There are many reasons why you will want to drop hints as a DM, but doing so poorly will cause your players to become angry or it might even ruin your game.
When you drop hints as a DM you need to do so at the appropriate times and only as a last resort. Never use these to railroad your players.
We have all gone through past failures of trying to help players only to have them give us dirty looks. At least, I have. Now my players never give me dirty looks for dropping hints and I would like to show you how to make them never look at your poorly.
How to drop hints
When you first drop hints as a DM you might genuinely try to help your players. You might want your players to not kill themselves, or give a little hint that will help the players solve a mystery. We will discuss in the next section when to drop hints, but for now, how to drop hints is extremely important.
If you drop hints as a DM in a forceful or invasive manner, your players will not take kindly to it and think that their effort was worthless. On the other hand, if you don’t make it obvious enough your players will not get the hint and will not progress, or will die.
This is what makes dropping hints as a DM so hard. You have to hit that nice middle spot unless it is a ‘get it or die’ moment. Those moments are rare, but we will talk about them later. For now, let’s focus on how to drop hints.
You can drop hints as a DM in a few different ways.
- Through an NPC
- Using a skill check.
- Basic character knowledge.
- An overwhelming enemy or NPC action.
- In session 0.
- For clues
If you are using an NPC to drop hints, you will have to be very tactful about it. Make sure that the NPC is helping the party by presenting options. These options can be wrong or right, but it shouldn’t be clear. Everyone knows different things and people can have wrong information so don’t have an NPC tell the party what to do. Make it subtle.
Skill check are simple. If your party sees a dragon and they want to fight it, have them roll a skill check on nature or arcana to help them realize dragons are not a good fight. This way they can feel like they learned a little bit and were not just handed information. Conversely, you can just tell them what their characters would know.
For new players, they might not know a dragon is a bad target to fight. This is where you can tell them basic in game knowledge that they have. For example, dragons are bad. You know they will kill you.
An overwhelming action is when the players try to cast a spell and the BBEG rolls a save. The di is a natural 15 and you ask if a 27 makes it. Obviously it does, but +12 to any save is ridiculous. This is also applicable if an enemy kills a powerful NPC or just shows how helpless the player is. This is actually talked about a bit in our how to introduce a villain article.
In session 0 you can just tell your players something. For example, the campaign is based in a setting where undead will not be a factor. Tell your players this. And definitely have a session 0!
Lastly, if you are running a mystery or trying to drop clues in which to lead the story/plot, then take a look at our mystery article. It talks about a bunch of different methods to help your players get and understand hints in the form of clues.
These are the some generic ways on how to drop hints, but they solve most situations. If you want more ways to drop hints, we will cover some more later on in the article. First, you need to know when to drop hints.
When to drop hints
Now that you know a little bit about how to drop hints, the question is when. If you just drop hints as a DM whenever, it can be bad. There are a few times to drop hints, and sometimes where you think you should drop hints but actually should not.
- Before the situation is applicable.
- Right before a bad decision is made.
- After a decision is made.
- Not when players are frustrated.
- Not to continue the plot.
If you know that a situation is coming where your players will need hints, this is the time to plan when to drop your hints. In these situations, you will have the most time to prepare. You can use clues, NPCs, or other means to talk to your players beforehand. Give them hints before the situation arises.
If you see a problem is about to occur, this is the perfect time to drop some hints. Using any of the first 4 methods in how to drop hints are great to use in these situations. If the players are about to assault a corrupt king have a warrior next to the king cleave a servant in half with a long sword. That shouldn’t be possible and will deter most people. You get the idea.
After a decision is made, you can only do 1 thing. Have a word of caution to the players. Tell them what their character’s know or if your players are extremely dense tell them outright that this may kill them. If what your players are doing won’t kill them, then let it happen. Just clarify what the players want to do 1 more time so that there is no hard feelings afterward.
When not to drop hints are when players are frustrated. If your players are frustrated because you didn’t leave enough hints or clues early on for something like a puzzle as we talked about in our article, do not give out hints. If you give hints with an NPC at this point, they will be even angrier. If you give hints at all, they will be frustrated.
The best thing that you can do in these situations just makes the next attempt by the players work if it makes some sense. It wasn’t intentional, but if they hadn’t gotten it by now the fault is with you the DM. Try to move on and learn from the experience. This applies to combat and other things as well. You screwed up if the players are frustrated due to a lack of knowledge.
The other time when not to drop hints is when you are trying to get your players to progress the plot. If you try to drop hints and have players go a certain direction, that is called railroading. If your players chose to do something different, clarify with them their intentions and go along with it. The story is made with co-operative storytelling.
