Tag Archives: clues

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.

Why Dungeons & Dragons (and Role Playing) Took Years to Leave the Dungeon

The Dungeons & Dragons game’s original 1974 version offered two types of adventure: dungeons and wilderness. In such site-based adventures, players’ decisions about where to go set the course of the adventure. These adventures revolve around on a map with a key detailing important locations. When characters enter a location, they trigger encounters.

Today’s D&D scenarios mix places to explore, with events, and with clues to follow, but adventure authors took years to stretch beyond numbered lists of locations.

In the years after D&D’s release, every role-playing adventure to reach print was site-based. This extends beyond D&D. Until 1980, a keyed list of locations drove every published adventure for every role-playing game.

The first role-playing games all recreated the dungeon-crawl experience of D&D. Empire of the Petal Throne (1975) devoted rules to the underworld, and explained dungeons as buildings and civilizations lost to the “Time of Darkness.” Tunnels & Trolls (1975) recreated the D&D experience with simpler rules. Metamorphosis Alpha (1976) moved the dungeon into space in the form of the drifting starship Warden.

By 1977, designers began to see the potential of role-playing games. By then, if you asked RPG designers what characters in their games would do, the designers would probably answer, “Anything.” Designers of the newer games strove to model game worlds as thoroughly as possible. This led to a game like Chivalry & Sorcery (1977), “the most complete rule booklet ever published,” with rules for everything from mass combat, to courtly love, to the One Ring. C&S offered a game so open ended that a table of players with randomly generated characters might fail to find any common activities that their characters could do together. In Chivalry & Sorcery: What if Gary and Dave had not found the fun, I had some fun at the expense of C&S. I showed how the game downplayed the dungeon crawl, but struggled to find a fun, group activity to serve as a replacement.

In 1978, after I found Traveller, I failed to imagine what players would actually do in a game without dungeons. Traveller opened the door for anything, anywhere in the universe, but nothing in particular. I concocted a scenario where a villain abducted the travelers and dropped them in a space ship filled with death traps.

Professional authors could do no better. Even though new role-playing games aspired to take characters out of the dungeon, authors of adventures created dungeons…in space. Science fiction games like Traveller (1977) featured players raiding or exploring space ships, star bases, or alien ruins. Sometimes travelers crossed an alien wilderness. Superhero games featured assaults on villains’ lairs. Horror games featured haunted houses. From a distance, they all looked like dungeon or wilderness adventures.

In every single one, the decisions that drove the adventure all amounted to a choice of doors (or to a choice of which hex to visit next).

In a Gamespy interview, D&D co-creator Dave Arneson said, “Dungeon crawls were, I think, the easiest things to set up because all you had to do was draw a grid map and didn’t have to worry about the great outdoors and setting up trees and stuff. People also couldn’t go wandering off where you didn’t have a map because it was solid rock.”

Like dungeons, site-based adventures limited characters’ choices, and this made them easy to write and easy to run. Adventure authors relied on numbered locations until they found new ways to limit players to a manageable number of choices.

Borderlands (1983) has players doing a series of jobs for their patron, a Duke

Traveller opened a galaxy of choices, so the rules recommended matching characters with patrons. “Patrons could specify a task or deed to be performed, and then finance reasonable expenses for the pursuit of that task,” the rule book explained. “Some tasks may be ordinary in nature, such as hired guards or escorts; other tasks may be for the location and procurement of items of great value.” A patron’s task often led characters to an adventuring site, but not always. The first scenarios without location keys tended to rely on simple jobs.

Traveller casts patrons as an employer, but a patron can be anyone able to persuade the players to help. Once players selected a task, it limited players to the choices that brought them closer to their goal.

In the 70s, D&D players never needed patrons. By awarding characters with an experience point for each gold piece won from a dungeon, D&D built a goal into the rules. But games from Traveller to Runequest used patrons to match players with goals.

Eventually, even D&D players grew weary of just chasing loot, and D&D characters began meeting patrons too. D&D players began entering dungeons for more than treasure, they sought to thwart giant raids or to rescue the princess from the vampire queen. Nowadays, the cloaked figure in a bar who offers a job ranks as cliché.

The Traveller adventure Twilight’s Peak (1980) took another step away from site-based adventures. Here, the characters begin as crew on a starship that needs a costly repair. As they journey from system to system, hauling cargo and seeking a big score, they investigate clues that may lead to the lost base of an advanced civilization.

Twilight’s Peak ends as a site-based adventure, but it starts as the first investigation adventure where the players chase clues that author Marc Miller calls rumors. “The rumor is ultimately the source of all information for adventurers. Once they have been pushed by a rumor, they may look longer and harder in that direction and thus be moved closer to their goal. But without the initial impetus of the rumor the adventurers will find they have little reason for adventuring.”

In Twilight’s Peak, all the rumors lead to the same destination, but clues can drive a non-linear adventure too. When a scene or encounter gives more than one clue worth chasing, players face a decision that takes players in different directions. Do we check out the hunting lodge shown on the map, or go to town to question the jeweler who made the murder weapon?

Whether called rumors, clues, or leads, the technique’s introduction offered a new way to take players through an adventure.

Related: How the dungeon crawl’s advantages propelled Dungeons & Dragons to success

Next: A D&D module makes the next step away from site-based adventures.