A field guide to hints...
In roleplaying and storytelling alike, I think of hints as belonging to one of three types: incidental, subtle, and blatant. They're roughly an ascending hierarchy.
Incidental hints are just that: little things that would clue off a studious observer. Sometimes they don't really suggest anything beyond the fact that something is amiss, like a strange accent or a number of odd absences. Other times they suggest a line of inquiry but are incredibly easy to miss, like having my aforementioned quisling mention her skills as a spy. These are also the sort of hints that most people are very fond of because they're extremely small and reward close attention.
Subtle hints are actually less subtle than incidental ones, but they're still something that can fly under the radar. It's the stuff you do when you're pretty sure that no one is watching or paying attention. If someone is paying attention to you, it's a red flag, but it stops shy of being an absolute indictment. Saying my spy was familiar with recent Garlean plans would count, as would taking unusual notes.
Blatant hints are not the same as coming out and stating what's going on, but they're also nowhere near subtle. Finding my spy in the previously locked office of a military officer would be a blatant hint, albeit one that would likely lead to an outright statement unless she could talk her way out quickly. Or if she gave orders to a company of Garlean soldiers and they obeyed. It's the sort of thing that throws up a red flag even if no one is paying attention because someone will after that.
...and why to drop them
So, can you guess my mistake? It was the same one that a lot of roleplayers make. I spent a lot of time dropping incidental hints and having others miss them... and as a result, no one actually saw enough to know that there was more under the surface to catch.
I succeeded at being subtle. I succeeded at being so subtle that no one cared.
I don't think this is a malicious habit, but it's one that a lot of roleplayers fall into mostly because characters with secrets tend to be good at keeping those secrets. Your spy being caught in the act of spying is the equivalent of your gunslinger pointing the gun the wrong way. But by being very good at keeping secrets, we forget that our goal as players is to be caught and found out and to make these character aspects interesting in play.
Yes, that means that your character is going to be slightly worse at her job than she ought to be, but otherwise no one will know that this is her job. It seems like a simple trade-off to me.
The art of hinting
I mentioned that I use the little hierarchy up there as such because it's a useful guidepost. During the first week of playing a character with the big secret, drop incidental hints. If no one catches on, spend a week dropping subtle hints. If it still doesn't work, move on up to blatant hints for a week. (Should a week of blatant hints not get anyone's attention, either your fellow roleplayers are oblivious or you are being played.)
When someone picks up on it, though, you can feel free to dial it back a little bit. If the person is the least bit curious, he'll start picking up on less obvious hints, and you can leave an obliging trail of breadcrumbs. In some cases this might actually be to your character's advantage; a spy with a tail can sometimes recruit a new ally on the inside. But you don't have to keep tossing a whole lot of obvious evidence at the feet of people around you.
If you want to be really clever, you can tie the momentary slip-ups into your character concept in the first place. If your character is a spy, maybe she really doesn't want to be one and hopes to get found out so she can cut ties with his handlers. Or maybe she does want to be, and she's so confident that she thinks no one can find her even with all of the hints she drops. Your character drops hints about her horrible past because she wants to be forgiven... you get the idea.
The important thing is to make sure that someone is picking up on the hints you're giving, and if that means being more obvious, it's worth it.
As always, feel free to offer feedback in the comments below or via mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Next week, I want to take a look at planning and intervals of play over the long term, and the week after that I'd like to discuss conflict in a more general sense.
Every Friday, Eliot Lefebvre fills a column up with excellent advice on investing money, writing award-winning novels, and being elected to public office. Then he removes all of that, and you're left with Storyboard, which focuses on roleplaying in MMOs. It won't help you get elected, but it will help you pretend you did.