The relentless detective is one of the most common character types found in literature, movies, and television. There, of course, is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Lynda La Plante’s Jane Tennison, Agatha Christies’ Hercule Poirot, G. K. Chesterton's Father Brown, and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Porfiry Petrovich, just to name a few. All many of my favorites.
But my favorite detective character is Columbo, a character portrayed primarily by Peter Faulk from 1968-2003. Columbo is a shrewd, yet inelegant blue-collar homicide detective whose trademarks include his shambling manner, rumpled beige raincoat and off-putting, relentless investigative approach.
|Publicity photo of Peter Falk as TV character "Columbo" (Wikimedia Commons).|
I truly respect this guy: he loves his job, has virtually no ego, is extraordinarily polite, is relentless while on a case, and totally dedicated to his craft. A perfect role-playing character.
So what could Columbo look like as a D&D character? I’m going to do two builds: one using WotC core material and the other using a resource from the DMs Guild.
I want to play a quirky, humble, yet relentless police detective from a large metropolitan city who is habitually polite to everyone, even those who are his opponents. S(he) is adventuring because s(he) is on the hunt for an escaped fugitive.
The character is a professional crime investigator who uses their deferential and absent-minded persona to lull criminal suspects into a false sense of security. Their approach is to harass and pester opponents or suspects non-stop — without letting them know that they’re opponents or suspects. The character does all this under the pretense that s(he)’s is simply being a pesky detective, in order to spy on them and agitate them into giving up clues or to keep them off balance.
Build One (Wizards of the Coast content)
I chose a Rogue Inquisitive for the build, the subclass published in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. While I’m essentially playing Columbo, I also want to mix in a bit of Hercule Poirot and his proclivities, particularly one who is always immaculately dressed and an obsessive-compulsive. But I have to include two important companions to fill out the Columbo-esque character: the rumpled coat that the character rarely takes off and Dog (we’ll get to those later in the article).
One important note about this character. While he wields some weapons, I don’t think a combat-heavy adventure is necessarily the best place for an Inquisitive to shine (although Insightful Fighting allows for a fairly easy way of ensuring Sneak Attack as most creatures have terrible Deception modifiers). I played this character in a combat heavy adventure, and he did not have much to contribute (partially because I was rolling poorly). If you want this character to fight, be very intentional about available race bonuses, weapon choices, and spell choice (should that be available).
In a espionage-heavy, mystery, or a court-intrigue adventure with a lot of opportunities for role playing, the Inquisitive is pretty cool choice. Here’s why:
- Ear for Deceit at 3rd level seems somewhat less powerful than Reliable Talent. But you get it at level 3, so that is a very nice buff early on.
- Eye for Detail at 3rd level allows you to attempt to perceive a hidden creature or object as a bonus action, so you can use your turn for other things.
- Insightful Fighting at 3rd level is useful, particularly if you're not using your bonus action in the first round of combat (or pre-combat). If you took expertise in Insight - and you should if you take it if you use this subclass - then it's fairly unlikely most monsters will succeed on their opposed deception roll. So, it's free Sneak Attacks even if there aren't any melee allies around the target.
- Steady Eye at 9th level is essentially permanent Advantage on perception and investigation checks when you need to be highly observant (but at half speed).
- If you get to 13th level with this subclass, Unerring Eye is something almost no other ability has: a meta-ability. Rather than having to roll to see if there are Shapeshifters or Illusion magic nearby, the DM simply tells you if there are or are not. Obviously not very useful if your party is just murder-hobos. But in a court intrigue or mystery setting, this ability is invaluable and a very good reason to attain that level.
- Eye for Weakness at 17th level gives you an additional 3d6 for sneak attack. Free damage is free damage, so I’ll take it.
- Name: Detective Chief Inspector Porfiry Fichet
- Level: 5
- Class: Rogue Inquisitive (PHB and XGtE)
- Background: Investigator
- Race: High Elf (for the dark vision and the cantrip)
- Height: 5’6” (Peter Faulk’s stated height)
- Weight: 145
- Gender: Male
DCI Porfiry Fichet always introduces himself as “Fichet” and likes to drop a quip about his wife or some random topic to put someone who he is speaking to off-balance.
Fichet is a short Elvin man with an egg-shaped head and sporting a well coiffed beard. He dresses in a rumpled overcoat, finely tailored clothes underneath, and smokes a cigar from time-to-time. Fichet appears unarmed, only carrying a simple walking cane. However, the cane contains a rapier that he can draw out of the scabbard, as well as a stiletto that he can draw out of the hilt of the rapier.
