Ah, the good old Scry and Fry.

The term Scry and Fry was brought to my attention recently and it got me thinking about information gathering techniques in games. In most any type of game setting there is always some element of information gathering that the player characters engage in. Whether it is asking the village elder about the dragon’s cave, going into deep intel mode before attempting to take over the rival yakuza’s base, or the ever popular “I listen at the door, what do I hear?” method information gathering is fairly key to any kind of mission.

I had never thought of information gathering by the party as a problem until I was at a GMing seminar specifically aimed at GMing Shadowrun and multiple horror stories of excessive planning were tossed about. It brought up a few more thoughts in my head, and if you can make a Gather Info roll with a DC 5, then you can read them below: Ready. Roll!

Is information Gathering a problem for your game? Give me a perception roll with any effective skill modifiers or Danger Sense Advantage.

Well that is highly dependent on what type of game you are running. If you want the players to be surprised at every turn or to feel like they are being overwhelmed by tactically superior enemy forces, then yes it can be. Players can also engage in excessive recon and really slow down the game. Like almost any factor, info gathering only becomes an issue when it is done in excess or outside the proper venue.

Why do the players do it so much? Roll Perception and Streetwise and I’ll tell you.
I’ve been party to games where players tend to spend whole session over-preparing for minor challenges. I’ve been party to sessions where players kick down the door and find themselves under-prepared to face the huge challenge that is ahead of them. After one instance/royal butt kicking of an under-prepared situation there tend to be a lot of instances of over-preparedness. Players love to take on all challenges and come out on top, while GMs often like to surprise their players and make them feel the weight and danger of the challenge. Striking the right balance is key to preserving fun and it is also incredibly hard.

Psst, want to know a secret, I’ll tell you some creative ways to disseminate information and preserve game balance. Just make me a Perception and Knowledge roll. Required number of successes is 3.

Control the flow of information.
As the GM you get to control how much information flows. If you don’t want the secret entrance into the keep discovered before the party explores the keep then don’t make that information available. The informant they beat up doesn’t know about it. The guard they bribed wasn’t telling the truth. Don’t be afraid not to tell the players something that you REALLY don’t want them to know.

Don’t starve the players.
Players will get supremely annoyed (rightly so) if they are always under informed and don’t feel prepared for the challenges. If they are going on massive information gathering missions before real missions then give them something for their efforts. They may not find out the exact locations of each guard and their paths around the complex, but they might find out that there is a contingent of 35 guards stationed there. This helps them plan their strategy and feel like they accomplished something with their info gathering.

Make the info gathering simple.
The biggest problem I’ve found with info gathering is that it often takes forever. If you don’t play out the whole scenario of gathering info then it gets taken care of quickly and you get back to the game that you prepped for. One of my favorite techniques for keeping it simple is to give the players the information, then give them narrative control over how they got it. They get to explain how cool their character was in bribing the guard/seducing the countess/or hitting the streets detective style and they get the information they wanted.

Let the players roll or gather info off “screen” then give them the information as it becomes relevant.
For truly complex missions where information gathering is key I like to have my players make abstract rolls to determine their info gathering success, then I let them cash in those rolls at a later time. It goes something like this: I have the players make 5 Info gathering rolls and write down the results. Play continues until they get up to the entrance of the complex and they want to cash in one of the rolls. I look at the success of the roll they want to cash in and compare it to what is going on. I tell them: “You know that they are likely to have an ambush waiting for you and that there are 4 security cameras in the courtyard. You know their positions and get a +3 bonus if you try to sneak past them.” It keeps things moving fast and the players get the information when they need it most.

So those are some of my thoughts. What info gathering stories do you have? (I got a 17 on my gather info check.) What horror stories do you have about sessions which degenerated into info gathering nightmares? (I rolled 8 on my perception and my skills and perception added up to 17.) What techniques do you have for dealing with info gathering in your games? (My Perception and Knowledge roll gave me 5 successes. TELL ME YOUR SECRETS!)

13 replies
  1. Rob Lang
    Rob Lang says:

    My players like to do a lot of information gathering between game sessions over the email. As there are normally several plotlines running concurrently in our game, the players self-regulate to take investigation offline. When they reach a point that should really be roleplayed, I stop them there and we join that line of quesitonning at the next session. I’d recommend printing out the email/forum communciation so you have all the detail to hand of who said what.

