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Hints, Clues, and Description

Posted By Scott Martin On January 20, 2012 @ 1:00 am In GMing Advice | 17 Comments

IcebergTitanic had a question that will hopefully end more successfully than his handle’s history.

Similar to the questions on Metagaming, I would like to see an article on how a GM can give hints and clues for a story without the players immediately leaping upon it. You know, the old “if the GM mentioned it, it must be important!”

Example: The PC’s are meeting an important dignitary for dinner, and the noble goes, “Ouch!” as he apparently gets a nasty splinter from his chair. The PC’s immediately all jump up, start casting spells to locate bad guys, cast anti-poison in the NPC, etc, etc.

Is the answer to just litter your game with inconsequential incidents for NPCs? Is it to make them roll to have noticed the NPC getting the “splinter”?

Long story short, Iceberg–what you’re hoping for is actually difficult to accomplish.

Your suggestion–littering your game with inconsequential incidents for NPCs–strikes at the heart of the matter. The first solution to the problem is to litter your game with incidental details. What do I mean? Well, here are a few quick examples:

“The corridor continues straight for thirty feet, opening on a (GM draws a room) room 30′ wide by 20′ long. Three orcs stand, brandish their axes, and… roll for initiative!”
versus:
“The wainscotting continues down the corridor, a polished oak that must keep his staff endlessly busy with dusting. Ahead, the corridor passes through a rounded oak arch sculpted with angels and demons. You hear guttural voices suddenly still in the room ahead, and hear the scrape of furniture being pushed back. From Jayen’s angle, she sees two thickly muscled figures wrapped in grimy finery standing and raising battle axes from the floor…

Those could both be descriptions of the same developing scene. I know that I can get lazy when describing things, particularly when I’m looking forward to the next fun combat. Still, if you’re looking to include subtle surprises, you need to add a layer of subtlety to your game on a continuous basis. Otherwise, every detail that’s described is important, so of course your players are going to react to it–it’s important! In fact, if you want to subtly direct more attention to things, you should follow John’s advice in Defining Importance: Making sure the things you want to be remembered about your game are. (In fact, my article is just the complement to his key tip: Present the things you want to be remembered in a way that makes them stand out from the rest of the events going on.)

It does take more time to describe things in more detail, or to describe incidental events–but it’s less additional time than you think. For most traditional games, combats take something like 30 to 120 minutes. If you cut one round of one combat, you’ve probably saved enough time to add dozens of conversational asides and world-deepening (but plot inconsequential) flavor.

Switching modes (from “sufficient” to “verbose”) is better handled steadily, over time, than in an overwhelming blitz. If you suddenly take five sentences to describe a room that previously took one, you’ll overload your players–and probably struggle to come up with that much material consistently. Instead, slowly add more conversational asides, have NPCs talk about the weather, describe a few more terrain features. When more of those features are revealed to be interesting but not plot arrows, your players will come to appreciate the more detailed world… and never notice that you can slide in subtle hints more easily without raising red flags.

Here are some easily implemented flavor ideas to get you started:

  • Have someone praise a PC’s clothing, armor, or weapon.
  • Describe the texture of the wall in the next room.
  • Have someone ramble on about a missing sheep within earshot of the PCs. Have another NPC sigh tiredly, and mutter, “She’s always on about her sheep” to a PC.
  • Introduce a strong smell: sewage, oleanders in bloom, or ammonia.
  • Ask a PC where they learned [something]–then have their asker interrupt with his own story about learning smithing from old Davard.
  • Have an NPC complain that everything is going wrong; life was better when they were a child.

It’s not foolproof, but that’s the path I’d take to chivvy players away from reacting to every burp and bush flowering out of season as a plot hook.

Two Kinds of Comments

There are two things that I’d love to hear. First: If you have a different solution to IcebergTitanic’s problem, please share your approach. If there’s a fast, easy path, I wouldn’t mind adding that to my quiver of options. Second: My list of flavor ideas was pretty short. More bits of scenery that are easy to work into a game and conversations that add depth, but don’t point to a plot, would be handy to have ready the next time a GM wants a more detailed game-world.

