Turning Information Rolls Into Story
Here’s a secret: when players are investigating – whether they’re examining a room or pumping an NPC for information, whether they’re rolling dice or just asking you questions – they’re telling you exactly what they want out of your game.
Most players don’t do it on purpose, but the questions they ask – “is there an x?” “do I see y?” – let you know that they’re hoping and expecting x and y to be a part of the story. That’s the reason x and y are the things they’re asking about.
So how do published adventures answer player questions? Standard procedure is to give you a table of information with clues that range from “least juicy” to “most juicy.” The players roll some information-seeking skill, and you dole out the “most juicy” tidbits if they roll high. (a problem with this method is, if they roll low, then what? Should they just try again with another NPC? That makes their “failure” the first time kinda meaningless. Or are they supposed to find the juicy clues some other way? ... which could be pretty frustrating, since no other way is provided?)
But what if you had no table of information, or at least were willing to abandon it occasionally? What if you made up the answers based on the questions the players ask?
It would go something like this:
“Is there an x?” they ask.
You think, nah, because that would be inconsistent with the story so far. You say, “no.”
“Is there a y?” they ask.
You think, there could be, but I can’t think of anything cool it would lead to. You say, “no.”
“Is there a z?” they ask. You think, it would sure be a game-changer if there was. You say, “yes.” (Or, sometimes, you might think, yeow, that was a high roll, and so you say, “yes.”)
... and the magical thing is, they don’t think you’re making it up. They just think “I knew it!” They get to feel like a detective who made a lucky guess. You get to give them a game that’s exactly what they hoped for. And you get to weave their ideas (or at least their hopes) into the story in a way that’s easy and non-awkward.
Basically, you can let the players’ questions and dice rolls decide what they’re allowed to find out, or you can let the players’ questions and dice rolls decide what there is to be found out. The published-adventure method of “you must roll this high to ride” is boring. Letting players tell you what they want without realizing they’re doing it ... is awesome.
UPDATE: Check out this article on Sly Flourish for some more on "putting the clues where the magnifying glass is"!