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Investigations, Research, and the Art of The Boring Encounter

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First, some terms:

  • Encounter: A subsection of play in which a challenge is presented to the players in an effort to determine how the player characters would overcome said challenge.
  • Investigation: A type of encounter in which the player characters are attempting to solve a mystery or answer a question.
  • Research: A type of encounter (typically downtime) in which the player character(s) attempt to learn more information on a particular subject. Generally differs from an investigation in terms of tone; i.e., solving a murder is an investigation whereas finding a rare alchemical reagent is research.
  • Downtime: A period of time in-game that, generally, spans a week or so. Characters will often perform “downtime activities” that would ordinarily take too long of a period of time to perform immediately without the passage of time.

Game problems usually have over-engineered solutions. GMs try to solve one problem by introducing a brand new subsystem, not realizing that they’re overcomplicating the problem instead of solving it.

“Oh you played Elden Ring and want to craft arrows? Let me develop an entire crafting system for you to use, replete with materials you can harvest and obtain. Or at least let me find one on DriveThru and run through it to make sure it fits.”

I’m sure there are folks out there where this works for them. I’m not one of them. So I’m going to offer a simple, system-agnostic solution for how to run traditionally “boring” encounters:

Pacing

That’s it. That’s the whole solution.

Good pacing is, in my opinion, the most obvious way to tell an experienced GM from an inexperienced one. If you want to run encounters where the content is relatively dry (such as in an investigation or during a research segment), you have to be a master of pacing. Or at least really good at it. How? Simple:

  1. Determine the goal of the encounter before you make it. This could be something along the lines of “Find the murderer”, or “Learn the Arcane Brotherhood’s secret passcode”, or “Research a poison that cannot be tracked”. It’s helpful if you can reduce the goal to one sentence, preferably less than 10 words. If you can’t summarize the goal in a sentence, it’s probably too complicated and will, likely, be boring for someone at the table to deal with.
  2. Develop the obstacles of the encounter to block the goal. This is where people often trip up by making complex webs of intrigue. You need these to be very direct, uncomplicated obstacles. Again, these should be one sentence in length and as few words as you can spare. Most of the complications that arise from obstacles come from how the players choose to deal with them. To build off our previous examples, here’s a few sample obstacles: “The police have already arrested the wrong suspect”, “The passcode changes every night at midnight”, and “The Assassin’s Guild has a recipe book on all known poisons”.
  3. Soft-complicate the obstacle. Now, I know I said the obstacles should be uncomplicated. But if your players are anything like mine, they need their hands held from time to time while walking across the street. So, you soft-complicate the obstacle to pre-bake in a wrinkle. Usually this is done by shortening the available time to investigate, research, or otherwise complete the goal, but other methods work. Continuing our examples: “A player character’s brother has had frequent run-ins with the cops”, “The passcode is handwritten and only passed between brotherhood hands”, and “The recipe book sits on Guildleader Arlin’s bookshelf”.
  4. Connect and highlight the player characters. Figure out some ways the player characters can uniquely (as in individually) uncomplicate the obstacle. These should highlight character abilities and features or player ingenuity and critical thinking. You don’t need to hide these either, be up front with what it is you’re challenging. Human beings like putting correctly-fitted blocks in correctly-fitted holes. Finishing out our example goals: “Another player character is owed a favor by the chief of police”, “An NPC contact can get disguises for one of the characters”, and “The Assassin’s Guild is recruiting killers near South Bridge after midnight”.

If this feels too simple, it’s because you’re used to overcomplicating it. A good RPG session is one that lasts four hours but feels like two. And the key to making that happen isn’t adding a lot of detail, clues, potential solutions, fakeouts, etc. It’s providing a clear-cut goal or asking the players for one, wrinkling it with obstacles and complications, and connecting it back to the party.

A few extra tips for good measure:

  • An easy way to soft-complicate an obstacle is to integrate someone the party has pissed off in the past.
  • Campaign-spanning goals are just session-spanning goals connected to each other. Try not to over plan how these connect to each other; let the dice fall where they may and look for connective tissue later.
  • If a player has a really easy, cheap, and fast way of dealing with a complication (or even an entire goal), let them do it. They’ll feel smart for doing it and the party will be happy to get through an obstacle quickly.
  • Reminder: you’re not here to impress your friends with your big brain. You’re here to make sure everybody has fun. Err on the side of sharing to much meta information than holding back.
  • On that note, speak above the table when things start to slow down. The worst thing to do when players are floundering is to keep using NPC voices or shrug your shoulders with a smirk. Just tell them what they need to know to get back in gear.