10 Ways to Clue in Characters as a GM

So you’ve created a brilliant piece of investigative adventure write up which has a list of interesting plot points that all lead inexorably to the ending fact – a fact that will shake the foundations of the character’s reality. You pull out the dice. You hand out their sheets. Everyone takes a seat. It’s play time!

One flunked roll or neglected clue later and the characters are all scratching their heads and having a drink down the pub with no idea where they should go next. No problem! You introduce a handy NPC who’s figured out the clue and the team go to the next location only to completely misinterpret the next clue and run off on a wild goose chase.

So what do you do?

Well, here are 10 methods to seed your clues so the characters get the point.

1. The more the merrier. Plant at least two independent clues for every bit of important plot information.

2. Diversity is the spice of information gathering. Vary your clue sources (behavioral, written, forensic, timeline, spoken) so that if characters fail to interact with the NPCs or search the surroundings, they won’t miss out on all of the clues.

3. Recognise the value of bread crumb trails. Include small, more numerous clues to point to major clues so that characters are more likely to find them yet still feel clever for piecing them together.
4. Vital news should be unavoidable to learn. If there is a critical clue upon which the adventure hinges, then don’t ask for a dice roll for them to locate it. Make it obvious. Paint a big arrow of bread crumbs toward it. Ensure they’ll trip over it.

5. If you make it, BY GOD they should get it. If you’ve went to the trouble of making a hand out, invent a few reasons for them to end up with it. That way if they don’t bother visiting the newstand, they can still see that front page article on the folded newspaper in their mother’s house.

6. Consider creating a timeline. Many investigations that have multiple suspects are solved by a process of elimination. Who couldn’t have done it? Who wasn’t there? If you don’t have a timeline, your PCs can’t use this technique.

7. Brochure of investigative techniques. It helps to give the players, and their characters, a little reminder by having a mentor, brochure or even official class pointing out useful techniques that come up in later sessions. If you have their mentor test their ability to shadow people, or door knock the neighbours to find out information, you can bet your bottom dollar they will remember that technique and use them again.

8. Reward ingenuity. When players / characters get stuck, they will often try a few random techniques to try to find a handhold to help their climb to the truth. If their first few attempts turn up nothing, they’ll get frustrated and stop trying. Give them something – even something small – that can be used to help them.

9. Roleplay deception. Just because the NPC is doing their best to be the perfect liar, doesn’t mean you should mimic them. Remember that as a GM you are constantly making stuff up so players will typically overlook the minor incongruities (you said 6 o’clock when it was 7 o’clock) and body language tip offs that you’re lying (because you are, constantly, none of this is real). Therefore you could dial up the hints by making it just a little more obvious. Check out L.A. Noire for some examples of actors giving hints that their lying to players.

10. Know your facts! Characters won’t jump on incongruities if the players aren’t sure if they were a GM error or an NPC mistake. The more you know your story, character motivations, timeline and situation, and the more reliable you are in remembering them, the more likely characters will jump on incongruities in the information put before them.

Can you add any more techniques to this list? Or have any amusing anecdotes of players missing the point?

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