Burst of Insight – New Uses of the Research Rules in a Mystery Adventure

Two weeks ago, I mentioned the Research rules from Ultimate Intrigue oh so briefly, this week we’re going to talk about them a little bit more in depth. Particularly, how you can use them in conjunction with improvisational role-playing to help hide the rails in an investigative adventure.

In a nutshell, the Research rules allow the GM to stat up a library and the information that can be discovered in it. This plays out in practice much like an extended series of Knowledge checks. If you want a more specific description of the Research rules you can familiarize yourself with them here on the d20Pfsrd site. Don’t worry I’ll wait.

Everybody back? Okay.

Mystery adventures often unspool in a rather linear way. A body is discovered, something is stolen, or some other event occurs then the investigation follows with one clue leading to the next until ultimately the investigators figure out the mystery. Given enough time and as long as there are few interruptions heroes are apt to solve any mystery. Much as given enough time in the right library a PC is going to discover any specific lore they are looking for. There are usually a few red herrings, muscular henchmen or other obstacles on the path but that path still runs pretty straight.

Before we talk about how to partner the Research rules with the investigation story arc let’s briefly discuss the structure of a mystery. Now, I’m going to focus more on the episodic TV mystery structure, I think the quick pace and simple structure work very well for a short RPG adventure.

TV mysteries typically open with a body. Sometimes, there’s a bit a vague this is how they died, but the real action from a GM’s point of view begins with the discovery of a body. Or the discovery that a theft has been committed in the case less violent mysteries. This might be your hook or it might be the first scene after you’ve set your hook depending on your players and their characters. This is the part of the story when the heroes examine the crime scene, identify the body, trade some one-liner quips, figure out what most likely happened and decide how to proceed.

Next, we move into the actual investigation. The heroes talk to witnesses or canvass the neighborhood asking questions while also following up on other clues they uncover along the way. It should be noted that on TV many of these interactions resolve fairly quickly. As a GM you might try some TV tactics to get NPCs to disengage from the immediate events. The various Law and Order shows were particularly adept at having witnesses give their statements and then quickly get out of the way by having to get back to work, a crying baby, or whatever. Let your witnesses make their statements and go, otherwise, the PCs may become distracted from your actual story.

Often, there is an event about three-quarters of the way through the story that really shakes things up for our heroes, a serious setback. The primary suspect’s alibi turns out to be airtight, another body drops while they have the suspect or the suspect is murdered too. The setback could be any number of things that complicate the heroes’ plans.

An investigation in Pathfinder may require a couple of lesser setbacks at least a few of these should be combat oriented. For example, the PCs might be investigating the murder of an old ally in Absalom only to run afoul of a pack of wererats. The presence of the lycanthropes might contradict a theory of the case or they just might be an enemy to fight. Either way, it at least delays the investigation if not change its complete direction.

Finally, we come to the climax and wrap-up of the story. This is where the investigators catch the real perpetrator and everything comes to a close.

So how do you use the Research rules to hide the rails in a mystery adventure?

Actually, it’s pretty easy. First outline the case the whole Who, What, When Why and How. Once you have those details then I’d use those details to set up a series of “libraries.” the scene of the crime would be the first. This one would be pretty limited and would only uncover a small number of facts and rather than using Knowledge skills it would use Perception and require much less time.

Once the PCs get all the information they can from the initial scene, they should begin canvassing the area looking for witnesses. This is our second library. Much more involved the information in this libraries stat block will comprise much of the adventure’s main storyline. Skills for this part of the story should be Diplomacy, Intimidate, and possibly Perception. It doesn’t really matter who the PCs visit, let them roll for the information and then role-play through what they learned. You need not keep one witness NPC on screen for everything the PC’s learned on a given roll. Feel free to roleplay a montage of visits with witnesses especially if the PC’s rolled well…or if more than one PC. The real trick here is to be willing to use the check results as a guide while you do a little impromptu role playing. Make the NPCs distinctively different from one another you don’t want your player’s latching onto only the NPCs that seem to be full color.

Your clues at this stage could also lead to a mini dungeon such as a thieves’ guild hideout in which a significant clue might be found. In addition to clues you might have events tied to certain roll results. Events could be good or bad. For example, one result could be a group of thugs angling to get a PC alone and beat him or her up as a warning to stay away. Or another might be a witness who shows up on their own because they finally worked up the courage and/or they heard from a friend that your players were investigating and came to them with new information.

Important tip: Most of your skill check results for talking to witnesses should be clues rather than you just providing answers and some results should duplicate information the PCs already have. This sort of corroborating data can be useful for keeping the PCs on track.

You may find that plotting an adventure this way is a fun change of pace from typical dungeon crawls.



Andrew Marlowe

placed in the Top 16 of RPG Superstar in 2012 and 2014, one of the few contestants to get that far in the competition twice. Since then, he has contributed to many Paizo and third party Pathfinder products, including one of the network’s favourite releases in the Pathfinder Player Companion line, the Dirty Tactics Toolbox. Every other Tuesday, he will be sharing his Burst of Insight, with design tips for would-be game designers from a decorated freelancer.

Gen Con 2016
Gen Con 2016


  1. So one thing that I’ve been wondering: what’s to keep the players from just saying “I keep whacking at the mystery/research in this library until I’ve learned everything?” Would you have to add a time element to the adventure?

    • This is covered a little in the research rules, so yes I would put a time element in place. You can also send in the villain’s henchmen as the PC get too close to the truth. Finally, I didn’t mean to imply the answer to the mystery would be revealed as much as all the clues could be discovered. Interpreting those clues would be up to the PCs. Hope all of that helps. Thanks for reading.

Leave a Reply