The world is a weird place right now. Toilet paper is flying off the shelves faster than those weird anthropomorphic bears can make it, most businesses are closed, and we have to stay at least six feet away from everyone. While it may seem trivial, those of us who game in the physical realm (tabletop roleplaying games, wargames, board games) can find our main pastimes taken away from us due to the requirement to “shelter in place” and “practice social distancing.” While my wife and I can continue to play our normal one-on-one roleplaying games, board games, and wargames, many people are not lucky enough to have a live-in gaming partner. Having your main hobby taken away from you is a devastating experience, but we are all lucky enough to live in an age where technology is abundant and gaming resources are better than they’ve ever been to facilitate distance play. Today I’ll briefly summarize my own experiences with online gaming and suggestions for your own groups to try to provide some hope and help to those of you who may be suffering from gaming withdrawal, and tips if you’re starting out.
My Edge of the Empire group is primarily an online game; we have had only 2 in-person sessions since we started in March of 2018. Our group is scattered across the country as we moved after high school and college, so online play is the only way we can consistently get together to roll some dice. We use a variety of different tools simultaneously to make the game a success. For the primary gaming “table,” we use Roll20. The debate over which is better (Roll20 or Fantasy Grounds) is well-documented all over the internet, but I like Roll20 mainly for the ability to use all of its essential features free of charge, and its ease of manipulation. It never takes me long to upload and prepare maps and tokens for encounters, and the system is easy to use for GMs and players alike. Fantasy Grounds is also a great system I’m sure, but I have no experience in using it. Roll20 has a built-in dice roller which covers all of the different numeric dice for games from D&D to Pathfinder to Call of Cthulhu, including a “GM roll mode” for those behind-the-screen rolls, but what it does not have (at least it didn’t when we started) was a “custom EOTE” dice roller. Instead, we use Star Wars RPG Dice Roller , a fantastic Fantasy Flight RPG dice roller which allows you to create a room where the dice are rolled. Given the open nature of the system’s dice rolls, this room works perfectly, and again is easy to use. Finally, for our video and audio, we use Google Hangouts, again because of quality and ease of use; we’ve found Roll20’s video and audio system to be finnicky and unreliable. In the balance, it requires us to have split-screens and multiple windows open, but it has worked well for us for two years and we don’t see any need to change it now.
For GMs and DMs out there, finding maps and tokens for an online game after only playing on the tabletop can be a daunting experience. I’ve found that Pinterest is the most abundant source or online maps and character art to be used for tokens on the internet. There are repositories, forums, and the like out there as well, but time and again I find myself returning to Pinterest, not only for the wealth of content, but also the quality of its “similar items” section below each map or piece of art. I’ve spent hours at a time going down rabbit holes of “similar items” and come out with a wealth of maps and art, both for current games as well as inspiration for future games. Here are some places to start if you’ve never jumped into Pinterest: Battle Maps , Character Art , Background Art . For the maps, on Roll20, you simply need to upload the map to your image archive on the website, drag and drop it into the background layer, and then adjust the scale to fit your needs. For pre-gridded maps, I recommend counting the dimensions of the map beforehand and then adjusting the Roll20 page size to the correct number of squares; then it’s a simple “pull to the edge” map resize and the grids will align correctly.
Compared with RPGs, wargames may seem like a tough proposition to do online, especially given that half (or more probably) of the wargaming hobby is putting together and painting your armies. While I hesitate to recommend anything you need to pay for, Tabletop Simulator is nonetheless the best option for online wargaming I’ve found, and is comparatively cheap for what you get: $19.99, which isn’t even the cost of a single box of troops for most wargames. Once you pay for the base simulator, the modding community has created incredible add-ons that you can download for free to play your favorite wargames. There are robust architectures for Warhammer and 40k , Bolt Action , Star Wars Legion , X-Wing , Infinity , and many others. There are dice rollers, rulers, and datacards included in many of the mods, making the transition easier. The physics of the game board can be wonky sometimes, but once you get the hang of grouping, selecting, and moving your digital minis around, the game can be almost as fun as playing on the real table, and faster (usually). A great advantage of using Tabletop Simulator to play wargames during this pandemic is that it gives you an opportunity to try out units, armies, and games that you have been wondering about, for a much lower cost than otherwise possible. Normally an IG player but wondering about Tyranids? Download the Tyranids army list and go to town on Tabletop Simulator. Wondering how that Knight Castellan plays but don’t want to pull the trigger on the model just yet? Throw one into your digital army list and take it for a spin 5, 10, 20 times over the next few weeks. The possibilities are endless.
