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006: The 3 Clue Rule

Leaving the LARPzone behind, we railroad our heroes into the “Mystery of the Non-linear Storyline,” aided by the likes of Sherlock Holmes, Laura Bow, and Gabriel Knight.

Games talked about in this episode:

Introductory Guy

Welcome to design thinking games, a fantasy and user experience podcast. Each episode, your podcast hosts, Tim Broadwater and Michael Schofield, will examine the player experience of board games, pen and paper role-playing games, live-action games, mobile games, and video games. You can find every episode, including this one, on your podcatcher of choice and on the web at designthinkinggames.com.

Michael Schofield  

On my journey to level up as a Game Master, I enjoy taking Dungeons and Dragons way more seriously than you should. So over the last year, year and a half, the pandemic has really given me an excellent opportunity to find some writers that I like and read them. There’s one who I like quite a bit. His name is Justin Alexander. He writes a simple WordPress blog called the Alexandrian. He wrote about this method of designing or developing a story called The Three Clue Rule that I’m totally in love with, and I just wanted to throw it in your direction and get your thoughts.

Tim Broadwater  

Yeah, so what is the elevator pitch, the two-sentence version of what’s the three clue rule? 

Michael Schofield  

Of course, that’s exactly the hardest part here. Assuming this is an elevator in a large building, here’s what I got: the three clue rule is a technique for solving the narrative problem of how characters get from one mystery to another without railroading them. By railroad, I mean, that as a player, regardless of your intentions, you are guided directly, beat by beat by beat through a story.

Tim Broadwater  

So a linear progression, like a linear story, a linear narrative for something.

Michael Schofield  

Exactly. Well, the three clue rule is trying to provide just a little bit of framework for folks who want to tell a story that isn’t linear. Suddenly being able to tell like a cohesive story, in a world or scenario where people can go in any direction they want, suddenly becomes an exponentially difficult problem to write for. 

Tim Broadwater  

Yeah, I actually don’t know of anyone, and I’m kind of wondering about the percentage of players, right. But does anyone actually like a linear story that is literally that you walk through, and you’re not really changing your direction? No matter what you’re doing, you’re still going to the same pieces. To me, that makes me think very much of The Last of Us or The Last of Us 2 because essentially, in that system, and what I call it is like “map locking.” But essentially, it’s like, Hey, you go through this building. And now, once you go to this building, you are now in this area with a convenience store or whatever. And there’s only one way out of the building. So you’re locked in these 3d zone maps. And even though it seems like a world, here’s this 3d container, funny walls that you can’t climb over or buildings that you can’t climb. So it’s enforced, right? And you there’s only one way out. Now you can sneak your way through it. You can kill all the people you can run through and slaughter them, or you can snipe them or whatever. But I mean, essentially, you’re locked in a map, and you have to go to the next, and I think that’s how the story works the same way. No decisions I make in the story change anything, right? And the biggest thing that people hate about Last Of Us is how it forces you or railroads you, quote-unquote, into these difficult decisions. I don’t know how many people actually like linear. Apparently, there’s some do, I guess.

Michael Schofield  

With a linear game, I think you can design really specific experiences that are mind-blowing. Perhaps this gives you more opportunity to focus on excellent dialogue or really polished gameplay. You have a really cool scenario that you can plan the shit out of because, you know, people are going to get there eventually. Right? So I think there’s definitely benefit to it. And of course, they can have a spectrum of good to bad. I imagine Last of Us is way closer to the good end of the spectrum.

Tim Broadwater  

That’s like the number one thing that people complain about but also love about the Last Of Us is because, and I’m sorry, if you have not played the game, this is a spoiler alert. But essentially, at the end of the first game, I won’t use the second one because it’s rather new. But what people love but hate about it is that Joel, the main character, has no other option in the end – you can wait it out, and the timer goes down, and there’s a ticker but and nothing ever bad happens – but you kind of have to, you’re forced to kill the doctors and save Ellie. And people hate that. And 2’s the same way in the end, but I’m not going to ruin it. So half the audience loves being railroaded and forcing the player to make a difficult decision and that, you know, kind of example, whereas other people hated it, because they’re like, No, I wouldn’t have done that. I wouldn’t have done that, even in the context of the story. I wouldn’t have done that, you know.

Anyway, so we know what linear is, what about the 3 Clues?

