JUST THE FACTS MA'AM: Using Sean McCoy's Investigation Sheet in CoC

Does the investigator on the right just think this all
is a bad black mold infestation? Too calm...

Recently, a friend started a pandemic Call of Cthulhu campaign with me using a 1-on-1 set-up. The idea was that my Arkham city investigator, Henry Heart, PI (hat-tip to you Sam Spade & Joe Dimond), could easily be joined by any number of other characters should friends and family want to join us as they desired. The backbone of the campaign would be mostly short investigations and one-shot adventures.

CoC suggestion #1: CoC is very conducive to a one-player and one-GM set-up: combat light and friends can drop-in/-out.

CoC suggestion #2: DON'T BUY ANYTHING- grab some d10s and download the free quickstart rules which are FAR better than the player's handbook for CoC.

Now, I really wanted to stick to the basics of running an investigation. I wanted to actually try to work out suspects, locations, motives, and weapons to give to the cops instead of just jumping to, "Whelp no doubt this is the work of that old slimy bastard of the benthic zone-- Cthulhu!" Yes, I know most CoC stories end in just that revelation (of various colours), but maybe I could also just solve investigations by proving whoever the Arkham cops caught was innocent. Saves the trouble of convincing folks of magic.

This reminded me of Sean McCoy's post on Failure Tolerated about investigations. I particularly enjoy the investigator's sheet he put together in his post and re-created my own in Google Slides. I also agree with Sean that doing actual investigating is where the fun of CoC lay.

For my 3rd investigation, I began using Sean's sheet (see below). This sheet has been pretty great both as a meta-game tool and an in-game object. That duality is what I think is so nifty- it works well in both contexts. This is not how I feel about the "quest log" in D&D which can be a handy tool for the players but feels weird from a character's in-world POV. The sheet also has been helpful in culling the many "can do" courses of action into "should do" actions. Also helpfully points out that while we might understand what is going on (or have a strong guess), we can only prove about half of it to the cops.

Wish I had used one for the first 2 investigations

In the original article, Sean suggested the investigation sheet could be used in "reverse" to help a CoC Keeper establish a mystery. I think this is quite smart advice and so I tried it out using the intro scenario The Haunting from the quick start rules above. And here is what you get:

Investigation Sheet for The Haunting

Now, sure, The Haunting is a decent starting adventure for teaching the players what to do mechanically in CoC. And perhaps the Keeper as well. However, it does not really help me understand how to build a good mystery. The players are told that their client, Mr. Knott, wants them to figure out what happened to the Macario family while living in the Corbitt house so he can clear the property of its bad reputation. The game instructs the players (literally via Handout #1) to seek information at the newspaper, library, and police department and Mr. & Mrs. Macario are in an asylum.

If the players jump to the Marcarios they will learn there is a "spirit" in the house. If they go through documentary evidence they will learn that Corbitt built the house, was sued by neighbors, died, and the will was carried out by Pastor Thomas who fled the state in 1917. Thomas is connected to a shady church that burned. So, there is really nothing to puzzle out except what's in the house- but would new characters be motivated to believe in the supernatural? The meta-logic of CoC is going to cause the players to think so, but why would the characters?

CoC suggestion #3: Anytime players immediately jump to a supernatural explanation out loud, in character or out, as a reason for X events, drop their Sanity by 1d2 representing the character slowing choosing the irrational over the rational; 1d8 if they agree to increase their Cthuhlu score by 1

The PCs could convince Mr. Knott that nothing is going to happen to anyone renting the house. Because all actual evidence points that way- the Macarios went mad and are now locked up. And the investigator sheet points to that too- no other characters have the means, motive, and opportunity outside of a supernatural explanation (Corbitt himself). Open and shut case. If players go to the Corbitt house they can find Walter Corbitt entombed and his murderous will still active. And THAT IS what is causing the problem. But players crawling around in a spooky location trying to find a wraith's tomb behind a secret wall, to me, becomes a D&D dungeon crawl more than a CoC investigation.