About  Scott Martin

Scott is an engineer turned gnome and game store owner. He lies awake at night building intriguing worlds and plotting your character's demise.




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17 Comments To "Hints, Clues, and Description"

#1 Comment By Victor Von Dave On January 20, 2012 @ 3:06 am

Rather than giving information overload you can switch up what you choose to focus on as interesting and/or threatening. It’s the time tested method of using the ‘red herring’. Mystery and horror movies use this all the time. Sometimes the sinister looking guy giving the party the hairy eyeball in the tavern is just the town’s bitter and sad drunk (and 0 level to boot). Sometimes that noise coming from outside is just a common housecat scratching at the window (no not a luck eater or familiar – just a housecat). A few of these go a really long way and hyper paranoid players will chill out a bit instead of going ape at every noise and broken twig… either that or the town’s going to have a lot less cats.

#2 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On January 20, 2012 @ 7:20 am

The first question that pops into my mind is “an NPC got pricked and you obviously don’t want to draw the PCs’ attention to it. Why describe the NPC reacting to it?”

In this case, I’d just have the PCs roll a notice/perception/spot check to determine whether they thought it was worth investigating. Don’t tell them why they rolled (you may even make the roll yourself).

If they succeed, then roleplay the NPC’s reaction. The PCs are drawn to it.

If they fail, then don’t roleplay it. Later, when the effect takes its toll, have the PCs make a second roll. If they succeed, give them an answer like “you didn’t think it was important at the time, but upon reflection you do remember the noble complaining about a splinter during the banquet…”

#3 Comment By E-l337 On January 20, 2012 @ 7:48 am

I sometimes think I may actually have the opposite problem that IcebergTitanic describes – *not* having players latch onto certain details enough. Of course, this could just be a “success” I suppose, as it allows me to recall little details much later in the game, and things begin to slowly fall into place.

My method for this? Little details as much as I am able, without trying to write an entire page of detail. Little things happen all the time. In my post apoc game, NPC names were tossed around all the time, little things like arguments and occasional scuffles in the bar occurred, and if the players wanted to get themselves involved, they were more than welcome – though it really didn’t matter if they did. It adds an extra layer of atmosphere, and when the party doesn’t react to that guy in the corner grumbling about mutants, they can be twice as shocked when they learned he died not long after he left the bar – something they could have prevented, if they had decided to investigate (though really, that wasn’t important either)!

The best way, in my opinion, is to implement red herrings. This can have a negative however: players might focus so much on the herring that it derails the game entirely, and sometimes you have to break the illusion by telling them this. This has the downside of potentially frustrating your players, and trust me that is a very bad thing.

But practice makes perfect. The occasional herring mixed in with some superfluous detail and the hidden plot flag can make for some interesting gaming, and if the PCs latch onto that flag immediately, don’t they deserve it, if they’ve caught the subtle hint you’ve placed?

#4 Comment By GhstGry On January 20, 2012 @ 8:02 am

Red Herrings are good, but only when used sparingly. If you throw a lot at your players, they’ll tend to ignore important things while spending an entire session trying to figure out why the goblin was looking up at the sky.

I think the best way to include “incidentals” is to twist the Red Herring idea a little, while still rewarding players for paying attention: improv! This requires that you are willing to not have your entire adventure planned out exhaustively and are willing to work with your players. Let me explain.

You want the players to notice subtle things, but you won’t necessarily know what they actually “notice.” So let THEM tell YOU what they find interesting. Look at your scene (the dinner, for example) and make up 4-5 interesting things happening there:

– A suit of armor along the wall seems less polished than the rest.
– One of the diners is left-handed and drinks only water.
– The seneschal doesn’t arrive in the hall until after the lord has sat to eat.
– The lord reacts suddenly to apparently getting a splinter from his chair.
– One of the tapestries on the wall depicts a battle with a demon and one of the lord’s ancestors.
– Above the lord’s chair is an old, heavily-used battleaxe with what may be freshly dried blood on it.

