Music: “Veiled Hunter” by MidnightSyndicate from “The 13th Hour” © 2005. Used with permission.

When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable,
must be the truth.
” – Sherlock Holmes

when investigation skills fail

Image by Brandon C. ClarkI've written up an expanded version of the Game Master Advice Section from the
1st Edition BtS book that I plan to include in an upcoming sourcebook. One of the sections I've added deals with failing investigation/perception rolls as they can completely grind an investigative scene (and/or the entire game) to a screeching halt. But as I keep coming across GM’s who ask about this issue (both on the forums and in person) I thought it would be worth saying a few words about it here in the House(at least till the full version is published). Note that is NOT a reprint of what I've written, it’s very abridged and off the cuff.

First off, I should state that I’m very pro “planning ahead” when it comes to a BTS adventure. For those who aren't (or haven’t really tried planning ahead as of yet), let me say that horror RPG’s in my opinion are THE hardest type of games to just “wing it” and go by the seat of your pants (and I've played/GM’d all sorts of genre’s to know what I’m talking about). And in horror RPG’s, the investigation scenes are important aspects.

So, putting all your investigation materials and clues together before hand is one of the greatest services you can do for yourself as a GM, and the players will love you for it as the multitude of clues makes them feel more like interactive investigators, and a part of the bigger picture of the adventure overall.

But what happens when the players find a mangled body that holds important clues to the progression of the story, but the forensic player(s) fail their skill rolls? That’s what I’m going to talk about here. But to do this right, I’all set up a simple example scenario of the clues the players will need to progress in their adventure.

Mundane Murder Scene by Mike MumahJimmy ‘The Stool Pigeon’ Jones was an informant of some law enforcement organization who’s been working on uncovering an illegal dog fighting operation. But Jimmy gets in over his head as he’s not only found a well established and well managed underground dog fighting club, the manager of the club has gotten bored with just using dogs, and has upgraded to using Hell Hounds!

As Jimmy was on his way to report the details of the operation and its location to his superiors (cell phones aren't allowed in the club, so he hid one nearby before attending), the manager of the fight club (who's also a practicing mage/shifter type) is onto him somehow and sends a few hell hounds to hunt down and kill him. And indeed, the hounds find him just as he makes his way into a nearby old auto mechanic shop, mauling him just as he dialed 911 (allowing the police to track his cell phone to the auto shop).

Due to the bizarre nature of the mauling, the PC’s are asked to help investigate (or whatever situation is appropriate to get your party looking into the scene). The well seasoned forensic expert in the party, who only needs to roll below an 85% to successfully deduce the pertinent clues of the scene, happens to roll a 98%. So what do the players (and the GM) do now?

Well, don’t fret… there are many ways to skin this cat. Below are but a few possible suggestions to help get the players back on track.

Image from page 8 of BTS-2-Offer multiple clues to help lead the group to the right conclusion: Allow the players with the deductive skills to roll once for each clue at the crime scene. This way if they fail to deducing the reason the first clue is useful evidence, they may correctly deduce and understand other clues with successful skill rolls, which in turn may help them deduce what the other evidence means on their own (even though the PC failed the skill roll).

-Allow all of the non-investigative minded PC’s at the scene to make a perception roll: The highest roll gets awarded with seeing/understanding a key part of the evidence.
Example: “Marty, you may not be a forensic guy by any means, but while observing the body, you can determine by the tooth marks embedded in the skin and bones that they seem very canine-like, and yet they’re too sharp and misshapen to be ordinary.”
Or you could go even more obvious with something like “Marty, you've seen bite and claws marks like these before… they look very similar to wounds inflicted by Hell Hounds”.
One way to handle this is to have the successful PC discuss the details he found with the forensic expert PC, and once he’s pointed out what he noticed, let the forensic PC roll again due to the new perspective, stating that perhaps “you must have overlooked this aspect of the clue when you examined the body the first time around”.

-Let the PC's discuss what they do know: This is a great option if the player group has at least got one or two clues that were available. Certainly the GM should let them try to fathom it all out on their own, but sometimes the GM may want to interject if the group is stuck, explaining something from the point of view of one of the characters. Take this example from the point of Joe, the group's forensic expert, with the GM speaking on his behalf. As Joe gives the facts, the notes in parenthesis are the reasons behind them:

Joe: “I seem to be missing something here, but these are the facts to consider. The victim was found lying face down. The victim’s knees and elbows were recently bruised, and the first bite, which was likely lethal, came from the back of the neck” (the lead Hell Hound lunged and knocked the victim to the ground from behind as it's jaws clamped around his neck).
  Joe then pulls a book of matches and a pack of a unique brand of cigarettes from the victim's coat pocket. Judging from the minimal amount of wear, this pack of cigarettes has only been recently opened and only two or three cigarettes have been removed. The outside of the matchbook reads “Chu’s Chinese Cuisine”. Opening the flap of the book reveals that three matches have been pulled out, and on the inside of the flap there’s an address (this address will lead them to an abandoned and empty warehouse, where the dog fights take place.)
Note: If/when an investigation is made at the warehouse, the group can confirm that two cigarette butts with the unique logo brand and three burnt out match sticks are found just inside the front entrance of the warehouse (Jimmy watched the fighting while standing close to the door as he smoked). This confirms that he came here sometime after going to the restaurant; other evidence inside the warehouse would confirm that some kind of fighting took place here, and perhaps more clues could help lead them to the club owner’s location/hideout/Hell Hound pen.

