I'm GMing a long-term game with some friends, and they are the sort who, as soon as I drop a hint about anything, go "Let's investigate that!" I want there to be an overarching story arc, but it's hard to slip something in as something that will become important later without them jumping in on it and trying to push the story faster than I was planning for it to go. How can I get vague mentions of an nameless evil stirring in the distance, without my players immediately dropping the current quest and going to investigate?
A decade or so ago, I had this exact problem playing with new/young players. I came up with a few solutions that worked depending on the group/players. It's admittedly a hard situation because they would assume anything the GM explicitly mentions is usually important. There's one thing I want to ask, but let me answer your questions, first:
Explicitly Mention These Are Rumors
Does your party have a bartender they visit? A place to eat or drink? Make sure they hear these rumors and, in the same sentence, explain that any following up results in no additional information. If they insist on going either take a GM break to explain flat out that it's only a rumor and they'll get nowhere (and probably die) trying to chase it down right now.
Offer It In Ways They Can't Follow
Assume the Nameless Evil is affecting things minutely. Have the players overhear mentions of people's bones aching even though the weather isn't bad, how the crops seem to be less healthy this year, or how the smell in the air isn't quite right. As the evil gets deeper and deeper you can even mention hearing phantom screams in the air, an ever-present tingle on the skin, or just an uneasiness that sits in the stomach.
Mention It As Something That Happened In Between Scenes
Typically games do not play through every minute of a character's life. There are plenty of times where they are walking around, eating, or simply just standing there. Depending on the setting, you can simply say that while doing a thing they overheard some rumors.
For example, say they want to go to the market. As they go to the Special Shop you tell them "On the way to the Special Shop you overhear two merchant talking about animals being more hesitant to travel ." If they insist on finding out more...well, the merchants are no longer there.
Have Real Consequences for Getting Distracted
Simply have there be real consequences if they chase ghosts (as @gatherer818 originally suggested in comments). Maybe they run out of time on their main quest and now lose out on something. Perhaps a Terrible Thing comes after them because they waited to long to clean out the Den of Bad Guys.
Let me follow up with...
Why do they feel the need to chase these down so fast?
Are they new players? Are they not used to you GM'ing? It may be a simple case of needing you to guide them a bit on how you like to play. If they're more veteran players, maybe they're used to direct things and a simple talk will solve problems. Along with weaving those in, I explain to my players quickly that a clue will render no leads if I don't want them chasing it, and we go on our way. I find my players appreciate that more.
The overall answer is to get your players used to receiving information that isn't actionable. As I first mentioned, a lot of players are used to the mentality of if the GM says something about a thing then it must be important. Maybe drop extra world-building information, like about how the birds in the area sing with the morning, or how they can hear about a parent talking about their troublesome offspring. You can then begin to weave in the hinted exposition with the environmental details.
To bring up a previous example, "The hum of many conversations greets you as you enter the [insert public gathering spot]. Parents bemoaning their stubborn children, an old man complaining about his joints though there's no weather in sight, and fisherman comparing the size of their catch."
Don't bother trying to prevent your PCs from over-investigating.
You want them to go and investigate those false clues, unreliable rumors, and cryptic hints so that they experience the logical consequences of doing so and thus learn from experience that some clues are useful and some are not. When you're a kid simply being told not to touch a hot stove usually isn't sufficient. Most people have to experience that the stove will burn them before they know better.
This is a personal favorite GM tactic of mine, and it is more commonly referred to as the red herring.
A red herring is a clue, detail, or some other thing which serves as a distraction or leads to a false conclusion. For example, let's say you're running a game where the PCs are investigating a murder and they are putting together their initial list of suspects. The best suspects are going to have motive, means, and opportunity to commit the crime. If you want the PCs to have to actually put effort into the task of investigating, more than one suspect should possess all three of those qualities. This can help you expand the plot, as well as guide your players.
You can easily improvise the consequences of not figuring out the red herring in time and have it feel like a perfectly organic extension to your story. Continuing with the murder investigation example, sometimes your players will correctly deduce which suspect is the murderer and which one is not. If they succeed you can simply move on to the next part of your story. But if they fail, then you can use that as a jumping off point for more intrigue.
Perhaps failing means that the murderer has time to kill again, or that the murderer uses the opportunity to escape. Maybe the murderer intentionally set up the red herring as a defense mechanism to throw off suspicion. These kinds of natural consequences allow you to enrich your story and make it personal for the PCs. Some of them could decide that from this day forth it is their life's mission to catch the criminal that got away, or they make it their destiny to prevent the wrongly accused of being found guilty of crimes they didn't commit. It's also possible that the PCs never figure out the red herring and they execute an innocent NPC. They may figure it out after the punishment is carried out, and be wracked with guilt. The possibilities are endless.
