’t want to waste this opportunity.  Because Bloody Misadventures was a lot of work to write and deserves to be the best set of rules for what it does that it can be.  Because I don’t want play to suffer for my contributions.  Because, as a 7th Sea GM, I still want to know what Cross the T! does in play, and hope other seekers to find the answer in something I wrote.

But the moral here remains: before you turn your baby loose, before you add that “-final” tag to the file name, before you send that master file on to Lulu or Drivethru or your publisher, hand over the keys to someone else to take it for a drive around the block while you ride in the backseat.  You won’t regret it!

From Dumas With Love

Last week while my wife is away at a conference, I spent my evenings catching up on the BBC’s The Musketeers.  My wife isn’t really a fan so when we got sidetracked halfway through the season, I figured it would be awhile before I got back to it.

Watching episode 5, the Return, I thought this would make a fantastic adventure for Witch Hunter, something in the mold of Countrycide (Torchwood season 1), where the mundane becomes a real threat.  Here’s an official synopsis of the episode:

When Athos is kidnapped and taken back to his estate of Pinon, The Musketeers go in search of him and find themselves in the middle of a battle against a nobleman, the Baron Renard, who is shocked by Athos’ decision to reject his nobility and is determined to seize the land for himself. As The Musketeers train the people of Pinon in combat and defend them against multiple attacks, Athos is forced to confront his past when he encounters an old friend whose life was ruined by his actions years ago.

Witch Hunter lends itself to the set up perfectly.  The characters have often renounced their former lives to embraced their new role as monster hunter.  All you need is a player with the Noble background and you are good to go.  Or perhaps an NPC witch hunter, with the cadre dispatched to find him.

The scenario offers several complications that would make it challenging for any group:

  • The main villain is a landed noble, with all the protection and privileges that go along with that station.
  • The villain also possesses a considerable fighting force.  They may be minions, but 100 threat 2 minions are going to hurt.
  • The heroes are at a real disadvantage here.  If they pull rank as witch hunters, the villain can just call in the church and have them branded as heretics.
  • Abandoning the peasants to their fate would certainly be worth a point or two of damnation.
  • The social complications and logistics of training and commanding a ragtag force of peasant soldiers will likely test several skills the PCs have been neglecting.

This scenario plays straight at the swashbuckling or even the colonial aspects of Witch Hunter.  So lets consider a few twists we might apply to really enhance the Witch Hunter flavor of the scenario.

  • Play It Straight: We don’t really change anything here.  The Baron and his son are both normal men (lieutenants), though arrogant, privileged and terrible examples of humanity.  The role of Catherine could easily be assumed by a childhood friend, an old lover, or even a former mentor of one of the witch hunters (not necessarily the noble) who has an axe to grind.  The Baron could be driven by an old grudge or rivalry.  That the witch hunter has walked away from his family obligations matters not; the matter must be settled in blood!
  • The Demonic Instigator: After a tragic accident befell his son, the Baron beseeched dark forces for the young man’s life.  He revived, but was forever changed.  Now he forces his father’s hand, consumed with avarice and greed.  There is something about the Noble’s land he covets, and no reason will deter him from his prize. (Sort of a toned down version of the Solomon Kane movie.) Alternatively, the Baron or his son (or both) have fallen under the spell of a witch or warlock who seeks vengeance on the witch hunter(s).
  • Sanctuary: The NPC standing in for the role of Catherine has a dark secret.  The Noble’s family granted her refuge as a child.  Now dark forces have sought her out and recruited the Baron to their cause.  How will the witch hunters respond?  Will they surrender her to her fate?  Will they shelter and protect her?  Perhaps the nature of the secret is such they must deal with her (or not) themselves.
  • The Beast: Something has been preying on the villages of both manors.  The Baron believes these criminals have found refuge within the Noble’s lands, while the villager’s place the blame squarely on the Baron.  The beast hides amongst them, eager to shift the blame away from itself.
  • The Dark Secret: The Noble’s manor holds a dark secret that, if discovered, could ruin the witch hunter and his family.  Perhaps the Baron is aware of it and uses it as leverage against the cadre, or perhaps his fate is tied to the secret as well.  Perhaps the secret is so terrible, the Noble needs to keep it from his or her Order, perhaps even the rest of the cadre.  This could be tied to the character’s Catalyst, or a startling revelation made early in the scenario.
  • The New World Order: The action is moved to the New World, to a colony on the fringes of civilization.  Replace the Baron and his men with agents of a competing country (French, Spanish, British, or Dutch).  The villagers could be colonists or natives.  The witch hunters could have ties to the colony (base of operations) or answer the summons of an old ally, a contact, or another Witch Hunter.
  • The Invisible World: The meddling of a heretic scholar or occultist has inadvertently opened a sustained gateway to the Invisible World.  What emerges is not the lone entity the occultist sought, but a warlord and his demonic army, intent on cementing a foothold in God’s creation!  These could be fae (unseelie), or something even more horrific.  Either way, the numbers are too overwhelming for a small cadre of witch hunters, and by the time others might be brought to bare against them, these invaders could have slaughtered hundreds (not to mention called in support from a few Forbidden Societies, making the job even more difficult).  The cadre’s best chance for success here is to rally the locals against this threat, but the risk is high.  (The last two recent Mummy movies would be good inspiration for this…if you can stand to watch them.)

Pacing Investigative Adventures

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.

Non-Related Encounters

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.