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How would you convey information contain in a journal to the players? For example, if the players were to come across the journal of a wealthy NPC which, as DM, you want to be relevant to the current quest but also contain hints/clues about other goings on. Such as secret societies or dodgy dealings that aren't necessarily important but could be part of some side quests/whatever.

I don't think it makes sense to just outright tell the players that "by the way, the journal also has mentions of a fun time the owner had at a cannibalism party last Thursday" but then if the players don't know to ask, how would you tell them?

In real life you could flick through and certain things might jump out at you but without going OTT and making a real journal to give to the players I don't know how you'd do it. I wanted to use it as a tool to tie two quest lines together as well as give quest B a leg up whilst the players are looking at quest A.

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You say that "I don't think it makes sense to just outright tell the players", and others may feel the same, but I do not agree. Unless the text in question was written in code, anyone reading through it will obtain the information. So the only question is: how much time does it take to find the relevant passages?

If the reader knows what to look for, it will be a simple matter that could be done during a short rest for example. If time is an issue (say, the guards have raised an alarm and they can't take the book) calling for an Int(Investigation) check would be appropriate.

If they do not know what to look for, maybe just have a hunch or hint that something interesting might be in it, it will take more time, lets say 8 hours to read the whole thing. That will take a day of downtime or 2 long rests for an elf. (Hey, we made use of the Trance feature!)

If the thing was written in code, assume the writer has the Linguist feat (PHB 167) and calculate the DC accordingly to crack it. I would recommend that doing so takes 8 hours of light work too.

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    \$\begingroup\$ That actually makes perfect sense, not sure why I didn't even consider it. Following this I'll probably have them find the outright thing they're looking for, maybe suggest that it could hold more information and would need to be studied further and then if they choose to take it and read later (and remember to do so) give them all the things I want that their character would legitimately find interesting. or relevant. then later maybe allow them to ask "was there anything in the journal about this" and decide on the go. Thanks. \$\endgroup\$ – JDM7 Sep 11 '17 at 12:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ Adding that there's a section in code would in itself be a strong hint that there's something interesting going on, without saying what it is -- much like a locked door is a hint that there's something interesting past that door. \$\endgroup\$ – bgvaughan Sep 11 '17 at 18:02
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Most of my campaigns and the campaigns I play with have props. You could literally make a journal for your party and have them manually find it between sessions.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I am surprised that this hasn't gotten more love. I know that the idea of writing a whole journal as a prop seems daunting, but luckily you don't have to do that. Just type up a couple of "pages" that are the interesting bits. You also don't have to hand them over all at once. Make the characters read the journal and then give them some or all based on their skill check. Not all journal entries are going to be novels, you can type up a couple of paragraphs of plot hooks and clues and be good to go. \$\endgroup\$ – D.Spetz Sep 11 '17 at 19:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ I love this approach, it reminds me of games like Myst, where most of the problems in the game are deciphered through random scrawlings in journal pages. \$\endgroup\$ – Kik Sep 12 '17 at 14:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ I completely agree on this. It would be great to type a couple pages with the necessary information and having the players find them. They will notice that there's some more info than those they need immediately and decide to keep it. \$\endgroup\$ – Eärendil Baggins Sep 14 '17 at 6:21
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I don't think it makes sense to just outright tell the players that "by the way, the journal also has mentions of a fun time the owner had at a cannibalism party last Thursday"

Why not?

There is a difference between what the characters know and what the players know. You have to decide what it takes the characters to obtain the information and once the characters should know something it's your job to make sure that the players know this thing, too, if it's relevant for their decisions.

Another answer already talked about the time it might need and about the possibility of making an Int (Investigation) check in a situation where time is important or the book was encrypted. But you could also just look at the Int or Wis Score of the character that attempts to read the book.

Does the character have a high Int Score? He may realize that some parts of the book are interesting if read together, even though they are spread out over multiple pages.

Does the character have a high Wis Score? Something about the pages seems unusual, as if someone wrote to them in a certain order that does not correspond to the normal starting on the first page and writing till the end.

But everyone realizes that this book seems to include some hidden information. They just don't know for sure what it is right now. Maybe they will find out more by investigating the Tower/Castle/Inn/...

Later you reveal more clues in your story. They talk with someone, find a map, scrolls lying around... And suddenly even people with low Int Scores remember that the symbols correspond to something they have seen in the book. And then they realize that special clue you wanted them to know.

This way the hunt for more hints becomes a little sidequest on its own. And you reward players with for example a high Int Score because it's easier for them to remember things and connect the dots.

Characters are experts. They have a different take on what they find and are exceptionally good at what they are doing. Your players probably don't know how to make Fireballs and call lightning down on their Goblin enemies - your characters do know this. The same applies to knowledge gained by reading a special journal. Your players wouldn't realize that - but their characters do and it's your job to make sure your players realize and understand what their characters instinctively understand through years of experience.

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As others note, it's straightforward and quite workable to say, "You've read the journal, you now know X, Y, and Z." I know, because I've done it. I'm usually not quite that blunt and to the point, but if the journal is not for some reason difficult to read (including for length) then it works quite well.

If it is hard to read, I have resorted to, "After a first survey, you think it might have some information about X, Y, and Z-- do any of those sound worth pursuing?" and then use subsequent rolls to either gauge the quality of the information or the time spent researching it. (I usually opt for the former and arbitrarily control the length of time for pacing purposes of my own.)

