About half-way through my last campaign I wanted my players to have to go through a research challenge that would help them put together some pieces of the puzzle of a mysterious illness that is plaguing the town they are in. Rolling dice to find out clues seemed to be pretty boring to me, so I decided to add something extra to this encounter by having the players do some of the work. The aim was to get them involved somehow in the research process without turning the activity into meta-gaming. Ideally I wanted them to have the sense of building up a body of knowledge from old arcane texts, and I wanted them to feel both the desire to keep researching and the fear of taking too long. What I came up was a means for the players to be physically piecing together the bits of knowledge the characters were discovering. Connecting a dice roll to a physical activity (for the players) turned a potentially very boring series of dice rolls into a flurry of activity on the table top as the horrors of what they had encountered – and were about to encounter – became more and more apparent as new excerpts were pieced together.
This interactive encounter can be set up for any instance where the party needs to conduct some kind of research to further the narrative, receal some lore and so on. I used it in a kind of D&D 4th Edition Skill Challenge, but it could be easily adapted to most systems which have skills appropriate to research.
The encounter will consist of the characters making skill checks against their investigation skills and depending on the outcomes the players will be given excerpts from texts which will be clues, lore, maps and so on. The players will paste and glue cut-out excerpts into a matching space in the book template you have prepared for them. At the end of the encounter the players will have a collection of completed book excerpts that they can keep with them and the characters will have new found knowledge to continue their adventure with.
What you’ll need
A colour printer or access to printing services that can print on thicker than normal paper.
2 pages of 120-200gsm paper for each “book” you want to produce for the players.
Text and images to make up the contents of the books.
Image editing software (Photoshop, Gimp, or in a pinch anything that will let you add text to an image).
An image of a blank book (such as this one).
Aesthetically pleasing and relevant fonts.
A craft knife.
Total cost should be about $5-10 (Australian).
How to make it
1. Get content
The first part of the process is to decide how much content you need to prepare. I decided to create four “books” (in reality, each book will be a single page of excerpts) with each book matching a particular skill that was available to the characters. So, using 4th Edition D&D, I had a book for each of Arcana, Religion, History and Nature (other skills can be used in the encounter as well – see How to run it, below). If you are using a different system, you should be quite easily able to adapt skills in a similar way.
Content can be anything from diary entries, maps and sketches, ancient encyclopedia or dictionaries, magical tomes, biological treatise and so on. Get creative. Feel free to include false clues, incomplete text or ambiguous information. The former because not everything written down is true, the second because ambiguity prompts curiosity, discussion and a desire to learn more.
If you’re lacking inspiration get on the web and start reading the works of others. My books were cobbled together from things I had written myself, maps I had found and text I had borrowed from around the web or from source books. I used a number of random generators, particularly for book titles, mostly from Donjon’s amazing collection. The Ancient Tome random generator includes the name of the tome as well a physical description and an overview, which you can either make use of or discard.
Organise your content into short paragraphs or single images. These will form each piece of the book that the players will received. You can have as many as you like, but obviously the more you have the more you’ll need to make and the longer it will take the players to get everything (which may be a good thing – making them decide what to concentrate on at the expense of other possibilities). I used about 10 paragraphs per book and that felt about right.
Try to make the paragraphs ordered so they progress in complexity, obscurity and/or importance. This will allow you to have a range of information to hand out depending on how well rolls are made, how much time is dedicated to the research and how skilled the characters are. Very obscure or important information might only be accessed on the best of rolls and should be ordered last.
2. Make the book images
Once you have the content of the books together you’ll need to prepare the images in some kind of image editing software. This is usually just a simple case of pasting the text into the correct position and won’t need anything more than basic skills in the software. Start with an image of a blank open book. You can either take your own (of an actual book and erase the existing text), use one of those I used, or find your own online.
Save a blank copy of whatever book you’ll be using. You’ll need to print at least one blank copy for each book. On another copy cut and paste the excerpts into the image, leaving a gap between each paragraph of about 1cm or 1/2 inch. Make sure you use an aesthetically pleasing font that is relevant to the book type. If it is a handwritten diary, get a font for handwriting. If it is an old church holy book, find a kind of ornate medieval gothic-style font. Put the title of each book at the top of the page.
Here are the examples of my books after I had cut and pasted each paragraph in.
3. Print and prepare the books
Once you have the images of each book prepared, print out a copy of the completed book and the blank book image you used to create it. Use thicker than normal paper, 120-200gsm is good, though around 170 is probably best. You might want to get the blank image printed on special “parchment” type paper to get it some extra colour and texture, but it isn’t necessary. It is likely they’ll have white borders, so trim these off.
Then, using the craft knife, cut out each individual paragraph. Use a craft knife instead of scissors so you don’t have to cut from the edges. You’ll end up with a collection of small cut-out paragraphs (looking like this) and the remains of the page which will be full of holes from the pieces cut out.
Take this remainder full of holes and glue it onto the blank copy you printed out. Once joined you’ll have a single piece for each book that will look a little this (without the excerpts):
You’re now more or less ready!
