The Alexandrian

Three Clue Rule

May 8th, 2008


Mystery scenarios for roleplaying games have earned a reputation for turning into unmitigated disasters: The PCs will end up veering wildly off-course or failing to find a particular clue and the entire scenario will grind to a screeching halt or go careening off the nearest cliff. The players will become unsure of what they should be doing. The GM will feel as if they’ve done something wrong. And the whole evening will probably end in either boredom or frustration or both.

Here’s a typical example: When the PCs approach a murder scene they don’t search outside the house, so they never find the wolf tracks which transform into the tracks of a human. They fail the Search check to find the hidden love letters, so they never realize that both women were being courted by the same man. They find the broken crate reading DANNER’S MEATS, but rather than going back to check on the local butcher they spoke to earlier they decide to go stake out the nearest meat processing plant instead.

As a result of problems like these, many people reach an erroneous conclusion: Mystery scenarios in RPGs are a bad idea. In a typical murder mystery, for example, the protagonist is a brilliant detective. The players are probably not brilliant detectives. Therefore, mysteries are impossible.

Or, as someone else once put it to me: “The players are not Sherlock Holmes.”

Three Clue Rule - Sherlock Holmes

Although the conclusion is incorrect, there’s an element of truth in this. For example, in A Study in Scarlet, Sherlock Holmes is investigating the scene of a murder. He discovers a small pile of ashes in the corner of the room. He studies them carefully and is able to conclude that the ashes have come from a Trichinopoly cigar.

Now, let’s analyze how this relatively minor example of Holmesian deduction would play out at the game table:

(1) The players would need to successfully search the room.

(2) They would need to care enough about the ashes to examine them.

(3) They would need to succeed at a skill check to identify them.

(4) They would need to use that knowledge to reach the correct conclusion.

That’s four potential points of failure: The PCs could fail to search the room (either because the players don’t think to do it or because their skill checks were poor). The PCs could fail to examine the ashes (because they don’t think them important). The PCs could fail the skill check to identify them. The PCs could fail to make the correct deduction.

If correctly understanding this clue is, in fact, essential to the adventure proceeding — if, for example, the PCs need to go to the nearest specialty cigar shop and start asking questions — then the clue serves as chokepoint: Either the PCs understand the clue or the PCs slam into a wall.

Chokepoints in adventure design are always a big problem and need to be avoided, but we can see that when it comes to a mystery scenario the problem is much worse: Each clue is not just one chokepoint, it’s actually multiple chokepoints.

So the solution here is simple: Remove the chokepoints.


GUMSHOE System - Robin D. LawsFor the GUMSHOE system (used in The Esoterrorists, Fear Itself, and The Trail of Cthulhu), Robin D. Laws decided to get rid of the concept of needing to find clues. In each “scene” of an investigation scenario, there is a “clue”. It’s automatically assumed that the investigators will find this clue.

This removes three of our four chokepoints, leaving only the necessity of using the clue to make the correct deduction (i.e., the deduction which moves you onto the next “scene” where the next clue can be imparted). And, in the case of the GUMSHOE system, even this step can be tackled mechanically (with the players committing points from their character’s skills to receive increasingly accurate “deductions” from the GM).

This is a mechanical solution to the problem. But while it may result in a game session which superficially follows the structure of a mystery story, I think it fails because it doesn’t particularly feel as if you’re playing a mystery.

Laws’ fundamental mistake, I think, is in assuming that a mystery story is fundamentally about following a “bread crumb trail” of clues. Here’s a quote from a design essay on the subject:

I’d argue, first of all, that these fears are misplaced, and arise from a fundamental misperception. The trail of clues, or bread crumb plot, is not the story, and does not constitute a pre-scripted experience. What the PCs choose to do, and how they interact with each other as they solve the mystery, is the story. As mentioned in The Esoterrorist rules, we saw this at work during playtest, as all of the groups had very different experiences of the sample scenario, as each GM and player combo riffed in their own unique ways off the situations it suggested.

But, in point of fact, this type of simplistic “A leads to B leads to C leads to D” plotting is not typical of the mystery genre. For a relatively simplistic counter-example, let’s return to Sherlock Holmes in A Study in Scarlet:

WATSON: “That seems simple enough,” said I; but how about the other man’s height?”

HOLMES: “Why, the height of a man, in nine cases out of ten, can be told from the length of his stride. It is a simple calculation enough, though there is no use my boring you with figures. I had this fellow’s stride both on the clay outside and on the dust within. Then I had a way of checking my calculation. When a man writes on a wall, his instinct leads him to write above the level of his own eyes. Now that writing was just over six feet from the ground. It was child’s play.”

