Friday, December 5, 2008

How To Deal With Players When They Miss Clues Or Don't Infer What You Thought They Would

I don't think I've gamed with anyone I'd call stupid. In fact, I've been fortunate to game with people I regard as fairly intelligent. Yet somehow they, and I when I'm playing and someone else is running, have this weird habit of not seeing the obvious OR what appears to be obvious to the GM. This post will be on the subtle and desperate art of figuring out "How the hell did they get from A to B to arrive at Q?" 

On Clues
First an essential rule on clues: If you have a group of player characters in a sprawling mansion searching for some evidence of who killed Mr. Mansion Owner don't ever assume or ask players to describe each and every area that they search for clues in. This is a bad idea for multiple reasons. Pen and paper rpgs take place in our heads and only through explicit social agreement of location description do we share vaguely related images of the same imaginary places. Chances are you didn't describe the sprawling mansion so well that the players even imagine what you are, and so checking a specific place in the mansion that they're not picturing is out of the question. If you have described the mansion out fully, drawn a blueprint, et cetera don't assume these details will help. Say the mansion has 40 rooms (I have no idea how many rooms mansions have - I live in a studio) and it is only in the fourth parlor that the vital clue is in. Chances are players will just want to make a basic roll like "I investigate the mansion" or "I investigate the floor." For the love of speeding past redundant rolls just let them. Don't make them search through every single room unless each room has its own unique flavor, something interesting to discover, or something fun. If you make your players go through every room until they get to that one with the vital clue, they will never make it. They will disengage entirely by the time you get them there. By then they won't give a damn about the vital clue or who killed Mr. Mansion Owner (Answer: It was Mr. Wants-to-Own-a-Mansion). 

On Inferences
Hinted at in the above is that it is not the clues that are interesting, but the inferences that players make with them once they have them. If you are of this opinion then I recommend making the acquisition of clues comparatively easy to the inferences that players must make with them. Scavenger hunting for clues doesn't lend itself to rpgs because it would essentially come down to a player saying, "I look in the dresser. Anything in the dresser?" GM: "No". "The refrigerator?" "GM "ahhh... sure, but it's not really important." Player: "oh..." 

Inference, however, creates a logical puzzle for gamers to solve. Mr. Mansion Owner's corpse is found in his cellar, drained of blood. A half burnt circle is on the priceless rug in the library, and the maid says it was not there this morning. The study is filled with hundreds of lunar moths that are foreign to the region. Right away the mystery lover in me wants to know how these are related (or if any of them are red herrings). None of these would be hard to discover (or require a roll). The real challenge comes down not to the characters, but the players to find the connections. Which leads us to the next section: 

But My Character Would Know! 
If a player isn't great at logic puzzles but they're playing a character who is, or at least better than themselves, then to allow them to enjoy what their character is supposed to be good at let them roll, and if they succeed give them a hint. I believe that advice was in the DM guide for 4e. I thought it was a good compromise. 

They Have All The Clues, Why Don't They Know Who The Murderer Is? 
The players have seen Mr. Mansion Owner's corpse in the basement drained of blood. They've seen the half burnt circle, and the lunar moths. Shouldn't they instantly jump to the conclusion that Mr. Wants-to-Own-a-Mansion drained the blood to fool the player characters into thinking the local vampire killed Mr. Mansion Owner instead of Mr. Wants-to-Own-a-Mansion who used some obscure spell from a supplement text your players probably didn't read that involves burning half a circle into the victim's home, and the ritual, for some trivial reason, summons Lunar moths?

 Don't make assumptions about what out of game knowledge your players have OR do have (but won't remember). 

Don't rely on information from a gaming book and not share this information with your players if you want them to use it. 

Do use complex and odd clues to be inferred, but don't assume what you believe to be the inference to the best solution will necessarily be the same that they come to. Chances are when you thought up your mystery you thought of the ending first, or thought of a good hook, came up with the conclusion and filled in the middle details. What I'm getting at is that you didn't have to solve your mystery and so you can't objectively assess if the inferences required of the players both validly and easily warrant your conclusion.

