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As a GM, I sometimes will encourage my players towards specific actions.

Example (This didn't actually happen, but similar things have): The party finds a Cube of Force, but this one rearranges what button does what function based on who is attuned to it, so player 1 will always get the same results from pressing the same buttons, but if player 2 attunes he will need to figure out what buttons do what all over again.

Given that the players have discovered that the buttons aren't static, I encourage them to spend some time experimenting with the Cube to figure out exactly how it works.

Another example is: There is treasure hidden in a pool in a cave the party is exploring. If they enter the pool they will see it immediately (no check required), but none of them think of searching the pool. I specifically ask if they want to search the pool (indirectly hinting that there is a reason why they might want to).

Is this a good practice, or should I just let the players do whatever they want and if they don't think of experimenting they just lose out on a cool magic item/reward?

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    \$\begingroup\$ This seems awfully party-specific; some parties are going to love it and others will chafe. Is there a more specific, real-life issue you're facing? \$\endgroup\$ – Icyfire Jul 11 '17 at 17:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ Have you given the players reason to believe there may be something in the pool before you asked them? \$\endgroup\$ – A.B. Jul 11 '17 at 17:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ @A.B. Why would you do that? I mean, the treasure hidden 10' behind the rock wall in the cave system, the one that is found if you break open the tooth of the 3rd orc they killed, and the one you get if you say "achoo three times" three times while looking at a mirror would feel loanly if the players had reason to find the treasure in the pool but not them. \$\endgroup\$ – Yakk Jul 11 '17 at 19:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ I suggest that this is not a system-agnostic question. Different systems can have very different strong opinions on this. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Jul 11 '17 at 19:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ Hint: asking "what are the pros and cons of" tends to keep questions open and constructive while "should I" tends to go subjective and get closed. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk - SE stop being evil Jul 11 '17 at 23:20
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No

By placing some loot in a pool of water you provide your players with a reward for going above the call of duty while exploring. Asking them if they want to search the pool removes the essence of the reward; you might as well have placed it right out in the open. Such a callout feels artificial and railroading, and results in an unrewarding experience.

...but

True player agency requires that your players be allowed to make informed choices when those choices have a profound impact on the game. If you put a bit of loot at the bottom of a pool and your players miss it that's one thing, but placing an important quest item on the bottom and punishing them for not finding it is another.

To keep this from happening without handholding, Always Leave Clues. Plural. Don't give away your entire hand as the DM, but offer your players a peek. The Alexandrian's article 'Three Clue Rule' summarizes this better than I ever could. It speaks specifically about a mystery scenario, but the concepts can be applied any time your players are intended to discover something unknown.

To summarize: don't push your players into action, but give them reasons to take a desired action when it counts

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  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for "Always Leave Clues. Plural". I'm reminded of a scene in a book I read recently where a rather snarky character states that they actually left several hundred clues, only a few of which the protaganists were smart enough to actually notice and these were very obviously clues. \$\endgroup\$ – Miller86 Feb 22 '18 at 15:40
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This depends heavily on the players and type of game you're running.

Basically, you have a spectrum: at one end is the Sandbox, at the other end is Railroad.

The Sandbox is a completely non-deterministic world, where the PCs wander around and do whatever they want, without any guidance or restriction.

At the other is Railroad, where there's one path and you want them to stay on it.

(see the link for a far better detailed breakdown of the definition.)

You need to work with your Players to figure out where on that spectrum you want your game to be. Some players LOVE one extreme or the other. Most are somewhere in the middle. But no one answer is perfect.

If the players are happy with missed side-quests, treasure, etc., then let those dangling fruits dangle and keep on going. If the players are sad that they missed the clues, then work to make the clues more noticeable (perhaps via Spot checks or something?)

But in the end, you need to have a discussion with your players to find out what their expectations are. Then work to find a consensus within the group. Then build your game world to meet that consensus.

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I tend to go with the latter approach, where if the PCs don't make the search, they don't benefit from whatever reward the search would have provided.

On the one hand, you don't want to be railroading the PCs with determined events (this is something I can attest to as being frustrating as a PC), but on the other hand, you want PCs to make the "right" decisions - that is to say, you want them to benefit maximally from the scenarios you as a DM have designed.

That being said, there are a couple of things I would recommend generally:

  • Know your party - it's tough to provide specific advice here without more info from your party, but try to figure out what kind of game they like to play, and what kind of game they don't. Do they like a little handholding here and there? Do they resent you for providing too much information? The way your party feels about these issues should help determine what kind of game you're running, and how much interference you as a DM should be making into the free decisions of the characters
  • Debrief after a session - this was something I found extremely useful after DMing a session. If the players missed some cool loot because they didn't search the pool, then let them miss it in-game, but tell them about it after the session is over. I found that this struck a nice balance between guiding their actions and letting them miss things. As the PCs missed loot, for whatever reason, I would hint to them after the game what they could have done better. For example, if they missed the loot in the pool after you hinted to them it might be worth searching, I would tell them after the game that there may have been something in the pool worth investigating. This helped the PCs in later sessions pick up on my hints (which was the main problem in my game), while also still "penalizing" the PCs for not searching.

Ultimately, it is up to you as the DM to work with your PCs to decide what type of game it is you are playing, and to build your DM technique around those expectations. Maybe have a zero session where these expectations are made clear, or try different techniques and see what works and what doesn't.

