Fractal World Rabbit Hole

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Once upon a time, in a campaign of mine, a player discovered that by roleplaying their character they could get more information by asking around and investigating things than be simply rolling.

And doing so, they would learn more about the world, it’s inhabitants, and the things that were going on.

And the character kept asking questions, and kept investigating things. Detail after detail was unearthed, unexpected changes in guard rosters, shadowy organizations operating in the city, secret pacts between religious orders, wizards conspiring to keep a new spell secret, unique summoning spells, and the list went on and on.

Every investigation uncovered new details, relations between NPCs, details about operations of the different guilds, and so forth. And all those led to more things that could be investigated. They investigated, and investigated, and investigated.

This went on for a while, until eventually, the player realized that their character had been chasing after completely irrelevant details.

Pausing the roleplay for a moment, they asked “What is up with this rabbit hole of details? Everything I do produces more things to investigate, when is the investigation done?”

“When you decide it is,” was my reply.

To which they stated, in a slightly annoyed tone, “That’s unfair. You are giving is new details to investigate every time. How can we know what is, and what isn’t important?”

Looking back on it, I do not think that I was unfair in giving them all kinds of details. However, as a game master I could — and probably should — have been more clear on which details matter and which do not.

That being said, there is a big difference between making a dice roll to investigate a topic and roleplaying an investigation by asking around and going places to look at things.

Making a roll to investigate includes clearly communicating what you want your character to work towards and how they approach the investigation. The GM then decides on the difficulty and potential modifiers for the roll. The roll is made, and finally the game master tells the players the results of the investigation — since the roll has been made there’s no do-over, and what you get is what you get, no more.

Where making a roll clearly defines a boundary for the investigation, roleplaying the investigation does not. The game master is not aware of what the player is intending to discover and, if their style of GMing is anything like mine, they will try their best to have a consistent, living, and breathing game world. And living and breathing worlds, just like the real world, have lots of detail. And “lots” is not even doing them justice, worlds have fractal-levels of details: every time you zoom in, there’s more details.

In real life, most investigations begin with a question to which an answer is needed. And they are “done” when the answer is found, or when the investigators conclude that getting the answer is be prohibitively expensive or time-consuming.

When players roleplay an investigation, they are in the same situation: without a clearly defined end goal they don’t know when they should stop the investigation — and because the game master does not know either, they can steer the investigation by making plot-relevant details more prominent.

But in the end the players are the ones who determine if their characters decide to stop investigating, or if they are going down the rabbit hole. Because in complex worlds, it’s fractals all the way down.

We’d love to hear from you about your campaign, and how you handle investigations, prominent details, en less relevant details! Let us know in the community forum!

And a always, we have this week’s changelog ready for you.