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I feel like my players ask the wrong questions. For example thy went to the strip club, they're trying to hunt a vampire who they "know" came south from Chicago. Their questions aren't necessarily wrong, but they don't ask the right ones, or the right people. When they went to the club they talked to the General Manager and asked him "if there were any new players in town", not a bad question, but he and almost no one else in the club knew anything about that.

Every stripper that came over they sent away except for one whom they asked the same wrong question. One of the girls that came over actually knows the vampire they're looking for. The one they talked to is the demon I've been asking about, but it was only a minor conversation and every time she tried talking to one of the characters they he told her to get lost.

So what're the right questions in my mind? "who else might know?" would have been one, or even asking about players in the criminal space (would have lead them to a werewolf pack that runs a gang). Giving any of the people they're talking to anything to go on besides the appearance of the vampire would be another. Actually talking to the people around about things at all.

Another part of the problem is that this is actually good role playing, the man that lost his wife and daughter is essentially playing an angry drunk. Outside of a stint in prison none of them are actually involved in the criminal element so it's not expected that they'd know much.

I sometimes have them roll wits + intelligence where I replace their brains, if they succeed I tell them the question they should be asking themselves given what's in front of them.

update it might be worth saying this, I had 4 different characters in that one scene with different information, because the characters are human, and only 1 of those 4 was, they would not necessarily be forthcoming (for example with the vamp it'd be a masquerade violation, and an outing of a covenant member). I had another 2 directions they could have gone, and all of these directions lead elsewhere. They only decided to pursue talking to the person that is currently possessed by the Strix after encouragement from me. They only decided to pursue the tabloid publishing of the Strix after, which was from a CCTV that they thought only they and one other person had seen after I made them roll and told them, that it occurs to them to wonder how the picture got in the tabloid in the first place (I had told them when I dropped the tabloid that it was a still from the camera). Otherwise they weren't going to bother following up on that. I'm mentioning this because I don't think that it's because I'm not giving them clues or having enough of them at this point.

How can I get them asking the right questions without my leading them around by the nose?

update though tangentially related the problem, my plan moving forward is that a Strix picture got into a tabloid, with the obvious Masquerade violation, the Vampires in Austin are going to be doing everything possible to torch it.

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    \$\begingroup\$ It sounds like you're really asking how you can help to direct players towards the plot advancement more effectively when they start to look down dead ends. Is that correct? \$\endgroup\$ – Jessa Dec 5 '14 at 6:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Jessa possibly? probably. \$\endgroup\$ – xenoterracide Dec 5 '14 at 6:32
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The answer to this depends on your playstyle - but you don't have the problem you think you have. Observe:

If you run a simulationist sandbox-y style of game, where you don't require your players to achieve anything in particular for you to consider the game a success, there are no wrong questions. There are questions that don't get the players the answers they were looking for, and there are questions that do - but in either case, you needn't care; The game will continue, and be fun, whether or not the players find the bloodsucker in question.

If you run a railroad with a fixed destination and you need the players to get this information in order to continue to your next dose of plot, there are no wrong questions. Just ensure that the questions they ask give them the answers they need - either blatantly, by having NPCs know the answer ("Why, yes, there is a new player in town") or by giving them answers that lead them to asking the right questions ("I don't know, but you might want to ask Mabel; She knows everybody").

Finally, if you run something in-between, where there's an expected plot, but players can deviate from it, there are no wrong questions. Sure, your players might miss this particular source of information, but that's just part of the game; Let them go off following whatever (false) leads they turn up; Plenty of time for them to realise their mistake and work out a new approach later.

...So, yeah, there are no wrong questions. The problem you really have is that you're shutting down attempts by players to investigate in ways you haven't thought of, without preparing alternatives. You can't blame your players for not reading your mind; If you allow them to fail, you need to provide some way for the game to continue when they do. (Alternatively, if the players hit a dead end, you could just declare the campaign over, but that'll probably lead to disappointment all 'round.)

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1. I've had my random background npcs in bars unexpectedly propelled into being major plot drivers merely because my players decided to ask the drunk what he knew. It's a little hard growing their personality on the fly, but as GM you have to adapt. \$\endgroup\$ – Mooing Duck Oct 12 '16 at 21:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for there are no wrong questions \$\endgroup\$ – smiley trashbag May 16 '17 at 17:27
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Stay Flexible

Be ready to improvise about what kind of information the PCs can get by talking to various characters. Anything that hasn't been shown to the PCs yet can deviate from your notes at any time you want/need it to. Move plot points from their original "places" to be wherever the PCs happen to look.