Finally, what might not be obvious is that you can post-insert information into a journal like that as follows: "Now you're sure of it-- that guy with the yellow sash is following you. And hey, now that you think of it, Gustavus' journal mentioned someone in a yellow sash, it just didn't seem noteworthy until now." (With or without a die roll.) This is actually an argument against trying to write the whole thing out, or even parts of the thing. This is also something to be used very sparingly-- more than once or twice, it gets transparent.

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After players asked what is the journal, I'd say them a lot of different information, unless they ask for something specific. Bury them in lots of details, mostly irrelevant to the quests, with some hints they might (or might not ) notice.

If this is a wealthy noble, presumably young, give them 10 girls names, name some parties, mix all these with horses, hunt descriptions, animal kill count, drop something about poor relative, who came to ask for money, or protection. Think of this person live, and just come up with lots of details. Then add some quest-specific parts, like "The C. party" ( if talking about cannibalism ) or it may be named "best sort of food" or whatever, so it may attract attention ( if the rest of the parties names are not abbreviated ).

I personally don't like relayng on Int/Wis checks in these cases, i like then players have chance to uncover something by themselves. And yes, very luckily they will just walk by, without noticing something strange. In that case you may prepare more hints whey will find in near future, so they will be able to connect the dots.

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In real life you could flick through and certain things might jump out at you

Ask yourself what these indicators are that jump out. Start there.

As the DM, you are the navigator - the story teller. In cinema and novelization, important objects to be used later will at least momentarily stand front-and-center on the screen/page. However, viewers/readers sometimes don't realize it until said-object returns in an important way. It's your job to make sure your players don't make the viewer mistake and shrug off "that book the DM happened to mention."

Incorporate visual cues:

  • When picked up - pages/notes of interest fall from the journal. These may contain your quest details or hint at their existence fully fleshed out in the journal itself.
  • Mark important pages:
    • Point out those that are particularly more frayed than others.
    • Indicate dog-eared or ripped pages.
    • Focus on suspicious markers/trinkets protruding from the journal
    • Have the journal naturally fall open to these frequented entries.
    • Describe recurring symbols on pages that tie to related quests. Perhaps the players have seen and will see these symbols during current/future quests - giving them the "aha, this is connected" moment.

Your goal is to draw the players' attention. They should be asking, "why did [DM] focus on that so much?"; "why did [DM] describe this book so detailed?"

Enable them to find clues:

Once the players know this journal is a thing, they should have access to it. Even under duress, in real life a person could steal the entire book - or in the very least quickly thumb through the pages. Said adventurer could rip out or jot notes about the pages previously indicated. You can point out the symbols, dates, or names bolded or initialled in the pages' margins. The things that would stand out in life - make them stand out in descriptive clues.

Then you place special attention on those descriptions:

  • Have the first page they study be an unrelated quest. The second should be pertinent to the quest-at-hand. Give them something to think about. Make them wonder why you pointed out the first entry. If you are prone to adding fluff details to misguide your adventurers in other quests, then pay attention to your verbage here. Describe the first page and its details as "curious", "intriguing", or "suspicious". You don't want them to disregard it.
  • Connect some dots for the players.
    • When studying a page, describe first that "strangely familiar" symbol drawn on the bottom. Didn't that look like the crest worn by the NPC who sent them on this quest? So if this symbol is their current quest, what was that symbol on the first page they saw? Didn't they see it scratched on the butcher's door?
    • Those initials - didn't the town drunk refer to the butcher's name having those initials? That trinket/book-mark, I think the priest chastising us at the pub earlier had a similar one hanging from his religious text. This might take some foresight when telling your story before reaching the point of the players finding this journal, but is worth it.

If your players still disregard the rest of the book and only use the clues for the current quest - incorporate it in the quest's finale. Say, a confrontation with the wealthy NPC as he accuses them of procuring their knowledge from his journal. "What else do you know?! If it weren't for you meddling kids..." Quest unlocked: obtain the journal.

When all else fails:

I don't think it makes sense to just outright tell the players

As another answer indicated, player knowledge ≠ character knowledge. Just because the characters don't know what's in the journal doesn't mean you can't straight forward describe the journal as chocked-full-of-juicy-details. Cinema does it all the time where viewers are given "meta" details: main characters leave the room then the viewers see the villian step calmly into view; etc.

tl;dr: It's all in the details. Detail what's important. Let other story elements fade into the players' peripherals. They'll get the hint.

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I have done this in the past. The journal was written in Elvish with a drow's idiomatic usage, so it wasn't easy to translate. Only an attendant NPC had elvish as a language, so they were dependent on her translation skills and the attendant time. This allowed me to dole out pieces of it as necessary, with the possibility of the NPC making errors that could be "caught and corrected" if knowledge needed to adapt to later circumstance. This was delivered to the players as a virtual prop, as the translated version with marginal notes written by the NPC in question that could be used to point out particularly salient passages. Here is an example.

So to sum up the technique:

1) provide a prop. If it is electronic, you can adjust, edit or append at need.

2) make it difficult to read, but in a way that can be made clear over time, and allow for more or corrected information to be added.

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Make it a series of rolls.

In real life you could flick through and certain things might jump out at you

Unless you make an actual prop, then players can't flip through and look for important things. But their characters will be doing exactly that. So, make it a skill check for each character who reads through the journal. If they get some basic roll, then they get the immediately important info. But if they make more difficult rolls, then give them some of the side information. Just give it to them explicitly as something that their character found strange while reading through the book.

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