Board games are in a similar boat as wargames: the best options are paid ones. If you were thinking about buying or already got Tabletop Simulator, there are tons of free options for board games on there as well, in addition to paid ones. Lots of board game publishers also put out digital versions of their most popular games which can be played with friends online; many are on phones and tablets as well so you can play anywhere.
The global pandemic of COVID-19 can make the world seem like a scary place, but it always helps to look on the bright side of things. If you love RPGs, wargames, or board games, I urge you not to let those hobbies fall by the wayside due to the imposed physical restrictions. Instead, look at this time as an opportunity: an opportunity to branch out and try new armies, new games, new campaigns, or even just an opportunity to play games more regularly since everyone’s schedules are far more open than they have been in….well, ever. Playing games has always been a wonderful way to spend time with good friends and family, and with the resources out there, that’s one thing that doesn’t have to change.
I am currently running a linked RPG-wargaming campaign using three different Warhammer 40,000 systems: Dark Heresy, Kill Team, and the normal Warhammer 40k ruleset (8th edition). It is an ambitious project, but I’m hoping it will make for an intriguing narrative. Back in January, we had both our first Dark Heresy session and our first Warhammer 40,000 battle. Before you keep reading, just be aware that this will be a narrative post, and not my normal GM/DM tips.
The campaign storyline centers around the defense of the planet St. Jowen’s Dock, the main Imperial Navy hub for the Armageddon Sector fleet, during the Third War for Armageddon. As a major Imperial Navy base, it would be of vital importance to the ongoing void battle occurring over the course of the war. The only mention in official Warhammer 40k lore is simply that the Orks assaulted it, with no mention of the campaign or outcome of that fight. This seemed like a ripe opportunity for some storytelling in one of my favorite wars in the lore, and my favorite Imperial Guard regiment, the Armageddon Steel Legion.
The first battle we played was a mission out of the Vigilus books, modified to suit our needs. The goal was for the Imperial defenders to hold off the Orks, using the Relentless Assault special rule, for as many turns as possible while the Adeptus Mechanicus readied defenses at the main base of St. Jowen’s Dock. 4 turns would be the standard metric; any fewer turns and the defenses would be uncompleted and the next mission would reflect this with penalties to the Imperial forces. 4 turns, they would be completed, and the next battle would be fought as normal. More than 4 turns would result in the AdMech completing extra defenses, giving the Imperials a boost in the next battle. With that explanation, we begin the narrative.
THE DEFENSE OF ST. JOWEN’S DOCK
Lieutenant Werner Brandt wished one of the falling Roks had just killed him. The massive Ork asteroid-turned-spaceship would have flattened both him and his Leman Russ Executioner in a split second, a quick, painless death. The alternatives now presented to him by the Orks whooping and hollering as they charged out of the blasted Rok seemed far worse by comparison: shredded to pieces by a tankbusta bomb inside his own vehicle, incinerated by a skorcha or burna, being pulled from his tank and hacked apart by the barbarians. He was sure there were more, including a round from one of the enemy’s battlewagon kannons striking his tank’s fuel tanks or plasma cannon cells. Yes, it would have been much better to just be crushed flat by a Rok. Was that heresy? To wish for a quick death rather than to live and take as many Orks with him as possible, to buy more time for the Techpriests of the Adeptus Mechanicus to erect the shields and other defenses back at the dockyards? Perhaps, but Brandt pushed the question from his mind: that was something for the Commissars and Ecclesiarchy to concern themselves with. A Rok hadn’t crushed him, so the only alternative was to fight. His hand absent-mindedly strayed to his laspistol, holstered under one arm in a leather rig; at least if worst came to worse, and his vehicle was disabled and the enemy tearing at the hatches, he could end things on his terms.
