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I am a beginner DM and also a player.

In our current adventure (Rise of Tiamat), where I am a player, we are tracking some shady individual (Mr. X) involved with a cult. We recently entered a tavern, and my party comrades starting asking everyone "have you seen Mr. X lately?" and "what about the shady magic items that Mr. X was smuggling?".

I was baffled about their lack of subtlety - I didn't manage to pull the other characters aside (in-game) until they had "spilled the beans" about what we were investigating to the other 8-10 NPCs in the tavern. The scene with Pippin talking about "Frodo Baggins" in Bree springs to mind.

Now, while I don't know what is happening behind the scenes, no bad consequences seem to have befallen us yet, maybe our DM is lenient as we are all beginners, or maybe we were just lucky that no affiliates of the guy we are tracking were in the tavern that night - or maybe this subtlety just isn't an important aspect of the adventure and our DM just wants to move the action along.

Nevertheless, this got me thinking - what are some strategies, as a DM, to hint and/or communicate to the players that they might want to be a bit careful who they are talking to in a tavern as people with conflicting interests might be listening in ("You draw far too much attention to yourself, master Underhill!")? Are there some examples in published adventures about what happens if the players speak too widely about matters that should be kept undercover? I am wondering what I would do if I were the DM in the scenario described above.

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8 Answers 8

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Don't Hint. Don't Be Subtle.

Seriously, don't.

If the GM wants to run a covert detective mystery story, and the players think they are in a more traditional overt sword swinging story, no one is going to end up happy.

There is almost never any upside in trying to finesse this sort of thing.

And the best time to be up front about this is well before the game begins. Even assuming everyone is interested in a game like this, knowing the premise of the campaign will probably have a large influence in how the players design their characters.


In The Event This Situation Arises Organically

Same answer: Don't hint. Don't be subtle.

You may not be able to get Session Zero buy-in if this situation just arises organically from the campaign once it has already been established. But that doesn't mean you should just let them flail away against mismatched genre assumptions.

It is perfectly acceptable to clue them in that their understanding of how the game world works is just... off. One way to do this is to pick the character most likely to understand this (probably a rogue in this case) and remind their player what the consequences of this behavior will be. Then that player can do most of the work for you, hopefully in character.

But if that won't work, you can just tell them, players-to-GM, "Hey guys, you need to be subtler than this."

This only becomes a problem, in my experience, if you're constantly giving them course corrections like this. Then there's a broader and deeper problem. And you're not obligated to give them two warnings on the same situation. The second time, I would start bringing consequences into play.

But once? When I balance the fun lost by breaking the fourth wall, vs the fun lost by having the players draw the consequences of an avoidably bad first approach... yeah, I'll give them a warning.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I agree with this answer. I mean there are multiple solutions but if you want to tell the players you should be clear. Hinting is probably never the right move. Except for information that is strictly part of the story. \$\endgroup\$
    – Anagkai
    Mar 20, 2023 at 15:09
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Good DMs don’t assume the player wants their character to be stupid

If a player calls a stupid action, the DM should assume the player doesn't know it’s stupid and might not want to do it if they did.

This applies to combat: a player nominating a move that exposes them to an opportunity attack or an ongoing area of effect probably doesn’t mean to do that. And it applies socially: asking “Hey, where’s your ugly daughter?” or “Is this the tavern hosting the evil cult?" are probably not intentional.

So you stop, explain what it is about the world that you understand but they don’t, what the consequences of the proposed action are likely to be, and then you ask “Do you still want to do that?”

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    \$\begingroup\$ In other words, player's agency is when a player makes informed choices in a situation he can predict at least immediate consequences. It's not a true player's agency if player does not know some things, does not realize they apply, etc. \$\endgroup\$
    – Mołot
    Mar 20, 2023 at 22:12
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DnD isn't well suited to this. I steal a tool from Blades of the Dark.

A progress clock is a circle divided into segments (see examples at right). Draw a progress clock when you need to track ongoing effort against an obstacle or the approach of impending trouble.

Sneaking into the constables watch tower? Make a clock to track the alert level of the patrolling guards. When the PCs suffer consequences from partial successes or missed rolls, fill in segments on the clock until the alarm is raised.