This is just one small deduction in a much larger mystery, but you’ll note that Holmes has in fact gathered several clues, studied them, and then distilled a conclusion out of them. And this is, in fact, the typical structure of the mystery genre: The detective slowly gathers a body of evidence until, finally, a conclusion emerges. In the famous words of Holmes himself, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

What is true, however, is that in many cases it is necessary for many smaller deductions to be made in order for all of the evidence required to solve the mystery to be gathered. However, as the example from A Study in Scarlet demonstrates, even these smaller deductions can be based on a body of evidence and not just one clue in isolation.

This observation leads us, inexorably, to the solution we’ve been looking for.


Whenever you’re designing a mystery scenario, you should invariably follow the Three Clue Rule:

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

Why three? Because the PCs will probably miss the first; ignore the second; and misinterpret the third before making some incredible leap of logic that gets them where you wanted them to go all along.

I’m kidding, of course. But if you think of each clue as a plan (the PCs will find A, conclude B, and go to C), then when you have three clues you’ve not only got a plan — you’ve also got two backup plans. And when you realize that your plans never survive contact with the players, the need for those backup plans becomes clear.

In a best case scenario, of course, the players will find all three clues. There’s nothing wrong with that. They can use those clues to confirm their suspicions and reinforce their conclusions (just like Sherlock Holmes).

In a worst case scenario, they should be able to use at least one of these clues to reach the right conclusion and keep the adventure moving.

And here’s an important tip: There are no exceptions to the Three Clue Rule.

“But Justin!” I hear you say. “This clue is really obvious. There is no way the players won’t figure it out.”

In my experience, you’re probably wrong. For one thing, you’re the one designing the scenario. You already know what the solution to the mystery is. This makes it very difficult for you to objectively judge whether something is obvious or not.

And even if you’re right, so what? Having extra clues isn’t going to cause any problems. Why not be safe rather than sorry?


If you think about it in a broader sense, the Three Clue Rule is actually a good idea to keep in mind when you’re designing any scenario.

Richard Garriott, the designer of the Ultima computer games and Tabula Rasa, once said that his job as a game designer was to make sure that at least one solution to a problem was possible without preventing the player from finding other solutions on their own. For example, if you find a locked door in an Ultima game then there will be a key for that door somewhere. But you could also hack your way through it; or pick the lock; or pull a cannon up to it and blow it away.

Deus Ex - Warren SpectorWarren Spector, who started working with Garriott on Ultima VI, would later go on to design Deus Ex. He follows the same design philosophy and speaks glowingly of the thrill he would get watching someone play his game and thinking, “Wait… is that going to work?”

When designing an adventure, I actually try to take this design philosophy one step further: For any given problem, I make sure there’s at least one solution and remain completely open to any solutions the players might come up with on their own.

But, for any chokepoint problem, I make sure there’s at least three solutions.

By a chokepoint, I mean any problem that must be solved in order for the adventure to continue.

For example, let’s say that there’s a secret door behind which is hidden some random but ultimately unimportant treasure. Finding the secret door is a problem, but it’s not a chokepoint, so I only need to come up with one solution. In D&D this solution is easy because it’s built right into the rules: The secret door can be found with a successful Search check.

But let’s say that, instead of some random treasure, there is something of absolutely vital importance behind that door. For the adventure to work, the PCs must find that secret door.

The secret door is now a chokepoint problem and so I’ll try to make sure that there are at least three solutions. The first solution remains the same: A successful Search check. To this we could add a note in a different location where a cultist is instructed to “hide the artifact behind the statue of Ra” (where the secret door is); a badly damaged journal written by the designer of the complex which refers to the door; a second secret door leading to the same location (this counts as a separate solution because it immediately introduces the possibility of a second Search check); a probable scenario in which the main villain will attempt to flee through the secret door; the ability to interrogate captured cultists; and so forth.

Once you identify a chokepoint like this, it actually becomes quite trivial to start adding solutions like this.

I’ve seen some GMs argue that this makes things “too easy”. But the reality is that alternative solutions like this tend to make the scenario more interesting, not less interesting. Look at our secret door, for example: Before we started adding alternative solutions, it was just a dice roll. Now it’s designed by a specific person; used by cultists; and potentially exploited as a get-away.

As you begin layering these Three Clue Rule techniques, you’ll find that your scenarios become even more robust. For example, let’s take a murder mystery in which the killer is a werewolf who seeks out his ex-lovers. We come up with three possible ways to identify the killer:

(1) Patrol the streets of the small town on the night of the full moon.