  2. koranes
    koranes says:

    I try to spice up the gathering part of the adventure sometimes. As an example, if I am playing an horror adventure, the players might discover (accidently) some blood on the floor … if they follow the traces, they will find out, that the “oh-so-lovely” NPC is really an occult lying bastard. If they want to get some information about a hidden lair, they could become part of a firefight infront of the library …

    The gather info rolls can also be a good way to induce paranoia. It is always scary for the players, when you suddenly ask for a listen check …

  3. Rafe
    Rafe says:

    I usually fall back to roleplaying. If my players begin to search for information, I ask them where they are going to start and what sorts of people they’ll single out to talk to. I may then apply a minor circumstance bonus to their roll, which I then ask them to make behind my screen (they roll around the side). This way, they’re still rolling, but don’t know how well they’ve done. I then play out the information gathering process.

    I’ll also let good roleplaying trump dice rolling. So if the ranger is talking to a farmer about where an old tomb may be, if the player of the ranger starts talking about the weather and good growing season, I’ll make the farmer a bit more “open.” In other words, if he rolled a modified 13 but the DC is 15, I’ll let the player build up +1s for roleplaying the info gathering.

    If it’s academic, I’ll usually decide on how rare the subject is and roll to see if the place (library, temple, etc.) would have something on that subject. Regardless of whether or not there is anything, I have the players roll against me to see how quickly they find it. The difference in our roles will be multiplied by X minutes or hours. (I don’t tell them if there is any information on the subject, though. Let them find out as they would as players – by looking exhaustively.) I let the players decide when they think they’ve exhausted their chances in a particular place, which they’ll figure out relatively quickly.

    It makes info gathering a bit more interesting. Also, when it comes to perception checks, I won’t do them if the DC is less than 15 and those speaking aren’t trying to be clandestine. If it’s through a wall or door, a roll is needed. Just listening in is usually no problem.

  4. Kurt "Telas" Schneider
    Kurt "Telas" Schneider says:

    This can be a tough one, especially as the PCs get access to more powerful contacts/magics/abilities. I think a lot of this can be handled above-game, by reassuring the group that you’ll try to drop hints as needed when they’re over/under preparing. (“As you’re discussing the plans, one of the mooks opens the door, a roll of toilet paper in his hand.”)

    Another factor is the makeup of the group. If the players have been burned by an Evil GM ™, then they’re probably justified in their paranoia, at least until they get over it. But if they’re just classic overthinking gamers, they may take some weaning… Or even some new blood.

  5. LesInk
    LesInk says:

    One other suggestion for consideration: Don’t be afraid to beat the players to the punch line.

    If the players have a history of over-doing the gathering information, go ahead and give it to them upfront and stop wasting valueable game time. This may seem contrary to what we do as GMs, but I like to think of it as the “hero factor” — the player’s characters are experts in their skills — let them use it — even automatically. Make notes of what the players have done in the past and let it become the baseline for future adventures (within reason).

    The real secret here is to give them enough information they will be satisfied up front and keep them from digging deeper into your more secret items. If they push it further, you now have a stance that you have given them all/most of the information they are going to find. But do let them do some exploratory with their contacts and other ideas that you may not have come up with — you want them to feel prepared and they may just need to settle into the idea.

    Here’s another suggestion: Put it on a timeline.

    What I usually do with the ‘out of adventure’ items is make sure everyone knows that whatever they do between adventures take time. If they are seeking information, then make that info take game time. The more secretative the information, the longer the time frame. If the quest they are working towards is time limited, this will limit how much information they can actually get.

    Next: Information is risk.

    If players ask too many questions, it should arouse the suspicions of those being questioned about. This may bring the conflict to where the players are staying and catch them unaware. Or it may be simple enough to just let the players know that they are being studied in return (fear factor). Increased information gathering can be a problem if the players need to secretly enter a facility. And each person they talk to about their goals becomes an added risk/liability.