Generally, the more complex the problem, the more segments in the progress clock.

For this situation I would have a clock labelled "Alertness of the cult of the dragon" stick that on the table and tell players that it ticked up when they were super overt. I would then show some signs, like someone running out the tavern to warn cult members. This would give them a chance to either subtly tail the person and find new clues, or be overt again and make the clock tick up.

I've found players need a very in their face and visual reminder or they tend to forget stealth and go for overt violence to solve their problems.

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Keep your voice down!

You can have this little maneouvre for free.

Player: Swaggers into tavern and slams door. "I say fair barkeep, have you seen Mr Scarybad lately?"

Dungeonmaster: Suddenly Sits bolt upright. Frantically looks over left and right shoulders. Leans in close to the table. Screams in a whisper: "Keep your voice down. Last man went around asking questions about Mr. Scarybad ended up at the bottom of the lake."

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There's a long tradition in the detective genre where drawing unwanted attention is part of the plot; and often it's part of the plan -- "let's shake things up". The next thing we know our heroes get jumped by someone yelling "Mr. X don't like people sticking their noses where they don't belong." Or you get a note saying someone with info on Mr. X wants to meet in a deserted warehouse at midnight -- it's probably a trap but you have to go anyway. Then the attackers give a new clue -- all wearing a distinct uniform, or whatever.

This happens in my group all the time, and it's fun. It makes you feel important. Pretty much the best is when a few scary-looking guys ask "are you the guy who wanted to know..." and you're not sure whether they want to help or to beat you silly if you say "yes".

But as you note, GM'ing is a lot of work. It's tough to remember to help player's with their actions based on what the character would do, and to remember other people could overhear, remember to give a hint ("a guy at a table near the back suddenly slinks out the back door"), decide what Mr. X would do, how long it would take to set up, and then think-up an encounter on the spot. Most D&D sessions are full of continuity errors.

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Call for the persuasion/etc roll before the talking starts.

One thing I sometimes do, depending on the table, is call for a persuasion roll first before the character narrates too much of how they're trying to persuade somebody. Then, if they roll highly, the GM can offer some tidbit of insight that that character may be able to leverage. That's not a universal solution, some players may enjoy it and others may not.

But for me, the advantage is that charismatic characters aren't just "they speak so well and have such good hair that you can't help but listen to their stupid ideas". Having a high charisma becomes more about a character knowing what approach is suited for the social situation.

(In the same way we don't ask a player to kick down an IRL door, playing a CHA 18 individual shouldn't mean needing to be that intuitive in real life.)

For instance, something like.

Alice: So, I think I'm gonna go over to the barkeep and see if I can get anything about Mr. X. I'm going to ask like, 'Hey, do you ever see strange magical items coming through town?'
Bob (GM): Okay, go ahead and roll persuasion.
[19 is rolled]
Bob: Okay, with a 19, I think what you realize is that she'd like to tell you, but she's nervous about this information getting traced back to her. As you start pointing the conversation towards magic items, she glances out the window behind you, and you realize this is a dangerous question to be asking, and probably even more dangerous for her to answer. You think she'll tell you, but she wants some certainty that you won't get her involved in all this. How do you assure her that this won't be traced back to her?
Alice: Maybe it's like, I start talking about wanting a magic sword, and that's why I'm so curious. So anybody who's eavesdropping just hears it as a fighter obsessed with swords and tunes out.
Bob: Oh, that's fun. Yeah, that works. She's like, 'well, our town doesn't have any enchanters, but occasionally we see merchants traveling down the road to to [location]. And she gives you a pointed look. and then continues chattering about swords. But yeah, you know where Mr. X is, or at least have a lead. Nice work!

And if you fail the persuasion roll, you can do something similar, and let the player lean into what that failure looks like.

Bob: Ouch, that's a 6. I think you kinda go into this conversation thinking you'll just ask and see what you learn, and you realize too late that this is not the kind of thing you can just ask openly. What do you say that gets you into hot water here?
Alice: Oh, I think it's gotta be that I drop the name 'Mr. X', right. Like I keep pushing when I should have realized that this wasn't going to work.
Bob: Yup. And the bar goes silent, all eyes on you. And I think she considers her words carefully, and she says, 'I think it's about time you retired to your room for tonight, isn't it?' And it's very clear she's not asking. You see a couple figures slip out the door into the night, and you figure that word is going to spread.