Pulling his binoculars away from his eyes, Brandt sat back down inside his turret, pulling the armored hatch closed behind him as he returned to the cramped interior. “Well, they’re coming,” he said over the internal vox. Thumbing the transmit switch on his vehicle crewman helmet, he broadcast over his platoon’s vox, “This is 3-1, the battlewagons are your primary engagement priority. After that, Deff Dreads, then Killa Kans. Have your bolter gunners hit the enemy infantry as they get closer, but don’t waste ammo if they’re out of range.” An echo of affirmatives from the other three tank commanders in his platoon came in response.
The crack-whoomph of artillery cut through even the thick armor of the Leman Russ and the sounds of its engine, signalling the beginning of the 10th Armageddon Steel Legion Armored Regiment’s defense of St. Jowen’s Dock. Smaller echoes popped as Anvil Company’s mortars added their music to the fray. Through his tank commander’s periscope, Brandt watched as plumes of dirt, smoke, and fire erupted from the advancing Ork horde. Black-and-white-clad green bodies were jettisoned from the explosions, some of them staggering back to their feet and continuing to run, to Brandt’s dismay but not necessarily surprise. The Steel Legion had fought Orks on Armageddon itself for fifty years since the last war, leftovers and holdouts from Ghazghkull’s first invasion. They were a hardy breed, living only for war and accustomed to inhuman amounts of pain.
The infantry were not his problem for now, though. Turning his periscope a bit to the left, he sighted in on a rusty-red contraption. It was at least twice the size of his Leman Russ, rolling on a mixture of wheels and tracks. A massive dozer blade was affixed to its front, plowing through obstacles and friendly Orks alike as its crew barreled towards the Imperial lines. Armored plates of different colors were welded haphazardly to all sides, protecting the Ork riders inside. A blocky turret sat atop it, sporting a stubby, wide gun barrel which Brandt equated in his mind to something like a Demolisher cannon. The capabilities of Ork weaponry were almost impossible to distinguish without seeing them fire, but if the cannon had anything like the destructive capability of a Demolisher, Brandt knew it needed to die.
“Battlewagon, eleven o’clock,” he said, rotating a dial on his periscope to judge the distance. “Fifteen hundred meters.”
“Identified!” shouted Sergeant Alojz, his primary gunner. Private Novak, in the front hull gunner’s seat, echoed.
“Main gun, hull gun, fire!”
“On the way!”
A bolt of white-blue plasma erupted from the tank’s Executioner cannon, and a split-second later a solid beam of red las energy connected the tank’s hull lascannon with the battlewagon. Armor slagged under the heat of the plasma bolt, and smoke streamed from the hole punched by the lascannon, but the Ork vehicle kept on rolling, albeit listing heavily to the side which had been hit. “Reengage!” shouted Brandt as the battlewagon’s turret swiveled in their direction.
“On the way!”
The battlewagon fired first, sending a shower of dirt and shrapnel up in front of the Leman Russ as the shot missed. Brandt’s periscope was blocked, but he heard the Executioner fire and felt its warmth as the excess heat was vented.
“Engine kill!” reported Alozj with triumph.
“Good kill,” Brandt replied. “Find another target, my periscope’s blocked. I gotta clear it.”
“31, 33, engine kill,” Sergeant Elias, one of his platoon’s tank commanders.
“Roger.” Brandt twisted the handle on his hatch and forced it open, cautiously popping his head out over the lip of the cupola. As he reached forward to clear the blockage in front of his periscope, he glanced about at the battlefield. The main horde of Orks was still a good distance off, and it would take some time for them to cross the open area between them and the 10th’s lines. The battlewagons and other vehicles were a different matter, moving so much faster. They could deliver the initial wave, the shock troops and largest Orks, which would tie up the infantry and prevent them from firing into the horde as it got closer. The Leman Russes of his platoon, all Conqueror patterns, boomed as they engaged armored targets in his priority order, while the many Chimeras of Anvil Company added their multilasers and heavy bolters to the cacophony of destruction being directed towards the Orks.