While he appears as a scatterbrained individual because one of his eyes does not appear to move, he is intelligent. Fichet is always polite, addressing everyone he speaks with as "sir", "ma'am" or "miss". If he cannot discern the gender of a creature, he’ll default to “miss” no matter what (even if he is corrected).
He rarely displays anger toward others, though he sometimes becomes frustrated if things don’t move along as he wants. To those he trusts or is close to, he’ll more-or-less admit that he will sometimes make up certain details about his life, even fabricating fictional relatives, in order to establish a better rapport with others, particularly strangers.
Fichet is adventuring because he is hunting a fugitive who escaped custody after he was convicted of murdering his wife. He says he's innocent and that a one-armed human killed his wife (yes, I just had to do it).
Fichet is the son of a famous detective Françoise Fichet, who has retired from police work.
I used the traditional method of rolling 4d6 (dropping the lowest), and then assigning the result to an ability. The results came out to be: Strength 13, Dexterity 15, Constitution 13, Intelligence 14, Wisdom 13, Charisma 14. A bit high overall, but something interesting to work with.
The high elf race gives me a bonus of 2 for Dex and 1 for intelligence, both complementary to the character I want to build. At 4th level, I took the ability score improvement and assigned a point each to Dex and Con to buff up the Rogue’s highest stat and to improve HP at each level.
With the bonuses, the current ability scores are now, Strength 13, Dexterity 18, Constitution 14, Intelligence 15, Wisdom 13, Charisma 14.
Glamoured Studded Leather, inherited from his father (yes, that can be considered cheating). He always wears it and has it appear as finally tailored clothing with a touch of purple somewhere. The armor and the dexterity modifier gives Fichet an AC of 17, which is pretty good.
Now this sort of “inheritance” would need to be approved by your GM, of course. The cost of the armor is 2,000 gp (from Sane Magical Prices by Saidoro).
You rarely saw Columbo weld a weapon. But you can assume he was armed since he is a police detective. Fichet is armed as well, but discreetly.
- Walking Cane, Melee 1d4 bludgeoning; light
- Cane Rapier, Melee 1d8 piercing; finesse
- Cane Stiletto, Melee 1d4 piercing; finesse, light, thrown (20/60)
- Fire Bolt, cantrip from High Elf as a range weapon
No Columbo character would be complete without the rumpled overcoat (I’d argue that it is a character in itself). He is always wearing it (even when he went on vacation), with one exception; when he gets a new raincoat as a birthday gift from his beloved wife in the episode "Now You See Him." Columbo says that he "can't think" in this coat, and desperately tries to lose it. Finally he is able to retrieve his beloved original raincoat.
Columbo also carries everything in the coat: a notepad, pen/pencil, badge, shopping lists from his wife, and even his breakfast (usually a hard-boiled egg).
We could give Fichet a modified Robe of Useful Items and call it good (Basic Rules, pg. 195). But that doesn’t seem enough, so I created a magical overcoat for this character.
Overcoat of the Detective
Wondrous Item, very rare (requires attunement)
While wearing this well worn, rumpled overcoat, you can use a bonus action to make a Wisdom (perception), Intelligence (investigation), or Wisdom (insight) check. This feature does not stack with similar abilities.
You can cast detect magic and identify at will with no material components. Once per long rest, you can also cast one of these spells as an action while wearing this coat: Alarm, Arcane Lock, Disguise Self (DC 20), Knock, Locate Creature, Speak with Animals, Speak with Dead, or Zone of Truth.
This coat keeps you warm when the weather is cold and cool when it is hot, allowing you to wear the coat at all times regardless of the temperature.
It also has several pockets, one large enough to hold an investigator's kit in an extra-dimensional space.
Weight: 3 lbs.
Cost: 24,000 gp*
*based it on the cost of the Ring of Spell storing from Sane Magical Prices
Fichet also “inherited” this coat from his father (check with your GM to see if it is OK).
Columbo has a basset hound named "Dog," that came to be an occasional regular in the TV series and movies. For our character, how about a Blink Basset Hound named “Dog” as a companion animal. Essentially, use the blink dog stats, but Dog will be a beast instead of a fey (Basic Rules, pg. 119).
Instead of thieves' tools, I gave Fichet proficiency with an Investigator’s Kit, found in Nathan England’s silver best seller “Investigator - Rogue Archetype” (DMs Guild).