-Use the characters psychic talents in place of the investigation skill:
A Psychic Sensitive may get an overwhelming adrenaline rush upon entering the auto shop, feeling a sense of “the thrill of the chase, the blood lust of the predators and the anticipation of violently killing their prey”. He can probably even taste the blood of the victim on his lips (and may need to save against his M.E. to avoid getting sick by the sudden onslaught of such extreme sensations).
A Psychic Medium might see a ghostly recreation of the victim running into the auto shop and getting mauled by the pursuing Hell Hounds, or the victim’s spirit could still linger in the mechanics garage, pleading with the Medium to “look at the match book” and may even manage to sputter out the words “Hell …. Hounds”
Side Note:
never let a ghost/spirit give all direct details unless its pivotal to the story’s progression.
A Diviner might see a sign from the way the remaining matches in the match book have been bent or warped from use and the sign tells him the address was freshly, but hastily written down (within the last few hours). The Diviner might even be able to follow the trail of the Hell Hounds with his divining rod back to the warehouse (as the Hell Hounds returned to their master at the warehouse after killing Jimmy).
A Latent Psychic might have had a precognitive dream the night before of Hell Hounds fighting amongst themselves in a pit full of dog bones as faceless spectators aggressively and passionately cheer them on. While the pit of bones and the faceless spectators are excessive examples, the fighting Hell Hounds have a spotlight over them (as if to enhance the point of the dream) and the latent should make the correlation of this dream and the mauled victim.
Psionics like Clairvoyance, Commune with Spirits, See the Invisible, Object Read, Precognition, Remote Viewing, and others could also provide insights and clues to the investigation.

Kevin Long art from page 62 of Boxed Nightmares-An NPC could help get the PC's in the right direction. One of the police/FBI investigators present says out loud “The victim looks like he was mauled by wild animals; I’d say a pack of dogs. (Note: This statement makes sense to the detective as Jimmy was sniffing out a dog fighting club to begin with, but the group may not know that useful bit of info right away)
But if they’re really dogs, then their teeth and claws are sharper than anything I've ever seen, and their jaws would have to be abnormally large and strong to get a bite around his neck like that. What the hell kinda dogs are these sicko’s using?”

In past games I've run and played in, when in doubt, we called up or visited with our contacts or experts in a pedicular field who might have something to offer. This happens ALL the time in movies, TV shows, books and so on, and makes perfect sense for characters to do as they just cant know everything. Sometimes this lead to some interesting side quests and role playing opportunities in the process.

Give them the clues straight out: If all else fails, the easiest way to solve this issue would be to just give the PC’s the important clue(s), but ONLY the minimum amount of details about them… then let them figure out the meaning of the clues on their own as they find them. As they correctly deduce what a clue means, offer up or remind them of the smaller clues that help confirm their conclusions. What this entails could be a grocery list of clues, some of which they draw conclusions from, some of which may leave them puzzled. How the player handle the unsolved clues is their own responsibility in this case.

The player group could try to solve the clues in a multitude of ways: The player characters could talk to their mentors or other experts in the field about what they've found to see what they think, or the group may try to reason it out again after a few hours away from the clues or after some new insight to the crime is realized, or the group could back track to previous clues found and compare those to the new clues in the hopes to strike a chord or figure out the connection between it all.

You could perform a multitude of these options as needed during a given scene.
The important thing is to keep in mind is that the players should always get the clues, regardless of how they rolled. The fun part of clues are usually figuring them out (not trying to find them), and if this means the players need to really ponder and deduce the clues given to them because they failed a skill roll, or even worse, they misinterpret the clues presented to them, they are still involved in the RPG interaction process and enjoying the game together. Sometimes these erroneous directions and deduction can create fun and exciting role playing opportunities. Handling these setbacks and figuring out the clues on their own is both adventure worthy and experience point worthy.

Note: In some cases, it may be pertinent to let the group fail to determine what the clues mean. They may have to sit on the clues (or that investigation altogether as they deal with a completely unrelated investigation in the meantime) and then try again later after more clues or perspectives about this case are revealed by the GM sneaking them in, or the group gets involved in a new case that turns out to be related to the one they couldn't deduce earlier. This shouldn't happen all the time as it gets old, but on occasion (especially if it leads to an epic story in the making) it’s a worthwhile venture.

On the other hand, if the group is blazing a trail and picking up on the clues too fast and threatening to reach the ending early, throwing in a red herring in here and there can be fun and extend the life of the adventure.