How to Subvert Clues in Room Descriptions

How do you subvert expectations in room descriptions when you’re running a mystery or hiding clues?

This is a question I received from Wizard of Adventure Arvindh. He goes on:

How do you control how much info you give away when you’re running a mystery game?

Like, if there’s a hidden door below the bed, and I mention a bed, they’ll just go search there, right?

Thanks for the question, Arvindh!

First, add more details and put the bed in the middle.

“This looks like a comfy bedroom. A desk sits in the corner with papers neatly stacked and a feather quill and capped ink jar beside them. There’s a bed. And also a wardrobe whose mahogany doors are closed tight. A window offers a nice garden view.”

Second use the 3-Clue Rule. Prep three clues in case your players miss the first one, then the second. Hopefully, they’ll bite on your last hook.

Third, make your clues stack. This transforms your clues into puzzles instead of just yelling louder.

“The bed covers have been crisply made and nearly touch the floor. The pillows have bright white cases with sharp creases.”

“Muddy footprints dot the floor.”

“The bed is big enough for two and boasts a sturdy wooden frame. However, the frame is slightly askew from the wall.”

Ok, let’s break this down:

Clue 1 reminds players that there’s a floor.

Clue 2 isn’t about the bed specifically, and should hopefully get the bright barbarian to ask “What type of footprints?” and, “Do they lead anywhere?”

Clue 3 works off the theme that the bed seems well-attended but one aspect is off.

And because your goal involves making the bed not of obvious interest, you wait until a player remembers and asks about it, or draws near if exploring the room, to unburden yourself of these clues.

Fourth, provide clues that lead players to their own conclusions. That last clue seems on-the-nose, with the bed having been moved out of place when everything else is in order.

However, remember that player Fog of War runs deeper than we think. What we see as obvious from our omniscient point of view seems obfuscated to the group.

We could’ve said:

“A mouse runs under the bed as you enter, and then you don’t see it again.” (It’s snuck through a gap in the hidden door.)

“Muddy footprints lead from the doorway you’re in now straight to the bed, and then disappear under it.” There’s something under the bed.

“Metal reflect your light from under the bed.” A metaphorical arrow pointing at the hidden door’s handle.

Instead, the first set of clues offer more subtle signs and do not draw conclusions for your players.

If your players think to ask where the footprints lead, or pick up on the bed not being in place without knowing why, or look on the floor instead of the wall, they’ll think they solved something and have more fun doing it.

I hope this helps, Arvindh! If not, let me know.

Have more fun at every game!

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