What happens when a Dungeons & Dragons party starts barking up the wrong tree? If you're an innovative Dungeon Master, you turn it into the right tree. Welcome to D&D 101, a column that answers reader questions about Dungeons & Dragons (and other tabletop games.) We'll cover everything from game management skills, character builds, and creating memorable campaigns to some of the trickier "social" aspects of the game. If you have a question that you'd like to see answered in a future column, leave us a comment or find me on Twitter at @CHofferCbus and ask me on there!
One major key to being a good Dungeon Master in Dungeons & Dragons and other tabletop RPG games is improvisation. As players progress through a Dungeons & Dragons session, they'll often latch on to throwaway bits of information, thinking that it's actually a clue about an upcoming mission or the central mystery of a campaign. And when they suddenly rush over to a random NPC, thinking that they have a critical clue about their mission, the DM will suddenly have to scramble as they have nothing prepared.
As a DM, you want to reward players for their curiosity, even when your party goes off the beaten path. And while you can never fully prepare for everything that the players throw at you, there are a few ways for DMs to keep a session on task even when they pursue a "lead" that doesn't exist.
The biggest key to preparing for the un-preparable is having the "right" information on hand. Although traditional D&D prep revolves around building encounters, NPCs, and leads, players may want to focus on what information the players should uncover instead. Michael Shea, the creator of the fantastic "Sly Flourish" blog, recommends preparing a list of "Secrets and Clues" before an adventure. These secrets are useful bits of information that a player might encounter over the course of a story, but it's up to the Dungeon Master to determine how or when a player learns these clues. A clue might be a piece of background information about the bigger world, or it might provide the players information about where they should go next, or what exactly they should be looking for. Any NPC or location can provide a clue, as long as the DM can figure out a way to make incorporate it in a way that seems natural.
By having these secrets and clues prepared before a session starts, a DM can reward the players no matter what route they take. For instance, if the players hear about a hermit living in the woods and think that he might have information about a missing child, you can have that hermit tell the players a pre-prepared secret about their current quest. Likewise, the DM can give the players the same bit of information should they decide to talk to the missing child's father, or that missing child's friend, or even a random NPC that you wouldn't expect the players to question.
These "secrets and clues" don't need to be limited to information dumps either. In one recent Dungeons & Dragons session, my players decided to investigate an apothecary who had fallen into a coma around the same time as the appearance of a violet light at a nearby tower. The players were supposed to investigate the violet light at the nearby tower, but they became convinced that this wizard (who was mentioned only to emphasize the danger this violet light had on the community) had some connection to the light. After barging into the wizard's home and haranguing his daughter, one of the players decided to make an Investigation check to see what they could find. Because I had a list of clues prepared, I had some information that the players could discover even though the wizard was in a coma - namely that the wizard's condition was due to his home resting on top of a piece of the Grendleroot - a massive growth of metal spikes with strange magical properties. Of course, to figure this out, the players eventually had to tear out the floor of the wizard's home, much to his daughter's exasperation.
Because I had a list of clues to give the players, I was able to turn a throwaway encounter into a memorable one. Not only did the players enjoy some classic D&D social shenanigans, they also gained a piece of knowledge that informed them about the bigger world and hinted at the dangers they might face ahead. Even though the players went in a direction I wasn't expecting, having the right information prepared kept the storyline going and made the players feel like they weren't wasting their time with a dead lead.