Now your main plot point is buried in there (the splinter), but you’ve also thrown out other, non-developed ideas. Now pay attention to your players. They’ll undoubtedly jump on one or two of those points and run with it. Let them lead you right where they want to go.

Let’s say they want to know more about the battleaxe, as they’re suspicious of the blood. You could use that to leverage into a new adventure or quest if they’re really interested (“My lord! There’s been a murder in the pantry! One of the chambermaids was hacked to death!”), or you could have the lord dismiss it off-hand (“One of the cleaning wenches clumsily cut herself on it while dusting”).

If the players let it go easily, then you can simply write it off. No effort lost on your part. But if they keep pressing the issue, you can spin something interesting out of it, and maybe even include the info that you were going to impart via the splinter, but use the axe as the delivery method.

By using an improv method, you can more easily react to what the players find interesting, and you won’t get that bummed-out feeling when the players don’t bite on that 2-page exposition you spent all night building. Many times, players will see connections between events or people that you never would’ve thought of.

Let them do the work for you and then you get to decide which of those tangents best fits where you want the adventure to go. You look like a genius for plotting out such a cool story and they feel rewarded for “noticing” your subtle plot points. Win-Win!

#5 Comment By kaustin On January 20, 2012 @ 8:29 am

Isn’t the entire game design concept of Robin Law’s GUMSHOE system designed to address this very issue?

#6 Comment By Johnn Four combatmastery.com On January 20, 2012 @ 9:05 am

First, check your reason why you want the detail missed. Most times it’s more fun for players to pick up on obvious clues to carry the game forward and make them feel smart. Burying detail for some future aha moment rarely works.

One approach that might work for you is to give three descriptions or facts, and put the meaningful one in the middle.

Our brains are hard-wired for pattern recognition and to detect contrast. Slice and dice (pun intended :). So be sure your three items are similar in tone and level of detail so the middle one does not stand out.

#7 Comment By Roxysteve On January 20, 2012 @ 9:45 am

@kaustin – Not if by that you mean stopping players glomming onto fluff as though it is important. They still do that in Trail of Cthulhu just as much as in Call of Cthulhu.

The Gumshoe system is (partly) designed to get round a slavish “bad spot roll misses the vital clue and finishes the game” mentality. Personally I figured out a workaround for the missed Spot/Library Use roll issue years ago and it didn’t require writing a new game system, but Trail of Cthulhu is awesome even so and you should buy it and play it when you are not playing other stuff. The rulebook is a work of art, and the Rough Majicks supplement is beyond good and should be required reading for all players who like to use a high-improv RP style.

I have a related issue: how to steer players away from constructing wild theories from insufficient information. By the time they have all the clues half of them don’t fit their wildly inaccurate working theory of What Went Down so they start throwing out … the evidence! On the one hand I don’t want to stall the game and suck the energy out, on the other I don’t want to reward behavior which is bad in a police procedural game.

#8 Comment By Tomcollective On January 20, 2012 @ 10:44 am

I am against red herrings. Lots of effort for literally no payoff. Also, players are their own red herring machines. All they have to do is reach a wrong conclusion based on your info, and you have a “red herring”.

I read an excellent post somewhere that said every problem needs 3 solutions to prevent a game stalling.

So, describe as much as you can to set a scene. You’re supposed to use details anyway.

Give three opportunities to latch onto the next plot point.

Let players mess up and punish silly paranoia.

#9 Comment By jbeard565 On January 20, 2012 @ 10:58 am

Foreshadowing. That’s the reason you want them to miss (some of) the clues. There’s nothing quite so satisfying to me as a GM, as when I’ve successfully laid out a series of clues that individually don’t stand out, but instead form a larger pattern … and the moment comes when someone at the table get’s that AH HAH(!) look, and the players move from investigation and theorizing to “THE CHASE!”

That simply cannot happen, if the only details you ever deliver are important to the story line. Beside which, having all of your clues be obvious ones pushes the bounds of believability…. “This guy has two different-colored eyes(?), he must important to the main plot!”