(2) Identify the victims as all being former lovers of the same man.

(3) Go to the local butcher shop where the killer works and find his confessions of nightmare and sin written in blood on the walls of the back room.

For each of these conclusions (he’s a werewolf; he’s a former lover; we should check out the butcher shop) we’ll need three clues.

HE’S A WEREWOLF: Tracks that turn from wolf paw prints to human footprints. Over-sized claw marks on the victims. One of the victims owned a handgun loaded with silver bullets.

HE’S A FORMER LOVER: Love letters written by the same guy. A diary written by one victim describing how he cheated on her with another victim. Pictures of the same guy either on the victims or kept in their houses somewhere.

CHECK OUT THE BUTCHER SHOP: A broken crate reading DANNER’S MEATS at one of the crime scenes. A note saying “meet me at the butcher shop” crumpled up and thrown in a wastepaper basket. A jotted entry saying “meet P at butcher shop” in the day planner of one of the victims.

And just like that you’ve created a scenario with nine different paths to success. And if you keep your mind open to the idea of “more clues are always better” as you’re designing the adventure, you’ll find even more opportunities. For example, how trivial would it be to drop a reference to the butcher shop into one of those love letters? Or to fill that diary with half-mad charcoal sketches of wolves?

The fun part of all this is, once you’ve given yourself permission to include lots of clues, you’ve given yourself the opportunity to include some really esoteric and subtle clues. If the players figure them out, then they’ll feel pretty awesome for having done so. If they don’t notice them or don’t understand them, that’s OK, too: You’ve got plenty of other clues for them to pursue (and once they do solve the mystery, they’ll really enjoy looking back at those esoteric clues and understanding what they meant).


The maxim “more clues are always better” is an important one. There is a natural impulse when designing a mystery, I think, to hold back information. This is logical inclination: After all, a mystery is essentially defined by a lack of information. And there’s a difference between having lots of clues and having the murderer write his home address in blood on the wall.

But the desire to hold back information does more harm than good, I think. Whenever you hold back a piece of information, you are essentially closing off a path towards potential success. This goes back to Garriott’s advice: Unless there’s some reason why the door should be cannon-proof, the player should be rewarded for their clever thinking. Or, to put it another way: Just because you shouldn’t leave the key to a locked door laying on the floor in front of the door, it doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be multiple ways to get past the locked door.

With that in mind, you should consciously open yourself to permissive clue-finding. By this I mean that, if the players come up with a clever approach to their investigation, you should be open to the idea of giving them useful information as a result.

Here’s another way of thinking about it: Don’t treat the list of clues you came up with during your prep time as a straitjacket. Instead, think of that prep work as your safety net.

I used to get really attached to a particularly clever solution when I would design it. I would emotionally invest in the idea of my players discovering this clever solution that I had designed. As a result, I would tend to veto other potential solutions the players came up with — after all, if those other solutions worked they would never discover the clever solution I had come up with.

Over time, I’ve learned that it’s actually a lot more fun when the players surprise me. It’s the same reason I avoid fudging dice rolls to preserve whatever dramatic conceit I came up with. As a result, I now tend to think of my predesigned solution as a worst case scenario — the safety net that snaps into place when my players fail to come up with anything more interesting.

In order to be open to permissive clue-finding you first have to understand the underlying situation. (Who is the werewolf? How did he kill this victim? Why did he kill them? When did he kill them?) Then embrace the unexpected ideas and approaches the PCs will have, and lean on the permissive side when deciding whether or not they can find a clue you had never thought about before.


A.K.A. Bash Them On the Head With It.

Sometimes, despite your best efforts, the players will work themselves into a dead-end: They don’t know what the clues mean or they’re ignoring the clues or they’ve used the clues to reach an incorrect conclusion and are now heading in completely the wrong direction. (When I’m using the Three Clue Rule, I find this will most often happen when the PCs don’t realize that there’s actually a mystery that needs to be solved — not every mystery is as obvious as a dead body, after all.)

This is when having a backup plan is useful. The problem in this scenario is that the PCs are being too passive — either because they don’t have the information they need or because they’re using the information in the wrong way. The solution, therefore, is to have something active happen to them.

Raymond Chandler’s advice for this kind of impasse was, “Have a guy with a gun walk through the door.”

My typical fallback is in the same vein: The bad guy finds out they’re the ones investigating the crime and sends someone to kill them or bribe them.