Are they asking the right questions of the wrong people? You can have the people they are talking to direct them to the correct person to ask. Or, if it's plausible, just let the NPC they are talking to know the answer and provide. Maybe your original plan didn't involve this NPC knowing, but they do now.

Are they in the wrong place? Make it right place. Let's say you were hoping they would go seek out Mikey at the horse races. Instead of the going to the races, they go to the a strip club. Maybe Mikey decided to visit the strip club that day instead. As long as it's plausible, just move people around behind the scenes until they are in the players' path.

Are they asking the wrong questions to the right people? Have the NPCs be a little more forthcoming, so that they convey the plot-important information you want the PCs to have.

Use details to steer them

You can also do things like call for a roll to let players spot the trail you want them to follow. In the strip club, they roll something like Perception + Empathy (or whatever, depends on the system) to spot something subtle about an NPC that might make them more interesting. Depending on how important it is to spot, and what system you are using, you might even skip the roll and give the clue for free.

For example the clue might be, "Another stripper walks towards you. She is soliciting your attention as the others have, but there is something different about her. She is working twice as hard to pretend to be happy, and her mind is clearly elsewhere. The money you might give her seems secondary to her need to stay distracted from problems far larger than life at this club."

A callout like this helps show the players where the "interesting" stuff is, suggesting where they may want to go next. You can use how much detail you give about a person or place, and how interesting it is, to influence the players' focus.

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Don't let a roll (or a missed question) halt the game. Turn it into a "Yes, but..." failure, and advance the plot over the bodies of mooks.

Go buy Gumshoe. The game has investigation mechanics which will likely help you here. In short, if the players have to know something to progress the plot, don't let a roll happen. If rolls are happening, then failure should indicate challenges that occur along with their knowledge gains.

Here, if they're missing questions, treat them like "failed" rolls. Have complications arise due to their questioning (and you can always fall back on "ninjas burst through the walls because they didn't like how you were sniffing around about X"). Bad questions, but on the right track? The players attract attention, and at the end of a conflict, they've advanced the plot because it leapt at them with knives. (Take a look at mouseguard to see how "Yes, but..." challenge-failing can go.)

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for gumshoe; it's really helpful for concepts of investigation if not the game itself. \$\endgroup\$ – Rob Nov 23 '15 at 16:30
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How can I get them asking the right questions without my leading them around by the nose?

If players chase a trail that you haven't thought out, follow the advice laid out in the other answers here, which basically say: make it the right trail. That's good advice. I'll try to add something else, which is: "How do I not end up having to do this?"

Define "wrong question"

Have you ever seen I, Robot? In my opinion, it has a nicely done little part where a hologram of a murdered person can answer only a specific set of questions.

Dr. Lanning's Hologram: Everything that follows, is a result of what you see here.
Detective Del Spooner: What do I see here?
Dr. Lanning's Hologram: I'm sorry, my responses are limited. You must ask the right questions.
Detective Del Spooner: Is there a problem with the Three Laws?
Dr. Lanning's Hologram: The Three Laws are perfect.
Detective Del Spooner: Then why did you build a robot that could function without them?
Dr. Lanning's Hologram: The Three Laws will lead to only one logical outcome.
Detective Del Spooner: What outcome?
Dr. Lanning's Hologram: Revolution.
Detective Del Spooner: Whose revolution?
Dr. Lanning's Hologram: [Smiles] That, detective, is the right question.

It works in the film because Spooner's a smart guy and the plot requires that eventually he figures out what the right questions are. But if you were Spooner, and you were not actually a professional detective, and you were not actually in a physical, real world where there may be more than one way to skin a cat, you'll be lucky to figure this one out.

And, man, you would hate this hologram.

The Rule of Three Clues

Justin Alexander has written a brilliant piece on this. I suggest every GM to read it in full, but I'll try to summarise:

Clues that appear really, really obvious to you are not obvious to your players. You have Creator Knowledge, which means that you can tell the usual from the unusual, the trivial detail from the useful clue, the Jane Random Doe from the sneaky informant. Your players don't have that: they can't tell likely from unlikely or important from trivial. They're going to miss important clues, so make sure to leave lots of important clues.