Michael Schofield  

To design something that’s nonlinear, you have a pretty difficult path ahead of you. It becomes really difficult to like craft something meaningful around there. If you want to sandbox, a sandbox with a really good story is way more difficult to do. So the three clue rule is proposing a system that is really kind of principle more than anything to help guide players from situation to situation without railroading without pulling them along artificially, right?

Tim Broadwater  

Like they cannot make any progress whatsoever. Unless they go do x and specifically x. So is it like clues that are in the world then?

Michael Schofield  

Imagine a Sherlock Holmes story, where you have some sort of mystery, a conspiracy that requires a lot of deductions to fall into place before you can even come to that aha moment. Now, what Sherlock himself does, is wander into a room and sees everything there, plucks the correct deduction out of the ether, and is able to move on. But the reality is, from Dungeon Master to Dungeon Master, if you create, like a similar kind of story, where pieces of the puzzle become clear over time. The reality is your players, or you, as a player, are gonna miss all of the clues. For any conclusion you want your player characters to make, include at least three clues. And Justin Alexander actually explains why three: “because the player characters will probably miss the first ignore the second and the misinterpret the third, before making some incredible leap of logic that gets them where you wanted them to go all along.” If you have a story where to get to point C, they have to get to point B, which requires they get to point A, that’s fine if you want to guide them hardcore into that direction. But if you want to make it feel like a world where they have agency, what if they go to C first?

Tim Broadwater  

I feel like this is like the bank, like literally the thing that every good GM, DM, or storyteller plans for, and then it’s always getting thrown off track by the players because they’re real people. It goes to something that it says it’s like it needs to create the parameters in which they can understand, which I think is what I understand from the three clue rule as opposed to railroading ABC. When you gave the example of the d&d module, it makes me think of the Pathfinder and Starfinder modules. There’s a star finder, one that I’m thinking of right now that I ran recently as a GM. And you kind of crash on a planet, and you’re trying to figure out why you crashed, where to go and what to do. You’re in a swamp when you crash. If you even just physically walk around, you’re going to think there’s an A, B, and C, right? One: you see these elementals attacking this weather station. The other: you see these weird electrical portal things that you can kind of investigate. Then another: you hear at some point, a yell and you respond to it, and you save a person, and the person ends up leading you to a village of their place. But then, by understanding that there was a weird temporal electric storm going on, that’s what kind of got your ship crashed. And this is how it’s affecting the local wildlife, right? And so you kind of get the story, but it doesn’t matter if you go ABC or CBA. 

Michael Schofield  

That’s probably an example of how a well-designed narrative takes place. And, you know, someone probably followed whether they called it or not this three clue rule. Instead of imagining a scenario like, “oh, I need these players to deduct from the crime scene,” you flip it around a little bit, and you say to yourself, “well, I need the players to conclude that the criminal was a large furry rabbit.” You just define what they need to know. And from there, the three clue rule is like … 

Tim Broadwater  

They found for on the crime scene, or they talked to a bystander, yes, all of a sudden, a big rabbit in the street or something. Yeah, so you drop it in three places. 

Michael Schofield  

Exactly. The way your narrative design looks like in the game, if you were to map this out on a piece of paper, instead of an outline, or like “first step one, then step two,” you have a whole bunch of dots, little nav points on your, on your paper, HUD or nodes, these little chunks. And the idea is that, like, wherever you place clues for one conclusion, there is evidence for other conclusions from that node. But it just shows your story can become really complex in this way. You’re still guiding the story. You’re still guiding the players. But it gives the illusion of agency.

Tim Broadwater  

Free choice or interaction. It’s interesting you said “nodes,” it’s because I think, you know, what we’re really talking about is like this node or this package, right, where you’re putting things together, and packages can exist on their own. And no matter what time or order they happen in, they find one when they go to a museum, or they get access to another one the next day, by a kid, they talked to him a street or whatever it is, you know, it’s this kind of modular thing that can move around. And it specifically makes me think of how we have that kind of in design, and software modular design objects, reusable components. There’s also much I don’t know if you’ve heard of it before, but have you ever heard of OOUX or object-oriented UX?

Michael Schofield  

Yes. And super popular?

