Dungeon Masters, Instead of Plots, Prepare Secrets, Clues, and Leads

Planning a Dungeons & Dragons game around encounters and plots leads to trouble. In my last post, I explained how preparing encounters proves less flexible than preparing situations.

Situations can take dungeon masters far. Every D&D adventure published before 1982 presented a situation ripe for adventure. These early adventures might include broad goals, like destroy the evil behind raiding giants, but these modules mapped out situations and then set characters loose. Nothing broke this mold until N1 Against the Cult of the Reptile God in 1982. Before N1, every published D&D adventure was site based. The choices that drove these adventures all amounted to a choice of doors or adjacent hexes. N1 paired an investigation with a scenario where events happened even if the characters did nothing. Since then, both features have appeared in countless adventures. (See How N1 Against the Cult of the Reptile God Changed D&D Adventures for Good.)


Such features make adventures resemble plotted stories, so dungeon masters preparing for events and investigations often imagine plots for their scenarios. Then they contrive ways to make players follow the plot. When the players’ choices upset the plan, the DM feels tempted to invalidate the diversion. Sometimes, to avoid railroading, DMs work to build player-proof plots by including contingency plans for every choice and outcome. The preparation effort can swamp a DM.

As an alternative to plotting adventures, DMs can turn to situations. Adventures designed around situations allow both investigations and events, but other techniques make preparing and running such scenarios easier.

Instead of preparing plots, prepare leads.

Leads go by other names. Some writers call them clues, secrets, or hooks. When they discuss clues and secrets, their terms cover scraps of information that may lead or may serve another purpose. I favor “leads” because the word matches my main purpose, but I’ll use the other terms too.

Suppose the characters investigate a string of bloody murders in a village, they might discover the following leads:

  • All the murders center on well, recently dug to replace one that went dry.
  • A farmer found blood on the clothes of family members, but believed their innocent explanations and hid the evidence.
  • Children have spotted parents wandering the woods at night and returning at dawn.
  • A forester who cared for the woods now spends days in a drunken stupor.

Clues like these leave many angles that invite investigation. Each could lead to more clues.

Leads serve as one way DMs direct players through a plot, so in a sense, planning leads instead of plots just represents a change of mindset. But leads encourage choices. When players find enough leads, they face choosing which one to follow. Making choices and seeing outcomes generates the fun of role-playing games. Leads also offer more flexibility than plots. DMs can reveal them whenever players need to find a direction or to face choices.

If situations form the obstacles in an adventure, then leads become the scraps of information that direct players through situations and from one situation to the next.

Most adventures begin with a lead that everybody calls a hook. The best adventures supply characters more hooks as they go.

Leads give players a sense of direction. They lure players through an arc that, looking back, will resemble a plot. Leads can guide characters to the locations that match their power. As clues, they help reveal a situation in an order that keeps players asking questions and craving answers.

Blogger and game designer Justin Alexander has a rule for giving clues:

For any conclusion you want the PCs to make, include at least three clues.

“Why three? Because the PCs will probably miss the first; ignore the second; and misinterpret the third before making some incredible leap of logic that gets them where you wanted them to go all along.”

By Justin’s three-clue rule, every step in the scenario needs three clues that lead to another step. The surplus clues make the scenario robust. In game, players never wind up so clueless that they lack direction. In life, they’re on their own.

The clues can lead in different directions. Such diversity gives options, breaks linear adventures, and sometimes creates tough choices for players. Justin builds on his three-clue rule to create a node-based system of scenario design.

Typically, I plan clues, planting them along the course of the adventure ahead of players. But Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea takes a looser approach. He calls his clues secrets. He prepares for each game by listing 10 secrets that the session could reveal. Some of his secrets reveal the game world, but others serve as leads for players. “Secrets and clues are the anchors of our games. They’re a simple way to build out an adventure, create meaning and story for the players, and connect people, places, and things. Secrets and clues are the connective tissue of an adventure—and, more often than not, a whole campaign”

Mike’s lazy technique skips planning where the clues lead or how players will find clues. “You know the characters will learn something interesting—but you don’t know how they will learn it. You get to figure that out as it happens at the table.” He prepares a list of evocative secrets, and then as he runs a game, he improvises ways to reveal the secrets. Mike’s secrets don’t even become real until the players discover them. After a session, he discards some unrevealed secrets, but revisits others for the next session. For example, in my game based on the murders, if I choose to reveal the secret of the well, then the well becomes important; otherwise, it’s nothing.

“Abstracting secrets and clues works particularly well with mysteries. You’ll have no idea how the characters might go about investigating a mystery. But as they do, you can drop in the right clues at the right time to help them solve it.” For more on secrets, consult The Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master.

The early fifth-edition hardcover adventures designed campaigns around situations that offered all the advantages of the situation mindset. The designs gave players maximum freedom and DMs the flexibility to cope. But these adventures tended to lack ready-made leads that helped players find direction and helped DMs anticipate and prepare for the players’ next destination. (For more, see Are the Authors of the Dungeon & Dragons Hardcover Adventures Blind to the Plight of DMs?)

Alone, situations can overwhelm DMs with information to remember. Campaign-sized situations make preparing for sessions hard on DMs because the scope of what players might do becomes vast. DMs who run published adventures suffer the worst of this problem. Chances for improvisation are more limited. And I can’t be the only DM who finds remembering lore from a fat adventure book harder than the product of my own imagination. Few DMs can master hundreds of pages of content that spans a region like the Underdark well enough to prepare for aimless wandering.

In my games, leads provided the secret ingredient that the campaign-sized situations lacked. They gave players clear options and narrowed their likely choices enough for me to focus my preparation.

Next: Instead of preparing events, prepare villains.

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4 Responses to Dungeon Masters, Instead of Plots, Prepare Secrets, Clues, and Leads

  1. DragnScaleArmor says:

    Really like this approach. My group is so chaotic that an entire published campaign is pretty much not going to happen. We use the same characters, but different situations. Very good article, thanks.

  2. Adam says:

    Really enjoying this post series Dave. As a DM I want to maintain flexibility (and RotLDM is a wonderful resource!) but still ensure the narrative flows well.

    I think Justin @ The Alexandrian’s post on narrative nodes is a complement to your post here. https://thealexandrian.net/wordpress/40978/roleplaying-games/random-gm-tip-using-revelation-lists

    What are your thoughts on nodes being used to ‘glue’ clues & story beats together?

  3. Robert says:

    Great post and great advice. To me, this approach maximizes the fun at the table while taking a lot of pressure off the DM in terms of prep. Especially useful for newer DMs who may be struggling to cope with the massive hardback tomes the major publishers put out.

  4. Richard says:

    That is a great post. It’s what I try to do as much as possible. I even modify published adventures to work with leads. Getting the players to follow the leads is generally the problem.

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