I heard it once said that D&D is a monster killing game. Although I enjoy killing monsters, I disagree. It is not only a monster killing game, but a way to tell stories. Since the rules for the game mostly circle around combat, when a player tells the DM they would like to, I don’t know, let’s say research a topic, the Dungeon Master has few rules by which to play. You might think that less structure lends itself to more playtime, but in my experience, players like rules and regulations, dice rolls and roleplay.
You may read the except titled “Research” in the Dungeon Masters Guide page 187. However, I have found that when a player says they want to research ancient lore, a magic item or learn a new language, the Dungeon Master fumbles through the DMG, and eventually simply says “make an ability check.” The player rolls and the DM decides, “yes, you now know elvish, moving on.” If you want to tell better stories, then find ways for everything to matter in the game, rather than simply waving your hand over an arbitrary DC and deciding if the player fails or succeeds. In short, I think this challenge is what makes researching a dynamic story. Since you are here looking for a way to tell a great story, then consider the following recipe.
During any point of the game, the player decides they want to research a topic, or an NPC questgiver asks the scholarly PC to do so. Then DM says, “before you can research, you must convince someone for access to property since that is the place you can research” Perhaps this is an NPC who owns a vineyard and has something they want before they grant you access to their land/library/basement for research. So, you now must find out how you can help the vintner achieve their goal. However, in helping them, you make an enemy. A rival faction, a jealous sibling, a scorned lover. And they seek revenge. After all of this, the hero finally gains access to the land, and then the research can take place.
- Quest: Research a Topic
- Convince a Vineyard owner to Use their property to research
- Perform a grisly task for the owner
- Deal with the rival faction
- Gain access to the land and begin the research
That alone can take quite a while, many sessions perhaps, considering that other players are performing other tasks in the downtime. I would exact a gold piece cost from the player during this time to pay for expenses. Once the research begins, I would treat the research project like a boss monster, where the player must take an action every turn and roll an intelligence check to “attack” the research by using these 3 methods.
- Pour through Documents (make an intelligence check)
- Tinker with Components (make a dexterity check)
- Query a Scribe (make a charisma check)
After making the rolls against the Research Project, the DM decides how much “damage” the project takes and if sufficient, the project is complete. If not, then the Project takes an Action in the form of Setting the Player Backwards in Progress with an illness (poisoned condition), exhaustion, injury (loss of hit dice), or mental fatigue (disadvantage on intelligence checks). To make that attack more similar to life, the hero now has to go on another adventure to repair their mental and physical faculties, rather than just taking a long rest.
- Set Initiative as Player first
- PC takes action against Monster DC level
- Monster takes action against PC Intelligence Modifier + 10
- Rinse and Repeat until Monster or PC HP is reduced to zero
There are SO many stat blocks of monsters that can be substituted for your Research Monster. This process is called re-skinning and totally legit. Rather than giving you a stat block though, here are three features of this monster.
- AC = 10 + player level
- HP = 3 x player level
- Attack = + player level
- Damage equals 1d6 x player level and one condition as stated above, poisoned, exhaustion, loss of hit dice, or temporary disadvantage on intelligence checks.
After all that, the PC gets another turn and hopefully resolves the conflict, and wins the prize. If not, rinse and repeat until blood is spilled. Can a PC die from too much work??? Also, consider the other players rolling initiative to come up with clever ways to use the Help Action by giving the PC advantage on rolls.
Research in Downtime can be a simple montage or it could be an exciting part of the adventure you are all unfolding around the table. Let this advice guide you as your story continues!