by Ameron (Derek Myers) on January 18, 2010

Adventurers are used to being approached by local townsfolk and asked to help resolve problems. After all, the PCs have skills and abilities far superior to those of average citizens. When unusual events occur, the locals are often grateful for the assistance of experts like the PCs. Typical request include asking the PCs to kill a monster that has wandered too close to the village or rescue the magistrate’s daughter who’s been kidnapped by goblins.

But every once and a while a situation arises where the solution isn’t as simple as swinging a blade or casting a spell. Sometimes the PCs need to be detectives. Their considerable experience allows them to size up a situation differently then regular folk. The PCs are more likely to notice a clue or detail that the locals missed or took for granted.

The easiest and most obvious way to handle this kind of situation is for the DM to run it as a skill challenge. But if all the PCs are doing is looking for clues, the skill challenge may be nothing more than a series of Perception checks. This is where it’s up to the DM to be creative. The DM must encourage the PCs to use more than just Perception to look for the less obvious clues.

Below are some sample situations all of which came up over the past few weeks in my campaign. In each situation a Perception checks got the ball rolling with an obvious check. However, the PCs learned considerably more by using other skills to build on what the cursory Perceptions check revealed. The real details were dependent upon successful subsequent checks made using other skills.

Scenario 1 – The Devil’s in the Details

A terrible incident occurred at a local shop. A Devil appeared and killed two innocent bystanders inside the shop. A Wizard who was tracking the Devil arrived too late to help the two victims, but he did manage to banish the infernal creature. The PCs are asked to survey the scene and try to confirm the Wizard’s story.

A successful Perception check (easy DC) confirms magic was certainly used in the room and that people did indeed meet a gruesome and untimely death here. A successful Religion check (Monster Knowledge DC 25) lets you identify the type of Devil and the kind of powers it could have used during the fight. A successful Arcana check (moderate DC + power’s level) allows PCs to identify tell-tale signs of which powers the Wizard used during the fight. A successful Heal check (hard DC) made while examining the bodies reveals signs that these people were not killed by the Demon, but by Arcane spells. The evidence suggests that the Wizard is not being completely truthful about what happened inside the shop.

Scenario 2 – Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

After fighting a bunch of rough and tumble ex-soldiers the PCs search the bodies. With a successful Perception check (easy DC) a PC notices that one of the fallen men has a tattoo. A successful History check (moderate DC) lets a PC recognize it as a military tattoo common among soldier living in a nearby country. If a PC makes a successful Insight check (hard DC) they realize that the combat style most commonly employed by solders from that country is not consistent with the way these men fought. Identifying them may be more difficult then first thought.

Scenario 3 – In Plain Sight

After locking up for the night, a local merchant returned to his shop to retrieve a forgotten item. As soon as he opened the front door he spotted a team of Goblins inside robbing his shop. He quickly ran away and called for help. Goblins are unusual in these parts so the local authorities ask for your assistance.

The store owner accompanies you through the shop but after a cursory glance around he doesn’t seem to think anything’s been stolen. The PCs have little trouble noticing the tracks the Goblins left in the dust on the floor with a successful Perception check (easy DC). PCs that exceed the Perception check by 5 or more notice that the tracks are mainly in the far corner. Against one will is a bookshelf, but the shopkeeper says nothing’s been stolen. A PC who makes a successful Insight check (moderate DC) realizes that some of the books are upside down, as if they were removed and then hastily put back on the shelves. On a nearby wall a painting is tilted slightly. A PC who makes a successful History check (hard DC) recalls the artist or style of this work and realizes that the painting is upside-down. Why would the Goblins remove books from a bookshelf and hang a painting upside-down? Perhaps theft wasn’t their true motive for being here.

These examples are just a few to get you thinking in the right mindset. Searching doesn’t always have to rely on Perception checks. If Perception is the only skill the PCs can use then a lot of players will feel left of out these kinds of situations. Remember that less than half of the classes give the PCs the option to train Perception. By allowing and encouraging PCs to use other skills, the players will be more creative and these kinds of encounters will be more inclusive and more exciting.

