Combat Clues

Often in one-shots, you see two broad types of trad TTRPG game – an investigation-heavy game, and an action- (or combat-) heavy game. Both have their pros and cons – in an investigation game you often get to interact with the setting a lot, have more roleplaying opportunities with NPCs, and have the satisfaction of solving a puzzle – but pace can slow as the most cautious player tries to leverage as much information as possible before proceeding. Likewise, a combat-heavy game rarely suffers from too little pace – but the breakneck speed can leave players wondering what the purpose was of rolling all those dice.

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A solution to both sides of this problem is to incorporate Combat Clues into your one-shots. They are clues that are discovered during a combat, skill challenge, extended task, or other perilous encounter – and they don’t replace the clues you have in the game, but they add to them.

RDJ’s Sherlock Holmes is the kind of investigative game I like to run – here he’s definitely finding out some combat clues

Why Combat Clues?

For reasons that are probably apparent to regular readers, I’m a fan of the action-heavy one-shot – I cut my teeth at conventions running 13th Age, which has only the lightest suggestion of an out-of-combat game system, and often use the Feng Shui 2 “Three Fights” adventure structure. But the issues suggested above are real problems – often a trail of clues is needed to make the session have narrative sense, and you’re faced with the option of interspersing combat with slower investigative scenes, or just making them find things out straight away. 

I also don’t like the post-fight interrogation scene – it never really plays out satisfactorily, and you end up with your ‘heroic’ PCs threatening the goblin with torture or worse as you frantically work out a reason why they won’t tell the entire plot to them at this point.

The other issue is that combat takes a long time in most games. If you’ve a 3-hour session of 13th Age, you’ll get two, maybe three fights in it – and maybe a montage – but you’re not going to have time for a lengthy roleplaying scene as well. Likewise, if you’ve got a murder mystery with 4 suspects, after the PCs talk to / encounter each one you’ll be struggling for time to get the action in to keep the player at the table who came for that (that’s usually me, by the way) to get it.

They also give fights a reason. I’ve written before about adding a ‘why’ to fights, and how effective this is – it’ll turn your combat-heavy tactical game into an epic exploration and mystery with multiple (well, more than one) layers of plot.

How To Prep Them?

The first step – and fair credit to Sly Flourish’s excellent Lazy DM’s Guide for this – is to dissociate your clues from locations and places. Just write a big list of what the players need to find out in the session. Ones where they need to find them to move the plot along, underline or put in a different colour or something – they’ll definitely find these, so you want to make these easy to find. We’ll call these Plot Clues – they can find these out in locations around the fight, or (if they don’t discover them through roleplay or skill checks) in combat.

Think too about clues that, while not necessary to advance the plot, will make the adventure more survivable, or give the PCs an edge in combat or a similar action scene. For example, the Living Statues are vulnerable to bludgeoning damage and resistant to slashing and piercing, to pick a fairly dull D&D-style one. Or that there are murder holes above the main chamber where goblins lair to drop oil on attackers (that can be avoided by canny PCs). Or that there’s a secret door to the crypt that bypasses the aforementioned statues. 

We’ll call these Boost Clues, and they make ideal combat clues – you can discover them in fights, in action scenes, or along the way as regular clues. Make a note next to each of them how they can be discovered; maybe the statues have dents and depressions on their armour, but no signs of stabbing or slashing wounds; maybe they can notice the ground-floor goblins glancing upwards and cackling as they raise their shields to advance, and that they avoid certain positions in the chamber. Or they may notice something in an earlier fight that benefits them later – the goblin sergeant has a sketch map that shows where the secret door is, or when he runs away he seems to vanish into thin air when he gets to the guard chamber.

Don’t push these – some just won’t work to find out in combat. You need a balance of combat clues and regular clues anyway. But just adding a few will make your combats deeper and more interesting, and add depth to your one-shots without adding extra time (or, conversely, make your investigative scenario more action-packed).

How To Use Them

At the table, armed with my list of clues and a few ideas about how to reveal them, I’ll try to be liberal in throwing them out there. Usually, this will happen at the end of the round – it’s an easy marker of time, and a good way to remember to do it (and, in 13th Age, to advance the Escalation Die – something I also always forget to do).

If Boost Clues aren’t revealed, or aren’t interpreted correctly, it doesn’t matter – they can just hang about in limbo. Plot Clues, though, probably need to be thrown at players if they miss them during combat. Don’t worry about being obvious with these, although allow the players to feel like they discover them due to their actions – that is, it’s better for them to find a map or a note than to have an NPC appear and tell them the answer. It’s always better to do this.

So, Combat Clues – how have you used them in your game? Have they been successful, or do your group prefer a clean break between investigation and action? Let me know in the comments.