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The best is to have an ingame and an out-of-the-game solution

Consequences for the characters' behavior increases player agency if done right and makes the world feel more alive. It also rewards planning and thinking about the right approach to take for a given quest. Possible consequences for the specific case you name could be that some people don't want to be seen talking to the characters out of fear or the characters being attacked by colleagues of the bad guy.

To avoid being too punishing, the DM should maybe not bring in really bad consequences and rather say out-of-character (so to speak) and very clearly that Actions have consequences and that the style of investigation can result in the wrong kind of attention. This way, the players know and will change their approach, or, if they don't, aren't blindsided by tough consequences.

Now, as a warning, I'm gonna mention that not all players enjoy the same kind of games. It is entirely possible that the players involved aren't really into intrigue and investigation and more into other things like combat or exploration. If this is the case, you could also just let it slide and not do too much investigation. Although this can be a bit difficult when running a published campaign. So just letting it slide would be easiest in this case.

As a player, you could simply discuss with your party members

Independently of what your DM is doing, you can tell the other players (even in character) that you find the style of investigation risky and would prefer to proceed with more subtlety. Discussing approaches and planning together should be part of the game. It's a group activity after all.

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There are a couple of different issues here...

First, is the Game-Zero issue of what kind of game does Everybody want to play. Do you want subtlety and intrigue, combat and spells, character driven, gritty realism, high fantasy, etc.

As a DM, you might 'overlook' people using a non-subtle approach -- and of course tailor the responses to the game the players want to play.

E.g. Ignore that they're being unsubtle and tailor the response as if they were slightly more nuanced than that...or let it lead to a confrontation, depending on what the player's would want to do.

Second, is the Actions Have Consequences issue.

In this case, describe what occurs using an un-subtle method of questioning.

E.g. People trying to sneak out the back door. Other people being antsy about answering. Getting partial answers. Basically, red-flags that things are going to happen that may not be 'good' for you.

I would also inject the NPC telling the characters that maybe this approach isn't the best one in a manner that they could understand...like the reference to the Lord of the Rings. And let them re-think their actions...or mitigate them.

E.g. After initially barging into the tavern looking for Mr. X's contacts ham-handedly, the party tries to diffuse the situation be rationalizing their interest in Mr. X's wares and being too over-eager to cut a deal.

I would apply the idea that players don't want to do "stupid" stuff usually...although, occasionally they might...

The additional check the DM, to either explicitly "warn" a player that what they said probably isn't a good idea in-game (e.g. Did you mean that in character or out of character...indicating that maybe what you just said, you "really" don't want to do) or explain why something isn't a good idea using the rules (e.g. you don't want to move here, because you'll be subject to an attack of opportunity.)

Playerwise, I would allow a character to act in character...e.g. a rogue might be more subtle and streetwise, while a barbarian might be more intimidating , etc...And, have them possibly play out out their character's interactions.

E.g. A barbarian might walk in and try to intimidate people, while maybe not having great social skills. While a rogue might slink to the back corners and try to find the criminal elements. A bard might either look for social contacts or performance opportunities.

These, could be played as either RP opportunities or skill checks depending on the party/players...or a mix of both, RP and skill checks -- player describes approximately what they would be saying/asking, then the DM factors in anything 'relevant' (e.g. the player made a good speech/asked good questions or the NPC is suspicious/cautious) and makes a skill roll or rolls, then returns what happened.

As a DM, I would also base things off of skills and skill rolls and characters who can best accomplish skill rolls...and possibly have different characters learn something different based on skills and rolls.

Like, as above, maybe a bard character attempts to use their social interactions to track down a contact's information/current location. But, it's taking some time...and the barbarian is getting sick of waiting, so, after a while jumps up and says they are going to start smashing people/things to get things moving

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  • \$\begingroup\$ You seem to just reiterate and summarise what has been said in other answers. Are you intending for this to be a "community wiki" style answer? \$\endgroup\$ Mar 24, 2023 at 13:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ Maybe...I'm not sure where I was intending it to go \$\endgroup\$
    – David Fass
    Mar 27, 2023 at 15:34

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