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1 greywulf January 18, 2010 at 12:18 pm

Good stuff, though I’d say that Perception is the LAST skill I would recommend the players need to use. Taking a hint from Gumshoe, have the players automatically find every clue (unless it really has been purposefully hidden – THEN use Perception), but they need to use their other skills and deductive logic to be able to work out the solution.

For example – at a murder scene the heroes discover a set of footprints leading away from the body then mysteriously stopping. A Nature check reveals them to be hoofprints – but how can a horse just disappear?

Examining the body, the heroes make an Arcana or Religion check around the blackened wound mark and discover faint traces of an undead taint while a Streetwise check confirms that tales of other similar bodies being discovered in the Southern Quarter near the Exotic Animal Pens. A History check recalls a legend of a most fearsome beast – a Vampiric Pegasus!! – and the chase is on…………..

Hope that helps!

2 Neuroglyph January 18, 2010 at 5:51 pm

My last campaign was set in the Forgotten Realms town of Delzimmer, which is a gritty urban setting in the Shining South. I enjoyed writing adventures like this, where Characters were forced to use a variety of skills to solve a mystery – often involving the finding and questioning of witnesses to get leads. It was set in 3.5, but the necessary skills are very similar:

>>Streetwise – when looking for and questioning witnesses for clues in the bad parts of town.
>>Diplomacy – when looking for and questioning witnesses in the nice parts of town.
>>Insight – to know if you’re being lied to or if the witness is holding something back.
>>Intimidate – to play “bad cop” and get someone to confess to what they really saw.

Detective plots are probably one of my favs, and I tend to involve at least a little sleuthing in almost any adventure I write.
.-= Neuroglyph´s last blog ..Pre-Release Review: BioHazard (Playtest Module) by Dias Ex Machina =-.

3 Ameron January 19, 2010 at 3:44 pm

The PCs in my current campaign have ridiculously high skill scores. They pretty much beat the DC for a hard check before they even roll. So I’ve been doing as you suggest and just assuming they notice all the obvious details. But I make them work for the leaps of logic.

However, in some D&D games (including a lot of the LFR games) a Perception roll is all that’s required and then the PCs are given everything on a silver platter. I think too many DMs put too much power into the Perception skill.

A Vampiric Pegasus, that’s just awesome!

I’ve played a few urban-heavy games and they do tend to be much more focused on skills than other types of D&D games. If you’re going to run a detective caper it pretty much has to be set in the city. It’s a lot of fun as an occasional adventure, but experience taught me that most players aren’t interested in this as a long-term game. A little bit spread in among the hack and slash does make for an interesting change of pace.

4 greywulf January 19, 2010 at 3:55 pm


re:Vampiric Pegasus

Welcome to my world 😀

5 Rook January 19, 2010 at 5:13 pm

First off… Vampiric Pegasus?! Awesome! But now my wife is gonna want one for her necromancer.

Second… I’ve never liked the idea of “answers on silver platters”, especially when it’s due to a single successful Perception check. Perception is simply seeing/sensing things, clues or otherwise. That’s why, if the party finds the clues, but still can’t put 2+2 together, I’ll sometimes allow an Insight check to notice the significance of what they have successfully Perceived. That’s where your leaps of logic come in. Of course, I use Insight as the generic “go to” skill check in these cases, if the clue deals with religion or nature, etc. then I’ll use the appropriate skill for the check. But just because the PCs notice something doesn’t automatically indicate that they understand it’s meaning.

Or perhaps I’m just a hard-ass for a DM. You decide.
.-= Rook´s last blog ..How DO you keep an all “evil” party from imploding? =-.

6 Ameron January 21, 2010 at 12:34 pm

You wrote: “Just because the PCs notice something doesn’t automatically indicate that they understand it’s meaning.”

This is something more DMs need to remember. By providing too much information with one simple roll, you’re denying the players a chance to actually play their own PC. If they struggle and you think their character might have know more than they do, throw them a bone. But stop spoon feeding them.

7 Chromed Cat May 16, 2010 at 6:41 pm

I’ve been combing the Dungeon adventures at D&D Insider, looking for some adventures to help me do a murder mystery. Very glad you did this articel. I’ve enough to go ahead now.

8 Big DAn June 14, 2010 at 10:28 pm

THIS is how I love running my games 😀 I am so glad you have refinements and tweaks where I had a few queries!

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