That’s actually something that happened to me, early on. And is why there’s lots of “colorful characters” around my towns, that really have nothing to do with the plot, other than they deliver gossip, and can be easily described by either myself or the players for making reference to later.

One thing I’ve done to give me lots of information fodder to drop on the players is: Always have several different adventure paths ready to launch. In the days before a game, I will come up with hints that apply to several different adventures, and add in a red herring or two. This accomplishes several things. The players have lots of information to choose from, some of which applies to actual adventure paths, some applies to character development, some are nothing more than dead ends. This gives the townscape more texture… I can throw in world-building hints about the growth of the local thieves guild–nothing they need to deal with right now, mind you, just information that builds a deeper environment. They can also choose what adventure is next, by following whichever clues they find more immediately interesting, or more obvious. If they miss all the clues, I can always add more.

Another thing that brings useful information fodder? Have an idea what adventures you will be running later, down the line. At times I’ve had loose plans for as many as a dozen modules in the planning for my players (not all my own adventures, mind you … published AD&D modules, I planned to throw at the players, and a probable order of attack. What does this buy? When the players in question were running through the “Theives of the Undercity” adventure arc they were already hearing rumors of trouble with the giants in a nearby principality that would eventually lead them (many months later) to the Hill Giant fortress in the “Against the Giants” arc (AD&D v2, I believe)

In this environment, the players are paying attention, because they know there are potentially important clues coming, but they also know that I’m providing details that don’t necessarily lead to clues, and they don’t jump at the sound of a cat in the bushes … they react in a more realistic manner.

Realistic reactions on the part of the players is one of my goals. It just would not be believable for rough-tough adventurers to be all amped up at all times and jump at the sound of a broken twig. Alert, sure. Paranoid … depends on the character of course. Expecting combat at every single turn, NO. The world is not that way. Sometimes it’s just the kid next door, sneaking out to go cow tipping.

#10 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On January 20, 2012 @ 3:34 pm

@GhstGry – Incidentals is an excellent term to describe this technique. I like the way you run.

#11 Comment By Scott Martin On January 20, 2012 @ 11:02 pm

Great responses!
@Victor Von Dave – Red herrings are cool, but as you (and other commenters) pointed out, they often have the drawback of taking too much attention. I was aiming for something more like jbeard565’s incidentals.
@Walt Ciechanowski – I thought about a spot roll too. The main reason I didn’t suggest it was the way that calling for a roll often underscores the importance of what’s noticed.
@E-l337 – If you have problems with players picking up on what’s important, try John’s advice.
@GhstGry – You’re right; red herrings and incidentals are perfect for an improv–or sandbox style game. The clues that interest the players become their personal story; the clues they ignore become the world advancing consistently, even away from their line of sight. It’s win/win.
@kaustin – Royxsteve’s response is better than any I’d have; I’m interested in Gumshoe, but haven’t checked it out yet.

#12 Comment By Scott Martin On January 20, 2012 @ 11:13 pm

@Johnn Four combatmastery.com – Both parts of your advice are good. Trying to prompt an “aha” later often leads to frustration–how often do players remember even the names of their allies, or the stuff their characters took part in? Expecting them to remember an incidental action sessions later often leads to disappointment.
Your rule of three sounds like something I need to try for myself. It should be a good, less intensive, way to solve this specific issue.
@Roxysteve – Steering players away from bad theories is really tough. Bad theories often tie into long planning sessions–that feel pointless as soon as it’s revealed that you were plotting against a fever dream.
@Tomcollective – “Give three opportunities to latch onto the next plot point.” That’s a very useful corrective. I know that players always surprise me; they get the hard stuff from the ether, but orc and pie stumps them.
@jbeard565 – Forshadowing, and a richer world in general, are great reasons to work more incidentals into your game. They can be tricky to get right on the fly, but they really do make the world more vivid. It sounds like it’s working right for you when you say: “In this environment, the players are paying attention, because they know there are potentially important clues coming, but they also know that I’m providing details that don’t necessarily lead to clues, and they don’t jump at the sound of a cat in the bushes … they react in a more realistic manner.”