If you employ this strategy often enough, your players will pick up on it and stop to think about potential clues before they jump to a conclusion.
You know what solves a lot of misunderstandings? Just telling the players, as players, so they can focus on the part of the game you intend on.
"So, I'm going to paint a full world here - characters will talk about farway places, and events going on. I'm not putting it out there as everything you need to pursue and hunt down - it's not a videogame where there's 50-million Quests to do and everything someone tells you is another giant checklist. Focus on what your characters are currently doing and if it is related, I'll be sure to bring it up."
Once you tell your players, they can know, you can know, and everyone can focus on the situation at hand without miscommunication.
How to hint at events outside the scope of the current quest?
I have used three tools in the past. In some cases, I stole my ideas from published authors in seeing how they built the background to a story.
1. Rumors & News of War and Disaster.
"We have always been at war with Eastasia."
"We have always been at war with Eurasia."
George Orwell used this background theme throughout 1984 as Winston Smith (main character) goes through his various trials with Big Brother. None of this can Winston do anything about, but it looms as part of the larger story regarding how evil Big Brother is.
How to apply this during a game?
a. Rumors & News of War.
Occasional proclamations by the town crier, hand bills, or news stories related to the characters in a medieval, Victorian, or more modern setting. The players are doing their mission or quest but this background info crops up in conversation.
- "Defeat at Crown's Crosssing!"
- "Great victory by Admiral Woodfoot at the Cape of Good Trope!"
- "The Ice Barbarians have looted Northport, we are next -- we are doomed! Flee for your lives!"
- Run across veterans missing limbs as NPC's.
- Barmaid lost her son in the war.
- The harvest was good this year, but we are on short rations due to the war: food to the front line soldiers.
Your players' immediate task may be something "related to the war effort" or not. You can lead up to a task / quest that does so later. They are already familiar with "We are at war with Eastasia!" as a given by that point.
b. The Effects of a Natural Disaster
Floods, pandemics, wars, fires and earthquakes create refugees. Tolkien (in the LOTR books) used refugees as a background in the Fellowship of the Ring. The rumors / news of people coming from the south, up The Greenway, fleeing from the the war was introduced early. It begins to register on them at Bree, then moreso when they meet Boromir, and so on as the larger quest continues in various adventures, meetings, interactions, and battles.
Refugees (from a flood, war or other disaster) passing through your players' city or town can ask for help, beg for money, or work as wait staff. A rise in petty theft may be linked to "them newcomers from the coast" who fled the flood. NPC interaction is how you add this to the back story. It can lead to later adventures or not.
- Flood: wait, did someone sabotage the levy?
- Earthquake: was that natural or unnatural? Was it triggered by evil (wizard, intergalactic corporation)?
- Fire: did someone set that great forest fire?
- War: see above.
And of course: The Plague! (Reference includes a Firesign Theater skit I stole from).
You don't have to have answers to those questions until you are ready to craft them.
I used this a lot. Caveat: it can lead to red herrings and impulsive side tracking. Use with care. As I look back, I'd have been better off to make sure the first one remained a running gag / meme ... see below.
The players now and again see "Free Jordy!" scrawled on some walls in a town, in the jakes, in a rest room, on a subway wall, carved into rocks somewhere outside of town. They hear it sometimes, or overhear it in social settings. It becomes a common thing seen or heard while doing another quest or mission.
They may later meet Jordy, Jordy's cousin, Jordy's son, hear of his death, or be sent on a quest to free him ... from the local corrupt sheriff! Or, you can just use it as a meme like "Kilroy was here!" (which is what gave me the idea) that never has a point but gets used in various jokes in-game ... until one day you decide to give it a point. (Sneaky DM, naughty DM ... )
(My personal favorite)
I had for some years two 90-minute cassette tapes that were labeled "D & D music." You can do the same now with mp3 or mp4 files, itunes, zune, mp3 players etcetera for your game. The idea is to have music with lyrics that somewhat fit your campaign setting.
Most of my songs were background music, but a few had plot hooks. The tapes (mixes) were played at every gaming session as background music. Sometimes the bard on stage in a tavern would be the one playing.
Party: "We enter the tavern."
At this point Season of the Witch was being sung by Donvan on the tape.
Me: "You hear this song being sung by the bard."
That mix (something like 30 songs total) had four in-game song based quests that they'd been hearing at every session as background music. Certain lyrics / lines were the quest key.
