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What I plan for my campaign is to drop hints about some greater evil, and whenever my players reach the natural point of realization, have them go off on a search to stop it. I wanna do it naturally, so I don't have a point in mind where I have a big reveal, I want to players to create it, in a manner of speaking.

How do I foreshadow the Big Bad (without leaving too large a trail of clues so that they realize it too soon after the campaign starts) so there's not that same anticipation, but not so vague that they get frustrated?

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When I want to let the PCs find the Big Bad in their own sweet time, I use a similar logic of the Einstein Logic Puzzle. I sort the readily known facts and the unknown facts and see which one are absolutely needed to reach the fact through inference. Half of my players love the challenge, the other half are more "SMASH!" types, I just do other things for their fun.

After sorting, I put the facts in the world and let them discover at their own pace. Sometimes they solve it with brains, sometimes with might. Most of the times they find the Big Bad in a good time, but once they found it really soon by chance (really, one player had a hunch and did something crazy that paid off) and another a Kingdom fell because they made a wrong turn (stuff happens).

I don't know if you can use it in your campaign, but this method does exactly what do you want.

I'm doing an impromptu example, so it will not be challenging.

Facts:

  1. The big bad is a devil summoner.

  2. A paladin detected evil in the devil summoner, but couldn't see him/her properly.

  3. Three people had previously said that they would laugh if the city turned to ashes. Jahad, Klein and Mira.

Unknown Facts (Clues):

  1. Klein was never seen using magic.

  2. Mira is temperamental and prone to violence.

  3. Jahad spend half of his days drunk since his wife demise.

  4. Klein is a disgraced fallen noble.

  5. Mira graduated in a Bard School.

  6. Jahad was apprentice of a Royal Wizard.

  7. Klein is the chief of a local crime syndicate.

  8. Mira was sexually assaulted by the duke as a teenager and despises him.

  9. Jahad is addicted to gamble and has money problems.

  10. Mira killed a man that harassed her last year and left him in pieces.

  11. The necromancer in the graveyard was was loyal the devil summoner, and destroyed his own body before being captured.

  12. Jahad gave his wands to Klein to pay a debt.

  13. The 2nd victim was Mira's old friend, Jahad's lover and Klein's employee.

  14. Klein's day job is of a respected merchant, trusted by his suppliers and clients.

  15. Jahad mother's was executed by the duke for murder of a noble.

  16. An used blank spell scroll was found near the third summoning that day.

  17. A waitress stole a Wall of Chaos scroll from the drunken Jahad and sold at the black market.

  18. A speak with dead spell with the 4th victim reveals that the summoner uses scrolls to summon.

  19. Jahad killed 3 bandits with a Scorching Ray.

  20. Klein has a wand chamber hidden in his shortsword.

The clues are not readily available, they need to search while other things happen and the story advances. Like I said, this example isn't very challenging if you get 5 or 6 of the most important clues.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I get the idea, but I'd like to see a use case example in your answer, please. \$\endgroup\$ – Doctor Kill Jan 25 '18 at 18:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ @DoctorKill I've made a simple example of how it looks. Usually I make around 20 clues, with 4~6 major clues among them. \$\endgroup\$ – Aguinaldo Silvestre Jan 25 '18 at 20:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ That's great. I think it really improves the answer. \$\endgroup\$ – Doctor Kill Jan 25 '18 at 21:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ An unnecessary nitpicking - paladins don't detect "evil" in 5e, they detect outsider creatures. \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Jan 26 '18 at 9:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm not sure this will work though. The Einstein logic puzzle has a precise list of facts. There is no such a list in a D&D game - players might (and will) miss, forget or mix up any clue. They also can (and will) produce new clues checking for facts - say, go into the Jahad's house and see what is there. \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Jan 26 '18 at 9:39
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I like to use some mechanics from the Gumshoe RPG system for these sort of mystery like elements.

Notably, Gumshoe has key clues which PC can't fail to find as long as they look. I would take some time to come up with 4-5 key clues. They should be things or pieces of information that the PCs can use to solve the mystery and it will require that they get most, if not all, to solve.

Quick Example:

Key Clues

  1. You find a half eaten carrot, but the bite marks don't seem human.

  2. The only thing you notice is a pile of strange glowing ooze. As you're looking at it, a rat climbs out and you realize that its slowly growing bigger.

  3. When you inspect the body, you notice that he is clutching a lucky rabbit's foot.

  4. The man tells you that someone let Farmer Jed's prized bunnies out of their cage; the locals helped find most of them but there might still be a few running around town.

The Finale: A large mutant rabbit lumbers towards you, it looks like it wants to fight.

The clues are vague and even with all of them you might not realize there is a giant mutant rabbit behind the scenes, but once you see one everything pieces it's self together.

If you want the problem to be more solvable you can add more clues, secondary clues that people won't necessarily find, or create clues that are less vague.

