Giving good clues that offer just enough information can be difficult. I think I tend to not give the players enough information and then to overcompensate with a reveal that comes too easily. Anyone have tips?
If what you’re looking to do is create mysteries for the players to solve, Chris Lehrich on the Forge had a good idea he called “abduction”. It’s deduction taken back end up, so to speak. In abduction, the players come up with their theory about what happened. Then they theorize clues that must exist if the theory is true; then they look for those clues.
The important part of this process is that the players must do their thinking out loud, so that the game master can hear it. Because the GM probably hasn’t placed those specific clues at the scene yet, but the GM does know how the crime/mystery happened. If their theory is correct and it means the clue must exist, then the clue does, in fact, exist for them to find—even though the GM doesn’t have it in their notes.
If the players are working abductively, they will create clues of their own accord, then seek them out. That is, if they hypothesize that the killer must have run across that flowerbed, they will realize that it will help the Case immensely if there are footprints in the flowerbed. If the Case is accurate on this point, the GM has them find the footprints.
This means that the GM’s job is to have a clear Case in mind and to work very strongly on Deduction, prior to the game, to figure out what the clear Results will be.
The players can’t just say that their characters are looking in the flowerbed, however. They must say why they are looking in the flowerbed.
The key seems to be to hide way more clues than you think are necessary, but to not have any one clue be too revealing. Think lots of small clues that are relatively easy to find but don't reveal anything individually. The players should have to combine them to get any useful info from them.
Another good technique is to have lots of clues in various places that all point to the same information, but only give the players the first clue they find that provides that information. That way you can be relatively sure that they'll learn what they need to learn no matter where they look, but they don't get constant reminders of the facts.
Also, this depends a lot on what kind of game you're running. If it's a traditional murder mystery-style game, the players are likely stuck with whatever info you give them. Players in a game like D&D have more options with regard to divination spells, etc., and you can be more sparing with clues since they have the means to find out a lot without them.
Always keep in mind:
You are probably being too subtle most the time
Players will often see clues where there aren't any, twist your existing clues into theirs
Don't forget you know all the answers and your players don't, see it from their view
If the investigation has come to a halt and no one is enjoying scrabbling for more clues or trying to work out the existing clues then throw them a lifeline, keep the game rolling
The various games based on the GUMSHOE system (Esoterrorists, Trail of Cthulhu, Mutant City Blues) approach the investigation genre with a fairly cool approach - you automatically find the basic clues if you look for them at a scene. Then you worry more about interpreting the clues. You can get more details and whatnot if you do better or bring specific skills to bear. I think the general approach can be applied to any system.
They way I do it is to keep back many of the clues and then when the player team starts to get stuck, I feed them a little bit more to keep the game going.
Alternatively, I always offer the players lots of different options of things they can do. If they get stuck on one problem, then the can do something else and come back to it when they have accumulated more information.
In addition to some great answers...
To the players, everything the GM says has the same shade of grey. Whether the GM has just made it up on the spot and is utterly irrelevant or it is a major clue will be a shade of grey. This can be a huge problem where the GM knows what is important and the players have no clue whatsoever -- bad pun intended. Not because they do not have the clues but because they cannot see them in the sea of information.
The way I deal with this is to guide the players by giving information to the characters. So, if they fixate on a clue that is not relevant, I tell whoever plays the clever character that this is probably not fitting in.
Also, my players are well conditioned to draw spider diagrams (also known as mind maps). Those become quiet complex but if an piece of information does not fit, then it quickly becomes apparent. Again, sometimes, I give the clever character a nudge by pointing out that moving X to the centre will yield some better results.