I might have not played enough, but I think interesting investigations in CoC would somehow:

  • Create multiple likely perpetrators (What if you grab the wrong guy?)
  • Have a possibility to close the case with non-supernatural evidence/events
    (How do you convince people of magic without being accused of lunacy or worse yourself?)
  • Require rational reasons & evidence to convince the cops or authorities to take action
    (Can't just drop a copy of De Vermis Mysteriis on the Police Chief's desk)
  • Save supernatural elements to creating lingering doubt, slow burn, and/or big reveals
    (Was it really the husband or was he in fact possessed? And why have the killings not stopped?)
  • Have the ability to get the investigation wrong
    (Person X has no alibi on the night of the murder but does have a motive and opportunity, but the investigators add a supernatural explanation as to the "means" but lack proof that it occurred)
While some of these might be "fail states" they are not. Failure, doubt, and collateral damage drive good people to fringe ideas and unorthodox methods- like seeking occult knowledge and practices. Maybe we can just inject the victim's corpse with a little of ol' Dr. West's serum and get them to tell us who their killer was...

For The Haunting I would keep the undead Corbitt as the true antagonist, but maybe change things:

  • Vittorio Macario is innocent, but still had an earlier very heated dispute with his wife about her activities with the Chapel of Contemplation and her wanting to leave him w/ the children
  • Pastor Thomas might be trying to gain control of the Corbitt House that is owned by Knott and suggested the property to Macario knowing what is there
  • The Macario family would be new members of the Chapel of Contemplation creating further context and possible suspicion about their own activities
  • Corbitt House is a legal fight for ownership between Thomas and Knott
  • Have a 3rd party burn down the church, but for totally separate reasons unrelated to the case at hand
  • Vitttorio's wife knows he's locked up but refuses to testify because she knows he wouldn't purposely do what he did and she's afraid for her safety since leaving town and the Chapel
  • Provide some encounters of people looking to stop the investigators like rougher Chapel members not liking their snooping around
Now the investigation sheet looks something like this if filled out:

Vittorio has a stronger reason to be the actual perpetrator. The connection between the Chapel is made more ominous and deeper. Thomas and Knott have some personal hate, which calls into question why Knott is going with "independent investigators" (who might include former bootleggers or mob fixers). And Pastor Thomas also has more suspicious occult activities, but is still not the actual killer.

This whole idea need refining, but I think it had legs just as good dungeons maximize player choice, so should good investigations. Not just a straight line from the client, to the library, to police, to a creepy house to the boss monster and the true source of crime.

LAW & ORDER: There are two sides to the criminal justice system in D&D- the BS Players do and the DM who has to put up with it

So what is law & order for an anachronistic European-esque generic fantasy setting? 

I've thought about this since reading A Time Traveler's Guild to Medieval Europe. It's a great book that covers all the things you would need to know if you found yourself transported back in time. The systems for maintaining order are quite different.

In brief, one person is designated the guardian of order in a village. Anything that happens, that person is called out by the sheriff (appointed by the nobility) to answer for the crimes. If they can't produce the perpetrators or keep order, they die. 

Now, after being sentenced to death, you can name your accomplices. This can end up with a lot of score-settling in town. But since a lot of people know each other in small towns and villages and have relatives in the next towns over, "strangers" currently in town will be the first suspects. Or best people to die.

Village/town defense might be served by the local population with torches and pitchforks. If the place is large enough there might be guards in the service of a specific person (or church) but not really for the "greater good of the community".

In terms of D&D, if the laws are too constraining or long they become a burden. Players already have to contend with a set of "meta laws" which are the rules of the game. Adding fantasy laws on top of those rules could easily flop.

I guess there is also an often unspoke set of law at most tables about players not performing certain actions with their characters that would be particularly onerous like violence against innocent babies or performing particularly gruesome acts of torture. 