These templates are what you’ll hand to the players as they discover each book, and then as they complete research you’ll hand them the excerpt pieces to paste into the accompanying hole. They’ll be given some idea of how far they’ve progressed because of the number of blank spaces.
How to run it
Probably the most important thing to do is let the players know the broad rules that will be used in the situation. You don’t need to go to the finer details but let them know the basics of how things will work. There are a few ways to run the encounter but I’ll only go through how I did it (and how I might do it differently).
The players had been given a few hooks to get to the library but once there I made it obvious that their opponents were also doing research by having evidence of their presence around the library (a recently used table, a stack of belongings etc). This gave them the clue that there was something important to be discovered but also gave them a potential threat to deal with – are the enemy coming back and if so, when? The characters had also just found out that they had the early signs of infection as well, and that the infection would progress over time. They had seen the end result of the infection, so there was a clear impetus to discover a cure quickly.
This set up the importance of the first mechanic I used – time. Time was to be used as a limited resource to give the encounter a clear end point and to give the players a resource they had to spend. If they spent a full day trying to find a cure at the library what else had happened in the town without them, how had their disease progressed, did the enemy come back to find them? If they spent less time, would they discover anything useful? I ran the encounter in rounds of one hour during which each character could choose a skill to use to search, or to assist another in their search, undertake intensive research (risky but with a bigger bonus) or some other action (such as stand guard or rest).
The second mechanic was the skill checks. As each book had a primary skill for researching it, the main check each round was against that. Secondary skills (such as Insight) or ability checks (against Wisdom or Intelligence) were used to allow characters without strong relevant skills to aid others. At the very least with no relevant skills or abilities, a character could provide aid to another for a small bonus (say, +1) or keep watch for returning foes. The first round of checks was to discover the books themselves. These were pretty easy and shouldn’t be set up as a big barrier to the main part of the encounter (unless you wanted to have a very obscure tome among easier to discover ones).
At the end of each round I would award a number of paragraphs depending on how well the characters had performed. This is where the progression in difficulty or obscurity played a part. The more difficult to discover clues required higher rolls while easy pieces required substantially less. If a player rolled very high they might get more than one piece at a particular level. I didn’t have a specific breakdown for this though it was approximately:
DC15 – 1 easy difficulty piece.
DC 20 – 1 medium difficulty piece.
DC 25 – 1 hard difficulty piece.
DC 30 – 1 hard difficulty piece and at least one other piece from a lower level.
+1 if being assisted by an unskilled character.
+3 if being assisted by a character trained in the relevant skill.
+1 for each consecutive hour spent intensively researching the same book. This amount stacks and is cumulative so that the results are: +1 for 2hrs, +3 for 3hrs, +6 for 4hrs. The downside of this kind of intensive research is that it is all or nothing. The player must declare the amount of time ahead of the roll and the reward is only offered at the end of the declared time period. If the research is interrupted or the roll goes badly then nothing is awarded.
If the roll was within 1 or 2 of the next difficulty level I sometimes awarded an additional piece at the same or lower level just to keep things moving.
Once the result is known, the pieces are handed out and the player glues the piece in place. My players decided to do this without revealing the details of each discovery just giving a quick summary to the others. Sometimes this would lead them into a broader discussion, comparing notes and theories other times they’d be eager to get back to discovering more. At the end of the encounter they all read out what they had found and noted any gaps (they were ultimately interrupted by enemies). By staggering the information they received and making a single player responsible for their character’s research area the table had a lot of movement with players pasting and talking while others considered their next move.
The encounter I ran was eventually interrupted by enemies approaching (the players had posted the rogue outside as a lookout). Enemies entered via multiple routes – the front doors at the top and two side windows. Without the lookout this would have been a surprise attack, so that was well planned (and unexpected), however it did mean the rogue didn’t have a lot to do during the encounter. One thing I’d change is to try to somehow include characters not necessarily suited to this kind of encounter. The other thing I’d do is have the library split into research sections, so if the characters are interrupted they may find themselves spread out from each other. The map I made and used is here (a version without clutter is available).
The encounter could have additional complexity or a different feel to it depending on the scenario you set-up.
For example, you could set the research in a library that is under threat somehow e.g attackers at the doors having to be fended off while others do the research or a fire is approaching, or it is on a sinking ship. Obviously time-scales would need to be adjusted but even here time would be a limited resource.
Other variations would be to have texts that cross-reference each other, so for example discovering of a particular paragraph would give a bonus to a role in another book. A particular tome could have a cipher that is only revealed through researching other books first, as more research is completed more and more detail of the final text is revealed. Translations could be required – taking more time and allowing the players/characters to use the different alphabets/languages available to them.
Finishing the Encounter
The encounter ends when either the characters are interrupted, they discover all the text or they decide they’ve learnt enough. You can award XP if you like (I didn’t) based on things like the number and level of text discovered, or on completed books.
I had some of my texts include false information and a few plot hooks for further adventure (a half-missing page that talks of a particular cure) and references to other books that contain important information (that aren’t in this particular library).