Sometimes things get lost in the bustle of a session. The plot went off track. The puzzle you designed isn't going over as well as you intended. Or perhaps a player wants to look around for magic items they can spend their hard earned coin on. Regardless of which of these situations you find yourself in, one of the tools at a Dungeon Master's disposal is giving a slight nudge or hint. However, you also don't want to yank your players back on course. And it's for that reason that I hope to go over the topic today.
When Is It Needed?
Let's start with one of the big questions. And like many topics, I find there are general rules of wisdom but no hard and fast rules. If your players are lost, they'll want some direction and hints. This can happen for a large number of reasons, but challenging puzzles probably are the most common one.
Player Buy In
You don't want to too heavily railroad your players. What might be railroading for one group of players may be a cool twist for another, so the distinction between what isn't railroading and what is isn't clear. However, they typically want some kind of consistent plot and events that unfold so there is some level of buy in required. If your players run somewhere else at the first sign of combat or events unfolding, you can't really have much of a game. You need your players to buy in, and when they do there will be some level of nudging. Some mystery is unfolding in the slums of the city? Well, as we find clues they will lead to conclusions, which will lead the party to the culprit eventually.
Reflecting What They Want
When nudging players, it is far smoother when it is in the direction players want. If a player is looking for a magic item, they'll expect hints and nudges towards that goal. Of course, they are looking for them after all. They will be actively looking, or spending their downtime to locate a magic item. They don't know where it is, so they are begging for a hint and a nudge towards their goal. If you aren't sure, then remember what we are talking about here is a nudge. The players choose whether to follow or to turn elsewhere.
How Is It Done?
The ideal nudge is one that is virtually invisible. We often do this without really noticing it. Clues pointing to other possibilities and outcomes are probably the most common technique. Journals containing cryptic entries, for example. Conversations while players are hidden is another. The more difficult situations to handle in my opinion are when a puzzle doesn't land, or your players get lost. You don't want to solve the riddle for them. Instead, I find that it works best to let players look for ways around it. Perhaps the puzzle isn't necessary and they can just brute force their way through using a pick axe at the cost of time? I've also seen situations where the party goes and hires an expert to come back and solve the riddle for them. In one other case, they hid in the shadows and let the group of baddies after the same artifact solve it for them.
Sometimes though, they will need a hint and often times it makes sense that the character will have more knowledge than the players. If someone is looking for clues in the room to find any other switches, perhaps they notice that dust isn't disturbed in some areas compared to others. The key here is to give something that is minor, fits with what their character would know, and doesn't blow open the puzzle. I'd also be careful about situations where players must solve a puzzle to proceed, and recommend that time be spent on alternate approaches or hints in case it doesn't land as expected. Of course, alternatives work best when they have their own pros and cons.