The rule of thumb is to leave three separate clues using separate mechanisms that lead to the same result. You want to find out where your southern vampire lives? Leave three clues, and make sure you don't need the other two. This means you can leave your players more initiative without having to say: "I don't have a way to make this work."

Can't find a way to leave three decent clues? Maybe the information you're trying to convey is too specific, and needs to be aggressively divulged rather than teased open. (Think of it: if you can't figure it out, how will your players ever?)

Not only will this be helpful for your players, who can suddenly carve their own path and still follow the plot you prepared, but you'll end up creating a more involved, consistent world, which will make improvising easier for you and more rewarding for you players.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Great dialog example and great answer. I came here specifically to see if the Rule of Three Clues had been posted; glad to see it had ;) \$\endgroup\$ – culix Dec 7 '14 at 18:11
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Great suggestions all around. My thoughts re-iterate on some points that @Jessa touched on, but hopefully provides some additional context.

Let's face it, for a lot of players, RP dialogue is hard. It can feel awkward for some people and it can be especially hard to think of clever questions or keep lots of plot details in mind when you're uncomfortable.

A good way to keep poor dialogue skills from impeding the plot is to put a little more thought into your NPCs. When a player asks a question for which a simple answer doesn't move your game forward, do a little roleplaying of your own. The NPCs in a club where criminals, vampires, werewolves, etc. hang out aren't working in an information booth. They don't simply stand around answering questions without having reactions to the people asking those questions. Let NPCs jump to conclusions and volunteer information or set other actions in motion. Some examples:

  • Maybe the Manager knows there are new players in town moving in on his
    boss's turf and thinks the PCs were sent by his boss to test his
    loyalty, so he gives them a lead.
  • Maybe the strippers think the PCs are cops, and the guy they're asking about likes to rough up the girls, so they squeal on him.
  • Maybe one of the strippers has a new boyfriend who fits the description. He could be the one they're after. Or it could be some poor schmuck who's been mistaken for this guy a few times and is tired of it, so he puts them onto others who are looking for the same guy.

If you want more structure, and for whatever reason don't want to improvise on the fly, then before you let the PCs go to the club and ask questions, have a couple of outcomes sketched out. Then, based on which NPC's they approach and how they approach them, move them towards one of those outcomes. Minimally, an info-gathering scene like this will either go well or poorly. If it goes well, they're on the trail and the plot moves on. If it goes poorly, then consequences ensue, and you're off on a temporary tangent where they deal with whatever problem arose before getting back on track. As a player, having things go your way can be fun. Having things go horribly wrong can be fun. Having nothing happen is never fun, and having nothing happen repeatedly is both un-fun and frustrating.

Another point that will make it easier for you to handle unexpected (and in many cases, poor) PC dialogue is to be flexible with your NPCs. Above, you said they asked about new players, but the Manager knew nothing about that. Before you let a PC action amount to nothing, ask yourself, "Is it critical for this manager not to know this? I didn't anticipate them getting this info from him, but could he provide it, or direct them to the source I intended them to use, without breaking my scenario?"

Another way to think of it is, rather than making the gate for this interaction "Ask X about Y", pull it up to the next level of abstraction and make the gate "Ask questions at this bar", then have their questioning lead to an outcome you can GM. In general, always look for logical consequences to whatever the PCs do that move your plot to a place where you're prepared to GM.

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What's obvious to you isn't obvious to them. This is always going to be the case. What seems clear in the head of the GM sometimes isn't clear if you are just going off descriptions. (I've screwed this up so many times, I'd be embarrassed to admit it.)

i) don't have only one right question! You want to feed them some information, they want to get that information, and they're trying to get it in-story. Figure a way to give them a clue toward a way of getting to a question that would justify giving the information. Before play have several ways to get the information, but come up with more as the players give you ideas about ways to give it to them.

ii) If they're asking good questions, reward that - give them good information, even if it's not quite in the way you planned. Why couldn't someone know something related to what they are asking that gives them another clue?

iii) have the information available in more than one way - not just by asking questions

iv) when designing stuff like this, start with the aim that they will succeed in getting the information.

If this is a common problem in your games, you may find the approach to investigation in Robin Laws' GUMSHOE system one way to deal with such problems.

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