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The overarching structure of my current campaign relies a lot on discovery. My players are placed in an open world that they can explore more or less freely, but in order to make progress in whatever they're trying to do they'll have to uncover secrets: political secrets, historical secrets, metaphysical secrets, etc. I'm struggling with figuring out how much information to give them at once. Too little information at the start and they don't catch my plot hooks; too little information once they're on the trail of something and they get disheartened or distracted and give up; too much information and I don't have a campaign, just a series of expository monologues about a fictional world punctuated by bouts of imaginary violence.

To Elaborate

In some cases, it's not immediately obvious that there are secrets to be uncovered. My players aren't the sort to go haring after everything that looks a tiny bit out of place anyway, and they tend to have a hard time remembering even the things that did pique their curiosity from one session to the next. I don't want to clobber them over the heads with a big flashing sign that says "SEE THIS THING HERE? YOU SHOULD BE LOOK INTO IT. MAYBE START ASKING AROUND, IT'LL PROBABLY BE IMPORTANT". I'm concerned that dropping big obvious mystery hooks in front of them would cheapen their sense of both discovery and freedom; I'm trying to run this as a more open-world campaign rather than leading them by the nose down a linear plot of my own choosing.

Part of letting them discover things themselves means that I'm not just feeding them information, even when they've identified something they're interested in. They have to work for it. Figure out the right questions to ask of the right people, maybe go to the right place, overcome some challenges or encounters. I've been trying to encourage them to be more curious and ask more questions, but if they aren't getting rewarded for their curiosity they tend to give up fairly quickly. On the other hand, sometimes they pursue duds - not every street corner hobo knows the true origins of the elves or whatnot, and even some very knowledgeable people have a good reason to want to keep their secrets. I'm wary about opening the flow of information too wide because some things really shouldn't be uncovered until later in the campaign, either because they'd short circuit a lot of the other conflicts and plot points in the world or because the party isn't high enough level to poke at those cans of worms yet.

Reading my own question, it seems like the question I ought to be asking is: how can I turn the process of discovery into a proper quest - one that grabs at the players' attention without feeling thrust upon them, and captures their interest enough to motivate them to keep going through a longer form discovery process while still providing enough challenge that I'm not just dumping exposition on them?

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    \$\begingroup\$ @Gnomejon I have run our group through the same page tool, actually, and we agreed that we wanted to be playing an open-world campaign where the players set their own direction. \$\endgroup\$ – Empiromancer Jul 1 '16 at 20:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ Don't answer in comments. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Jul 1 '16 at 21:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ Being concise has virtues. I have edited your question to pull out of the wandering text what I think your core concerns are. If that helps, great. If not, feel free to revert to your original form or edit it again to clarify your core concerns. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jul 1 '16 at 21:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ In addition to the answers about discovery and pacing here, you may want to look at this question for some ideas about techniques and play aids to keep track of key information that's already been introduced previously. \$\endgroup\$ – Alex P Jul 8 '16 at 20:45
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I have the following suggestions, after having been in one VERY successful game of this type for many years, and having generally tried to emulate that success (in varying results) since:

  1. If your campaign depends on discovery, have a lot to discover, and have many paths to discovery. Don't inadvertently design a setting where the players only have one or two clue-paths at any one time. That's not rail-roading, per se, but it is fragile in my experience. Even if you have a sort of an end-game in mind, make sure your campaign can fan out for quite a while before it begins to fan back in.
  2. When your players aren't busy discovering things, make sure that they still have cool things to do. Don't let your players or characters get bored because they missed a clue. This gives you a break, too, to engage in a different slant of activity while you're thinking about how to get things back on track.
  3. Seriously, go back and re-read the above point, because I guarantee you, even with the best of players, whatever you think is blindingly obvious will be as impregnable as Ft Knox. And conversely, whatever you intend to keep them busy for a long time will be sliced through like the Gordian Knot. In either case, you'll need time to adjust.
  4. Give the characters personal stakes in the process of discovery. This bears on the early game, which I'll have much more to say about later, but it is always applicable: Give the characters a personal stake. Ensure that whatever goals they may have in the game, those goals run straight through your central mysteries. If you do this well and strongly enough, by the mid-game it will occasionally make sense for the central mysteries to seek out the players-- just once or twice in an emergency, when they've really lost their way.