Brandt wondered if it would be enough as he closed his hatch.
“Anvil 23, Anvil 6.” Captain von Scheel, Anvil Company’s commander, sounded calm and stoic over the vox.
“6, 23,” replied Sergeant Krakovic, using the vox handset in his squad’s Chimera. Unlike the rest of the company, his squad, 3rd Squad of 2nd Platoon, had remained in their vehicle, behind the tanks, at the back of the unit’s position with the FSO and the mortars. They were the Skulls of Hades, the most veteran squad in the company, and saved as the reserve for the most dire of situations. The first two hours of the battle had been difficult for the Skulls, waiting as they did for the call forward. It was a strange dichotomy, Krakovic thought; he and his men wanted to be called forward, to fight, but that would mean that the battle was going poorly, and that many of his comrades had died. So, did that mean he wanted them to die? Maybe. Life was cheap in the Imperial Guard, and Krakovic and his squad were some of the few who had lived long enough to become experts at their craft of killing. Some men had to die for others to survive. Now, it seemed there had, indeed, been enough death to warrant a call.
“2nd platoon is getting mauled on the right flank,” von Scheel said, his voice emotionless. “Their 2nd squad is completely gone. Orks are in the trenches. Clear them out.”
“Roger that, sir,” Krakovic replied. The Chimera, its engines already running, moved out without needing Krakovic to tell the crew anything; they were monitoring the vox, and knew their duty.
“There’s a Deff Dread there too,” von Scheel added.
Krakovic looked around at his squad in the Chimera; all of their faces were hidden by their metallic skull breathing masks, but he wondered if some were smiling. Their shotguns and meltaguns were made for close-range work; clearing the trench was the kind of fight they were made for. Less than five minutes later, the multilaser and heavy flamer on the Skulls’ Chimera opened up. The vehicle soon came to a halt, and the ramp dropped down.
Without words, the Skulls of Hades piled out of the vehicle and peeled around the sides. Shotguns cracked as the veterans put solid slugs into the heads and chests of Orks who were clambering out of the nearby trench, snarling and barking. Krakovic hefted his bolter to his shoulder and let loose a quick flurry of single shots into a large Ork with a spiked horn helmet on its head. The explosive bolts turned the Ork’s chest into a mess of shredded flesh and bone, and knocked the creature, still snorting in anger, back down into the trench. As Krakovic turned to engage another Ork, he heard the whoosh of his squad’s missile launcher, followed by an explosion. The target was close enough for him to feel the heat, and hear shards of shrapnel whistling past his helmet. He turned to see the hulking form of a Deff Dread plodding towards the squad on the other side of the trench system. It poured smoke from its bottom left side where the missile had impacted, but its four weapon arms still all functioned. It unleashed a salvo of shells from its bolter-like weapon, cutting down two of his squadmates, and its saw arm spun while its klaw arm snapped open and shut in anticipation.
A second later, three streams of white-hot energy blasted three massive holes in the Deff Dread’s torso. Armor slagged to liquid, and the top half toppled inwards and backwards onto its lower half. The skorcha on its right side shot a gout of flame upwards in the walker’s death throes, and then the Deff Dread exploded as the heat met the fuel. Some of the Orks in the trench were incinerated by the blast, others cut in half or shredded by shrapnel. Still others turned in bewilderment at the noise and heat. They lasted only seconds longer than the others, as the Skulls of Hades leapt down into the trench with them, shotguns blasting and meltaguns cutting down swathes of the enemy like reapers in a field. In a matter of minutes, the trench was clear, the flank secure.
A plasma blast from Lieutenant Brandt’s Executioner cannon impacted against a battlewagon, and the vehicle exploded. The hit was a direct one, but Captain Erich von Scheel knew the massive explosion which followed had not been due to the plasma alone; his gunner must have hit a fuel tank or an ammunition stowage in the vehicle’s hull. The fireball spread out nearly 15 meters in all directions, consuming a Deff Dread, a horde of the lumbering Orks known as Nobz to their kind, and the heavily-armored brute of an Ork wearing a backpack which had been projecting some sort of force field to protect the nearby Orks and vehicles in his charge. Dozens of Orks who had been riding in the back of the battlewagon were jettisoned upwards, and came screaming back down to the earth like burning meteors. When the fireball subsided, everything in the 15 meter radius was dead or melted.
