8 Tips For Creating Good Clues In Your Stories

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0059

  1. Understand What You Can Use Clues For
  2. Think Of Clues As Information Or Secrets
  3. Define What You Need Clues For & Why You Need Them
  4. Make A List Of All The Clues Ideas You Can Think Of
  5. Plant Clues Into Your Story, But Leave Some Free
  6. Make a List of Campaign Objects
  7. Use the 5 W’s
  8. Use the 5 Senses

Readers’ Tips Summarized

  1. Dry Erase Board Substitute
  2. Lamination Tip

A Brief Word From Johnn

Request For Creating Clues Tips

I had the tough task of creating clues for my campaign recently. I have just finished creating an overall campaign plotline which involves a combination of personally created adventures and published modules. And I wanted to use clues planted in each adventure to gradually reveal the “big picture”. But, when I sat down to write the clues I got writer’s block.

Internet research revealed no “how to” articles. But I got a lot of good, indirect ideas from the Internet and a few other sources, and this week’s issue is all about how I managed to create some great clues for my campaign and how you can too.

If you have clue creation tips of your own, please share! Send your tips or advice to me at: [email protected] and I’ll spread the word. Thanks!


Johnn Four
[email protected]

8 Tips For Creating Good Clues In Your Stories

Understand What You Can Use Clues For

Clues are a wonderful game master tool. They help you to tell interesting stories and create exciting adventures. They are great at capturing player attention and imagination. And they can serve to keep the whole group focused.

Clues are also an incredible roleplaying device because they can create a lot of conversation. Players will want to talk and try to piece the clues together, figure out what they mean and wonder where they can find more. When this happens, ask your players to always speak in-character — you’ll then see roleplaying at its finest.

Here are some reasons to create and use clues in your campaigns:

  • Any kind of mystery or secret (i.e. an NPC’s secret identity or the location of a special treasure)
  • Use them as plot hooks
  • Use them to reveal your game world’s legends (much more interesting than listening to the GM read out a long, boring history essay)
  • Foreshadowing
  • Reveal the powers of magic items or technology
  • Turn a plotline into a character-driven story: rather than having a bunch of scheduled events which lead the PCs through the adventure, plant clues to generate player interest and desire to proceed
  • Reveal special abilities of monsters or foes
  • Use as warnings

Think Of Clues As Information Or Secrets

As I recently discovered, it can be hard to sit down with a blank sheet of paper and say to yourself “ok, let’s think up clues.”

I found that it helped a lot to think about clues in one of two ways:

  1. Clues are just information in disguise. Your goal is to hand out information, one little bit at a time, until all the information is revealed by the end of the story.To create clues then, you just need to come up with important little bits of information that the characters don’t know yet and can discover during the adventure.
  2. Clues are simply small secrets. Your goal is to fill your game with many small secrets that lead up to a big secret.To create clues as secrets then, you simply break your big secret down into several smaller secrets and then reveal those throughout your story.

Define What You Need Clues For & Why You Need Them

I started my own clue creation process by writing out what I wanted to make clues for and why those clues would help the PCs. If your clues have no real benefit to the characters, then your players will learn they don’t need to find them to be successful in your campaigns.

First, I wrote down a major secret that I’ve created in my campaign which will take a few stories to fully figure out. I’d like to present a few clues about this big secret to the PCs in each story. Once the PCs put all the clues together they will be able to figure out who the real villain is behind all the minor villains and conflicts in the land and proceed directly to his lair for a final campaign climax (or take some other action to thwart him).

I also wrote down a minor secret about an NPC that will be revealed at the end of the current story I’m telling. If the characters can figure out the NPC’s secret soon enough then they can save themselves a lot of trouble at the story’s end.

So, by having these secrets, or “topics”, clearly defined for myself I was able to focus better on thinking up the clues I needed.

Make A List Of All The Clues Ideas You Can Think Of

Next, for each topic item that I needed clues for, I started to write out all the clue ideas I could think of.

I wrote them out in any order and didn’t worry about their specific details just yet. I got stuck several times, but see Tips #5-7 for how I found ways to get more ideas.

When I finished my clue lists I reviewed and sorted them:

  • Prioritized them (i.e. by story time line, geographic location, essential vs. inconsequential)
  • Combined clues into major revelations
  • Broke some clues down into smaller clues
  • Looked for clues too minor to be stand-alone and combined them with others

Plant Clues Into Your Story, But Leave Some Free

After brainstorming my clue lists I found that clues fell naturally into three groups:

  1. Clues which could immediately be linked to planned encounters
  2. Clues which could be easily left unplanted and added into the story during play
  3. Clues that I had no idea what to do with

For Group A, I immediately slotted them into my plans. Using a new sheet of paper (actually, a new page in my word processor) I made a new list of all the linked clues and put their related encounter # in the left margin.