So the layers are: Unspoken Laws of the Table (universal to all rpgs played) --> Laws of the System (specific to the rpgs: "Clerics can't use edged weapons") --> Law of the World (specific to the campaign)

Why do we want to include this?

Without coded laws, I think it becomes actually hard to define what black market, corrupt, decadent, privileged, and "DM's is just screwing with us" actually is.

  • How can the nobility be considered decadent & exploitative if there are no rules to flaunt or exploit?
  • How can you have a thieves guild or black market if there is no legal system to skirt?
  • How can religion be observed if there is no observable participation or taboos to avoid?
  • How can PCs be outsiders if there is no benefit to being born in town?
  • How can PCs be sure the DM isn't just arbitrary if there is no pattern to the enforcement of activities?
Now of course there are ways to demonstrate all of the above outsides of a page of laws, but at a basic level, an institution/group/person is corrupt when they ignore the rules that others have to follow in favor of their own code.

Laws also provide an environment where social maneuvering, concealment in all forms, and stealth become valuable as well as connections to in-world institutions. Which draws play away from combat/violence as a catch-all solution to most problems. People complain about combat/violence in D&D, but there is also little in-game fiction that constrains its use.

Stated laws might also help with alignment, in that player judge actions based on societal actions instead of inherent good/evil; factions some into play who enforce, create, and/or adjudicate laws. 

How do you run this last piece in an interesting fashion? 

False Machine has written a heist adventure that takes into account laws regarding dress, weapons, and the requirement for papers presented if asked:

Sumptuary Laws Glaem has basic laws of dress and behaviour which are… unevenly enforced, (though you could be checked at any time). 

  • No Heavy Weapons. No projectile weapons. (Unless you are a licensed bodyguard or ceremonial guard. Are you? Where’s your license?) 
  • Only ceremonial armour allowed. (Again, you need a license for this) 
  • Light blades only. (Only if your clothes are “noble”, and you need a license). 
  • Employment/Guild/Faction/City papers to be produced on-command. 
  • Your chances of being checked for licences and I.D. go up the more suspicious, poor and out of place you look, and are common on entering controlled areas. 

I think these help add something to the task of finding and stealing the McGuffin of the adventure. Immediately the value of wizards (as magic doesn't seem to have embargos) and characters who can conceal or have social strategies come to the front.

I guess this post is getting long. So in a Part II, I'll try to lay out some simple rules that also scale from village to town to city.

DYSON'S DELVE: "Hey babe, you wanna do some role-play tonight?"


Dyson's Delve: The Original Mini Mega Dungeon (2019)

SETUP: Partner occasionally likes to role-play a little bit and asked if we could have something set up so whenever the mood strikes we can just start playing. I was looking for my copy of Winter's Daughter, but the closest thing at hand was this Delve.

To shortcut, the character was made by arranging the following scores: 16, 15, 12, 11, 8, 8 which yields a total bonus of attribute bonus of +1. This resulted in the creation of fighter, Princess Rosa, who started at level 2 (2000 XP). Some random equipment later via my digital DM screen and we are off.

BACKGROUND: Deposed from the throne that was rightfully hers, Rosa seeks treasure to build an army and take back what is rightfully hers. 


Rosa (F2) took the obvious stair entrance to the old watchtower. Finding nothing in the pulled down broken statue, she heads toward the entrance.

Stopped by two goblin guard who demands she freely handover her gold or she'll be freely handing out her blood. 2 goblins are quickly dispatched as she does not suffer fools, nor goblin reinforcements and she retreats to the South Chamber.

Desperately trying to escape she makes her way down the stairs to Level 1 Main Entrance- noisily. Again she is stopped by one goblin as the other one rushing to bring reinforcements. Rosa ignores the goblin in front of her to throw her mace at the fleeing goblin [gambit- roll 2d20 and scored two hits]. Goblin hit in the back of the head collapses, and the remaining guard flees upstairs.

Following an old cave tunnel, Rosa finds stairs that lead her to Level 2. Lighting a new torch, Rosa stumbles into a den of giant rats who attack her as a source of food.

