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I think that these two problems have a common element that's not being addressed in their answers. The things that the PCs are pursuing basically exist as part of secret societies, in which divulging their mere existence is worthy of capital punishment.

Vampires, Demons, Fae, Hunter Factions, etc. —  none of them have any particular interest in saying "we're here, we're queer", so to speak, especially not to mortals. Even if they did want to say it, they'd be as good as dead if others of their kind found out (well, it depends — but still, not a good idea to just go blabbing).

This makes disseminating plot hook and other vital game-pacing information hard for me as the Storyteller. For example, I wanted to kick off a plot involving a new Dragon in town. One of the PCs' contact options was a Vampire posing as a stripper to find meal tickets. She'd never just say, "Oh yeah there's this new Dragon who showed up in town asking for Sanctuary", because that's would violate the Masquerade and the rules of Ordo Dracul.

Most of the answers I've received to these questions say "presume people are forthcoming", but how should I handle the fact that that is directly contrary to their agenda?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Can you explain your problem more clearly without relying on those two older questions? What is the core of what you're asking here? "How are PCs supposed to investigate and get information from people who aren't inclined to give it out?" \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Dec 5 '14 at 19:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ I would say that's the core of it yes \$\endgroup\$ – xenoterracide Dec 5 '14 at 20:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ OK then please edit the question into a more coherent/concise statement of that if you would. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Dec 5 '14 at 22:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ @mxyzplk not sure how to say that more clearly without losing meta information, because although that sounds on spot, that alone will lead back to "don't do that, people should be forthcoming" \$\endgroup\$ – xenoterracide Dec 5 '14 at 23:14
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All of these factions are trying to stay secret, that doesn't mean they leave no marks upon the world or cannot be interacted with by outside factions like the PCs.

Know What's Going On

First, it's important to keep track of characters within the secret societies, what they are doing, and what they know. GMing often involves some degree of abstraction and improvisation. How much varies by GM and game. If your campaign relies upon secret society investigation, then you need to be tracking the “shadow plot” that your players don't see directly.

Having a solid grasp on what's happening in secret will help you to apply the techniques below.

Every System has Cracks, Every Person Has Flaws

The Masquerade may get treated like an absolute law, but that doesn't mean it gets perfectly obeyed. Once you have a group of people with problems and passions, it gets hard for all of them to behave perfectly. Someone will frenzy while hunting, someone will spill the beans to a human they care about, someone will leave objects or information in places they shouldn't. Strange bodies turn up. City politics start getting weird, and local businesses look fishy.

Most people, especially in the World of Darkness, go through life with blinders on. They are worried about their own problems, and are ignoring the big pictures. This means that secret societies can (and do) have a lot of small slips and even a few moderate breaches while still remaining fairly secret. Your PCs are special because they are looking closely at things and trying to put the pieces together. Plenty of evidence should be there for them to find once they start looking.

The Flaws Are Beautiful

As a GM you cook up schemes and plots. You know how the villains, the secret society members, the others, are going to stay hidden and pull off their amazing plans because you put some real thought into how they can do a good job at it. That's not your job. Your job to is figure all that out, and then ruin for your NPCs.

Real people are messier than your perfect plans. They might have great-sounding plans, but they've also got obligations to a handful of other important (to them) people that divide their attention. They send someone else, someone less qualified, to do part of the work. They cut corners on expenses or dodge personal risks. They might have moral qualms about some of what they are doing, leading them to hesitate at the wrong time or deviate from the plan. They have ulterior motivates; schemes within schemes that make the whole system more fragile. There might be infighting in the secret society.

All of these flaws follow from the personalities and values of the characters involved. Make your NPCs care about things, have fears, and have foibles. Not only do these flaws cause them to err in plot-necessary ways, they humanize the characters. It adds dimension and believability.

Ripples Are Everywhere

Conspiracies don't exist in a vacuum. They have bills to pay, spaces they gather in, and people they work with. Even when outright errors don't happen, footprints are still left behind.

