There are some role playing games like Call of Cthulhu or Gumshoe where searching for clues is part of their DNA. Some RPGs focus on adventure and action, like Dungeons & Dragons or Cyberpunk, so you wouldn’t expect for clues to be a thing in such a game. I’d argue that clues and secrets are part of that pillar of exploration, providing a connective tissue in an adventure, helping support the world building and acting as hooks to draw the players forward. Importantly, when you run a game with secrets and clues, you want them to be uncovered at some point and there is no point in demonstrating to your players how clever you were that they never discovered the truth of the matter.

Sly Flourish (The Lazy DM) has a great deal to say about secrets and clues and his blog is well worth reading. He said it better and gives some great examples of the best kinds of secrets. I was extremely happy with using his approach for a Call of Cthulhu game I ran and found it worked well with Root the RPG and continue using as part of my prep. The biggest assumption I’m making is that these are truths intended for players to learn, be they about the adventure, the world, or even about the characters themselves.

So what are some things you can do to help your players reveal knowledge that they either missed because of a bad roll or didn’t even know that they were looking for? Here are a few ideas I’ve picked up and tried over the years. At least one of them should be suitable to your style of gameplay …

1) Borrow a trick from the Lazy DM and drop the clues when the opportunity appears. Call of Cthulhu assumes PCs always go to the library but maybe none of the investigators took appropriate library skills. So when they break into that old farm house, a rolled for search reveals a journal under a floor board to relate to them the info they would have found at the library. Maybe that drifter they encountered might not know about what happened at the farm, but after some bribe or a successful Persuasion roll they gladly reveal something that a PC’s failed Notice check didn’t pick up.

2) Have them expend a resource. If they need to know it, don’t let a bad roll become a dead end. Let them know that there is a thing to be found but it’s going to cost them. Maybe it’s an item that gets used up or damaged in the process and can’t be used later on until repaired. If it’s extra time but they aren’t in a hurry, perhaps it means a random encounter finds them while they linger. Maybe they take damage as a consequence for the bad roll but still get the clue.

3) Give them part of the secret, suggesting that there might be more if they want to pursue it further. “Yeah, there’s a whole section about Xerxes but the writing is nearly indecipherable. If you had an expert linguist or calligrapher they might be able to decipher it” or “That Skull by the wall just looks out of place. Did you want to investigate it further?” The additional skill may even be something possessed by a different PC. Hooray for teamwork!

4) Don’t even make them roll for it. If they have a related proficiency / skill / background, just give it to them. “During your long years spent as a scholar, there was a text you recall that had a few things to say about Xerxes the Undying …”

5) Allow everyone in the group to roll for it. If all the PCs have a reasonable chance to succeed, odds are good that someone will figure it out. If they still fail that, give some of the info to the highest roll.

6) Use something found later to point back to the clue they ignored earlier. For example, one of the enemies in an encounter asks them a question that the PCs don’t know the answer to and in overconfidence the enemy remarks “Ah, so you have not yet uncovered the Red Tome of Eternity” (yes they have found the book, but no one has bothered to read it yet). Perhaps you plant a hidden door behind a statue that you can remind them is identical to something they have seen before in a didn’t enter yet or searched and found nothing.

7) Encourage info gathering by allowing the last surviving minion to surrender and be interrogated (I usually set it up with asking the PCs what three questions they want answered, decide if they need to roll or not, and role play some of the clues being revealed – had at least one NPC who angrily told the party “I’ll never reveal that the alter contains our greatest artifact – wait, ignore that!” or similar.

8 ) If the system has a mechanic for help or assistance, suggest group efforts to the PCS. In D&D 5E there is the Help Action. Pathfinder allows a +2 bonus to a roll for each additional PC who can roll a 10 on that proficiency. If the system doesn’t have such a mechanic, borrow one that works and plug it in so that the PC’s can improves their odds of success.

9) Dead men can tell tales. Plant clues on a dead body with a hastily scrawled note that includes complete clues / info or they get 1/2 of a torn document hinting at more info and must seek out the other 1/2 (if they had to defeat creature to gain access to the corpse / treasure chest / plot device, then they feel like they worked hard for it). Maybe it’s a map showing a path to where you want the PCs to go. Maybe it’s a deathbed confession that reveals an answer the PCs need.

10) If the game system uses Inspiration or Hero Points or other rewards that allow PCs to change the odds, allow them to trade an inspiration for finding needed information (dressed as appropriate to the encounter). Gumeshoe is largely built upon this concept where a limited resource is spent to discover information.

11) Something discovered has additional information tagged to it. That sword being used by the bandits bears a family crest from a nearby village – coincidence or a clue to check out. All the orcs in the war band had an elven made item but there are no longer elven settlements in the region – does this mean an elven band were attacked earlier or maybe the orcs have looted a lost elven ruin they found? An investigator finds a monogrammed cigarette case outside your hotel – the last time you saw this, it was in the hands of a supposed ally who might now bear more investigation. Or in the case of world building, it might be as simple as describing what makes that found bit of armor elven in construction or the runes upon a wall reveal that this was a dwarven mine before it was a goblin hideout.

12) If the players come up with a good idea of how these clues fit together, go with it. It doesn’t even have to be a better idea than yours, just good enough to fit the scenario. Find a way to connect it to the hook you already have prepared. If they start asking questions about the scenario that don’t appear to make sense, ask them about their reasoning and why they are asking about that detail. If the player is asking about books at the murder scene, ask them what they are looking for with the books – the connections they make will sometimes surprise you.