For Group B, I added them to the new list right after Group A’s clues. When I use them during the session I plan on adding the encounter # or a note about the encounter they were used in for future reference.

And, for Group C, I didn’t stress out about them. I added them to the list below Group B, and I’m just going to wait to see if there’s an opportunity to use them during play.

There was one clue in Group C, however, that I felt *must* be used during play. That one I hi-lighted in yellow to remind me to look for an opportunity to use during the story. And it is causing me a little stress.

Make a List of Campaign Objects

After brainstorming about a half dozen clues while making my initial clue list I got stalled. But, I got things going again by thinking of clues as fitting in one of three categories:

  • People
  • Places
  • Things

I went through my planned story and encounters and looked at all the people, places and things in them for clue ideas.

For example:

  • Important NPCs
  • Minor NPCs
  • Villains
  • Dungeons, rooms, buildings
  • Cities, towns, villages
  • Magic items
  • Unusual items
  • Treasure
  • Monsters

Just by going through all the “objects” in my upcoming story I found inspiration for several more clues by turning an object into a clue or by adding a clue detail to an object.

Use the 5 W’s

Another killer method for coming up with clues, I found, was the 5 W’s of journalism:

  • Who
  • What
  • Where
  • When
  • Why

Using Tip #2, I went through my list of items that I needed clues for and followed this process:

  1. Took each object and asked one or more of the five W questions about it.
  2. Considered each answer as a fact (or broke each answer down into its facts).
  3. Turned each fact into a clue.

Use the 5 Senses

While placing my new clues into my story, I found that I was using the same two methods over and over again:

  1. an overheard conversation between NPCs (i.e. revealing plans, names, motives…) or
  2. discovered writings (i.e. notes, scrolls, books, wall scribblings…)

So, to make things more interesting (and to prevent the PCs from constantly announcing “ok, we search the next room looking for scraps of paper and books while listening at the walls”) I changed the format of several clues to use different senses:

  • Sound
  • Smell
  • Touch
  • Sight
  • Hearing
  • Sixth Sense (if your campaign allows it)

I also found that, when stuck trying to think up clues, I thought about the five senses. This inspired a few more ideas. For example, for the item that you need clues for, what kind of Smell clues could there be? Or Touch clues?

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Clues are fun to make and I hope these tips work for you like they did for me. If you have clue making tips of your own, please send them along: [email protected].

Thanks again.

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Dry Erase Board Substitute

From Tim R.


I’ve found a much cheaper alternative to your typical dry- erase board: shower board–the material often used instead of tiles in a shower. Most hardware stores I’ve been to carry 4×8 sheets for around 15 dollars. There are many colors to choose from (white and off-white I’ve found are easiest to read), they take lots of abuse, and clean up much better than boards sold specifically for dry-erase purposes.

Additionally, the material is very thin and light, so transporting pieces is no problem. I recommend a slightly glossy board, as they tend to erase better when markings have been left to dry for a few weeks. [Johnn: I phoned our local hardware store and, in Canada at least, the suppliers call it “barker board”. It’s $21CAN. Thanks for the tip Tim.]

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Lamination Tip

From Kevin

Many have mentioned the White Boards and I agree… they rock… but, I was a graphic design student through college and have come across a different neat idea to add to the White Board idea making it a little better.I laminate everything. Take all your favorite maps and prop images and laminate them.The lamination acts just as good if not better than a White Board. On the map sides you can use markers to plot courses or draw additions, etc…

And on the other side (of most supplement maps and such) you can use as plain White Boards. I’ve laminated most all my city maps I use, maps from supplements, etc… You can even blow up images from books to poster size and laminate often used floorplans to use them with Miniatures.The cool thing – its relatively cheap. Go to Kinko’s and have a poster sized map laminated for $3-5 or a little more – they pay off in the long run. And as a bonus it protects your maps from water/other damage.

If you use grids you can also go to an art store and find poster sized grid paper to laminate.[Johnn: our local Kinko’s laminates any sized items for $1.50CAN per square foot (12? x 12?). So, my new Greyhawk Gazetteer map that is 17? x 22? would come to about $4.00CAN.Our local Staples store laminates letter-sized sheets for $1.00CAN and 11? x 17? pages for $2.50CAN. That’s definitely worthwhile! I might print out some grids and laminate them for battles.Also, I might get my Greyhawk map colour photocopied (onto 4 letter-sized pages) and laminate those for $1 a piece.

That would make for easier handling at the game table too.Finally, Staples sells laminating machines and it might be worthwhile buying one as a group:

  • 8.5? x 11? laminator is $130CAN
  • 11? x 17? laminator is $215CAN]