Von Scheel turned around to look at Brandt’s tank and nodded in approval. He doubted the Lieutenant was paying attention to him, but he felt the gesture was warranted nonetheless. The young man had performed well in the six-hour battle so far, racking up numerous engine kills while positioning his platoon well without von Scheel needing to direct him to do so. Anvil Company, and the 10th as a whole, had held far longer than anyone had projected, but von Scheel knew the battle was coming to a close. The Steel Legion had taken severe casualties, and Dominus Velkan had informed Colonel Bauer two hours ago that the defenses had been completed; all of this time was now bonus for the Tech Priests to improve the inner works of Saint Jowen’s Docks, and it made little sense to sacrifice the entire 10th for bonus time.
“Prepare yourself, Captain,” said Commissar Fioris from von Scheel’s left. Von Scheel glanced over at Fioris, and then in the direction the Commissar was pointing with his power sword. In the center of the line, the Company’s troops were wavering. Orks wearing some scrap smattering version of power armor were breaching the trench, and behind them, the largest Ork von Scheel had ever seen was charging forward. The Ork wielded a weapon that looked like a bolter and missile launcher welded together in one of its massive hands, while the other sported a red power klaw that hissed steam. Several lasgun and heavy bolter shots peppered the Ork Warboss as he charged forward, but it hardly seemed to slow the beast. He smashed into the trench line, sweeping his kombi weapon like a club and severing Legionnaires in half with his power klaw. Von Scheel drew his plasma pistol and power sword and fired at the warboss. Fioris did the same with his bolt pistol.
Like the lasgun and bolter shots before, even von Scheel’s plasma pistol seemed only to make the Warboss angrier. Even as its flesh charred and sloughed off from the superheated plasma, the Ork roared and beat its chest with his power klaw. It fixed its bloodshot eyes on von Scheel, pointed its power klaw at the Captain, and charged foward. It barreled through Legionnaire and Ork alike, and von Scheel continued to fire, standing his ground. Just as the Ork Warboss was only five meters away and raising his power klaw to slam down, he suddenly lurched and toppled forward, one of his legs separated from his body. Von Scheel turned in surprise to see Tech Priest Marius standing over the Warboss, his Omnissian Axe dark with Ork blood. Marius had spent the entire battle tending to the company’s battle-damaged vehicles, repairing whatever he could, and von Scheel was surprised to see him so close to the front. Surprised, but thankful. The Warboss began to roll over to attack Marius, but the Tech Priest raised his axe and brought it down, severing the Ork’s head. The Tech Priest raised his head to look at Captain von Scheel and nodded in acknowledgement. “Good afternoon, Captain,” Marius said, before turning and walking back towards the nearest Leman Russ as if nothing extraordinary had happened.
“All Anvil elements, Anvil 6. Begin withdrawal. Disengage from the Orks and proceed back to the dockyards. Maintain rear security with turret weapons and sponsons. Mount up, let’s get out of here.”
Lieutenant Brandt could hardly believe that he was actually hearing von Scheel correctly. He glanced at his chrono; they had held for seven hours. Seven hours against the Orks. Casualties among the infantry had been horrendous, and his tanks had taken a good amount of damage themselves, but they had held the line. The Tech Priests back at the docks had better have made good use of their three extra hours. “You heard the commander, fall back to the dockyards,” Brandt said hoarsely over his platoon vox. “This fight’s over.”