Tim Broadwater  

Yeah, I think it’s Sophia Prater. And, Sophia, if you ever listen to us, I hope you do. But if I mispronounce your name, I’m sorry. But I actually will say I get your weekly email that comes to me that is literally kind of all the cool applications of object-oriented UX. I actually used it about a year ago. I was working with a client. And the client was a school counselor. And he wanted to apply for this grant that kind of gave this demonstration of how an app could work to help ease the job, and then you know, get backing so they could put it and make it offer free to school systems and whatever. Long story short, how object-oriented UX works is that you have these content components that are main objects, core content, metadata, nested objects. And it’s really those kinds of pieces. And then you kind of identify the best example that she uses is, if you think of like you’re using an app that is a recipe app, or a cooking app, right? You have a recipe. That recipe has ingredients. Tere’s a chef that made this recipe and submitted it. And then there are reviews, which is like users Yelping or giving it four stars. How can we design an experience in such a way that is so organic that a user can fly from recipe to ingredient back to the recipe to cook two ratings? You see what the cook rated? I want to see what other things the cook wrote or like, see if users like this particular recipe, or if they gave it their own twist? So I kind of did the same thing with kids in school. Who was their teacher? Who were their parents, what grade they’re in, so you could kind of fluidly navigate around to get what you need.

Michael Schofield  

It sounds like it’s like a three clue rule plus more clues, some of which are ultra obvious. Justin Alexander’s making the point that look, your players aren’t Sherlock Holmes. He calls it proactive clues. AKA, “bash them on the head with it.”

Tim Broadwater  

What it makes me think of is honestly like Detroit: Become Human, or Heavy Rain, which we talked about before, or Wolf Among Us. You can look at everything and interact with everything. And there are probably 40 clues in there. But you really only need to build up that percentage, like three, right? Oh, you don’t have to look at it really anything else. I mean, you can if you want, but you got to just,

Michael Schofield  

That’s the other part of the spectrum of this narrative design. So it’s not just when you come to a conclusion go straight to it. In some cases, the next beat of the story is like a lot, either behind some kind of like meter as like, Oh, you have to complete this, you know, 30% before you can continue on, which I think is supposed to simulate, get it like figuring it out, getting all the clues that you actually need. In-app design, you have things like, “oh, you can’t do this until you do this.” It’s guided. It’s sort of like this bread crumbs style of design.

Tim Broadwater  

So you mentioned something before, maybe in a previous episode, or when we were talking about this – “Gumshoe.” What is that?

Michael Schofield  

Specifically, I think it was named after all of these Sherlock Holmes style of games, specifically mysteries as well. Did you ever play any of those like, first-person, almost like point and click adventure Sherlock Holmes games like Sherlock Holmes, and I don’t know if this is the real title, but there’s like, there’s one where it’s like Sherlock Holmes versus like fucking Dracula. Oh, they get weird. There’s like Sherlock Holmes verse jack the Ripper. But I mean, there’s you can play like regular mysteries as well.

Tim Broadwater  

Yeah, I think Sierra games, where Ken and Roberta Williams – 

Michael Schofield  

Yeah! That’s where it comes from.

Tim Broadwater  

So I’ve done the Laura Bow mysteries. But they’re a mystery game where you can click on the mouse to move around. But then you have to type in, “look open closet,” and then hit enter. 

Michael Schofield  

Let me read this briefly. It’s just a couple paragraphs. For the Gumshoe System used in games, “Robin D Laws decided to get rid of the concept of needing to find clues. And in each scene of an investigation, there is a clue. It is automatically assumed that the investigators will find it.”

Tim Broadwater  

So all you have to do is just go there.

Michael Schofield  

Yeah, it’s like in the case of the gumshoe system. They need to find the clues and make it a correct deduction is handled mechanically, with the players committing points from their character skills to receive increasingly accurate hints. I love the Sherlock Holmes games, they are fun, but there’s no mystery to it because all it is is about finding the part of the room that you’re in that is clickable. The deduction, or the clue, at least literally becomes a line in a dashboard, right? Or in your notebook or something like that. And, and the game is to take, you know, three clues and draw the correct lines between them. And then you get a deduction. I think it’s specifically this idea that there are that first, you are going to be in the right place at the right time to get the clues. But then you can use a mechanical solution to make it more likely that the player will figure it out.

Tim Broadwater  

Did you ever play the King’s Quest, or Space Quest, or Police Quest? Sorry?

Michael Schofield  

I played King’s Quest. Yeah, man. Classic.