Another good one is “somebody else dies”. Or, in a more general sense, “the next part of the bad guy’s plan happens”. This has the effect of proactively creating a new location or event for the PCs to interact with.

The idea with all of these, of course, is not simply “have something happen”. You specifically want to have the event give them a new clue (or, better yet, multiple clues) that they can follow up on.

In a worst case scenario, though, you can design a final “Get Out of Jail Free” card that you can use to bring the scenario to a satisfactory close no matter how badly the PCs get bolloxed up. For example, in our werewolf mystery — if the PCs get completely lost — you could simply have the werewolf show up and try to kill them (because he thinks they’re “getting too close”). This is usually less than satisfactory, but at least it gets you out of a bad situation. It’s the final backup when all other backups have failed.


Red herrings are a classic element of the mystery genre: All the evidence points towards X, but its a red herring! The real murderer is Y!

When it comes to designing a scenario for an RPG, however, red herrings are overrated. I’m not going to go so far as to say that you should never use them, but I will go so far as to say that you should only use them with extreme caution.

There are two reasons for this:

Red HerringFirst, getting the players to make the deductions they’re supposed to make is hard enough. Throwing in a red herring just makes it all the harder. More importantly, however, once the players have reached a conclusion they’ll tend to latch onto it. It can be extremely difficult to convince them to let it go and re-assess the evidence. (One of the ways to make a red herring work is to make sure that there will be an absolutely incontrovertible refutation of it: For example, the murders continue even after the PCs arrest a suspect. Unfortunately, your concept of an “incontrovertible refutation” may hold just as much water as your concept of a “really obvious clue that cannot be missed.)

Second, there’s really no need for you to make up a red herring: The players are almost certainly going to take care of it for you. If you fill your adventure with nothing but clues pointing conclusively and decisively at the real killer, I can virtually guarantee you that the players will become suspicious of at least three other people before they figure out who’s really behind it all. They will become very attached to these suspicions and begin weaving complicated theories explaining how the evidence they have fits the suspect they want.

In other words, the big trick in designing a mystery scenario is to try to avoid a car wreck. Throwing red herrings into the mix is like boozing the players before putting them behind the wheel of the car.


You’ve carefully laid out a scenario in which there are multiple paths to the solution with each step along each path supported by dozens of clues. You’ve even got a couple of proactive backup plans designed to get the PCs back on track if things should go awry.

Nothing could possibly go wrong!

… why do you even saying things like that?

The truth is that you are either a mouse or a man and, sooner or later, your plans are going to go awry. When that happens, you’re going to want to be prepared for the possibility of spinning out new backup plans on the fly.

Here’s a quote from an excellent essay by Ben Robbins:

Normal weapons can’t kill the zombies. MicroMan doesn’t trust Captain Fury. The lake monster is really Old Man Wiggins in a rubber mask.

These are Revelations. They are things you want the players to find out so that they can make good choices or just understand what is going on in the game. Revelations advance the plot and make the game dramatically interesting. If the players don’t find them out (or don’t find them out at the right time) they can mess up your game.

I recommend this essay highly. It says pretty much everything I was planning to include in my discussion of this final corollary, so I’m not going to waste my time rephrasing something that’s already been written so well. Instead, I’ll satisfy myself by just quoting this piece of advice from it:

Write Your Revelations: Writing out your revelations ahead of time shows you how the game is going to flow. Once play starts things can get a little hectic – you may accidentally have the evil mastermind show up and deliver his ultimatum and stomp off again without remembering to drop that one key hint that leads the heroes to his base. If you’re lucky you recognize the omission and can backtrack. If you’re unlucky you don’t notice it at all, and you spend the rest of the game wondering why the players have such a different idea of what is going on than you do.

As we’ve discussed, one way to avoid this type of problem is to avoid having “one key hint” on which the adventure hinges. But the advice of “writing out your revelations ahead of time” is an excellent one. As Robbins says, this “should be a checklist or a trigger, not the whole explanation”.

What I recommend is listing each conclusion you want the players to reach. Under each conclusion, list every clue that might lead them to that conclusion. (This can also serve as a good design checklist to make sure you’ve got enough clues supporting every conclusion.) As the PCs receive the clues, check them off. (This lets you see, at a glance, if there are areas where the PCs are missing too many clues.)

Finally, listen carefully to what the players are saying to each other. When they’ve actually reached a particular conclusion, you can check the whole conclusion off your list. (Be careful not to check it off as soon as they consider it as a possibility. Only check it off once they’ve actually concluded that it’s true.)

