I don't want to telegraph. If I want them to look in the drawer under the ledger for the key, I'll tell them to do that (through the fiction). But I'd prefer not to care whether they look for the key or not because I don't want to block off an important part of the game by way of the key.Agreed. The razor I use to cut through this thicket is to focus my description on things that are most relevant to the players. What can they interact with or otherwise affect? What can potentially harm or otherwise affect them? What they need to be made aware of to navigate this scenario effectively? Those are the things to focus the description on.
My approach avoids this issue in two ways: the first is the use of telegraphing. If I’m doing my job right and the players are paying attention, they should be able to recognize what’s important not through quantity of description, but by the details of the description. The second is the action adjudication process. Since I don’t call for rolls to resolve things that have no chance of success, players who latch onto some unimportant detail of the environment should quickly realize they’re barking up the wrong tree when they fail to accomplish their goal without being asked to make a roll. That only happens if their approach didn’t have a chance of accomplishing their goal. Sure, there’s a small risk of the players thinking the approach rather than the goal was the problem, but it shouldn’t take long before it becomes clear that the goal is indeed the issue.
Me too. I also prefer actions over questions.
That isn't to say it can't be consequential to have the key. It may or may not be. But it can't be necessary. So the key might unlock extra information, a shorter or safer route, or bonus treasure. It just won't unlock REQUIRED information, path or treasure.
Since my players know this (even at cons since I am.up front with it) they can decide for themselves how to go about investigation, exploration and looting. It's not up to me because I'm not the players.