So You Want to Obtain Information…

Contributed by Josh Allen

Star Trek stories involve lots of investigation, and Star Trek Adventures’ Obtain Information mechanic is a key tool for facilitating this. Obtain Information can play out in fun, genre-appropriate ways. It also can take some getting-used-to, since it works differently than investigation checks in some other TTRPGs.

If you’re new to Star Trek Adventures, here are some considerations that may help Obtain Information deliver fun gameplay and storytelling at your table.

How does it work?

In STA, after performing a successful Task of any Difficulty, players can choose to Obtain Information. This has them asking questions of the GM, spending 1 Momentum per question. If it makes narrative sense that the character could have learned this information in the context of the Task they performed, the GM must answer the question honestly.

Variable challenge, but always earned

A classic dilemma facing players and GMs in other TTRPGs arises when players test hypotheses and fail to rule them out. There’s a drive for players to use their character’s abilities and earn some progress, but the resulting die rolls might leave things needlessly unresolved. Obtain Information sidesteps this dilemma by allowing players to buy their information and GMs to control the challenge, all while drawing from the character’s abilities and talents.

Let’s consider how an investigation might play out in a game like DnD.

The players are trying to find out how their enemy escaped. The wizard, operating on a guess, volunteers to check the chamber for illusory walls. Unbeknownst to the player, the enemy did not in fact escape in this way. A naive next step would be for the GM to ask the player for an Investigation check, with the results determined as follows:

Are there illusory walls?

  • Success: No
  • Failure: ¯_(ツ)_/¯

This type of resolution may feel unsatisfying to both the player and the GM. If the player succeeds, they at least learn enough to rule out illusory walls. But if they fail, even that false lead remains open.

Should they try again?

Should the GM have even asked for a roll, knowing this was a blind alley? But if rolls are only made when the hypothesis is correct, doesn’t that reveal too much? Should the GM fudge the roll, not telling the player the target number and giving an answer that’s most useful to the story? Or should the roll simply Succeed at Cost, and always reveal the right answer but trigger an adverse effect if they fail? The example above may be a straw-man that skilled DMs can facilitate with success at the table. However, it illustrates a common pitfall for new DMs and the power of Obtain Information
as a tool.

With Obtain Information:

  • the Difficulty and thus success of the search can be resolved separately from the information it
    reveals the GM can easily control whether the investigation:
    • can fail (Difficulty 1 or above)
    • will Succeed but possibly at Cost (Difficulty 1 or above with a Complication
    • or can’t possibly fail at all (Difficulty 0)
  • the character’s skills still contribute to the outcome, by influencing the amount of momentum generated
  • the players’ questions are either definitively put to bed, or not yet broached

Re-playing the example above in STA: a GM could ask the player to perform a Difficulty 0 scan with their tricorder. This is guaranteed to succeed, but depending on the dice and the characters’ attributes, disciplines, focuses, & other situations, can generate more or less Momentum. Even if the player earns zero Momentum, they can draw from the pool, spending 1 point to ask: “Are there holographic walls?” and be guaranteed an answer.

Oh and one more question…

In the example above, a player searching for illusory walls would find that there are in fact none. But the repeatable nature of Obtain Information means that the player’s Turn doesn’t have to end there. Like Columbo, players can ask “one more question” as long as they have additional Momentum to spend. This increases the likelihood that their Turn really moves the story forward and doesn’t just pursue a blind alley.

Not being an Immediate spend, the player can’t create Threat to Obtain Information: it must come from Momentum. They can create Threat, however, to buy dice. This can make Difficulty: 0 Tasks as exciting as ones of higher Difficulty, encouraging players to apply their Values, Talents, and even Threat to increase the odds of getting the most Momentum.

Player Agency

Obtain Information has the potential to offer greater narrative control to players than in some other RPGs. While Obtain Information can be used narrowly, it can also be used broadly, edging close to the “Read a situation” Move from Apocalypse World, or even the “Contact Other Plane” spell from DnD. It allows players to really probe the GM, pulling information into the story on their terms (as long as it makes sense for the character and situation).

In some RPG gameplay, players must first form guesses and then undertake die rolls to resolve them. This can be a fun dynamic, providing real mysteries for players to solve (as opposed to their characters). However, players who haven’t paid attention to the details may stumble. This approach may also overly favor players who have command of the lore. STA’s mechanics can play well with the “player guessing” approach, but they also have the potential to be accessible to players who struggle with that approach.

Different GMs and players will have different preferences, but it can be fun to experiment with how direct and open-ended your Obtain Information questions can be. You can always try just asking for what you want. Instead of asking “are there holographic walls?” a player might go for the gusto and ask:

How did the Section 31 operative escape?

If that’s too broad, the GM can let the player know, refunding the Momentum, and they can try a different question. For example:

What trace has the operative left behind?

Or:

Who here knows about what happened?

There may be characters whose Traits make it possible for them to ask very direct questions. A psychic character might ask: What took place here? A character with a photographic memory might ask: What is out of place here?

You can see Obtain Information as a player proposing “this is what I want to know”, and the Task they performed “this is how I learned it.” It can be a fun narrative exercise to play out how the player learns the information through their Task.

The Truth and Nothing But the Truth…

As a GM, you might read the above and think: this gives too much power to players, especially on the heels of what’s often a Difficulty: 0 Task. It’s certainly a balancing act, but keep in mind that while GMs must answer truthfully, you don’t have to provide the whole truth.

If a psychic character spends 1 Momentum to ask what took place here? you might simply respond with “a murder.” That puts the ball back in the players’ court to spend or earn yet more Momentum to get more detail: “who was murdered?” “Were there witnesses?” You can also use Traits to account for the walls they may run into. “You can’t tell if there are witnesses. Your impression is cloudy because of the Background Psychic Noise. It’s going to take some effort to push through that.” This will lead players towards truly Difficult (> 0) investigative Tasks which have the potential to fail, or towards Create Advantage Tasks and spends that help remove the obstacles to their investigation.

Read the room

Obtain Information is often used for Tasks relying on the Disciplines of Science and Medicine, but Obtain Information can be performed on any Task, in any Domain, so long as it makes narrative sense. It may be worth taking inspiration from Apocalypse World’s “Read a person” and “Read a situation” Moves to use this with many different Disciplines in social domains and negotiations. Characters skilled in Security might assess a tactical situation, flight controllers might obtain information using Conn, etc.

When your cup runneth over

While some entire Tasks are undertaken for the purpose of Obtain Information spends, Obtain Information is also perfect for those times when your Momentum pool is full and you don’t want the excess to go to waste. Maybe you’ve always wondered what makes that NPC tick. You got an incredible die roll, overpowered your adversary, and even have 1 Momentum extra. You decide to spend it to Obtain Information, demanding “why?! what happened to you?” You just might bring forth a key bit of backstory at an exciting moment of your choosing.

Surfacing information through players

This isn’t possible at every table, but if there’s an electronic component to your game (Roll20, Fantasy Grounds, Discord, Zoom, etc.), and you don’t mind typing, a fun way to use Obtain Information is to respond to players privately, and let them narrate the results. Having players be the voice of GM-fed information, in-character and with all the Trek trappings, can be a particularly dramatic and enjoyable way to move the story forward.

This takes on special significance when you realize that your story’s big “reveals” can be surfaced by the players through Obtain Information spends. Instead of grabbing the spotlight and having your villain monologue, your players could innocently – or desperately – spend their way to uncovering something earth-shattering. As a GM, there’s a real joy in watching players surprise each other. “OMG folks, you’re not gonna believe this…”

Happy information hunting!

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