Also, if player characters infer that they ought to go to Night Club X to talk to Drunk Y, but you thought they'd for sure go to Park B to talk to Homeless Park Guy C either tell them that the nightclub is irrelevant or better yet just turn Homeless Park Guy C into Drunk Y. It'll save time, trust me. 

One last thing on mysteries in general: Use common tropes like red herrings sparingly. They get old and predictable if used too often. Do use them on occasion. Just make sure to change up what tropes you're using: red herrings, player characters waking up with amnesia, et cetera (I don't want to give a comprehensive list because players I game with read this blog). 


Anonymous said...

Good post. Hmm... this may seem creepy because you seem to have just posted this. But I didn't know you were writing in here again! Just happened to see this. Anyway, thanks for providing an eye into the GM's mind.

Anonymous said...

A subject that strikes a chord given the investigative nature of the adventure I'm currently running. It's amazing how players almost willfully ignore clues and leads that you've tried your damndest to emphasise the importance of, short of putting up a big signpost saying 'This Way', or 'The Perp Lives Here'.

One particular problem that seems to crop up is the continuity break between sessions. People forget important details from one week to the next. It helps to do a quick recap at the beginning of the session to refresh people's memories - this is also an opportunity for you to re-emphasise the important details of the previous session.

(Though if your players are like mine, one or more of them will have fixated on something entirely irrelevant in the previous session, they'll not catch the big hint that you haven't mentioned it at all in your recap and they'll dredge it back up start banging on about it all over again.....*sigh*)

Anonymous said...

A good treatise on the subject that I've found is here.

Jack said...

amazingtomatoes, yes that was quite creepy. But yes, I'm writing on here again since I've been gaming, running, and reading stuff on gaming recently. Unfortunately I try to do too many writing projects at once and it becomes impossible to keep up on all of them. I really wish I could split into multiple people so I could finish House of Many Worlds and Liar's Autobiography.

Lurkinggherkin, you raise another common and frustrating problem: forgetting information between sessions. And you're right, it does help to do a quick recap. Often I give xp bonses for players remembering details from the last session at the beginning of the next. The problem with this however, which it seems you avoid, is that when you emphasis details yourself you can leave out all the false-starts, and deadends in hopes players won't go back down those routes in the current session.

In cases where players latch onto something and it's irrelevant to what I'd planned AND I don't think it'd be a fun route to go down for its own sake I just explicitly tell the players this. I didn't use to do this, but I find it saves time and frustration for all involved.

anonymous, good link. I recently picked up Trail of Cthulhu, and love Ken Hite's info on Lovecraft Mythos, but am unsure of the gumshoe system. This looks like a great criticism.

Eric Maziade said...

I've tried doing an investigation-like game a few months ago... the players surprised me by finding their answers through a completely unexpected path.

Sometimes, I wonder if I shouldn't just create a bunch of clues without a solution - the players are often creative enough to come up with the rest :)

Jack said...

I've cheated a few times and changed details to mysteries based on what players have thought up. Other than a once or twice when I didn't think this through and some continuity errors resulted I think this worked out for the best: the story became cooler in a way that I didn't expect and the player's solution put the group on the right path.

Eric Maziade said...

It's interesting that you mention it as 'cheating'... I'd call it "subtly sharing narrative control".

I'm actually giving this concept a lot of thought lately.

I'm currently forcing myself to use my players' expectations rather directly (a bunch of 10 year-olds that are new to the hobby).

The DMG mentions this idea somewhere, as well as ChattyDM - he's using it as the basis of his role playing games with his kids.

I think it can result in creating very engaging games - not only do the characters affect the world, but the players as well.

I hope to be able to explore it with my friends if they agree allow me to replace our regular DM once in a while :)

Lunatyk said...

Every time the players infer something incorrectly, I just assume they were right all along!

Jack said...

I meant the word "cheating" in a factitious way, however that doesn't come across at all in print, or at least in the way I wrote it. I like your term "subtly sharing narrative control". Really, if someone in the group comes up with a great idea of how the story could go that you didn't expect, might as well go with it.

I like your comment because it makes me think of, "the customer is always right," which really isn't a bad attitude to have if you're trying to make sure everyone's having a fun time.