#13 Comment By Vellan On January 21, 2012 @ 3:58 pm

This may be slightly tangential, but it seems to me that ‘players picking up on clues’ is only half the problem.

The other half – at least as described in the example – is that the PCs are acting like PCs, and aren’t acting realistically.

To clarify – there’s no mystery to the significance of the ouch/splinter when they have investigated and discovered the cause immediately. But the only reason they *can* leap up and intervene is because they know that they are PCs and can do whatever they want.

Most people don’t behave like PCs in day to day life because of societal pressures (ie: “I can’t do that, they’ll think I’m stupid/crazy/evil”) and you can use the same kinds of pressures in your game.

Example 1:
Noble says “ouch”
PCs over-react, jump up, take charge
NPCs act as though the PCs are mad (after all, it was only a splinter)
When no evidence of sabotage is found, noble insists that PCs are examined by a physician. Everyone in town knows about their paranoid behaviour and wild delusions, and it colours their interactions with NPCs in that town from then on.

Example 2:
Noble says “ouch”
PCs over-react, jump up, take charge
NPCs view this sudden ‘taking charge’ and throwing spells around as an act of aggression.
Guards and/or battlemages oppose them and the PCs must stand down or fight their allies.

It doesn’t mean that the players haven’t noticed the incident. Depending on how magic works in your game they can try to cast their spells surreptitiously (and risk getting caught), or they can come back later and do their investigations then.

Either way, it does give you a bit of time to build on the incident and show the consequences or show it as part of a chain.

Perhaps your PCs are at the top of the food chain, in which case it becomes much harder to use NPCs to pressure them into realistic behaviour. You aren’t out of options though. NPCs who mock them behind their backs or who faint in terror when they approach can still get your point across.

My point is: the players should have the freedom to do whatever they like – including circumventing your plots – but doing so should create interesting consequences for them.

#14 Comment By J Gregory On January 23, 2012 @ 4:31 am

@Tomcollective – I think this is the article you’re referring to – its an excellent one:

http://thealexandrian.net/wordpress/1118/roleplaying-games/three-clue-rule

A simple trick I try to remember to add some depth to my descriptions is to touch briefly on some of the other of the five senses – sight is the obvious one, but don’t forget smell (the metallic tang of blood in the air), sound (a long undisturbed stone door grinding its protest}, feel (the gritty crunch of sand on the flagstones underfoot; the gentle movement of air in the corridor that softly caresses your face) and taste (the sickly sweetness of the potion, like over-ripe strawberries). Just dropping in two other senses in each description really helps bring the scene to life.

#15 Comment By Roxysteve On January 23, 2012 @ 2:27 pm

@Scott MartinSteering players away from bad theories is really tough. Bad theories often tie into long planning sessions–that feel pointless as soon as it’s revealed that you were plotting against a fever dream.

Nods.

Sometimes I admit I’ve done what others here do and replaced my original plot with the on they cooked up on a wing and a prayer, but this just taught them to not bother assembling the information they have. At issue is the type of game we think we’re playing as opposed to the one we really are playing.

I’m not beyond a big reveal that shows them their theory was a castle in the clouds and lets the perp escape as a result, but that can only be done a couple of times before it sends the wrong message too. The players aren’t dumb, they are just not putting the clues they work so hard to find together into a narrative.

Anyway, thanks for the thoughts.

#16 Comment By IcebergTitanic On February 6, 2012 @ 12:42 pm

Thanks for looking at my question, and all the thoughtful responses!

What I ended up doing was having the players each generate a sheet of 10 D20 rolls, written on paper, rolled in my presence.

When there was something people might notice but I didn’t want to advertise, I just consulted the pre-rolls and crossed them off as they got used. That way the players felt that they were still doing the rolling, but I didn’t have to reveal my hand as GM.

#17 Pingback By GM 101: Clues » Nearly Enough Dice | Nearly Enough Dice On March 28, 2012 @ 1:02 pm

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