- Tam Lin by Fairport Convention (they eventually rescued a lady from a cruel half elf)
- Season of the Witch and Allison Gross (Donovan and Steeleye Span): The party eventually tracked down the witch who had been kidnapping people from a village.
- Icarus Borne on Wings of Steel (Kansas): they had to find the steel dragon, ride him to the rainbow's end, and capture the lepruchan who'd stood up a wealthy gnome's daughter at the altar. (No, the gnome was not named Buford Tee Justice).
- The best was the one based on the song The Outsider. (Ian Hunter) A Ranger on the run, framed for murder (by the local mayor's nephew) was the object of the song quest. Helping him clear his name in the town of Nine Falls was what the party eventually did.
The others songs, like Gallows Pole, Immigrant Song, No Quarter (Led Zepplin), Fotheringay, Meet on the Ledge, Matty Groves (Fairport Convention), and others were just background / theme music that I never wrote an adventure for. They never did the quest I wrote for Hand of Fate (Rolling Stones).
Transition from "background music" to a quest trigger came with two elements: the song was being played more frequently, or it was (deliberately) on the band/bard's play list more often, and then an NPC would make a reference to a song lyric during a conversation or interaction.
Rumors & news, graffiti, and music: three tools you can use to hint at the larger world, and the looming evil/challenge in the campaign. These tools build background "white noise" so that any single hint does not necessarily stand out by itself.
Many good advices have already been given here, which I'll summarise below. Underneath, I will explain some other techniques that might be useful in your situation.
Some very good ways to solve your problems would be:
- Prevent them from immediately following up on clues. For instance, they hear something suspicious while people are in a hurry, or the clue is too vague to be able to follow up on it.
- Be sure there will be consequences. Make clear to them, explicitly tell them if necessary, that time goes on, and while they might not be bothered to stop the Nameless Villain, he himself will probably continue with his plan regardless. And if this doesn't work and they leave the villain alone to follow a different plot-line, make sure the results will be devistating and punishing.
- Bring the hints as if they're not hints. You don't have to be so obvious about it, 'cause then your party will think it's relevant and important. Mention them casually, as if it's the most normal thing in the world, and most probably wouldn't realise what you just said.
There are, however, even more ways to solve your problem:
Not only rumours can be hints
Rumours are a great way of hinting towards other plot-lines, but rumours aren't the only way. You can have a bard in a tavern tell them a legend, have them find a fairy-tale in a book in the library, have the village-idiot scream something in their faces. This also makes them question the reliability of their source, making them hestitant about following up on this.
Make them think before they act
If, however, you notice that your party trusts every single piece of information without hesitation, you might have to add some false or useless information, so they'll learn from experience: Two women gossiping about the handsome blacksmith doesn't seem relevant, and not EVERY fairy-tale has to be true, most are made up of course. Or, a personal favorite, what if the villain tries to spread this information, trying to distract the party from the REAL evil!?
Hide the information in plain sight. Make it a part of some boring routine procedure. If the routine changes later due to the evil, they will notice and get curious. Players usually try to investigate interesting or strange events, not routine junk.
So you just need to put the overarching storyline into some less interesting facade at the beginning. It depends on the play style of your group. If you provide a colourful and rich view onto your game world, you should have lots of small details to hide clues in. If it is more action focussed and getting the plot done style, you might have a harder time.
For example, make it a story to scare children with. Obviously wrong and silly. Maybe a puppet theatre for children in town. Playing obviously silly horror stories about old evil to little children that laugh and giggle. Make them laugh, not ask scared questions. Make those appear a few times, always harmless. But one day, they might recognize a theme from those stories appear in their travels? Or a theater actress tries to find a more ancient, original source for some part of the play and stumbles into dark secrets, adding magic words from long lost times to the play?
Depending on your players view of the world, make things uninteresting. Routine stuff that just adds flavour and colour to the story. If they enjoy fights and action, make the first hints some dry and dusty paperwork that no one really cares about. Make them laugh about it. Have the city guards check every visitors eye colour and make notes, as taxation depends on eye colour. Explain it away with some city officials quirks. Nothing serious, until you find out later you need a purple eyed maiden and she visited that city. And so on.
I usually send out an email to my group between game sessions. There I write a short summary of things that happened in the last session and usually also add some general news from the game world. This is mostly for flavor, but also a great opportunity to drop the occasional hint that is actually useful.
