Hello! If you're reading this, either I was able to access my Blogger account via my Nook, or I finally figured out Blogger's auto update tool. Either way, congratulations us! This is the third installment of my GM Secrets posts (I'm considering both parts of Conversing With NPCs one post.) Here, I'm going to explain to you my Rule of Three.
As you might expect, things should come in threes. Methods to acquire information, a key item, an NPC's friendship, etc., should be available through three different routes. You may be familiar with Quest For Glory's character creation screen, which exemplifies this trope: Pick the door, cast open, or break it down. Why you cannot knock is beyond me.
Plan at least three solutions, and you should have a good rough fix for whatever players come up with. Playing a game is a lot like selling a used car: You want get to say 'yes' with whatever crazy deal the players put in front of you because you need to move inventory. Only, the inventory you are moving is fun, not lemons.
Information should very rarely be only available in one way or in a way only one PC can get. If you need to leave a clue that the blood on the scene is not human blood, leave a fresh blood sample for the scientist to test, have a witness who saw that the victim never went near that bloodstain, and have it match the description of blood from an evil book. Now, your talker, scientist, and nerd can all access the same information. Which is good, in case one gets a lousy roll.
Critical clues need to not only have three ways to find it, but players should come across the clue at (you guessed it) three different points in the adventure. The earlier in, the harder more cryptic the clue should be. If you want to hint where the lich's phylactery is, early on it should be a cryptic rhyme or prophecy, that players must puzzle through after difficult arcana, history or religion checks. This is a clue the party can easily miss; let them. They just lose time to prepare.
After the first major victory or defeat, let players get more hands on in the search. Hide the clue in an ancient crypt, have the thieves guild offer info for a job and have a defector from the lich offer it in exchange for amnesty. This is their second bite at the apple; it is clearer, but incomplete. They know that this is, as they said in Tremors, critical, need-to-know information. Even if they fail, you've developed a real, living world seeded plot hooks that will appeal to different PCs along alternative adventure paths. Good things for everybody!
Their last hint needs to be practically unmissable, except by willful, chosen ignorance. For example, in a Call of Cthulhu game, the party missed the clues that the murderer they were searching for was not just a crazy cultist. So, they went in prepared for crazy human, not monster. It was just a matter of sprinkling painful, obvious clues -- that is not a typo. The clues cost sanity, because it is Cthulhu and they deserve it for missing the early clues. They didn't go crazy, so they could readjust with this new information.
Added plus: the Rule of Three incubates you from feeling like you are being unfair. If the players miss something, it really is their fault
Another part of the Rule of Three is to give players three hooks at the start of a campaign. Usually, one will seem most important, so players will take it. For example, in one of my favorite D&D campaigns, the three heroes learned about a wizard's tower sending out a call for adventurers, a missing ship and wandering merchant with a cursed sword, all in the first 10 minutes. This can be bad, if it leads to info overload. But, you know, too much is better than not enough.