Build Two (DMs Guild content)
There are a few options available for an Investigator in the DMs Guild. Reviews of these subclasses will be published in the future.
For this build, I used Nathan England’s investigator subclass. It has some similarities to the Inquisitive, but the approach is quite different and is really interesting to play. One thing to note: Mr. England’s class was published a year before Xanathar's Guide to Everything, so any similarities may be coincidental.
- Observant at 3rd level gives you some huge buffs: the ability to read lips, a sizable bonus to your passive Wisdom (perception) and passive Intelligence (investigation) scores, the ability to use Wisdom (perception) and Intelligence (investigation) to follow tracks, and you can use Intelligence instead of Charisma to gather certain information. You also get proficiency with the investigator's kit at this level. One could argue that Observant is overpowered, but I think it makes up for the 9th level ability.
- Comparative Analysis at 9th level allows you to ascertain a particular creature’s abilities compared to your own after studying it for a period of time. However, you are limited to choosing only two basic traits from a reasonably sized list that the DM has to disclose. You only have access to basic information or you can learn a bit about the creature’s history or personality. Overall, probably not that useful.
- Foresight at 13th level, you get a pool of foresight points that you can spend to roll an extra d20 on attacks, checks, or saves (with or after the initial roll). It’s simply a pool of inspiration that you get back after a long rest. Every additional roll helps.
- Logical Deduction at level 17 is pretty cool. Essentially, you get dreamlike glimpses of recent events around an object or area. It’s pretty powerful that has a limit on it’s use thankfully.
For this character, Fichet is now female and I patterned her after Prime Suspect character DCI Jane Tennison (with Columbo’s proclivities included). Jane Tennison is a bad-ass and I think she is a great analog for a female D&D detective character. For all Tennison’s flaws and brusque schoolmarmish cool, Jane Tennison has a special sensitivity to victims and a repressed compassion that fuels her zeal to see justice done.
- Name: Detective Chief Inspector Katrina Fichet
- Level: 5
- Class: Rogue Investigator (DMs Guild)
- Background: Investigator
- Race: High Elf (for the dark vision and the cantrip)
- Height: 5’6”
- Weight: 125
- Gender: Female
DCI Katrina Fichet always introduces herself as “Fichet” and likes to drop a quip about her wife or some random topic to put someone who she is speaking to off-balance. Fichet is hard-working, intelligent, and optimistic; but she is no Pollyanna.
Totally dedicated to her job, Fichet claims that she's not the smartest person on the force, but that she has studied and worked hard to get where she is. She is almost always polite to witnesses and suspects, and once said, “Even with some of the murderers that I meet, I like them too. But only for that part of them which is intelligent, or funny, or just nice.”
Fichet uses a deferential or an absent-minded persona to lull suspects and opponents into a false sense of security. Her tactic is to harass and pester suspects non-stop — without letting them know that they’re suspects — under the pretense that she’s simply being a pesky detective, in order to spy on them and agitate them into giving up clues.
Fichet is an Elvin woman of average height, dressed in a rumpled coat and finely tailored clothes underneath. Fichet appears unarmed, only carrying a simple walking stick that she uses to poke around crime scenes. However, the stick contains a rapier that she can draw out of the scabbard, as well as a stiletto that she can draw out of the hilt of the rapier.
She rarely displays anger toward others, though she sometimes becomes frustrated if things don’t move along as he wants. To those she trusts or is close to, she’ll more-or-less admit that she will sometimes make up certain details about her life, even fabricating fictional relatives, in order to establish a better rapport with others, particularly strangers.
Fichet is adventuring because she is hunting a fugitive who escaped custody after he was convicted of murdering his wife. He says he's innocent and that a one-armed human killed his wife.
Fichet is the daughter of a famous detective named Françoise Fichet, who has retired from police work.
Stats, Armor, Weapons, The “Overcoat,” and Dog
She has all the same stats and equipment as detailed in our male character build. However Katrina plays completely different than Porfiry: her point of view is different, her capabilities are different, and her quirky mannerisms are perceived differently by her opponents. I think she has an edge on Porfiry.
As with the previous version of the character, Katrina is also better suited for role-playing heavy adventures. But she can handle herself quite well in a scrap. She is a bad-ass.
Let me know what you think of the builds and how you’d build your ideal detective character.
Note: All of the content mentioned in this article was purchased by the author. The photograph of Peter Falk as Columbo is published on Wikipedia and is labeled as an image in the public domain.