Tim Broadwater  

So the one that is the Colonel’s Bequest, which is the Laura Bow series. Laura Bow is a student that goes to college somewhere in Louisiana or something. And then she goes with her friend home for the weekend, to visit for a family reunion. And they’re like, “Okay,” and so they get in the swamp boat, and they go out there. And they have it, and at dinner, the colonel, who’s the head of the family, and it’s everyone meets there. And it’s like Southern Gentry, but then that French Creole, kind of, you know, Louisiana Bayou mystery, whatever you want to call it. So essentially, he announces that he’s writing everyone out of the room. Well, that you’re all ungrateful brats, and you’re all horrible people, and he’s not giving anyone his money. And that’s what happens at the family reunion. You know, good times, Thanksgiving, I guess. And then that night, he gets murdered?

Michael Schofield  

Who did it?

Tim Broadwater  

So it’s this game where you’re clicking around with a mouse, and you’re investigating clues, and you’re trying to search for fingerprints. You’re eavesdropping and hallways behind walls to see secret conversations. And then there’s all this stuff that happens. The only thing that keeps the momentum going is the clock keeps turning. You’re just trying to get to the morning because the police will come in the morning. You can’t leave because the swamp has risen. And so there are events that you can miss. And so it’s really hard to get all sides of the stories. And at the end, it gives you this percentage, which I thought was amazing that when I beat the game, finally, which was so hard to do, it was just like, “Oh, you got to 45% correct.”

Michael Schofield  

So you potentially came to the wrong conclusion?

Tim Broadwater  

Yeah, so kind of what happens to your point is that you can finger the wrong person. That’s horrible. I said that. You can blame the wrong person. You can then the cops will arrest someone who’s incorrect. And it’ll just say this plucky thing that’s like, “Oh, it’s a shame. You didn’t find the right person.” It would just give you these sentences at the end of the game that said, “oh, shame, you didn’t spend more time in the parlor.” And then you would read it in the replay value was crazy. But um, in that regard, there’s like hundreds of clues. Sure. So what do you think? I mean, I think that’s a great example of a game that is kind of this nonlinear, kind of three clues or gumshoe kind of thing to where you’re trying to piece together. Do you have a game that specifically speaks to you in that kind of genre?

Michael Schofield  

You got me thinking about all these Sherlock Holmes games. I played them all. They’re all like this. There’s an old game. I kept the CD ROM even though I can’t play it on anything because it’s one of my favorite games of all time. It was a Titanic game, which was a whodunnit on board the Titanic, the night that it sank. I love this style of game which lets you complete it even if you’re wrong. Recently, relatively recently, in the last 10 years. LA Noir did something similar, which was a game where you’re a detective, and you have to read the person’s face as you question them and come to a conclusion. And boy, I got a lot of them wrong and sent a lot of the wrong people to jail.

Tim Broadwater  

I have played Gabriel Knight before. I’m not sure if you’ve played those.

Michael Schofield  

We should talk an entire episode about Gabriel Knight, specifically, the second one, which is it Gabriel Knight the Beast within or Gabriel Knight …

Tim Broadwater  

“The Beast Within,” and I think he goes to visit his family in Scotland, and he inherits a castle or something.

Michael Schofield  

Gabriel Knight 2t: the Beast Within specifically my favorite one because Gabriel Knights 1 and 3, one for technical reasons and 3 for stylistic reasons, they were both graphic games, but in Gabriel Knight 2, they had this kind of weird blend of video game and real human actors that was a thing in the late 90s.

Tim Broadwater  

Wouldn’t they like video them and record their audio, and then they would turn the video into like a –

Michael Schofield  

like GIF, almost. So you would see actors act out the scene, and then there would be these static cutouts of actual photographs that had slight walking mechanics. It was pretty bananas. But at the time, it was great. All that to say, Gabriel Knight goes to Germany because he’s either inherited or occupying a castle from his family. The Ritters.

Tim Broadwater  

I said Scotland. Yeah, it’s Germany.

Michael Schofield  

I remember because a main through point there is the story of an old “Barovian” count.

Tim Broadwater  

Basically, Gabriel Knight, the first one was that “Sins of the Father?” He’s a bookstore and an occultist. That’s what this is what I always thought was cool because he was a bookstore owner and an occultist who was also a private detective. So it’s kind of weird, but it’s kind of cool. You know what I mean? So you’re thinking like Friday the 13th, the TV series, — 

Michael Schofield  

It’s very Lovecraftian, right? Because often like like Lovecraft characters, or like Call of Cthulhu, it’s like, oh, this is a librarian who has a deep knowledge of the occult.