If you see that too many clues for a conclusion are being missed, or that all the clues have been found but the players still haven’t figured it out, then you’ll know it’s probably time to start thinking about new clues that can be worked into the adventure.


Basically, what all of this boils down to is simple: Plan multiple paths to success. Encourage player ingenuity. Give yourself a failsafe.

And remember the Three Clue Rule:

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

Don’t Prep Plots
Node-Based Scenario Design
Gamemastery 101

Share on TumblrTweet about this on TwitterShare on StumbleUponShare on FacebookShare on RedditShare on Google+Digg this

50 Responses to “Three Clue Rule”

  1. Justin Alexander says:

    If you enjoyed this article, you may want to check out Prep Tips for the Beginning DM, Don’t Prep Plots, and Node-Based Scenario Design to take your scenario design to the next level.

    The Three Clue Rule came about as a direct result of The Masks of Nyarlathotep. Read about it here.

  2. Fred Fnord says:

    How do you keep a role-playing gamer in suspense?

    Another good one is “somebody else dies”. Or, in a more general sense, “the next
    part of the bad guy’s plan happens”. This has the effect of

    The idea with all of these, of course, is not simply “have something happen”.

    You bastard.

    In other news, I find it’s often more fun to put in one clue, and assume that the players *won’t* find it. Have there be good consequences if they do, but mostly just expect them *not* to skip the two optional encounters that drives the point home in a way that even they can’t miss. That way, when they do find it, they’re justly proud of themselves.

  3. Justin Alexander says:

    LOL. I’ve fixed the essay.

    Re: “Clues you don’t expect them to find.” Absolutely. This is something I also touch on in Node-Based Scenario Design: In a breadcrumb-style design, a dead-end or a missed clue is a disaster. Something has gone terribly wrong. But once you loosen things up, dead ends are fine; leads can fail to pan out and there will still be other leads to pursue. And, as you say, as long as it’s not crucial you can deliberately make it harder to find — easter eggs and “scenario boosts” can be fun.

  4. Porthos says:

    GREAT read. This will definitely help me running games. Thanks for taking the time to think it through and write it up!

  5. The Three Clue Rule | Jasper's Rantings says:

    […] just wanted a hard link reference to this article concerning running mysteries in RPGs. The Three Clue Rule This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. ← Order of the Stick […]

  6. Jason says:

    So, how would one go about scaling this principle up, so to speak? Say the whole campaign is based on several layers of secrets and conspiracies that the players are supposed to unravel.

    In my case, it’s two big factions of divine-level bad guys that are fighting against each other. One side is commonly thought to be the altruistic gods of the world, and they have devoted a lot of effort to hide the very existence of the other side (the actual gods, who’ve gone completely insane during their imprisonment). Would trying to drop hints about both revelations at once be asking for a train wreck? Would I be better off guiding the group toward solving only one part of the mystery at a time? Or would I be inviting even more trouble presenting the big mystery in discrete chunks due to players thinking the first part was the whole story, or worse that the second part means the first was simply wrong?

  7. Justin Alexander says:

    You want Node-Based Scenario Design.

    The second act of my current campaign revolves around two largely unconnected arcs. I talk about how using a “second track” like this can actually be a really effective way to add complexity to a scenario without necessarily burying the players in insoluble mysteries here.

    If you’ve got a really huge conspiracy, what I’d suggest is trying to figure out how you can “chunk” that into a series of smaller mysteries which can be successfully resolved. This will both help with comprehension and also help the players feel like they’re actually accomplishing something instead of just getting lost at sea.

  8. Glenn P. says:

    Three-Clue Rule??? Only THREE???

    Ha! I suggest SEVEN!!! :) :) :)

  9. Eric says:

    I really appreciate you writing this article – I always had such a hard time running any kind of “mystery” adventure, because clues I thought were obvious or at most challenging proved impossible, and PCs just ended up going to an inn and starting a brawl until I made the bad guy walk in.

  10. rogue_pirate says:

    Your article has almost certainly been a game-saver! I’ve been stuck with writer’s block for *months* trying to figure out how to DM an investigation-style segment of my game with my players without it being the boring find-a-clue-and-have-the-DM-tell-you-what-it-means or straight skill challenge methods we’ve used in the past. They’ll all be very grateful to you in the months ahead!

  11. qbauer says:

    This — and the node-based article — is one of the best articles I’ve ever read on adventure design. Really fantastic stuff. I hope you got paid for it.