Sending out your hints between sessions like this could work because:
- The players cannot act on them immediately, they have to wait until the next game session when there could also be other interesting things going on
- This is a good format for giving out several pieces of information/false leads at once. They simply cannot follow all at the same time. Also consider if one reason for the players jumping at every hint they get could be that you are not dropping enough of them.
- You can explicitly mention that they don't need to follow up on everything, explain that you are just writing some stuff because you like writing it, to help with game world immersion or something like that.
- Also include some of the results from the PC:s own adventures, mention how happy the people of that village they helped are that the monsters are gone etc. This will help set the tone and not even your group would drop their current quest to go back and check something like that.
If you don't want to do it electronically just reading it to them at the start of every sessions could also work.
The hints themselves
Start with some really innocent things. Then when the time is right add something about your nameless evil. Have a backup plan for each such hint, make it be something someone heard from a traveling trader. If they leave their quest and go ask around have the first person they meet tell them traveler already went on and make it clear they are at a dead end and move on. Don't make them spend time chasing this lead, that will probably just frustrate them.
It could also help if you split up your hints in several parts that are in themselves very innocent-looking. One week they learn that people in city X has started growing lots of radishes. Another week they hear some vague omen about a demon rising from hell (but there are no leads about where or when this would happen - so no possibility to go hunting after it). Then they hear harvest season is soon here. Then finally they hear radish stew is a critical component in summoning (yes silly, but you get the idea). This last one should probably be saved for in-game and not dropped between sessions.
At first they may not even connect those hints at all, then just keep dropping more about the magical properties of radishes or whatever until they do.
Hide your hints/information in larger collections or unrelated and unimportant descriptions. Make it a habit that the world will feed the players a constant stream of information about what's currently going on around them: this could be the archetypal inn keeper, a notice board, the local news paper they see on display, etc. Then if you have some actual piece of evidence you want your players to have, just make sure to let it appear again and again in the stream of information until your players realize it is of importance.
Hand out hints to your players which at the given moment cannot yet be fully understood/decoded/deciphered/etc. Then let your players find more hints/information little by little which allows them to get at the true meaning of the original piece of evidence.
This will have the advantage that:
- you can decide on the moment when the players will be able to access certain information/hints, but
- at the same time it is very clear that the evidence/plot device/etc. has been around for quite a while, i.e. creating the link back in time .
Example: The players find an encrypted letter, overhear people talking in a code, etc.
When my players want to follow up on something that I'm not ready for them to do, I tell them flat-out that it's not ready. However, I phrase it in such a way that lets them know I'm going to send them down that road in the future so they don't feel stonewalled.
Player: I want to get on the Holonet and look up everything I can about BigCo.
Me: Okay, you'll spend the rest of the afternoon doing that while the rest of the team prepares to assault the smugglers' hideout. I'll have the information you found ready for next week.
I don't recommend doing this for everything that's not directly related to the current adventure; you shouldn't block them every time they want to go into the local inn and ask what's going on in town. But if they decide to pick up on one of your off-the-cuff hints that you know will lead to something big later on, that's when you should let them know that you need to develop it more.
Another option is to develop it more. Be fully ready for anything they could ask you about. It's a tall order, but no one ever said a GM's job was easy...
If the players are so apathetic about the current quest they drop it as soon as they hear rumor of anything else, you need more engaging non-overarcing plots. If they don't intend to drop their current quest, just investigate the new one, then that should be very much in line with what you want as a GM. The trick is to make sure their sidetracked investigations are kept short.
Player: I want to run a search on the SIN the woman who left the party when she saw us was broadcasting.
GM: There's a bunch of results, mostly professional networking stuff, but there's a hit on ShadowNet, too, buried deep in the 'trix
Player: She's a runner?
GM: Nope-- or at least, not that you know. In any case, it seems someone wants your little redhead dead, and is willing to pay half a million credits for it. Oh, and runners don't normally post their SINs on ShadowNet, btw.
Player: Who wants her dead bad enough to pay that much? I'm running more searches.
GM: Before you have time to make any real progress, your host calls you into his office for the meeting. You'll have to get back to this later. Do you want to put your mook on it for now?
Basically, let them investigate a little, then make life cut them off. Letting them investigate a little is important, so that the players don't feel like buying investigative skills is a waste. Investigative skills generally don't get you plot-critical information on your current quest, really, because the GM will generally end up having to give you another lead if you missed them and you need one to continue. When you stop players from looking into things that are off the rails they are currently on, the investment they have in being able to look at things is disregarded. Ensuring that something in-game, especially lack of investigative character investment, can be blamed for the stymieing helps to make players who did invest in such things feel like the investment was not only worthwhile but also worth investing in further.