Clarity is in the eye of the beholder, which makes it one of the lesser-known Beholder powers, and more importantly a common GM misconception that can frustrate nearly any gaming group.
Where the clarity misconception can trip people up is when a GM has set forth clues in a campaign that hint at a larger mystery either in the immediate arc or the overall story. In both cases, GMs often forget that things are much, much clearer to them than they are on the far side of the screen, to those who haven’t seen the full shape of the situation at hand.
If you’ve ever heard or told a riddle, you know that they often seem laughably easy once you know the answer. Try to recall the feeling you experience before you have the answer, however, and you’ll find it’s easy to flounder and struggle with the simplest of conclusions. Riddles, like puns, are most enjoyable for those telling them. But a game should be enjoyable for all, and that means flipping the model.
Let’s take an example: you have an evil king who knows his rival is aging and ill. To try and win his rival’s kingdom, he plans to marry his capable daughter to the rival’s witless son, masked as a peace offering to a dying man. He can then control the rival’s kingdom through his loyal daughter.
But the king has a problem: his daughter is secretly in love with the priest of the local temple, a fact the king has tolerated up till now in hopes it might give him leverage over either of them. Now, to take care of the complication, free his daughter to marry the witless son of his rival and still maintain a good relationship with her so that she will help him control the rival kingdom, the king has hired an assassin to infiltrate the temple as an acolyte, gain the priest’s trust and see to it that he has an ‘accident’ from which he won’t recover.
So far, so good. Figuratively speaking.
Into this brier patch, your players appear, perhaps to save the very same priest from the ‘accident’ he’s about to have. Your aim is to have the PCs uncover the plot of the evil king before the priest is killed and his lover forced to marry the rival’s son and give a terrible king control over both kingdoms.
The trouble is, how much do you reveal and how soon? Too easy, and your players are likely to be bored by the whole affair. Too difficult, and they’ll get frustrated, possibly dropping the plot altogether in favor of something more fun to do elsewhere.
Most GMs who’ve gone as far as that realization are also those most initially susceptible to veering too far on the difficult side. The issue is that things will always seem clearer and simpler to you as the GM (who has the whole plot and setting laid out) than they ever will to your players. You might think the distinction is slight, that you only need to be a hair more obvious to get your players to clue into what’s going on. The reality is that it’s closer to a 5-to-1 ratio of how much clearer things are to you than to them.
5 to 1. That means for every clue you think you need, you have to plan on putting five times that many in their path.
Seems extreme, doesn’t it? But bear in mind that your group will stop and move to the next phase as soon as they’ve figured out one piece. If you lay five clues down, they only need one to see what’s up, but you don’t know which of the five will spark them. Having two or three that all point to the same piece can also help clear up confusion over what a single clue means, letting players triangulate rather than risk going off into the weeds on the wrong trajectory.
Let’s go back to our example. They come across the priest, spot the ‘accident’ (let’s say, a collapsing scaffolding meant to crush him) and stop it, saving the NPC’s life. Your five clues might be:
- Evidence of tampering on the scaffolding
- Sight of a shadowy figure on the building’s roof
- Hint of a tattoo (a symbol of the god of death) on the acolyte who rushes up to make sure the priest is okay
- The priest saying he was taking a ‘shortcut’ the acolyte suggested
- A love token from the princess that falls out of the priest’s pocket when he’s pulled to safety – its twin is spotted in her study later
Spotting a lot of redundancy? That’s the point. If your PCs had only one of these clues (for instance, the acolyte’s tattoo), it’s just a curiosity, not a trail. That, plus mention this was a shortcut she suggested, plus tampering? Now they know for certain that it’s not an accident, and that the acolyte is likely involved. They still have to question her and the priest to find out what she is and who hired her, but it gives them a trail to follow.
Understand, a clue does not count if you don’t put it right under the PCs noses. Having elements in the setting that they can research and tap into is only helpful if they are particularly motivated players, and if they have an idea of where to start. Without guidance, the world of where to look is effectively infinite.
You’re laying a trail of breadcrumbs, not setting the loaf on the shelf and waiting to see who asks for a bite.
As a general rule, if you’re worried the clues you’re using are too obvious or too scarce, use the following scale:
- Does it seem like a decent challenge? Then it’s way too difficult.
- Does it seem straightforward, provided they look in the right place? Then it’s too unreliable.
- Are the PCs simply told what’s going on by a helpful NPC? Then it actually is too simple.
- Does it seem obvious and there are several different paths to choose from that all lead to the same place? Excellent! That porridge is just right.
Remember: the issue with clues and clarity has nothing to do with players being dumb or oblivious, or not being invested in your game. It has everything to do with the fact that things look very, very different behind the screen, especially when it comes to clues and mysteries.
And, of course, lesser-known Beholder powers.