Everyone likes a good mystery. Whether it’s a murderer that needs catching, a traitor who needs exposing, or an underground cult that needs stopping, mysteries are irresistible for most people. The tension and drama that comes with investigating a case, and the feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment that comes with solving one, are lures that draw people to mysteries and thrillers. People enjoy solving cases, knowing that they outsmarted the villain or the puzzle. People love to boast about how they “figured it out before the big reveal” when they go and see a thriller movie or watch a crime TV show. It is understandable, therefore, that people want to replicate that experience in a roleplaying game, where the players are literally the ones making the decisions in the investigation to uncover the truth of whatever mystery is afoot. However, mystery and investigation adventures are some of the most-often mishandled adventures in roleplaying games, and can often lead to frustration, resentment, and resignation at the gaming table. How do we can avoid this as Dungeon Masters and Game Masters is the subject of today’s discussion. As a disclaimer, before we get started, I am not referring to grand mysteries which unfold over many sessions, as those are stock and trade of campaigns; I am going to cover mysteries which cover one, two, or three sessions and are focused around a specific event such as a murder, a traitor among the group, et cetera.
I have run mystery and/or investigation adventures across several different roleplaying game systems, including Age of Rebellion (FFG Star Wars), Dungeons and Dragons, and Dark Heresy. Most have been successful, but those successful ones were aided by things I learned and feedback I solicited from the unsuccessful adventures. When I say unsuccessful, I mean that I either had to strongly suggest a course of action to the players because they got stumped, or the players were visibly or verbally annoyed or off-put by the way the investigation was proceeding and felt that it was either too difficult, or they had been railroaded into having to use certain clues to reach a certain conclusion. I believe that across all mystery adventures, the former is more common: players will get frustrated and disinterested if the mystery is too hard, and most of this has to do with the dungeon master. That’s right, a lot of it is your fault, not your players.
Why is this the case? It certainly doesn’t come from any malicious intent. In fact, it usually comes from the opposite. DMs want to provide a challenging yet fun experience for their players. The ultimate goal of everyone at the table is to have a good time, and the DM is responsible for facilitating that. Throwing a group of four goblins at a 5th-level party of four players is not a fun combat encounter; the challenge is far below the players’ threshold, and it will leave them scratching their heads, yawning, and wondering why you’re wasting their time with such an easy encounter. When it comes to mysteries, DMs likewise don’t want their players to feel bored or like it was too easy. If they can figure it out without expending much effort, then what was the point? This is a pitfall which leads many DMs (and adventure writers) into making a mystery far too hard, even for a group of people putting their heads together and trying to solve it. A major contributing factor to this is that we have a skewed sense of what the players will think to ask and pursue in the course of the investigation.
Since we, the DMs and writers, are the ones planning the adventure, we have all of the answers. We already know who did it, how they did it, when they did it, and why they did it. We know how the perpetrator covered their tracks, and what clues will lead to them. When we try to take a step back and think about it, it is tempting to think that the solution is obvious, too obvious in fact. So then we go back and make it even harder to figure out the necessary clues, worried that the players will breeze through the adventure and solve the case after an hour, and be left feeling bored and unsatisfied. Sometimes this occurs several times, until the players are left with an unsolvable labyrinth of dead end clues and plot twists.
So how can we avoid this? Firstly, give the players a good place to start. Often, the players will be given the investigation quest by an NPC, they won’t just decide to investigate on their own. While it may be tempting to have that NPC say, “start anywhere you want,” for smooth sailing, I highly recommend that the NPC suggest a place to the players for them to start. It could be a crime scene, a piece of evidence, or an eyewitness, but it should be something that is guaranteed to give them at least one clue, possibly more. Having a starting point does two things for your players. It gives them an initial sense of direction, rather than dropping them into unfamiliar territory and saying, “figure it out.” Also, it provides them with an early win; since we have guaranteed that they will receive at least one clue from this starting point, it gives the players a sense of accomplishment that they are chipping away at the mystery, and confidence that they can solve the case.
As the adventure goes on, multiple different people, locations, and items should and will come up through investigation and conversation. You do not need to gift any of these things to players, in fact I encourage you to lock many of them behind skill checks such as social checks when talking to NPCs or search checks to find a piece of evidence. However, every person, place, or thing that comes up during the course of the investigation should somehow advance the adventure. One of the most frustrating things for a player is to spend time pursuing a lead in a mystery adventure only to find out that it is a dead end. It is extremely frustrating if that occurs over and over. I know from personal experience in running the much-lauded adventure “Against the Cult of the Reptile God.” The adventure is well-reviewed and, to be honest, I am a fan of the plot and the amount of information that the booklet gives to the Dungeon Master. Some great things can happen in that adventure, but, on the flip side, there are a ton of dead ends. There are many locations in the village which provide little to no useful information to the players when visiting them, and many which provide useful information only if specific circumstances are met. When I ran ATCOTRG, my players chose five or six locations in a row that had no useful information for them, and I could see them grow visibly frustrated at the table as they struggled with what to do and their lack of progress.