  12. Scott says:

    Played the L2 Assassins Knot D&D module by leonard lakofka. It was all red herrings. When looked at in a normal real world context when three residents of Garotteton show up in Restenford and the baron is murdered that night and three clues pointing to the three visitors are at the murder site it screams frame-up. But Dungeons and Dragons adventurers are used to simple clues and rumours whose only function is to push them towards the “Dungeon”. I played this module twice and then tried Dming it. Never got close to solving it as a player and couldn’t drag the party I was dming for near a solution. they killed a couple of assassins by mistake and a whack of innocent residents. If I ever find a party willing to try it again will try your 3 clue method. Starting with interviews of the locals from the three locales the murder suspects visited. I don’t know if it will work but I’ve got a hate on for that module and I know at least three bored parties who feel the same about it, ever since their eviction from the Lendore Islands. I want the mystery to work and I think the prevalence of red herrings and lack of other clues were why it didn’t.

  13. D.A Lascelles says:

    A lot of good advice in here and a well written article.

    I’ve played and run mysteries in live action roleplay and a lot of the same issues apply. In LRP it is even worse than tabletop. In tabletop the players are usually a coherent party who are working together so they usually share clues when they find them (having them sitting around the same table all the time helps) but in LRP there can be 15 – several thousand players on the field and there are often factions involved (where a person from faction A will not share info with faction B because they do not trust them…). So a single clue can easily be lost – held onto by one player and kept hidden so that it is never matched with other clues and conclusions drawn.

    So, in LRP you may need even more than three clues for each mystery point.

    One way I have seen investigations done well in LRP was using coloured tags or ribbons with codes on them. A ref prepares a site where something has happened with these ribbons and if you have ‘investigation level 1’ you will have a book of codes that translate the codes on the green ribbons, if you have level 2 you can also translate the blue ones and if you have level 3 the red ones and so on.

    So, using the examples given above, a referee may prepare a murder scene with:

    A green ribbon which tells the player reading it that it is some form of ash
    A blue ribbon which says the ash is from a cigar
    A red ribbon which tells them that the ash is from a specific type of cigar only purchased from a particular shop.

    And there may be many such clues prepared like this – the more you can do the better. The fact that there is a ribbon of any colour on something tends to eliminate the ‘the players will miss this’ aspect. Players without the required skill get very good at ignoring ribbons but those who have them will spot them and investigate them and therefore get the information they should based on how good a detective they are. And in many cases if they have say level one, they may go ‘Hmmm, this seems to be some form of ash’ and then call over the more experienced detective with level 2 or 3 to see what they think…

    It works really well… though does require a lot of advanced prep to prepare the ribbons.

  14. Grom says:

    Regarding your section on red herring, Sherlock Holmes has another excellent quote regarding the fallacy of jumping to conclusions. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia

    “It is a capital mistake to theorise before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”

    People are all too willing to satisfy themselves with a bad answer quickly than make a great effort for a correct one.

  15. Day 16: Investigation and Mysteries says:

    […] to get hints as to how to interpret those clues they have found. Other systems recommend the “three clue rule,” which involves seeding the same “clue” into three different incarnations, […]

  16. Oren Leifer says:

    This is a really important corollary. If you don’t follow it close enough, either you have to railroad players, which is no fun for anyone, or you have player manage to wander out of the plot. I actually had players once wander entirely out of a plot, get interested in the society of a hastily-build world, and decide, instead of solving the murder mystery, to cause societal upheaval and revamp the society. Just, whatever you do, make sure there are lots of clues and a reason for players to want to stay focused on the mystery instead of the setting itself.

  17. Review: Eureka (from Engine Publishing) | Keith Davies — In My Campaign - Keith's thoughts on RPG design and play. says:

    […] to The Alexandrian for Justin’s Three Clue Rule to resolve this, it’s better to plan for multiple ways of getting certain information to the […]

  18. Plot Hook Distribution | Drraagh's Desktop says:

    […] get the plot point you need at that time. The Alexandrian introduced me to the Three Clue Rule in where a player could fail sufficiently enough that they may never find, or understand the […]

  19. My personal rules for GMing (that I still keep forgetting all the time) | Spriggan's Den says:

    […] Three Clue Rule: Very good advice. Obvious connections between things are only obvious if you already know what they are. To players who don’t already know the whole backstory of an adventure, even the most obvious clue that should lead them to their next task might not be obvious at all. So if you want the players to make a conclusion about something and act on it, always place at least three clues that can be found by the PCs. Worst case scenario, they find all three clues and think them terribly obvious, but they still understand what they have to do next. But very often they won’t and even if they completely fail to find one clue and draw a totally wrong conclusion from the second one, there’s still a good chance they will find and correctly interpret the third one. […]

  20. My favorite articles on Gamemastering | Spriggan's Den says:

    […] Three Clue Rule by The Alexandrian […]

  21. Miscellany | Department V says:

    […] the Three Clue Rule from The Alexandrian, a GUMSHOE […]

  22. d47 says:

    Three Clue Rule discussed on Happy Jacks podcast.