Tim Broadwater  

Yeah, and I mean, he has interactions with New Orleans, and he goes to Lafayette cemetery and Pontchartrain Park, I think, and then there are murders, and he’s being hired individually, but then he has to of course he shows up, and there are cops there, and he has an interaction with the cops, and there’s its course there’s voodoo, and it’s Mardi Gras, it’s really cool series, but it has a lot of that —

Michael Schofield  

it has a deep mystery, too —

Tim Broadwater  

You have to research. You get fingerprints at points.

Michael Schofield  

I can’t remember if it Gabriel Knight gate-kept you, though. In your earlier example with like the Colonel’s Bequest, or in the Sherlock Holmes games, you can finish them wrong. But you can still finish them.

Tim Broadwater  

You can’t proceed and Gabriel Knight. So Colonel’s Bequest was like the night marches on. So if it’s three in the morning, or four in the morning, or two in the morning, whatever. I mean, it’s gonna happen, and you either get information, or you don’t. And then, at dawn, the cops come, and they kind of ask you who did it, and you can choose anyone. But in Gabriel Knight, every day keeps going by, and I think there’s an overall time ticker that something bad can happen. But then every day you can drive around, you can go to the Pontchartrain Park, you can go to Lafayette cemetery, you can go to the library, you can go to your store, you can kind of do anything and it’s just like, as the time picker goes by, I think you just can’t do things unless you ask the right questions and get the right clues that prompt those questions. 

Michael Schofield  

Those Dark Pictures Anthology games do something similar where you miss an opportunity to have this conversation or progress in this specific way because you dilly-dallied or you went the other way. I love these things.

Tim Broadwater  

This makes me think of a board game clue. It’s a super good game, and there are many versions of it, and I love the movie is even hilarious. But uh, it’s hilarious.

Michael Schofield  

“MURDA.” I can’t do a Tim Curry.

Tim Broadwater  

I just remember Madeline Kahn and the line where she’s like, “flames, flames on the side of my face, burning flames.” Anyways, but include you’re just trying to find the weapon, the location, you know, and who did it, and all you’re doing is literally asking everyone like a detective would. 

This conversation is just about detective games in this genre. And then the different ways that you can get through the story. It’s interesting mechanics. And then having these things set up to where they’re like, separate or like modular like we’re saying whether they’re just self-contained things that you can move around, find out and experience and be wrong. If you’re trying to figure out something or maybe go to the wrong place and miss something.

Michael Schofield  

What a hard type of game to design. I think that’s the point. To do them well, it’s super difficult. To do a mystery well, hard; to do a sandbox well that guides you through a story, pretty hard.

Tim Broadwater  

Yeah. So like in UX, I mean, we think of findability and discoverability. Right? So especially on a website or web application, or enterprise software application, or whatever. But can the user get to where they need to? Or find where it is, but then can they, by just interacting with the system, organically discover things that help them and they didn’t see before? Because you just got the user, the player just needs to get in there and start moving? Right? That’s what they want to do. But when you apply that concept to the narrative in the game or discovered or what you’re trying to find out in the game…

Michael Schofield  

That is a discoverability thing, right? It’s because what you’re trying to guide is a conclusion. You want the players to discover the next beat of the story. There’s probably a really good rule there too. In designing information architecture, you definitely need people to be able to find X.

Tim Broadwater  

Information architecture is all its own thing. We think maybe just navigation and card sorting, right? And card sorting, making dendrograms to this is how you should group information because this is how our user would do it. And then or, but yeah, it’s a lot of nuanced kind of thing. 

Michael Schofield  

There’s probably something there where an application or like the three clue rule to say…

Tim Broadwater  

Everyone always says like three clicks, right?

Michael Schofield  

Yeah, exactly. It’s like, you should be able to get to every part of a website within three clicks from anywhere within that web service. Clearly easier said than done, but that kind of you can imagine if you were to map this all out on a two dimensional plane with crime scene like strings drawn between thumbtacks that suddenly a service of any significant size that adheres to that principle, has a lot of potential throughputs, which is probably a greatly designed system.

Introductory Guy  

Thank you for listening to the design thinking games podcast. To connect with your hosts, Michael or Tim, please go to design thinking games.com where you can request topics, ask questions, or see what else is going on. Until next time, game on

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