Because of the goblin fights, Rosa finds the rats a little dangerous, at 2 HP she decides it's best to drop rations beat a hasty retreat back to Level 1. Exploring a ray of sunlight, Rosa returns to the surface and heads back to town.

❤️Princess Rosa- Alive;  💀: 3 Goblins (15 XP); 💰: 11 EP


  • Goblins hate Rosa and will fortify the upper areas due to goblin deaths
  • Goblins should normally demand GP to pass into the tower; extra GP is you want to take your weapons; or can make a bargain to kill corpse eaters on Level 2 (3 ghouls)
  • Will try to encourage hirelings given its a solo campaign
  • Need to sketch out a small town; maybe just use Beyond the Borderlands

THE ELUSIVE SHIFT REVIEW: The cosmic horror of RPG arguments & time is a flat-circle


Picture by the author himself Jon Peterson

Peterson's editors must have held strong behind their shotguns and shield walls to force a much slimmer volume out of him. But it lacks no less of the punch of Playing At the World. In the same manner as his previous book, Peterson dissects conversations around what exactly this new game Dungeons & Dragons really was by two methods: (1) highlighting critical voices & discussions in the fanzines of the time, such an Alarums & Excursions (still in print) and (2) cross-comparing the numerous fantasy, western, and sci-fi that emerged shortly after D&D. Everyone then too thought they could produce a "better D&D".

At the end of the book, I had come to the realization, on an almost cosmic horror level, that the RPG community as a whole has not advanced any large arguments about what RPGs are and their purpose in about 30 years.

Here is what I am talking about:

"We might observe the initial players of Dungeons & Dragons divided into two camps- with due caveats about overlapping membership and interests- that reflect the two cultures of wargaming and science-fiction fandom: there were games people and story people."

[Post publication of the Greyhawk supplement in 1975]: "D&D is too important to leave to Gary Gygax." 

[Lee Gold writing in her first issues of Alarms & Excursions 1975]: "In their midst, Gold found, that, compared to her own group, 'the Dungeonmaster is player much more against the characters'. Her assessment corroborated Kevin Slimak's concerns about the problems of antagonism incumbent on the power imbalance between the referee and the players."

"Play a Gygax game if you like pits, secret doors, and Dungeon Roulette. Play a game such as in Alarums & Excursions if you prefer monsters, talking/arguing/fighting with the chance met characters and a more exciting game"

[From Bill Seligman 1977]: "The problem TSR has is that the term 'D&D' is starting to refer to fantasy role-playing games in general, and not just those bound by the D&D official rules"

"Kevin Slimak, feeling 'tired of trying to kludge a good game out of Gygax D&D...'"

Another interesting bit is how Gygax shifts from commenting on D&D as an open system to AD&D as a closed and complete system. Distinguishing between the two. This further leads to another discussion about if AD&D lays down too many rules which destroy the free-form play of the early little brown books/white box. 

Peterson walks us up to the early eighties where there are hardened attempts at a unified critical theory about RPGs. Which contains this graph showing the alignment of power gaming vs. storytelling; role playing vs. wargaming

We also get a brief section on how with the publication of the Holmes' Basic D&D  box set and D&D in the media in the 1980's,  there was a huge influx of younger players who were not steeped in the prior editions of D&D. Jorden writes:

"By 1981, 60 percent of all TSR products would be purchased by or for players between the ages of 10 and 14"

These "munchkins" touched off the same, by this time, ~5-year-old arguments, while at the same time feeling discriminated against by the "grognards" of the time simply for not being born early enough. This just sounds like a similar discussion occurring around players entering only ever having experienced 5e D&D and Critical Role.

In total: A fantastic book! As authoritative and insightful as Playing At The World, but more tightly executed. I would highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in RPG analysis and critique. I think it is an almost must-read because even if you hate D&D the book will provide a firm context for the game and illuminate resonating early critiques.

If you want to know how D&D was developed, I would hit up Play At The World first.