Behind the Screen: Investigation Campaigns…

2007 December 6
by Dante

As requested by our good buddy Phil, The Chatty DM today I will be examining the most grand puzzle of them all: the investigation campaign. To me, the investigation campaign is probably the most difficult to pull off successfully and requires patience, finesse, and a whole lot of contingency planning on the part of the DM.

To me, an investigation campaign is one that focuses on the party unraveling some sort of intrigue, cracking some mysterious code, or gathering clues to thwart their enemies. Or all of the above.


One of the most important elements of a good investigation campaign is patience. As a DM, you know the full picture. You know the fact that the players missed a clue that was lodged in that tree stump over there, they didn’t ask an important question of the NPC they just encountered, and it DRIVES YOU CRAZY.

It is paramount that as a DM you do not get mad at your players for not taking the appropriate steps. I have only experienced an investigation campaign as a player, so I have some unique perspective here: it is very easy to run down false leads, not see or understand an important clue, or generally just not pick up on the right things.

Finesse and Planning

As the DM, it takes a certain level of finesse to find the right mix of overt clues, leads, and events that take the characters down the right path. It also takes A LOT of contingency planning to ensure you can handle – in an interesting way – the different (mostly false) paths that your players will travel down.

A general rule of thumb to go by is assume that you will have to really set your clue off. I mean, to the point it is so obvious that you perceive NO WAY that it can be missed. Then, your players may have a chance at actually picking up on it. Often, I have found that DMs that really think they are smart guys will spread out latent clues in the setting, background, in reference materials sprinkled throughout the campaign. In reality, most players that I have been around usually don’t remember intricate details, or don’t think to “connect the dots” between the obtuse pieces of data. Often, it needs to restort to tactics that will seem heavy handed to you as DM, however remember… you already KNOW why the things you are putting forth are significant. They do not.

When the players start to pick up on the correct line of information, you might be able to scale back the “obvious factor” and let them fish for details a little more, but be careful not to let them linger in a state of confusion too long. If left to confusion, your players may elect to just throw up their hands and walk away, usually becoming resistant to returning to a “failed” line of information.

The Inspector Gadget Factor

To give a unique spin on the notion of investigation campaigns, I would like to invoke the name of my favorite detective of all time: Inspector Gadget. We can look to the common storyline of the Inspector Gadget cartoons to find an interesting approach on a investigation scenario: Dr. Claw (or one of his cronies) does something evil. Gadget goes to investigate and find some clues. He either completely misses the clue or takes a false clue and continues to examine it as if it was the proper lead, which places him in danger. It usually takes some heavy handed actions by his niece, Penny, to bring Gadget to the appropriate conclusion.

If you remove the comedic elements to this story, you find a microcosm of what a investigation campaign can look like. The moral to the story is simple: players see things differently and will often need help to find the appropriate answer.

Also, I can’t stand M.A.D Cat, even 20 years later.

8 Responses leave one →
  1. ChattyDM permalink
    December 7, 2007

    Brilliant! Thanks for writing this!

    I agree with all your points.

    I’ll add the importance of having a DM Clue Bat nearby to walk players with it when they miss something you thought was obvious but they missed.

    This pieces get’s SUed!

  2. Doug Hagler permalink
    December 7, 2007

    I’d add to this, from my own experience: don’t use Red Herrings unless they move the story forward in some useful way. It just seems to be the case that players will see things differently from the DM, even when they know each other pretty well and are all supposedly on the same page. What is glaringly obvious to me is often missed by them, and I miss things when I’m a player in an investigation-based game or session.

    Red Herrings are really useful in fiction, but in a game I think they just make things more complicated and less meaningful.

    In fact, in the future, I think I’ll take the false leads that players might take up in a game and make them the right leads. If they don’t know what’s going on ‘behind the scenes’, there’s no reason you can’t change everything to fit what the players are doing. That way, whatever choice the players make is the ‘right’ choice, at least insofar as it moves the story forward, which is more fun for everyone.

  3. Tommi permalink
    December 7, 2007

    The rule of thumb I have encountered was to have three useful clues for every mystery or secret. That gives three chances of solving it.

    I’d also make the mystery dynamic so that there is a price for failure. For example, in case of murder mystery, the killings go on, with a new clue added for every successful murder.

  4. Yax permalink
    December 7, 2007

    I like Doug’s idea of making some false leads the right leads.

  5. ChattyDM permalink
    December 7, 2007

    So do I… this would make Investigation games a lot less frustrating to players who aren’t detail oriented and hate puzzles…

    As long as they don’t know about this ploy.

  6. Daegun permalink
    December 7, 2007

    I run a lot of investigation in my Eberron setting and one of my favourite things to do is make the obvious seem impossible. That or make three clues right for every one wrong. If they miss the all-important clue, I usually throw that back in later. The one thing I’ve noticed most of all is that, in a D&D world, investigation seems hard on its own, without running the wrong way. That, and reading tons of Chandler and Hammett helped…

    By the way, love the posts from everyone. Long time listener, first time caller.

  7. Vanir permalink
    December 7, 2007

    Personal pet peeve:

    DM’s who get angry and/or act like the players are stupid if the Clue Bat has to come out MAKE VANIR SMASH.

    Of course the clues seem obvious to you. You know where all of them are and how they relate to the story. You know the whole story! The players are looking at your story through a cardboard toilet paper tube.

    Getting angry at your players for not getting it is like Tom Cruise being angry at you for not achieving OT III status. Through the powers of Xenu, you have the complete picture — your players have but a copy of Dianetics to guide them, and the Admiral is nowhere to be found to guide them through the sea of clams. That’s your job.

  8. ChattyDM permalink
    December 7, 2007

    Okay, so Clue bat is a bad metaphor… agreed.

    How about a ‘Please follow this arrow on before everyone notices how bad the DM’s clues are’ sign?


    Cuz as much as some players hate getting handed the solution to a puzzle, a significant portion of Detail-hating players will rip your DM head away and go bowling with it if you wait for them to find ‘THE RIGHT CLUE’ before moving the game along…

    One of the reasons I hate DMing and playing investigation games is that finding the perfect balance is a very hard feat… well at least for me…

    Peace man!

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