Finally, everything above applies to the early game to Nth degree. The early game is important enough that I broke it out into its own list:

  1. Come to terms with the fact that in the early game, you may need to lead them, push them, and pull them. Don't fight it. Embrace it. Just do it creatively. Some general techniques follow:
  2. As a corollary to giving the characters personal stakes in the discoveries, if at all possible design some of those stakes into the characters. Not all players take well to this, but it's shocking to me if I get a group where I have no players willing to go along.
  3. Give some or all of them a boss, in the early phase, to get them pointed in the right direction.
  4. It's okay, in my opinion, to be a little ham-fisted (maybe more than a little) in the early game. You do have to know how to read your players a bit; some will respond more to existing background, some to developments in the game. But don't hesitate to abuse those family contacts and childhood friends, steal their heirlooms, insult their gods, burn down their villages, etc.
  5. And if all else fails, have an antagonist figure show up and threaten them to stop pursuing whatever you want them pursue.
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  • \$\begingroup\$ May I suggest to add a reference to the “Three-Clue-Rule“ to your point 1? \$\endgroup\$ – Surpriser Aug 17 '18 at 9:51
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What I do is, when someone shows interest in one of my predetermined plot hooks, I take an index card and I write: "Quest: 500xp" and a description of the plot hook. I give them the index card; if they complete the quest, they get the experience award. The purpose of the experience is not so much to bribe them to investigate the thing, as to let them know that there's a thing here that's worth investigating.

If nobody is showing interest on their own, sometimes I'll have an NPC ask them to see if they can accomplish X thing for the NPC. The NPC offers a reward, but again, the purpose of the reward is not so much as a bribe as as a signal that there's a thing here that's worth investigating.

When NPCs are offering these quests, I try to make it clear that the quests are optional -- for example by having some of the quests be deliberately ridiculous. This is to make sure that the players don't come to rely too much on the quests as their source of direction for the campaign.


Here's an example. I ran a game where the orcs were using time travel, and they retroactively assassinated the innkeeper. I wanted the players to hunt down the orcs, take their time travel, and un-assassinate the innkeeper. Normally the players would be tempted to say: "welp, I guess the innkeeper is dead, nothing we can do about that" -- so what I did was, I had the innkeeper's daughter come to the players and say: "Something is very strange here. I talked to my mother just two hours ago, and we had a nice conversation and everything was normal. And then one hour ago I realized my mother had been killed by orcs, last night at midnight. I don't think this is just me going insane; I think there's some sort of trickery going on here. Could you figure out what's happened, please? And: if this magic that makes us think she's dead is just magic -- could you reverse it?"

And then I wrote an index card: "WTF is up with the innkeeper: 500xp" and another index card: "Get the innkeeper back: 2000xp". That seemed to do the trick.


If someone shows interest in a thing and I know it doesn't lead anywhere interesting, I don't make an index card.

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    \$\begingroup\$ What do you do with the index card? Do the players know the XP values you're writing on them? Do you give them the index card? Do you give the XP at the time you write it down on the index card? I feel like this is only part of an answer because I don't know what the index card does for your players. \$\endgroup\$ – LegendaryDude Jul 1 '16 at 23:58
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    \$\begingroup\$ What would you do in a system that does not have a concept of XP / experience rewards? The question does not indicate they are using a system which has it available. Many systems nowadays do not use XP. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Jul 2 '16 at 8:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ I expect I'd try to offer a gp reward instead. Or a fate points reward, or whatever. In the worst case I could just offer the quest card as an achievement trophy. \$\endgroup\$ – Dan B Jul 2 '16 at 15:40
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My players aren't the sort to go haring after everything that looks a tiny bit out of place anyway, and they tend to have a hard time remembering even the things that did pique their curiosity from one session to the next.

I feel like this might be the core of your problem, here. You need to check in with your players and get some feedback. "So I've been dropping some hints about mysterious stuff, but it seems like y'all don't always notice, or jump on them when you do notice, or remember what you do find. I really want to create an experience of gradually unraveling the secrets of the universe - how can we work together to make that happen?"

During the course of the conversation, you'll likely find out one of the following:

  • Your players aren't actually as driven by the search for knowledge as you (or perhaps even they) hoped. Maybe what they want out of a sandbox game is to explore exotic locales, or build up an army to rule the world, or just mess around without IRL consequences.
  • Your players do want to search for knowledge, but something is holding them back (more on this later).
  • Your players are having a grand time, and your concerns are just a natural combination of GM nerves and impatience about all the amazing stuff you wrote that they haven't gotten to yet.

So what if your premise is good, but something is indeed amiss in your execution?

  1. If they don't notice when you drop hints, start dropping bigger hints. Neon to you may be subtle to them. They have a role here too: "If you want to learn things, you've got to keep your eyes peeled for little contradictions and things out of the ordinary."
  2. If they notice but don't bite, make more compelling hooks - make it clear that this investigation will also make progress towards the characters' personal goals.
  3. If they bite but forget, they may need to take better notes, but you can help them by starting sessions with a quick "Previously on..." and breaking things up into smaller chunks to keep those tiny rewards flowing. Also include some misleading clues, of course, so there's a challenge to put things together correctly.
  4. If they tell you information flows too quickly and there's no sense of accomplishment, dial back the pace, make each clue more difficult and dangerous to acquire even after its existence is known, or add more red herrings.

For a reference book on this subject, check out GURPS Mysteries - not too system specific at all, somewhat focused on mystery as a genre, but definitely a good chunk of space devoted to distributing information in a compelling way that I think would help with what you're going for here.

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What you describe is like the style I have generally preferred for decades, running games where I've invented most or all of the campaign world details myself (as opposed to running a published campaign world).

