As soon as roleplaying game adventures left the dungeon, games needed rumors.
Traveller (1977) included rumors in the game’s encounter tables, and then developed rumors as a tool for game masters in its first adventure, The Kinunir (1979). “The term Rumor actually applies to a wide variety of information, including such concepts as leads, clues, and hints. Rumors have three basic purposes: to direct characters toward profitable endeavor, to misdirect them away from such endeavor, and to assist them after they have established a goal for themselves.” Without dungeons to structure play, Traveller designer Marc Miller pioneered new ways to drive adventures; Dungeons & Dragons took years to catch up. (See Why Dungeons & Dragons (and Role Playing) Took Years to Leave the Dungeon.)
In roleplaying adventures and campaigns, rumors and similar bits of information prove so useful that they earn several names. When rumors show a “profitable endeavor,” we call them hooks. When they point players closer to a goal, we call them clues or leads. And when they reveal unknown lore or uncover some of a villain’s covert plan, we call them secrets. “Secrets and clues are the anchors of our games,” writes Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea. “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”
The term “rumor” suggests gossip from the local tavern (or Traveller’s Aid Society hostel), but bits of useful lore can come from endless sources: from the wags at the inn to dungeon frescoes, a captured letter, or a footprint in the snow. Often, I plan ways for characters to discover clues and accept that a party might miss some discoveries. Other times I take a looser approach advocated by Mike Shea. He prepares for each game by listing 10 secrets or clues that the session could reveal, and then improvises ways for players to discover some of these secrets. Some of his secrets reveal the game world, but others serve as leads for players.
Most adventures start with a hook that (1) entices the characters to follow some goal and (2) reveals ways to reach that goal. If a hook lacks any clues the characters can follow to the goal, then the hook fails.
A good adventure hook appeals to both the party’s rogues and paladins. More than popular classes, rogues and paladins represent two ways players often imagine their characters’ outlooks. Steve Winter, a Dungeons & Dragons designer since second edition, writes, “Hooks aren’t about characters; they’re about players.” Rogues and paladins make popular character perspectives because they bring players escapes from either the restrictions or the unfairness of modern life.
In our world, we often feel bound by rules and obligations. Playing a rogue who’s free from ethical burdens and who boasts the power to ignore rules feels exhilarating. Much of the vicarious joy of playing a rogue comes from gaining wealth. Certainly, most players of rogue types would say their character is in it for the money.
In our world, we see misdeeds rewarded, good people suffer, and too often we feel helpless to act. Playing a paladin with the strength to punish wrongdoers, help the deserving, and right wrongs feels rejuvenating. Paladins seek chances to act heroic.
Hooks that only appeal to one type can leave other characters just following along because their players came to play D&D, so a good hook offers both a chance to help the deserving and to gain treasure.
The very best hooks also engage players by including a mysterious, third ingredient, which I will reveal later in this post.
Leads give players a sense of direction. They lure players through an arc that, looking back, will resemble a plot. In a sandbox campaign, leads can guide characters to the locations that both offer profits and offer fun challenges.
Blogger and game designer Justin Alexander has a rule for giving leads:
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. To keep plots outside the dungeon moving, clues are the engine.
Beyond Hooks and Leads
Hooks and leads spur characters to act, but not every revelation should invite action. Enigmas engage players by teasing them with the unexplained, motivate them to seek new discoveries in the game world, and then reward them with the satisfaction of learning answers. They keep everyone playing, even if everyone feels certain the heroes will win in the end.
The most tantalizing secrets make players ask themselves, “How can this be so?” Call these enigmas.
- Why have drinks served at the inn suddenly started sliding to the floor?
- Why does a humble commoner’s name appear listed among the names of adventurers sought by a githyanki raiders?
- Who ransacked a party member’s room and why did they ignore everything of value?
All these questions inspire curiosity because they need more explanation to reveal the satisfying order that we crave. Filmmaker J.J. Abrams calls enigmas mystery boxes and he champions them as a way to grab an audience’s attention by creating something mysterious, and then withholding an explanation. Mystery boxes sustained television shows such as Twin Peaks and Abrams’ production Lost. Both shows kept viewers tuning in by spawning unexplained events that teased curiosity. The puzzles propelled the shows for years, even though neither shows’ writers proved interested in delivering satisfying answers.
Those writers understood that a mystery box loses its power to captivate the moment an audience learns its secret. But the most pleasing secrets reward players by revealing the explanation to an enigma, giving a satisfying sense of order. So, when characters discover the newly dug tunnels under the town that caused the inn to tilt, the players gain the satisfaction of an answer and become confident that chasing other mysteries will lead to rewarding revelations. Relish the moments when players learn the answer that explains an enigma, and then dream up more teasers.
The absolute best hooks create enigmas that captivate characters and promise satisfying answers. Why did a child hand the party a note that includes his confession to a terrible crime?
Where do Enigmas and Clues Come From?
The best source of enigmas and clues come from the villains in your games and from the signs that show their evil plots advancing toward some goal.
Every villain must have a goal. For bad guys, the usual aims include wealth, vengeance, and ultimate power. To reach that goal, every villain needs a plan. In D&D, villains make plans to conquer kingdoms, bring worshipers to dark gods, and so on. Those plans shape the adventures of the heroes who aim to thwart evil and take evil’s loot.
In a typical D&D game, players must learn of the villain’s plans from rumors of disappearances, clues like the list captured from githyanki, enigmas like the suddenly spilling drinks, and so on. “One of the key components to creating tension is the slow burn,” Courtney Kraft of Geek and Sundry writes. “Don’t show your villain fully right from the start. Perhaps there are mysterious things happening around your heroes. The mystery is fun, so take your time.”
As your villains work their plans, ask how the plan will show in the world around the characters. Give the players enough leads to give them direction, but also create enigmas that tease the players without offering all the answers.
Such enigmas and clues foreshadow coming events, making the game world seem active and giving players a sample of where the game could go next, while keeping the players seeking answers. These hints show movement beyond the party’s view and give a sense of the larger world. When you’re ready for players to act, they become leads or hooks.
Related: Dungeon Masters, Instead of Plots, Prepare Secrets, Clues, and Leads
Event-driven D&D Adventures Aren’t About Events; They’re About Villains
The D&D Adventures That Stumble by Missing the Hook
How the Flawed Hooks in Descent Into Avernus Might Make D&D Players Feel Railroaded