An excellent example of an adventure in which every location or person mentioned has a clue or plot advancement to give the players is “Edge of Darkness,” the starting adventure for the Dark Heresy roleplaying game. I ran this adventure, which is essentially a murder mystery, earlier this week and was blown away by how well it was structured. There are 11 locations and numerous NPCs listed, and all of them are interconnected with the investigation in one way or another. Often, locations and NPCs have multiple clues to give, which will bear fruit at some point even if not immediately. For example, the dead man’s sister can give up the information about her brother’s favorite watering hole where he went that night, and the name of closest friend who has been avoiding her since the disappearance. Finding the friend can be difficult, but visiting the bar can assist in that regard, ensuring that a visit to the bar isn’t pointless even though no one at the bar knows anything about the man’s disappearance.
Making every NPC or location have some piece of information to offer ensures that the players will always have forward momentum, even if that momentum is a bit slow or tangential (such as simply helping to find another NPC who may have information). I am not saying to award players information without work, though. If the players can just go to a location or meet an NPC and get the clues they need without challenge, then we revert to the initial problem we were trying to avoid when we started: the mystery being too easy. Players should still need to make skill checks and ask the right questions of NPCs in order to be rewarded with the clues they seek. If they fail at these skill checks, then they will lose access to that particular piece of information, possibly permanently from that source. This has the possibility of causing another problem: the players hitting a dead end because of a failed skill check.
A failed skill check blocking forward progress in an adventure or campaign is a common problem which DMs and GMs struggle with constantly. Some systems have built-in mechanics which allow players to “fail forward,” but in others, success or failure is clear-cut, and this can lead to frustrations. My solution for this in mystery adventures is to ensure that there are always multiple ways for the players to either get the information they need to solve the mystery, or that there are multiple ways to solve the mystery with the correct conclusion. For example, if the murderer was an elf, you could have three different clues which point to him being an elf: a witness could have seen an elf commit the murder, the murder weapon could be a type of blade which is known to only be used by elves, and a pamphlet was found at the scene of the crime proclaiming elves to be superior to any other race. In Edge of Darkness, the local Alms House is the headquarters of the cult behind the murder; the players can be directed to the Alms House by the dead man’s drinking buddy who saw him enter the building before never being seen again, by the leader of the local police (who have been bought off by the cult) who in a fit of guilt will warn the players to steer clear of the Alms House, or from a local gang leader who sees the cult as competition for illicit business and wants the players to remove the problem for him. Each of the clues requires a skill check or skillful questioning by the players to be discovered, but redundancy in either the clue itself or the method of delivery ensures that even if your players fail a skill check and get locked out of one avenue, there are other ways for them to access the information needed to solve the case.
Mystery and investigation adventures can be some of the most fun experiences your players have, providing them with a sense of accomplishment and cleverness difficult to replicate with other adventures. However, because they are less common and more thought-provoking than normal adventures, they can be challenging to plan and run. By providing your players with a good starting point, making every person or place they visit and interact with have something of value to them if they pass a skill check or ask the right questions, and ensuring that the players have multiple avenues to access information and get to the solution, you can give your players a memorable investigative experience. Edge of Darkness was a huge hit with my group. It challenged them by making them ask the right questions and make the right skill checks, but there were many options available to them which they never visited. They solved the mystery and “won” the adventure, but it was very reassuring to me that had they not taken the route they had taken, there were still many options for them to reach the same conclusion. I challenge you to strive for the same redundancy and possibilities in your own adventures.
Good luck, and happy gaming!
*Edge of Darkness is a free adventure from Fantasy Flight Games, and you can download it here. It’s worth a read, even if you don’t play Dark Heresy, just to really appreciate the skill of adventure construction for an investigation module.