  23. — #Теория — Правило Трёх Улик (перевод) says:

    […] С оригиналом статьи Вы можете ознакомиться здесь. […]

  24. Structured Fantasy » Blog Archive » Design Resources says:

    […] The Three Clue Rule […]

  25. RPT#660: The Adventure Checklist Part II - Roleplaying Tips says:

    […] excellent approach is the 3 Clue Rule: “For any conclusion you want the PCs to make, include at least three […]

  26. Player Tricks: Solving RPG Mysteries | System sans Setting says:

    […] and/or is trying to lock the PCs into only one avenue of investigation; see this post of mine and this from The Alexandrian for ideas on how to break those habits), or it’s just that the players don’t realize […]

  27. Bobo says:

    This was phenomenal. I’ve begun writing my own scenarios, and this rule will prove invaluable.

    There have been many investigative scenarios I’ve played over the years, and I’ve loved some and despised others. Generally, I couldn’t really express what the problems were in the latter category, and now I feel I have a lexicon to discuss them intelligently.

    Chokepoints are a concept of primary importance in interactive storytelling media.

  28. Adventure’s Checklist | From the Brain of Ronnie Roberts says:

    […] excellent approach is the 3 Clue Rule: “For any conclusion you want the PCs to make, include at least three […]

  29. Aeryk says:

    I love your articles man. I’ve come to many of the same conclusions simply throught trial and error in DM’ing, but I love how you’ve really expanded upon these ideas and analyzed them. Thanks!

  30. A Regra das Três Pistas, parte I – O problema com aventuras de mistério | dadosmalditos says:

    […] Texto original de Justin Alexander, publicado em 8 de maio de 2008 no blog “The Alexandrian” Traduzido e adaptado por Thales Ramon […]

  31. AceOfSpade says:

    I once had a player litteraly walk on a clue and the party still managed to miss it. It wasn’t a choke point in the plot, in fact it wasn’t even a mystery scenario but still! You’ve got three adventurers walking in the mud, one of them in heavy armor, his weight make the hidden bones of previous adventurer crack. They should have got info about the monsters in the area from that, and a nice little magic dagger…

    The party’s reaction? “We’re under attack!” And when no attack came, because they weren’t in fact under attack (seriously where did they get that idea) they simply resumed walking. I was bewildered. Seriously, when something crack under my foot my first reaction is to look down…

  32. Falando sobre RPG #28 – Não prepare enredos | Cogumelando says:

    […] DAS TRÊS PISTAS: Eu já escrevi um artigo bastante específico sobre a Regra das Três Pistas. Basicamente essa regra diz: Para qualquer conclusão que você quer […]

  33. Thirteen Trap Signs… Or Are You Just Paranoid? – AnarchyDice says:

    […] it should be enough for clever players, but I treat my trap hints like I treat my mysteries, with a three clue average. Often times, the players are too curious and too impatient to stop and investigate every clue, […]

  34. Obsidian Portal - Thursday Feature - Plotting a Mystery - Words In The DarkWords In The Dark says:

    […] Three clue rule states: For any conclusion you want the PCs to make, include at least three clues. In addition, each of these clues should be available to the party through more than one way each. […]

  35. The Uses of Uncertainty | Ludus Ludorum says:

    […] Justin Alexander’s The Three-Clue Rule […]

  36. RPT#692: Triage 101: Five Ways To Get Players Unstuck Without Forcing Them - Roleplaying Tips says:

    […] This article by Jason Alexander provides a wonderful idea: […]

  37. The Evil They Do – Strange Flight says:

    […] technique for this is to use a variation of The Three Clue Rule : (for every conclusion you wish the players to reach you need to provide at least three clues that […]

  38. Ryyme says:

    On May 4th you Tweeted:

    “Writing the boring shit that I need to finish before I can write the exciting bits.”

    As a long time editor I have heard this many times to which my response is always:

    “If it’s boring to you, the writer, I can guarantee you it will be boring to me, the reader.”

  39. Justin Alexander says:

    Possibly so. But RPG manuals are utilitarian. You don’t need to find an index thrilling to read. And the one page summary of character creation is useful, but not that exciting for me to write.

