So the PC have captured an enemy or are hitting the library to find some clues. You’ve got your list of 10+ secrets and clues as recommended by The Lazy DM, so now what?

Here are some guidelines that get used at my table for D&D, Call of Cthulhu, and Blades in the Dark.

First, you have to find out what the players actually want to know. Ask them what are three things they want to learn about. The source might be a captured enemy, a friendly tavern keep, researching in a library, and so on. They might learn more but those core three questions help focus the inquiry and it is easy enough for a GM to add a “No, but …” or “Yes, and …” to supply additional information.

Example: “You can’t find anything about Dr. Pryce specifically, but you do come across some information about the asylum he runs” to help redirect them back towards the main narrative.

Ask who is asking each question and what approach they are taking and if someone is helping. Depending on what they are asking / how they are asking / and how much I need them to know will determine a few things. What ought to be the degree of opposition (if any), how appropriate the approach is, and how suitable the source is for answering the question.

Example: You really need the PCs to know where the hideout is for the next encounter. One of the PCs makes a death threat against a captured thug.

  • The thug feels so outclassed that they just give up the information and tack on “I don’t know nothin’ about some noble getting kidnapped, but we were supposed to meet up at the Red Hook Tavern to get paid.”
  • You might ask for a roll (maybe give it an advantage to represent the NPC is outnumbered and there is a dagger to their neck), but then you have to consider the consequences of a failed roll. Does it take extended time? Maybe the thug utters a blood curdling scream of the tortured NPC leads to an unwelcome intervention by a second wave of enemies or the town watch. Perhaps the NPC lies about the hideout and instead direct the PCs not to where they need to be but to an ambush (which might lead to the hideout later). A fail might even mean that they accidentally killed the NPC before the info could be gained, but somewhere there has to be another opportunity for the clue or another way to move the narrative ahead.
  • You might rule that the NPC is a fanatic who would sooner die then give up the information, but the PC rolled an outstanding social skill. So the information is revealed accidentally or in an act of bravado, “Fools! You shall never triumph against us! When word gets back to the Red Hook Tavern, you will all be doomed!”
  • The PC with horrible research skills but excellent interpersonal abilities decides to flirt with the librarian as means to gain access to the information on the Xerxes the Undying. What they learn at the library will be very different from if they had tried the same approach with the Tavern Keeper.

Maybe the NPC tells them what they want to know but not all of it or doesn’t know all of it or knows nothing (or claims to know nothing) and begs and pleads for their soon to be orphaned children or tells them enough but then runs to warn someone about it.

You get the idea.

Optionally, Maybe this info is so important that you decide not to require a roll in the first place just so that the adventure can continue to the next encounter. Maybe it just makes sense for the NPC to blurt everything out if allowed to live (and the party might gain a snitch).

You know where the players want to push this conversation and can use the skill checks to describe how difficult it is to learn the information, the attitude of the NPC, the truth or usefulness of what they reveal, or you might find yourself accidentally giving something up due to excellent play by the players.

Well, maybe you can, maybe you can’t. These efforts require time and patience. Perhaps the resource is literally exhausted (the thug passes out and any more interrogation might kill them, the additional books you need are not where they ought to be, the sage requires more materials or monetary payment before providing further information, the crime lord is done answering your questions, etc.). All this being said, torture sounds like a not Good thing to do or at least create some moral quandaries. When the party is rewarded with information for their choice of actions, you are encouraging more action of that sort in future.

If the questions are going into things that have nothing to do with the plot, no matter how hard you try to muscle a connection, then you can tell them, “Sure you can find that out, but it doesn’t seem to connect to Xerxes the Undying; why do you want to learn about that?” They might have an idea that might work but you didn’t see. Good on them! Otherwise, “Sure, you spend an afternoon researching basket weaving of the last century; when it comes up in play, just remind me that you studied it for a few hours.” Hopefully they get the hint.

There is nothing wrong with telling players up front that there is nothing more to learn from this. If you want to keep encouraging more questions, go ahead and mark down the time and other resources spent as you go into the next round of three questions. If things are getting bogged down with the investigation, follow Chandler’s Law of Action and kick something over to trigger an action encounter.

What if it’s a PC being interrogated and the NPC is successful in their skill roll to obtain information despite the PC resisting? Even if the PC isn’t giving up information, the NPC can learn from the clues given off like knowing that they are lying or investigation something about their person in the classic Sherlock Holmes trope of “Aha! The red mud on your shoes tells a much different story about your whereabouts in the last 24 hours!”

Finally, interpersonal interaction isn’t mind control but it can be used to trick or fool people into revealing more than they intended. Similarly, a day of research is not going to give the depth of knowledge that a lifetime experience provides. A failed knowledge roll simply means that a piece of information eludes you in this critical moment, like a half remembered song lyric that you can’t recall. An NPC might be experiencing the same mental stress can’t think of the information on the spot.

What are some investigation styles you use at your table?