Paper trails and other bureaucratic evidence can used to feed a simple piece of information to the PCs. Doing the kind of research that yields this information is notoriously boring, so it's best to summarize what the PCs found. For example: “After you and your intern searched for two days, you discovered that Morgana Holding, LLC has been buying property for the past ten years. Curiously, Morgana's holdings have all remained un-rented and purportedly vacant. Plotting the properties on a map, you notice they form a perfect grid.”

Human contacts are another form of eviedence. They can deliver versatile information and are a great role-play opportunity. The toadies, employees, and casual contacts of the secret society's members are far more plausibly accessible. They are the ones who are don't have all of the information, but they know a few pieces. They don't always understand the gravity of the secrecy, often because they haven't been formally inducted to the society and don't know all of its practices.

These secondaries are just as prone to flaws as anyone else, so they have “cracks” all their own. Sometimes, the problems flow from the same place as the their ties to the conspiracy. For example, a ghoul servant who is subjected to frequent abuse will still be loyal to their master. However, they are emotionally damaged by their situation, and may reach out for help or solace in unexpected ways.

Ripples Bounce Back

As the PCs act, they will sometimes get noticed. Track what the NPCs might have learned about them, and how they might react. Each reaction should leave behind a new type of evidence, even reactions intended to cover one's tracks.

The Players Have To See Something

Always keep in mind that your players' only window into this world comes from what you tell them at the game table. You have to lead them towards some of the secrets eventually. Use scene descriptions to make important things stand out and feel interesting. Important things should usually be a blend of plot hooks and scene-setting flavor. How you adjust the balance between the two is a question of how much you need/want to drive plot quickly versus how important it is to evoke a mood for the roleplaying.

When I started GMing, I found it hard to let PCs find out secrets because I kept thinking of them as secret. This is stuff the players are supposed to find out. They should get bits of it in every session. Keep telling yourself that!

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People give out information that they're not supposed to give all the time. There's a concept in computer security called "social engineering" whereby you basically trick people into telling you what you need to know; simply call up BigCo and say you're testing the phone lines, can they verify their access code? Ten to one you'll get a distracted secretary who, despite innumerable emails from IT about how not to give out their access code, will do it anyway without thinking. Kevin Mitnick was especially good at this back in the day; him and other early hackers practically wrote the book on social engineering.

On the other hand, I used to know a woman who worked in intelligence in Washington DC and she never even told me the agency she worked for because people in DC simply don't do that, precisely because you never know who'll be listening.

So, you have one of two routes.

One, your PCs need to be the kind of people that the secret societies wouldn't mind talking to. Sure, that vampire stripper isn't going to blab to any random Joe off the street but she might let slip to someone who's seduced her (pillow talk is a thing, and sending cute members of the opposite sex to tease information out of someone has been a thing for ages upon ages) or a regular who's been going to the bar for years and that she trusts won't go blabbing her secret all over the city. The stripper might not talk, but the ghouled bouncer who hasn't had the seriousness of the Masquerade impressed upon him might, in a particularly bad lapse of judgement. (He may also get eaten for it later. Oh well. These things happen, and it's why vampires are the superior species; because humans are dumb. That's why they call them "kine". IE, "cattle".)

Two, make sure that the information that the players need to get isn't the kind of information that no one would give out upon pain of death. If it's information that the players need to get, make it so that they can get it from a way other than a supernatural entity betraying the rest of their kind. Maybe the players don't find out the guy asking for Sanctuary is a Dragon; maybe all the stripper knows is that he's a bum who's been going around asking people for a place to flop. They can find out he's a Dragon later. The hard way. (Muahaha. Sorry.)

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I like this answer, but it basically lays most of it at the feet of the PCs to be clever. \$\endgroup\$ – xenoterracide Dec 5 '14 at 21:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ Not really. The responsibility is on the GM to provide those openings. In the example given, the GM decides that the information to be given is X, and the only way the players can get it is Y. X is something that would never be said, and Y therefore limits the players choices by only letting X be delivered in a way that violates suspension of disbelief and the internal logic of the game world. Changing what X is and allowing multiple Ys of delivering it allow the players to actually get the information. The PCs can't interrogate the bouncer if the GM doesn't allow him to know the info. \$\endgroup\$ – Sandalfoot Dec 5 '14 at 21:34
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Realism makes boring investigations

Realism sucks for games, it sucks even more for entertainment and pacing.

