Pixedragon asked  about several things that often tangle together into a big knot: mysteries, clues, and the GM’s spotlight versus the player’s flashlights. It also ties into the thrashing that often develops in a Sandbox setting. Here’s what was asked:
Hiya, I have a question concerning GMing, and it’s something I’ve noticed with other GM’s and in my own game.
We tend to play rather RP-heavy games so it’s not just “Find item A at spot B and deliver it at NPC C”, but that’s where the trouble starts. Basically, it’s not as clear for the players as it is for the GM, and the GM really needs to be aware of this to make sure the sessions don’t become confusing for the players.
I’ve noticed this happened in the game a friend of mine GMs when she said; “But it’s so clear to me! I don’t understand why they don’t see they should just do that and that. Why don’t they just connect the dots and start working on it?” As I’d been talking to some of the players about this I knew they had missed several of the so-called ‘very noticeable points’, but when I tried to explain this to my friend she only got confused herself on how they had managed to miss those points because it was so clear to herself.
So how can you see (as a GM) whether your players find all the pieces of the puzzle you want them to find? I realize perfect understanding is an utopia, but I don’t think it should get to the point where the players are so confused they don’t know what to do at all.
Patrick provided a great response  and linked off to some articles on the subject. Since I’ve been on both sides of the issue, I thought I’d talk about how I’ve tried to deal with it as both a player and a GM.
In plotted computer games, you often get stuck because something critical to the story hasn’t yet been witnessed or interacted with. So you wander from location to location, hoping to find the scene or interact with the bauble that would let you finally move on. It sounds a lot like that’s what your group is experiencing–which is quite frustrating given that the GM’s not locked into a program!
One thing that a good railroaded adventure (or module) has going for it is coherence. Because the players don’t have many options, the GM can spend a lot of effort working on the scenes that they know will happen. Even in a less structured game, the GM is still (usually) the arbiter of scene setting. There are at least two paths a GM can take when the game starts grinding gears.
Option One: Aggressive Scene Framing
If the players are lost in the mystery and they don’t care about solving the mystery as players, then use your GM’s discretion to move to the next exciting scene. If they have to put together clues to get to the next exciting scene, then reveal their character’s results as part of the next scene.
“After a weekend of hard study, Loretta realized that the only source of sufficient bat guano for the Villain’s fire ritual was that cave the park ranger mentioned. The next scene begins with the players in the guano slicked cave, circling fouled stalactites with the entrance a fist sized opening of brightness in the background. You hear a shuffling ahead…”
Alternately, the next exciting scene might be to provide the characters with information they already know– but in a new context, perhaps by introducing new characters, or highlighting consequences to make the next direction more obvious. This might be a better path if the players care about solving the mystery as players.
“Loretta is at the mayor’s masked ball, mingling with the city’s movers and shakers, when a woman wearing an elegant peacock mask catches her at the canapes table. ‘Madam’, she says, touching your arm diffidently, ‘you need to know that interference with the town’s revitalization will make you no friends’. The butterfly mask sparkles with a ghostly flame as she continues. ‘Interfere again and flame might clear the way for other civic improvements–with a lot less forewarning. Understand?'”
Option Two: Clear the Waters
If the clues are obvious to you as the GM–you’re sure that the players should have an understanding of the situation–then it’s important to figure out why the game is stopped. This is the best line to follow if the players dig your mystery and want to solve it as players. Several things might be holding up the game.
- Missing Connection: If, as a player, you’re lost, there are several things you can do. One of the best mirrors real life–talk it out with the other characters. Have a (hopefully brief) scene where the PCs talk to each other, discuss their understanding, and figure out their next step. If you’re all stuck, then it’s probably time for your character to take a walk. Once she leaves the in game discussion, perhaps the GM will take the opportunity to add the information your characters are all missing–via a phone call from your contact, a chance caught newspaper article on the breeze, or a drive by with tommy guns. Talking it out as characters sometimes solves the next problem on the list too.
- Player induced limits: Metagaming avoidance and player/character incompatibility are both player induced limits on the story. A player might not want to ‘metagame’ by using information that his character has not acquired personally–and might be the only person who remembers that his character doesn’t have the key fact that’s required for the plot to fit together! Similarly, players who are trying to portray their character accurately might have the solution (or important information), but feel that their intelligence isn’t high enough to solve the problem or make the connection. This happened to me–there was a puzzle where skeletons were numbered, but only the factorials. I didn’t think that my sheep farmer/fighter with an Int of 10 should be the one to solve it–but we ground the game to a halt until I realized that it was a player level puzzle, not character. Once I had “permission” to solve it, we funneled the in character answer to the Wizard with a high intelligence and solved it, moving on. That was a frustrating session…
- Situational Awareness: Sandbox play often leads to a state where the PCs understand the situation, but not how to solve it. That can be because years of roleplaying experience emphasized a different type of problem solving, because they aren’t visualizing their resources, missed a detail that makes a course of action viable, or many other things. While heavy handed, talking the situation over with NPCs (who see the PCs and their influence on the world) might reveal new avenues. Or if the players keep avoiding discussions under a flag or truce, remind them that betraying the truce flag has literally never been done in the world’s history.
- Perfection Seeking: Perhaps the players really do understand the situation, but they don’t like the choice that’s offered. Players who are used to effortless triumphs might not understand a no win situation– they might be misreading it as a Kobayashi Maru , where they have to implement a wild approach to win without sacrifice. That’s great when they can come up with something, but terrible if the fun play is stalled because they just don’t want to pay the price. Unstick the situation reiterating their choice–either by having an NPC commiserate about tough choices, having an NPC talk about the consequence of the only choice that NPC could imagine the PC making, cutting to a shot of the second hand on the explosives at 30 seconds and falling, or otherwise reemphasizing the difficult choice.
How do you and your groups handle wandering situations and missed hints? My sandbox games usually wander quite a bit more than more plotted games–for me and my group, that’s part of the expectation, though we still grit our teeth at the gear grinding. In more skilled hands, I suspect that forward progress and a steady flow of information can keep things running smoothly. How do you do that?