What I do, which seems to work well for my own tastes, is start with giving no help/clues to mysteries at all, with clues to mysteries only showing up naturally, and to let them find their own interests, but to include opportunities to learn more and more about things through related NPCs and objects and locations which contain such clues and information, placed in logical places. Related NPCs include scholars and others who themselves are interested in certain topics and if the players find them and relate well to them, can offer introductions and paths to further discovery.

This applies to almost everything. I freely tell the players whatever their PCs should know based on their skills & education & experiences, but make them discover other things in play through exploration, experimentation, and talking to others. However, as in the real world, there are also many NPCs with incorrect information of one sort or another. In fact, like the real world, there's probably a lot more nonsense than truth in what people say and think they know.

In pre-modern settings, I particularly like to never show my players the actual world maps. If they have a map to study, it's a map I create that shows what the mapmaker put down, which is often very incomplete and may have various errors, and may have proportions quite off, and likely not a lot of terrain details. This makes the collection of maps and exploration of the world pretty interesting, especially when terrain and weather rules have significant effects.

I have learned that I like to be very careful about only giving information to players "in character", by what the PCs observe, or what NPCs say. I often limit what I discuss with players about my campaign worlds outside sessions to hypotheticals, as if I were a player and didn't know any answers except what they'd experienced first-hand.

Often though there are many opportunities to learn about various aspects in the world by paying attention to the details during play.

Also, depending on the interests of the players and the agreed focus of play, there may be many NPCs and other information sources available which can give the players a lot of information. But still, if the intention is to make discovery of information fairly easy, I still like to start with letting them look for it themselves before having information-rich people seek out the players and offer information.

Players can be very different from each other in terms of interests, investigation skills, and the way they like to discover information. I find I need to play with them and try different things to discover what works well. Starting with low information is generally safe - you can always add information later. But if you dump information at them, it's harder to later hide it... though you sometimes can, by adding lots of disinformation and having no way of confirming which information is correct without investigation.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ with clues to mysteries only showing up naturally -- what does that mean? World creation isn't 'natural' it is an act of the world's creator aka you, the GM in campaigns like this. (How do I know? Because that's most of the worlds/campaigns I have ever run). \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jul 1 '16 at 21:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ What I meant was that clues appear where it makes sense for them to appear. In the same way that I assign equipment to NPCs in ways that make sense, thinking about where they probably got what, I distribute clues where it makes sense for them to be, according to odds that feel about right, and see whether the PCs notice them or care about them or not. I mean that, as opposed to having an artificial agenda of putting clues where people will find them for no reason other than that the GM wants to show the PCs something. \$\endgroup\$ – Dronz Jul 2 '16 at 4:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ OK, this answer has some value but I'll offer further suggestions after I ponder on that approach that you take. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jul 2 '16 at 15:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast I enjoy creating campaign details for their own sake, even if they aren't directly relevant to players and their adventures. This approach leads to a world that feels, and is, full of all sorts of stuff going on that makes some sense and could be investigated, or not. On top of that, one can add deliberate plots, or just develop and elaborate the things the players turn out the be most interested in. But having a default state of there being a bunch of stuff that could be investigated or not, makes the whole experience more like a real place, it seems to me. \$\endgroup\$ – Dronz Jul 2 '16 at 16:43
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A MacGuffin is a nearly perfect trope to do just what you want. As all tropes, it has it place and work amazingly well if done correctly or it can feel derivative and misplaced.

For example, the players find a bunch of coins with a specific sigil which are worthless in $current_local. A little later, they find a pendent with said sigil. No one seems to know what it means. Yet a little while later, they find an exceptional weapon baring the sigil. Now, they might be interested in finding more about this: How?

This is a tiny addition to an already impressive array of answers and best used in conjuncture with said above answers.

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Sounds like you've created an epic campaign. Your PCs might need a bit more direction/handholding to start with whilst they get aquainted with your new world. I'd be tempted to assign certain bits of game knowledge/insights to each character which I'd slide to them in the form of a note that the PC could read and share with the others if they wanted, that once shared might lead to more investigating.

Ex: the group thief always overhears treasure quests, the bard could recall some sort of history from some saga he memorized. Or the cleric always has a guardian animal that relays mystic information.

Eventually they'll catch on and will start asking more.

I prefer role playing OVER roll playing. Being dyslexic crunching numbers like an accountant bursts my bubble.

So yes, I like tossing epic at them, BUT, I have to read the room, if they've had a bad day in RL, maybe they need me to simplify the game, or let them Hulk Smash an inconsequential npc. If you're used to your groups playing style, as a GM you can guesstimate what each player is likely to do before hand, which is why I started the whole notes geared to specific characters.

I also find that it encouraged more genuine roll playing when I gave different information to each player, it was more entertaining for me to see how they chose to share the tidbts, and to see what piqued their interests. A few times I had to revise because they just didn't give a toss for some plot points that I just filed for a different day, or even group.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Have you done this yourself or seen it done? How has it worked out in your experience? \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Aug 16 '18 at 15:06

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