Dropping hints to continue the plot is generally you forcing the issue. Don’t do it and let the players do what they want. If you need, talk to them to figure out why they are not going in that direction with the intent to clarify what the party wants to do next in order for you to get material for them.
But what if you are still afraid that your hints are too heavy handed?
Non helpful hints
This article is all about dropping hints and how to do so, but what about getting your players to the point where you don’t have to drop hints?
If you drop hints as a DM too much the players might come to rely on them or just wait for hints. I have learned this from experience. Instead, you can train your players to be proactive.
Non helpful hints are ways to make your players think about thinks far more in-depth than they usually do. Once you get your players adjusted to non helpful hints they will start thinking on their own. Creative players as we discuss are amazing and can be difficult to handle but to make them creative is hard.
Non helpful hints can come in the form of rumors or a hint from an NPC that is false. The NPC in question can believe the hint, but false information does occur in our real world. Why not have it occur in the D&D realm?
False information sprinkled with true information makes the players think more and try to gather the truth on their own. With this new innovation that your players have, you will have to drop hints less frequently.
This also allows for subversion of players expectations and can make a good twist if planned ahead of time. Just don’t make a twist happen too often or your players will expect it. Once a campaign only if you can help it.
Not handing them the answer can help your party become much better at gathering information and need less hints, but you might not be there yet. That is why if you are in a brand new group of players you might need a heavy hand in delivering hints.
These NPCs are there for when a group has low numbers, a party of new players, or if the DM and players are able to come to a good reason/consensus for having a DMNPC. If you do so, I highly suggest using our article on DMNPCs to make a good one. One of the worst ways to have a DMNPC is to force them into a group and make the DMNPC have the spotlight.
Now that you have read our article on DMNPCs, you can understand how difficult it is to make a good DMNPC. There are many potential pitfalls and a lot of rules to consider, but if you are able to pull it off a DMNPC is possibly the easiest way to drop hints as a DM.
When you drop hints as a DM with a DMNPC you will have to worry about making the DMNPC just another plot device. Instead of doing that, you can make part of the hint or plot point connected to the DMNPC. If you have done it right, your party will like the DMNPC. When their home gets invaded, the party will help them out.
Just do not use the DMNPC to suddenly gain clairvoyant abilities. If a DMNPC is a rogue type character they might be able to learn about plot points or different information if the party needs it. Make sure in these instances that you tell the party you are going to do so before hand.
The golden rule for DMNPCs is to never make a DMNPC a savior with a deus machina or have them suddenly have an answer to something.
If you can abide by the golden rule for DMNPCS and read our article on them, it will work out fine and be a great way to a drop hints as a DM to your players.
But what if your players are not taking your hints?
Players intentionally ignoring you
If your players are intentionally ignoring when you drop hints as a DM, there is a reason for that.
Either they don’t understand, which is unlikely if you are at this point, or they don’t care. If they don’t care, that is okay.
The players may have a good reason for not caring. They want to go and fight a dragon as level 3s and possibly will die, but it will be epic. Your players might know the risks, but want to try so anyway. You have to let the players make their own decisions since this is their story as well.
They might even want something different from D&D than what you had planned. In this instance, talk to your players and figure out what type of D&D they want to play.
Lastly, your players might not find a hint relevant to them. If the elf kingdom is under attack, what do they care? The players are supposed to go and save the day to get the next piece of the campaign unlocked, but they are not going! Why?
The players don’t care about the elven kingdom so they are not taking your hint. In this instance, you will need to make sure the hint is relevant to the players. The elven kingdom falling will mean that the players’ home will be next, so they have to stop the invasion with the help of the elven kingdom or do it without their help in order to save their home. Which is easier?
Lay it out for the players so that they understand the consequences and if they chose to ignore it let them deal with their consequences.
When you drop hints as a DM you need to do it at the right time and do it carefully. If either method is not done well then your whole game can go up in smoke. Players can feel slighted and you might have ruined the game or not let them know.
Don’t forget to clarify with your players so that their intentions are known. If you have to, you can use ‘are you sure?’ but we didn’t include that here since that is basically telling a player to not do something. Just make sure that your players fully understand the situation and let the continue with what they are doing.
If they fail, the consequences are just what will follow and consequences are just normal parts of D&D.
You can also use false rumors to make hints not as obvious and train your players, or use a DMNPC to help train your players if you can do it well. If players are ignoring you, find out why and deal with it appropriately.
I hope that I have helped you learn about dropping hints, when to drop hints, and a few extra ways to do so in order to help your game.
This has been Wizo and until next time keep rolling!