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Depends what style of game you're going for. In a "tough" game with a lot of emphasis on player skill, you'd want to leave it to the players to think of these things or face the consequences.

In a more "friendly" game, which is my preferred style especially with new players who may not be familiar with many of the expected tropes like searching every room thoroughly, you may want to drop hints like "hmm, if I were you I'd spend some time figuring out exactly how that cube works." In my current game with players of mixed experience, I'll often ask out of character "Do you want a hint?" The answer is usually yes, but it gives them the opportunity to say "No, I want to see if I can figure this out" or "Nah, I like our current plan, let's just go with it and see what happens." I try not to give them anything that their characters wouldn't be in a position to notice if they thought about it, but sometimes the reaction to my hints reveals gaps in my description to the players of what their characters perceive.

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I tend to break things down into two categories: Things that are optional, and things that are mandatory. These could be encounters or treasure.

If something is optional, I will provide clues. If the players decide to interact with that game element, then they will have a chance at solving the puzzle or winning the prize or meeting the NPC or whatever that game element is. If they choose to not engage, then it is missed.

If something is not optional, that is to say that the quest cannot continue, or that element has some greater consequence in the game (such as a world changing event - like saving the king from a king-eating dragon), then I will try to give strong clues to the players, or even out-right tell them the situation. Usually, they are smart enough to figure it out on their own, but you really want to make sure in this case that they realize the implications of their actions. If, then, they choose to ignore it, so be it.

Ultimately, these things come down to good design on the DM's part. World changing events should not be easy to miss! Likewise, if something is a "nice-to-have, icing-on-the-cake"-type thing, then allowing them the chance to miss some things is OK.

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You have to do this

In every game system wherein there is a GM, it is the GMs responsibility to narrate at least some portion of the system. This makes sense, because a game wherein the GM's job did not include communicating in any way should not have a GM in the first place (sitting around not communicating while everyone else engages in collaborative activity is... not really being a part of that activity).

What the GM narrates, how much authority the GM has, and how much the GM should influence player action varies a lot by system and group. But you are always saying something to the players, and it's important to recognise that everything you decide, and everything you say, is a suggestion to the players to engage in various sorts of activity.

In many traditional games, the GM is responsible for narrating the environment around the PCs. Players can't, for example, decide that there is a bench in a room just because they want there to be one, but the GM can. If a player wants a bench to sit on, and the GM has not yet described one, the player must say something along the lines of "Is there a bench in the room?", prompting the GM to say "Yes, there is a bench in the room" or "No, no benches!". Far more than a simple question of setting, this interaction can also be a suggestion by the player that there be a bench in the room, and is certainly a suggestion that the detail of whether or not a bench is in the room should be promptly resolved-- that is to say it is a suggestion towards a specific GM action: defining the existence or non-existence of the bench (and might, depending on how it is presented, be furthermore a suggestion towards one of those two options).

Similarly, when describing things, the statements made by the GM influence the decisions of the players, and so these descriptions can be interpreted as suggestions insofar as they are formative to the players' decision making processes.

For example, suppose you tell the players "As you enter the room, you see three goblins, and a swarthy-haired human with an eyepatch and a dark scowl". You have just told the players "Hey! This human is important! The goblins are also important, but less important than the human. You should do things with the human and the goblins!". By describing only the goblins and the human, you have suggested that the players' actions should involve these things, especially the human, who got extra detail. The players don't have to interact with these things-- for example, they could respond with "of what make is the doorframe? Now that it is open, can I see the hinges?"-- but you are suggesting that they respond with something more like "Are they armed? Does the human appear to be working with the goblins? Have they spotted us yet?".

And even in games where the GM does not describe the environment, whatever the GM does describe will always function the same way: by communicating we necessarily shape one another's decisions, and this behavior is desirable and fundamental in any collaborative or competitive environment.

Now, as aforementioned, there are many different ways these suggestions can be made, and many different degrees of force to the suggestions, and many different things the suggestions can be about. What kinds of things you should and should not suggest and how hard you should suggest them and in what manner are all dependendent on the various factors shaping your RPG, principally the system, the people you are playing with, any outstanding agreements, and how everyone feels at the time. But you must do this at least somewhat, and with some things.

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Don't give it away

In my experience as both GM and player, giving it away in an obvious fashion leads to lazy and unimaginative play, on both the GM and the players.

First, give in-story hints; try to make the items worth investigating noteworthy in some fashion.

With the pool in your examples, describe it such that there's at least a slight need to investigate. (There's a pool here that looks perfectly clear. Most of it can be seen from where you are now, however part of the pool is shaded from view.) With the cube, place a situation where there's a pressing need to share the cube of force. Then the players then get to choose their actions; the investigation is on them.

Second, make precedent give the players or better their characters) incentive to investigate more closely.

If the PCs have experience that treasure or problems are often hidden in unusual ways, they start thinking outside the box that the narration presents them. Without that experience, some do and some don't. Try to present these examples in some way.

Perhaps there's a grease spot/trap near this pool. Some PC might fail their save and then see the treasure. Many PCs (or players) will then investigate every pool presented for a long time to come.

With investigation occasionally rewarded, investigation will continue. Don't lead it, but reward it once in a while.

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