You guys ever hear of the Three Clue Rule? I first read about it over on The Alexandrian, and it’s most associated with mystery adventures. If you’re not familiar then you’ll want to take out your pencil and jot it down, because this one is worth adding to your GMing repertoire. Here she be in all her concise glory:

For any conclusion you want the PCs to make, include at least three clues.

Simple as that! As I found out to my chagrin, the principle holds true in non-mystery scenarios as well. You see, players aren’t mind readers. They don’t have the same plot armor as Sherlock Holmes or Harry Dresden. Even when you think you’re bludgeoning them over the head with “this is important” type details, they may not figure it out until it’s too late.

Here’s where I’m coming from. You guys remember my heroic ranger pal from “Send in the Clones?” He’d challenged a badass troll cleric to single combat, and managed to win fair and square. When the last blow was struck and the troll went into negative hp, this ranger booted his nemesis into a conveniently placed bonfire, thus assuring that trollish regeneration wouldn’t work. What he missed was my repeated warnings about the troll’s armor. Let’s rewind to the beginning of the fight.

The two of you face one another amidst a ring of jeering orcs and ogres and other monstrous humanoids. Your allies, disguised as members of the Bestial Host, stand at the edge of the combat. They cannot help without giving themselves away. The flare of torchlight glitters green and red from of the Priest King’s armor. You stare at one another, coiled like spring steel to make the first move. Roll initiative.”

A few rounds of combat passed.

“The priest king staggers, rocked by your blows. He glares at you, hatred seething from his body, his armor glowing green and red with the fire of his vitriol.”

And as the “victorious” ranger kicked Priest King Scrall into the bonfire: “Sparks explode into the night sky, the same green and red as the defeated war chief’s armor.”

If you’re anything like you me, you might be thinking that the repeated description was a solid hint. This was magical armor, and it negated fire and acid damage. The troll’s regeneration was still operational! I was rooting for my buddy the ranger at this point, desperately hoping that he’d realize the threat before my too-subtle-clues killed him. By the time he’d finished making his victory speech however, the troll had healed up despite the bonfire. He struck the ranger from behind, “His green and red armor pulsing with horrid vitality.”

“Oh shit!” cried my mage buddy from ringside. He’d finally figured it out, but by then it was far too late. The other party members managed to finish off the fire-resistant troll and scatter the horde, but I continue to feel guilty about the “obvious” clues I’d left for my perma-dead ranger pal.

It’s easy to think of your players as Magus types: unwitting goofs that miss important details to their own detriment. But the dude piloting that robbed-of-victory ranger was a smart player. Chances are that yours are too. That’s why I encourage you to learn from my experience. As a GM, you’ve got to remember that the solutions to riddles are only obvious when you already know them. When it comes to clues, it’s better to error on the side of “obvious” rather than “subtle.”

What do you the rest of you think? Have you ever missed vital information in an encounter? Did you manage to overcome your oversight, or like the unfortunate catgirl in today’s comic, were you strangled by the metaphorical hair of your own ignorance? Let’s hear all about those minor details that turned out to be majorly important down in the comments!


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