In reality, investigations take weeks, months or years. They're not very entertaining at all. In fiction, investigations take a short amount of time, and dead ends are very rare, and investigators happen to ask the right questions, happen to stumble upon clues, happen to put things together JUST in time.

In fiction, investigations are exceedingly contrived to make into a pacing that works. If you watch enough procedural investigation shows or mystery books, you'll find there's a common set of formulas in terms of how often clues are dropped, reversals, and red herrings.

So here you have some choices:

  1. Drop investigations altogether. They don't seem to be adding to the value of your play, so maybe you should do other kinds of stories.

  2. Use a set of rules or mechanics that allows for consistent pacing results in investigations - games like Inspectres or Dirty Secrets does this. This also often means you cannot railroad play, but it also means players never hit a "dead end" - they can push for new directions or add clues into play to keep things moving.

  3. Increase the contrived factor of clues/NPCs spilling equivalent to fiction. Pacing will still be a pain in the butt, but you can at least stop games from grinding to a stand still.

Secondary Considerations

Secret societies tend not to be perfect at staying secret.

First, there's the fact that the more impact the group has on people outside of the group, the more trails they leave behind. It's less that they're super secretive as much as society at large isn't willing to step up and protect the people they victimize.

Second, if the group has any form of recruitment, then you have problems with finding new recruits AND how well those new recruits can maintain secrecy. Being Human does this pretty well with both Vampires and Werewolves and the problems of new folks.

Third, whatever the group is doing stay secret, to cover their tracks, might fall apart if key elements are removed or revealed. Accidents can do this, though if there are rival supernatural groups they may work to sabotage each other.

Forth, if you have internal strife of any reason, the normal safety protocols might fall apart. This is pretty typical of organized crime and gangs - they manage to stay low until they have a big enough rift to form into an underground war and suddenly people are being murdered in restaurants in front of everyone. If your supernatural types are mostly LIKE humans in being petty, vengeful, etc. this should happen once in awhile. If your supernatural types are 1000% more disciplined, then they will simply be making very secretive assassinations, but odds are still that somehow evidence will be left somewhere.

Fifth, even rival groups tend to spill info to each other "within the life". During the Cold War rival spies would trade information, criminals share rumors with each other, sometimes this is bravado or bragging, sometimes this is a favor, sometimes there's genuine friendship among political enemies, and sometimes it's convenience. ("Look, Yakov is a bastard, but even he doesn't want to see this happen, so I know he's not lying. We need to move on this.") If the investigators don't appear to be mundanes, but at least in some form of supernatural group as it is, they may not be entirely shut out.

Note that all of these deal with plausibility. Although based in reality, the fact is you just need plausibility to push things forward.

Clue Dispensing is typically bad for Tabletop RPGs

Of all the things that pre-planned play is typically not good at, investigations tends to be high on the list. As you've experienced, if moving forward in the game depends on "just the right questions/actions" to be taken, players are effectively shooting in the dark to try to get it and miss more often than not.

Functionally it is like "I'm thinking of something, guess what it is" as a game. Note this only works for I Spy with My Little Eye because the player knows it is a visible object within the area and can ask questions to narrow it down. In a roleplaying game they're being asked to investigate something that only exists in your imagination depending on how you communicate it to them.

This is why games that either do narration trading or put pacing to a mechanical aspect outside of the GM tend to do better at these - you are guaranteed to see the investigation move forward.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm extremely tempted to downvote this, but I think I mostly just have a different opinion. If you have some gameplay experience backing up the notion that investigations are bad in RPGs, then including that would help a lot. \$\endgroup\$ – DCShannon Dec 8 '14 at 21:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ Feel free to downvote it, but after 20 years of GMing, I've found "clue trails" tend to lead to a lot of wasted time compared to games where the mechanics improve the pacing. I highly suggest trying out some games like Inspectres or Dirty Secrets as a cmomparison to see the difference I'm talking about. \$\endgroup\$ – user9935 Dec 10 '14 at 0:49

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