To make it harder to solve, you can add red herrings or multiple bad guys leaving clues.

With foreshadowing in particular it's less important that the mystery is solvable and more important that things line up in hindsight.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I look at your mutant rabbit and the only thing I can think of is a Vizzerdrix. \$\endgroup\$ – Aguinaldo Silvestre Jan 25 '18 at 17:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Aguinaldo Silvestre - That's pretty accurate to how I imagined him. \$\endgroup\$ – Scriven Jan 25 '18 at 17:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ Maybe it's just the players I game with, but I never need to put in a red herring. They almost always make up their own. I solved this, somewhat, by specifically calling out Clues as Aspects. \$\endgroup\$ – Doctor Kill Jan 25 '18 at 18:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ I would also try to reveal the clues in the order of least to most useful. It'll decrease the chances that they solve the mystery right away, and ensure that they eventually do solve it. ...consequently, if you feel their engagement waning, you can accelerate the appearance of pretty obvious info to give them a leg up. (Which will feel like an exciting breakthrough to them) \$\endgroup\$ – ThunderGuppy Jan 25 '18 at 20:03
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Make your clues do double duty.

Suppose the Big Bad is Vecna.

Vecna is a lich-turned-god and enemy of Ioun, the god of Knowledge. He broke the bonds of Orcus, the god of undeath and liches. He is a god of Secrets.

  • Corrupt cultists of Ioun.

  • Sub-boss is a (lesser) Lich working against Orcus, god of Undeath. The fact that Orcus is opposed to this Lich is discovered. The fact that Lich's are usually thralls of Orcus is discovered. It is unknown how this Lich broke Orcus' hold. The players can get help from Orcus to defeat this sub-boss.

  • Bad guy whose catch phrases is "Knowledge is power, and secrets are deadly." Maybe someone overthrowing a kingdom. A Vizir. This catchphrase can be used to track down the conspiracy.

  • Priest supporting some bad guy is fake, not actually a priest of that god at all.

  • Enemy who players are about to defeat and who knows too much is found with his eyes and hands cut out before they fight him.

  • Players are leaked a true secret that leads them to do harm and forwards an enemy's agenda.

  • Another MSEG (medium sized evil guy) is found missing an eye.

  • Someone vaguely refers to some Deathknight as "The Hand". Speculates that maybe they where "The Hand of the King" in life.

This builds up over time. Each "secret" is a clue, but it is both a clue leading towards their current adventure and the over-adventure.

Eventually they discover the highest ranks of the Church of Ioun have been corrupted, triggering a civil war within the Church. This is when (if the players haven't worked it out) the BBEG is revealed to be Vecna, acting through his hand and eye.

Especially early on, hints should be dual-purpose, not appear to be "plot widows". Later on you can start adding some seeming plot widows -- dangling hints that there is something strange going on. Initial hints should be amgibuous and vague; for each hint, have at least 3 interpretations, and only one of them is your BBEG. This is the phase when players finding out about the BBEG (or guessing) is ok. Finally, confirm their suspicions.

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It's hard to give specific examples, since every campaign is different, but what I might suggest is the use of red herrings. Rather than giving your players no clues, maybe give them a bunch of clues - some which seem related, or some entirely unrelated. Have similar clues appear at different 'events', and maybe some of those clues link together in ways which only become apparent when they find another connecting clue or note.

Using a note to tip the players off can also work as a hard-end for how long it should take them to work it out, and can potentially blow their minds if it suddenly connects all the previous clues by making them see them in a different light.

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One thing to remember is that an RPG is not a book or movie! For the most part, and RPG is a story where the player characters are the main characters.

When I was younger, I found that anytime I tried to get "clever," I would lose players. This did take time to sink in, but it eventually did.

When foreshadowing, be very obvious, but aim it at the big bads employees, and enterprises he controls. For example, maybe a gain that he secretly controls is killing the big bad's enemies. The players concentrate on the gang. Then one of the big bad's lieutenant's embezzles a lot of money. The big bad's wife is cheating on him and then dies in an accident.

As for clues, I not only agree with the three-clue rule, but I use the rule of obvious clues. If there is a clue that the characters must find to continue the adventure and they aren't searching for a secret safe, then put the clue somewhere the characters are searching. Maybe they search the desk instead, and reveal the clue inside a secret drawer that they automatically find. (I don't require rolls for things that a character would automatically do.)

I try not to overestimate the abilities of the players. Perhaps the character is Sherlock Holmes, but the player certainly isn't.

Another rule I have is to never build an adventure that requires an NPC to solve things. If none of the characters is a detective (or equivalent) I save my mystery adventure for a later time. I'll provide an NPC only if the characters hire one, and this NPC will never be better than the characters except in his one area of expertise. If the characters hire a detective, then he will be a average detective at best.

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