    Finally: Magic items that scry

    I’m surprised mentioned the most annoying form of information gathering — scrying. Ironically, I have had only had a couple of parties with such magical items, and for reasons unbeknown to me, they chose not to use them. In any case, you just have to keep in mind that there are counter devices/spells/etc. to these and don’t be afraid to use them to block prying eyes from seeing the wrong locations. If the BGG got screwed over once by scrying, he’s not about to let it happen again — and not the same party.

  6. Scott Martin
    Scott Martin says:

    Our group has had this problem in the past– in several games. One of the worst cases was a week when our heroes in Star Wars were hiding in Cloud City under Imperial rule. We tried to figure out how four or five characters could beat the Imperials in control of the city… which bogged down the whole session.

    We’d come on board in disguise, but knew one failure would bring the wrath of the station down on ourselves. So we talked and planned for a couple of hours while a couple of the players drifted off to sleep or veg out. The worst part was that between sessions Kev came up with a cool idea for a new plan– which didn’t tie into any of our previous planning. We finally decided to trust in the dice/GM/improvising– no one wanted to loose a second session to planning.

    It worked out and made for a tremendously dramatic and exciting resolution– characters were all over the station bluffing station commanders, bluffing the approaching imperial starship group with captured codes, scrambling into cloud cars for atmospheric duels with TIE fighters, and fighting on the outside of the floating city. It was awesome… but man, we spent too long planning.

  7. Swordgleam
    Swordgleam says:

    The time gathering information has been most annoying for me was as a player. We were in a Star Wars game, and half of the party were bounty hunters or smugglers or pirate-y types. And yet, since none of us players knew just how a pirate would go about finding out info on other pirates in the neighborhood, the GM wouldn’t let us just handwave our characters doing it. I’m all for roleplaying, but an hour of sitting around saying, “Okay, we checked the bars and the shipyards, where do you think we should go now?” got very old.

    As a GM, I’ve only had the information gathering problems in modern campaigns. The internet is a great tool, both in real life, and for snoopy PCs.

    The “roll off-screen and cash in later” sounds like a good idea. My one concern is the players going, “Wait, if we’d known there were 35 guards, we would have tried sneaking in at midnight instead of just after sunset. What are we doing here?” In situations where the information could influence advance planning (and what situations aren’t like that?) you could end up with frustrated players who feel like they’re being railroaded or swindled.

  8. Grogtard
    Grogtard says:

    Ah, Shadowrun. The number one thing I did to both control and facilitate the flow of info was to make all Deckers NPC’s Did basically the same thing for Cyberpunk.
    In other games, I’ll give the players subtle hints that they’re over or under preparing. “Are really sure that you want to just storm the place?”

  9. John Arcadian
    John Arcadian says:

    See this is what I love about Gnome Stew. The comments usually outdo the post in terms of good advice.

    @ Swordgleam: “The “roll off-screen and cash in later” sounds like a good idea. My one concern is the players going, “Wait, if we’d known there were 35 guards, we would have tried sneaking in at midnight instead of just after sunset. What are we doing here?” In situations where the information could influence advance planning (and what situations aren’t like that?) you could end up with frustrated players who feel like they’re being railroaded or swindled.”

    You are absolutely correct that some information would influence a lot of planning options. Usually I try to divvy information up into general info and detailed info. The # of guards would be general, while placement of cameras/traps would be detailed. Players are going to need the general info up front, while the detailed can be cashed in.

    Another thing that I, being an improv friendly GM, will do is to modify the session if the players come up with a good plan. If they find some unique and interesting way to get into the building that I had never accounted for I’ll tend to modify my dungeon or plot arc to accommodate their work. I’ll still throw in my own surprises and challenges though.

  10. Luke
    Luke says:

    A former GM of mine used to do the “off-screen” thing if he wasn’t really up for a lengthy info gathering session. When we suggested we want to find out more about the mission and talk to people on the town he would sometimes simply jump in and say:

    “Ok, you went to the town, you talked to bunch of people, spent some money at the local tavern buying rounds for the locals and got some information. It was not much, and you got the feel that people here genuinely don’t know much about this stuff. What you found was this…”

    And that would be it. No rolls, no role-playing silly conversations with NPC’s made up on the spot. Here is what you found out and there is probably nothing more anyone here could tell you. Let’s move on.

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