Clues in Forthright

By | February 4, 2017

Clues in roleplaying games can be difficult to adjudicate. Many is the GM who’s thought they’ve provided enough clues to get the players to the next stage of a quest, only to discover that they’re the only one at the table who understands the clue. Likewise, many is the player who’s been frustrated by obnoxiously high Perception DCs or equally-obnoxiously uncooperative dice on the Perception check required to even find the clue that will lead them to the next stage of a quest. Both of these situations are widely (and, we think, rightly) regarded as fun-sapping.

We recently ran a Google+ poll about whether rolling dice to gather clues (high roll resulting in “better clue,” low roll resulting in “worse clue”) was interesting. We were expecting the answer to be resoundingly “no.” We were wrong!  It was fairly evenly split, with “yes” ultimately edging out “no.” We gathered a lot of commentary from the folks who thought it was uninteresting or had other feelings about it – and these feelings boiled down to some pretty good negatives:

  • It doesn’t allow for enough player creativity
  • It can slow down gameplay
  • It can stop gameplay entirely

One easy way to handle these concerns would be to allow players to create their own clues, “taking charge” of any mystery and forcing the Guide to react to what the players generate. The idea behind this is that any clue that the players don’t latch onto is a wasted clue or a forgotten clue (and therefore, a nonexistent clue), so in order to keep the game moving the Guide must improvise based on what the players are paying attention to. We decided not to take this approach because it ultimately (to our minds) made mystery play meaningless – if the players are making up their own clues, there is nothing to discover and the players don’t really need to pay that much attention. Or, to put it another way:

This led to the conclusion that we wanted to reward player skill, player skill in this case coming from paying attention to the Guide’s descriptions of the Gamescape and engaging with the game world that is presented. While that doesn’t address the allowance of player creativity, we felt that the creativity of players is better expressed in their reaction to the clues and how they deal with the mystery.

Players spending time puzzling out and analyzing clues does not slow down or stop gameplay, to our minds: that is gameplay. The stoppage of play, then, results from players having to work to get the clues in the first place. With that in mind, our solution became clear:

Clues are Free, Analysis Isn’t

With players caught in a mystery, the clues available to them are automatically provided by the Guide; no rolls must be made to find them. As long as players are in a location with a clue, or talking to a character who has a clue, that clue is to be provided by the Guide in a way that fits with the Guide’s storytelling practices. For example:

You burst into the villain’s office, but he’s not present. On his desk, though, you see a little black appointment book. When you flip it open to look through it, you see the only entry for today is “8pm Lobo’s.” You’ve heard of Lobo’s – it’s the fancy new restaurant up on Callendar Hill.

This is an example that keeps the Protagonists moving – they now know where the villain will be and when the villain will be there. Clues are mainly hints pointing to “who, what, where, when, how and why.” Some hints, like the above, are clearer than others. When a hint is less clear, the players may want to make Skill Checks to analyze the clues they have for more details.

Rolls in Forthright are opportunities for the momentum of the story to twist out of the Protagonists’ favor as much as they are opportunities for the Protagonists to achieve dramatic success. In the case of Skill Checks for clue analysis, the idea isn’t so much that the players are rolling to see if they get a better or worse clue, as they are checking to see how much difficulty they will encounter in order to generate the additional clues they need.

This sets up classic Knowledge and Tracking (clue-generation skills) as Skill Checks that provide information, but impact the next scenes in the game positively or negatively for the Protagonists. Here’s how:

  • Setback:  The Protagonist(s) don’t have the information, but can figure it out with some trouble, or maybe not in time. This might require them to interact with another set of enemies to gather the information, or might result in them arriving at the next scene straight into an ambush or as the villains are wrapping up their plan.
  • Exchange:  The Protagonists gain the information, but have to go through some lengthy non-dangerous steps or arrive at the next scene while the villains are in the middle of enacting their plan.
  • Win:  The Protagonists gain the information without any trouble and get to the next scene with the villains with plenty of time to stop their plan.
  • Boon:  The Protagonists gain the information without any trouble, and can either gain a Boon token or can arrive at the next scene in time to ambush the villains before they can enact their plan.

This keeps the story moving and the players engaged, and gives some flexibility to storytelling while not significantly overburdening the Guide.

So, what do you think?  Let us know in the comments below and as always, thanks for reading!