Creating an Investigative Adventure

Recently, I ran the Living Forgotten Realms adventure “Crafts” by Andrew Cowan (DRAG1-7) for my group. In running this adventure, I was surprised at the elegance with which the author presented the “investigative” part of the adventure, and wanted to share it so that others could benefit from it. Often, writing a good investigation is difficult because things get complicated quickly.  I think you’ll see that keeping it simple is best.

As you read this, you should keep in mind the following:

  • This is a Living Forgotten Realms (LFR) adventure, so the plot is pretty railroad-y. However, the organization that was used in the investigative part of the adventure can apply just as well (maybe even better!) to a sandbox game.
  • The investigation was framed as one big skill challenge spanning several locations and scenes. We’re not going to touch on that at all, but rather the planning and presentation of the information.
  • LFR adventures are written to be run by many different DMs, and often the adventure is “pick up” (i.e., not a lot of prep time for the DM). Clear presentation and common sense organization of the material are paramount to writing a good adventure, good plot notwithstanding.
  • Since I don’t know the author, I’m making some pretty big assumptions about the PROCESS involved in writing this. If the process that I present doesn’t suit you, that’s fine; use what works for you. What I’m really doing is pointing to the finished product as an example of a well organized investigative adventure.
  • I shouldn’t need to say this, but will anyway: there are spoilers involved here, so if you haven’t played “Crafts” and are planning to, go away and come back when you have.

With these things in mind, let’s look at how the investigation was organized and presented in this module.

The setup:

The PCs are contacted by some sisters from a local church, and asked to put a stop to the sale of a new drug in the city. The sisters’ temple has been caring for those going through the debilitating withdrawl of the drug, and has become overwhelmed with the number of new “patients.”  If the spread of the drug isn’t stopped soon, the city will soon succumb.

It is important to remember when creating an investigation that at some point, there needs to be a “bottleneck” of information; everything needs to point to one culprit.  Put another way, all paths of investigation need to lead to the conclusion.  Granted, one path may be a red herring (ONE), and some paths may take longer than others. There may even be some overlap. In the end though, the PCs need to be able to conclude their investigation.  There are no unsolveable crimes in D&D.  With that in mind, you need to start by deciding where the investigation will conclude.  This will make it much easier to draw “paths” to that conclusion.  In “Crafts” the conclusion is the compound where the drug lords reside.

From there, you start wherever the PCs will start, and work forwards.  Come up with several leads for the PCs to follow up on; they don’t have to be obvious, either.  For example, the PCs could talk to some of the patients to find out where they were buying the drug (obvious), or the PCs could try and find a dealer on their own (not as obvious).  Finally, they could check with the city watch and find out what they already know (some groups may not even think of this).  It’s important to spend some time brainstorming possible investigation paths that the players may think of.

After you have initial leads, the rest of the investigation is simply adding some dots to connect start with finish. In other words, you don’t want the first lead they follow up on to bring them directly to the drug lords’ doorstep.  So you add some more leads.  Let’s look at how the dots follow from the “find a drug dealer” lead:  Find a drug dealer >> Obtain a sample of the drug (or) ascertain the dealer’s supplier.  So we have another choice for the PCs to make, keeping in mind that, either way they go, they will be pointed to the conclusion.  Let’s follow the “Obtain a sample” lead: Obtain a sample of the drug >>  ascertain the drug’s ingredients.  At this point, the PCs really only have one choice that will produce results.  That’s good, because now we have a bottleneck.  From here, the PCs only have to trace the ingredients back to their source, the drug lords’ compound.

There are actually other bottlenecks in the investigation.  For example, talking to patients in the infirmary (one of the initial leads) points you to seeking out a drug dealer as well.  While the PCs followed a different initial lead, they are sent along the same path.  That’s a bottleneck – no matter what the PCs do, they should be pointed towards the conclusion.  The more of these overlaps you can come up with, the better.  If you can use the drug dealer encounter when the PCs choose lead one OR two, that’s one less encounter you need to write. 

When you’re ready to map out the investigation in your notes, there are several ways to do it.  You could draw a picture, or make an outline.  I prefer an outline, because you can type it and save it, but if you’re more graphically driven, a picture with circles and lines works fine too.  Here’s what our investigation might look like in outline form:

  1. Talk to Patients
    1. Go to 2.
  2. Find a Drug Dealer
    1. Obtain a sample
      1. Ascertain the ingredients
        1. Find merchants who deal in those ingredients
          1. Go to conclusion
    2. Ascertain the supplier
      1. Get inside the supplier’s house
        1. Go to 2A
        2. Go to conclusion (with appropriate skill checks)
  3. Talk to the city watch
    1. Go to 2Bi

Of course, this is the barest of outlines, and should be a kind of “Index” pointing you to more robust notes elsewhere.  There is all manner of information, and many skill checks not included in this outline.  As an aside, I always advocate putting more information in your notes than less.  That way, later you can come back to something you’ve done and re-skin it, or possibly use it again as is.  It’s tempting to only include the outline in your notes, and rely on your memory for the rest because that’s less work.  However, you will most certainly forget the details in a year or two, and when that happens, the bare outline will require you to do the work of fleshing it out all over again.

Hopefully, I’ve given you a starting point for writing investigations.  I’m sure there are other ways of doing them, but what I saw in this adventure really made a lot of sense to me, and helped me to write my own.  If anyone else has tips, or a different way of doing them, feel free to leave advice in the comments!

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