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The Writing on the Wall
The heroes crept down the narrow stone stair keeping their backs firmly against the wall. No one had yet heard the bodies of the huge bat-things hit the bottom, though the distance had at last taken the glow of their burning bodies. A landing, a corridor, a side door with sounds of activity… it had been a thousand years since the lizardmen who built this place had laid claim to it. Why where they suddenly back now?
Joon, the party’s burly fighter, opened the door a fraction of an inch to peer inside. Enslaved frog-like men carried rubble from behind a troll, who was digging a wide tunnel in the wall of the large room, the heavy links of the chain around his neck clinking sullenly. Blackscale lizardmen sifted through the piles of rubble the frogs deposited about the room in small piles, making stacks of glittering gold objects or gemstones or other precious things the troll dug out of the earth, forgotten riches of a ruined empire.
But of everything there, Joon’s attention focussed on only one thing… it’s back to her, a mind flayer watched the entire enterprise, waiting for the troll to uncover… something…
Quietly, Joon closed the door, and the group of adventurers tiptoed away to the next room, where hopefully they might find something to fight without a mollusk on it’s face…
This was my group not too long ago. The Prince had sent them to collect what he told them was a mystical source of plague the lizardmen would use to kill all the humans, and only his wizards could neutralize it. He was lying, and they were really going after an ancient mind-flayer lich’s phylactery. I threw clues around like candy, gave them a library they could find the answers in, and a mind flayer who would rather talk than fight who not only knew the score, but also knew that the lich would be bad for everybody’s business. And yet the players somehow managed to dodge the knowledge like it was flaming bags of poo flung at them by ninety-year-old grannies, and handed the phylactery right over to Prince who cackled maniacally into the sunset.
Just like I planned it.
In this instance I used the clues not to lead the players, but to torture them with afterwards. I knew that no matter how much info I threw at them, as long as I did it the right way, they would never use it. What they would do is remember it, and kick themselves later about being so blind. (This is actually a good thing, as it makes your game world seem more real, less arbitrary, and drives home the notion that players who pay attention will have an easier time of it.)
The Types of Clues
There are two different types of clues in a Dungeons and Dragons game, the Handle, and the Needle. (Most clues have aspects of both, but tend towards one more than the other.) The handle is a clue that someone walks up and gives you, but it’s attached to something else. In order to make any use of it, you need to understand what the whole thing is. An example would be finding out that there is a very old dragon rampaging in the area, and that you have a book downstairs that discusses the last time this dragon was defeated… by a group of farmers. You have given the players a clue, and a direction to go in. Read the book, find out about the gemstone hidden by the elves that puts the dragon to sleep for 100 years, now you have a quest to find first the elves, then the gem. At the end, you have a party of adventurers ready to take on and defeat a foe way past their level range… which will give them something to brag about for the rest of the campaign.
The needle is a clue hidden… somewhere. You’re in a city of ten thousand people, somewhere here is a girl who saw the face of the cultist leader. Find her. The problem with the needle is that it depends on the players asking the right questions, or making the right rolls, or remembering the right NPCs, all things that could very easily never happen. Sometimes they require more than one hoop to jump through, which multiplies the difficulty by itself. While this can make for an intensely frustrating game for everyone if you build a game of needles, it can make for high drama if used to your benefit. Provide the player with a needle and then a handle, and while he may note the needle, he will pursue the handle… as it should be. Needle, distraction, needle, distraction is a wonderful way to provide foreshadowing in your game.
So how to incorporate these types of clues into your game? Well, you probably already are. Quest givers toss handles and needles around all the time, and often without differentiation, but we’re not going to be content with that here. By separating the types of clues and using them individually for different purposes, we’re going to give you a smoother running game that will make your players (and therefore you) happier and more effective.
Many DMs will give their players access to books and libraries in order to provide them with clues about treasures, maps, monsters, what have you. This is good, but a handle-giver isn’t a library, it’s a librarian… a dedicated research guy who is an ally of the party, and will run off to his books without being asked, providing direction and information for the players to do with as they would. For instance, a hunter is attacked by harpies, but manages to escape. The party mounts up, but at the last minute the librarian comes running out to tell them that wax earplugs help against harpy song. Or that harpies frequently dig a treasure barrow beneath their aerie, or any other information you, the DM, specifically want the party to know before they leave. Another possibility is to give one of the party members (or an allied NPC if it makes you more comfortable) uncontrollable psychic flashes. Young women being abducted out of town in the middle of the night? Time for a vision of a vampire carrying an unconscious girl over his shoulder heading into a familiar cave in the south woods. Now the players not only have someplace to go, (where they will discover the surprise vampire warren,) they also know to bring along plenty of garlic and wooden stakes.
The point here is not to lead players by the nose, they can do whatever they want with the info, and you can use your knowledge of your players to tune the right amount of information to give them something fun to do while not causing frustration. But the idea is to give you the ability to organically introduce any data you want, in such a way that will not require a gigantic investment of energy on everyone’s part.
We are all used to these. Most times needles are used as quests, which can lead to players stumbling around for an entire night before finally discovering the adventure right as it’s time to break up and go home. But as mentioned before, if you use the needle as throwaway flavor instead of the focus of an adventure, they can become fantastic ambiance for your game, giving your players a sense of reality and place within the world that will make them think about what you’ve created and what they’re doing there.
As an example, lets look at the situation described above with, and without all the needles. Without them, the players are on a fairly straightforward quest to find an evil magic box and deliver it to someone with responsibility and power to destroy it. At the end, out of nowhere, he turns on them and reveals that the players have blindly walked into his trap, giving him power over the ancient illithid lich. Players are pissed about being tricked, but they are even more pissed at having been tricked without having had any clues of what was going on. They feel betrayed not so by the prince, as by the DM.
On the other hand, with a well-sprinkled path of needly bread-crumbs (quickly distracted away) leading straight to the feet of the prince, when the reveal comes you will hear cursing and gnashing of teeth directed not at you, but at your evil antagonist, the dirty, stinking prince. (Along with cries of “I knew it! Don’t you remember the so-and-so, I told you we should have done such-and-such!)
Finally, there is always the chance that someone in your group will think of something you didn’t plan for or make a connection you didn’t think was there, and the whole house of cards will come crashing down around you as the players hire the marauding band of gnolls to take out the prince’s caravan and then flush the lich’s phylactery down the toilet. Let me suggest to you two things. One, always have a plan B. If the players figure out the evil scheme, reward them generously for it and move on. They will be SO happy at the results of their own cleverness. Two, if this happens, pat yourself on the back, because you have just discovered the greatest success possible for a DM. You players are paying attention, thinking about your game, and really interacting with your world.
There is no greater compliment they could give you.