This system was inspired rewatching Buffy: the Vampire Slayer. It’s intended primary for modern occult heroes or detective superheroes, but works for any game where the PCs have to balance a normal life (including school or a day job) with the need to investigate in order to find and stop opponents. Virtually all scenarios should involve enemies that grow in power and get further towards fruition of schemes as time passes, granting big rewards to the players for constantly working to curtail their activities, get wind of their plots, and quash their plans early.
The examples below are system-agnostic but assume something with difficulties on roughly a ten-point scale and low-granularity experience points (like oWoD). Adjust values accordingly for other systems.
All investigation attempts take an hour or two and can include:
- Patrolling: Both superheroes and monster-hunters tend to get their first leads by running or flying around the city looking for heads to crack and vampires to stake. In addition to keeping an eye of the streets for anything big or weird, this tends to reduce the number of minions available for bigger capers.
- Research: Less formidable characters can keep an eye out for upcoming occult junctures or attractive targets of crime in order to get a clue that something might go down soon. Once someone has a name or description of a threat, research involves cracking books, trawling the internet, or hitting up periodicals looking for patterns, secrets, or weaknesses.
- Forensics: Sometimes, the villains leave a crime scene that our heroes can get to (ahead of or with the blessing of the police). Going over the scene can yield clues, as can taking away any material or mystic traces left behind for evaluation in the lab.
- Gathering Information: Sometimes, your more gregarious characters can get word that something is up by keeping up with contacts. Once a threat has presented itself, hitting up known informants can be the best way to find exactly what’s going on and where it’s going on at.
Depending on how you like to run mysteries, you can either give out fixed successes based on relevant skill totals every time a player takes an investigation phase or have players make rolls and track margin of success for relevancy. You can track accumulated successes toward a conclusion where they know everything they need to pursue the endgame or have various pieces of information available to various types of investigation with the players trusted to decide when to act upon them. The important thing is that investigation is a time-consuming process that feels like building up information toward a goal rather than just following pre-scripted encounters.
In the background, the villains should always have their own progress bar toward some goal. Patrol might set their progress back by defeating minions and capturing materials, but ultimately their plan is proceeding toward some hidden end in an unknown place, and the job of the players is to ascertain both in time to stop it.
Each day, every player character gains one free “investigation point” that can be spent to:
- Make one attempt at patrolling, research, forensics, or gathering information
- Train non-job/school skills (see below)
- Lower either Stress or Delinquency/Dereliction by one point (see below)
This represents using free time to pursue the investigation, train, or catch up on relaxation or work.
- Each player can choose to gain one additional point per day by taking on either a point of Stress or Delinquency/Dereliction. This represents either staying up late for another round or cutting class/skipping work for a couple of hours.
- Each player can choose to take up to two more points, but each point past the second represents majorly ditching out of school/work and the stress this entails, essentially spending all day on extracurricular activities.
- On weekends, the GM may choose to just award three points for free (with the fourth point available for a single point of Stress or D/D, representing the stress of blowing off a whole day of free time or not doing homework).
Needless to say, most villainous plots should proceed fast enough that the PCs won’t be able to stop it with just the one free investigation point each day. The point of the system is that stopping the bad guys involves having to make cuts to free time or slack off at school/work.
Players have to spend investigation points (on a one-for-one basis) to spend experience points on any skills that can’t be justified being learned from normal school classes or on-the-job skills. If you want to get that 4 exp upgrade to Getting Medieval, you need to spend time on weapons training that you’re not spending on investigating. Training is a major downtime activity, ensuring that players may not totally zero out Stress and D/D between stories (but also see Long Downtimes, below).
Stress represents exhaustion, lack of concentration, and just general frustration at spending all one’s free time on the mission. Stress becomes the minimum difficulty for all rolls. In a system like Unisystem with a fixed DC, your stress total is similar to an opposing roll on every task (i.e., stress grants a success penalty equal to the margin of success it would achieve if it were a roll on that result). The intention with either version is that Stress shouldn’t become much of a problem until it gets fairly high. Players should be tempted to throw some points into it for extra investigation points because it’s not a big deal… until it is.
Stress has a practical cap at the maximum reasonable difficulty for the system (or the result of a really good roll, for fixed DCs). At this point, the character is so exhausted that even the simplest tasks are huge efforts.
Delinquency represents skipping classes at school, while Dereliction represents taking long breaks, getting in late, or leaving early at work. Both are the kind of thing that eventually get you in a lot of trouble. A student whose Delinquency reaches the same number as the practical cap for Stress is visited with whatever punishments seem warranted (suspension, detention, or even expulsion, plus likely grounding by parents). An adult whose Dereliction reaches this number is fired. Additionally, it works like Stress to set a minimum difficulty for all interactions with school officials and parents (for students) or employers (for adults); since Stress is a minimum difficulty for ALL rolls, it takes precedence if higher. Once it gets fairly high, the GM may initiate scenes with the PC having to talk officials, parents, or employers out of assigning more onerous tasks, with failure resulting in some responsibility that will gain an additional point of Delinquency/Dereliction if skipped.
Students can take a trait called “Honors” that represents being good at school and having easy access to school resources like the goodies in the science labs. Adults can take a trait called “Income” which works like wealth traits do in any system. Both of these traits are “free,” but essentially set a higher starting value for Delinquency or Dereliction (e.g., if you have Income 4, two points of Dereliction raises you to 6). The students with the brightest futures have more onus on them to live up to expectations, and the adults with the best jobs have more people that will notice if they skip out of work too much. These traits should scale so their maximum is about half the cap for Delinquency/Dereliction.
Players can purchase levels of “Gifted” or “Idle Rich” with character points as normal advantages, representing access to Honors or Income without the associated responsibilities. For example, if you have Gifted 3, you could choose to have a total Honors of 5 while only starting at 2 Delinquency.
This system assumes that there will be fairly limited downtimes. Stories represent an active few days or weeks, and then the next story starts only a week or two after the last one. In this case, there are no need for modifications; players will use the time to buy down Stress and D/D earned during the last story or spend points on Training, but will probably not have time to accomplish all their goals before the next story starts unless they ended the last one with very low totals.
If your game includes longer downtimes, simply allocate as many points as they spent on training minus 1d6 to their choice of Stress or D/D. This represents other life stuff coming up; either adventures too minor to note, or home events that made a nuisance of themselves.