  40. Dark Heresy Travellerized | gameystuff says:

    […] Three Clue Rule […]

  41. J.L. Duncan says:

    Great posts don’t age.

    Thank you for posting this.

    I was referred while reading Beneath the Banshee Tree which a link to this post is featured. I also read a decent GURPs supplement a number of years ago (“Mysteries,” I think) which gives a good outline of running mystery style RPG, but this post is the best I’ve seen on the subject.

    I use a different rule, but the principle is the same I call it: Eight is Great. Keep in mind I don’t write or play mystery style RPGs so the eight (clues) rule is for putting a mystery within a space opera or fantasy RPG. That is, it may take a bit before the PCs realize that they’re in a mystery…

  42. Isikyus says:

    I’ve wanted to run mystery/investigation adventures since before I took up D&D (well, Pathfinder), and this (along with node-based structure) is the advice I needed to make it work.

    I have a feeling this is one of those ideas that seem simple but is actually really deep. It gripped me the first time I read it, but my first attempts to use it didn’t really work, as my clues were nowhere near obvious enough (nor were the players motivated to follow up on them).

    To future readers of this comment: I would strongly recommend following The Alexandrian and reading through some of the adventures that use the Three Clue Rule; this gave me a much clearer understanding of how to apply it.

  43. Chekov’s Prophecy – AnarchyDice says:

    […] event you plan to foreshadow absolutely must have a minimum of three leading clues. As the Alexandrian puts it, your players will miss one clue, ignore the second, and misinterpret the third before making a […]

  44. Systems for Investigative RPGs | The DM's Apprentice says:

    […] session, or campaign.  Even D&D or Pathfinder.  The best advice for doing so is to follow the Three Clue Rule, as outlined here.  (On a side note, I’ve found The Alexandrian blog to be extremely helpful with regards to […]

  45. SunlessNick says:

    Necromancy, I know. But it’s a great article.

    One observation regarding red herrings, if you make a deliberate one, it’s probably worth making it a subplot. If a suspect has clues pointing in their direction, then have them still up to something shady, or at least would rather not see disclosed; that way, if the players follow the false trail, they still have *a* success at the end, even if it’s not *the* success. And a lot of the classic mysteries are packed with subplots.

  46. 127: I’ve Got a Bad Feeling About This | Looking For Playable Video Games says:

    […] my usual research (procrastination) habit of browsing rpg subreddits, I came across an article (linked here) about the Rule of Three Clues and how it could be used to tie narrative to mechanic. Seeing as […]

  47. icekatze says:

    hi hi

    Three clues are good, more might be better, but sometimes too many is dithering.

    In some of my recent games, I’ve tried to play up the issue of point of view, where each account given is colored by the actor’s own point of view. Not quote red herrings, but by doing it consistently enough, I’ve found it does keep the players on their toes rather than fixating on one pet theory. By slightly twisting each of the many accounts with a point of view, you can give a whole lot of information, and sometimes players end up being really good at pattern recognition.

    One disclaimer: I find it helpful to never try to trick the players. Tricking the player characters is fair game, but like the difference between perfidy and a ruse, never give any out of character encouragement for the ruse, if you as a game master want to maintain trust between you and your players.

    Even saying something like: “You see this scene in front of you, but something doesn’t sit right about it.” can provide the characters with the knowledge that they shouldn’t take it at face value. Though it will differ from group to group.

    However, in addition to providing three paths to success, I think it is important sometimes to allow for failure. At some point along the line, the game master may end up going from “trying to make the story a success,” straight to “I’m dithering about the action you chose, and am doing everything in my power to stop it.” If a game master beats their players over the head with clues and they refuse to take the hint, sometimes it might be better to let them be the agents of their own story and go from there.

    I’m currently running a game where I gave the players all kinds of opportunities to unravel the big bad’s plot and save the world. They decided to skip all of those, so now we’re eight days past doomsday and things are really starting to get interesting. :)

  48. Gamosopher says:

    Cool video referencing this article, and others from your blog. The general approach is very good, I think : doing a mystery adventure is NOT like reading a mystery novel or watching a mystery movie.

  49. 149 Lapse Between Game Sessions - Gaming and BS RPG Podcast says:

    […] Skanes offers up a helpful blog run by Justin […]

  50. Tales of the Hungry GM #1: Preparing L5R “Legacy of Disaster” – Abstract Reality says:

    […] That just leaves the footprints leading from the window to the daisho stand. This is a valid clue because, if followed, it can lead the players right to Wachimasu (another major node). However, as stated by The Alexandrian, […]

Leave a Reply



Recent Posts

Recent Comments