Villager1: "Mornin' Henrik. Beautiful day isn't it?
Villager2: "Sure is. Sure is. Not a care in the world and ..."
DM: "Heya guys."
Villager1:"Oh crap, it's the Dungeon Master."
DM: "Now, now. Don't be like that. I'm just coming in here to prep you for the next adventure. Gather round, everyone, gather round!"
Villager 2: "We're so screwed."
DM: "Now, a group of PCs are on the way here to solve your bandit problem ..."
Villager1: "We don't have a bandit problem!"
DM: "Oh, yes. You do. They've been raiding your village for a few weeks now. Hmmm, we better batter the town up a bit ..."
DM: "And where's the sherif? Ah, there you are. Yes, sorry, you didn't make it, which is why your town needs outside help."
Sherif: "What do you mean, I ...urk!" *thud*
DM: "Ok, next we need to let the PCs know which way the bandits went."
Villager1: "Fine, fine. Sigh. Where do we point the PCs? And what kind of bandits are they fighting?"
DM: "Oh no no no no! I can't have you do that. We only want the PCs to go off in a vague direction, and definitely not find out anything about what they're fighting beforehand. If they get too much info now, I won't have nearly as much fun later."
Villager1: "But they're here to save us, right? What do we tell them?"
DM: "Oh you can't tell them anything. See all of you need to be distrustful of outsiders and not share any information. In fact, it's better if I don't tell you anything just to make sure you don't slip up or in case they start torturing you."
Villager 2: "Torturing us?!"
DM: "Oh don't worry. They only resort to that about 30-40% of the time. And usually only on ugly people."
Priest: "I don't think we can hold back talking like that. We're devoted to the dissemination and open flow of all information. This ..."
DM: "And you are?"
Priest: "I'm the priest of Ioun who runs the local temple. It's my sacred duty to gather and spread knowledge to all those in need."
DM: "Yeeeeah, that's not going to work here. Hmmm. Ah, OK, you can tell the PCs a few tidbits about the bandits.Yeah, that works. You'll be the only link they have here for information because everyone is so mistrusting. That probably happened when your church got torched."
Priest: "What are you talking about our church getting -," *FWOOSH* "Oh for the love of -"
DM: "And after that, you were so broken up, you became the town drunk. Most of the info you give will be babbling and muttering so it'll be hard to make any sense out of it."
Priest: "Hold on. You couldn't possibly -" *snap* - help out a poor schlob like me and *hic* buy me a lil drink, cudjya?"
DM: "Great. And if it looks like you're giving away too much, we'll have you pass out on the floor."
DM: "Perfect. Ok, places everyone. Here they come." *pop*
It's a trend I've been running into lately. NPCs in adventures are either blithering idiots or completely reluctant to give you the time of day for fear you might figure out some detail about the upcoming adventure. Time was, you needed to spend the first hour or two of an adventure collecting every rumor you could. When you unearthed the tomb of the forgotten king, if you didn't know what the king ate for breakfast on the day he got married, well, you just weren't getting through that adventure!
But adventurers are spoiled nowadays. I mean, if they need to find out how to fight a monster, all they need to do is make a knowledge check! And why would they bother talking to anyone else anyway? Getting information from NPCs is like pulling teeth. Lots of grunting and effort with nothing to show but a sore jaw when you're all done. There needs to be a way to populate the world with people that, you know, actually talk.
Why Not Talk?
Why don't NPCs talk in the first place? Well, first of all adventurers, as a general rule, are ADD. This is likely caused by classic adventurers including over a page of boxed text as the introduction to the adventure. After that, who wants to sit around and talk anymore? It's time for action! So DMs jump right to the chase before the players start finding out which of the DM's minis look the coolest if you set them on fire.
And if you have a balanced encounter set out, what do you do if the players gain knowledge about the encounter beforehand? A party armed with fire resistance, cold weapons and immobilization spells are much better able to handle a fire breathing dragon than they might normally be able to. You could make the dragon even tougher and assume your players will find out about their adversary. But if your players don't uncover this information before they leave, you must either force feed it to them or have them face an encounter that is now much more difficult than you planned. It's much easier to give them a low ceiling on the information they can gather to make sure they stay within your expectations.
Let the Players Win
It's OK to let the players be resourceful, find out information and use that to blow through your encounters. If they had figured out some fun way to bypass your encounter in the heat of battle, you might give them extra XP for it. But try finding out information beforehand, and you worry that the adventure will be ruined.
It won't be ruined. The players will feel smug for outsmarting the villains, or even the DM. It also let's you know they're willing to do the legwork and you can plan encounters around information gathering in the future. And you can always bring in the next villain who can provide more challenge for them.
No Information is Information
If someone is either unwilling or unable to give the players the information they have, that should be a clue for the players as to what is wrong. A town that is distrustful of strangers is boring. Find a reason for that distrust and you have a mystery on your hands.
Example: The leader of the local thieves' guild knows all about the bandits, though he's not responsible for their actions. In fact, the banditry is bad for the thieving business. Everything the players know says the guild has a lot of information, but they're not sharing it. Are they being threatened? Maybe one of the bandits is related to the guild leader and he doesn't want him hurt. The fact that the guild is keeping quiet should tip the players off that something else is going on.
Achievement: Conversation Unlocked
Even with all these people who wouldn't be bothered to stop and tell you that your shoe is on fire, there are paths to opening up communication. You just need to find the right lever. This may be a bribe, a secret sign, blackmail, or just getting on the person's good side. Using knowledge skills, sense motive and streetwise can give a player valuable insight on how to approach a potential witness.
Information From a Group
The first line of defence in using stupid NPCs is to have a single NPC have all the information the players need. That way, you can take him out of the picture easily once he's given the PCs all the information you want him to. Instead, of making him the only point of contact, have a whole group be the point of contact. While most of the town might still be closed off, this group of contacts can provide more roleplaying fodder and still accomplish the same goals without forcing all the information to come from a single mouth.
Example: A streetwise check leads the party to a bar that caters mostly to farmers who come in to share a drink after a hard day's work. Though they're as sullen as the rest of the town, buying a few drinks for these out of towners will start loosening some lips. After a few nights of talking, it appears there are actually two bandit camps operating outside town.
Break Up the Monotony
Sometimes, you need to give the players a lot of information. And it will bore them to tears. While you can try to add a combat when the players start to look bored, it would be better to prevent the boredom in the first place. Another way, popular in many video games, is to have the information uncovered piece by piece as the adventurers explore the world. A simple example is pages from a lost diary that are recovered by players during the adventure. Besides spreading out the information out over time, the players also have more time to absorb the information and it gives the impression of events that are unfolding naturally, as opposed to details that are thrust on to the players just to get the story going.
Take Lots of Prisoners
Another way players always try to skip around the dungeon is by taking a prisoner in the first encounter and then using intimidate for all it's worth. The fearful DM will have the lowly minion know practically nothing, stutter a few minor tidbits and then faint in terror.
4E makes it ridiculously easy to subdue opponents now instead of kill them. It's hard not to take prisoners and interrogate them. And with Sense Motive checks available, it's hard to even have your prisoners lie about it. So what do they do?
In the first case, they could be fanatics who won't be scared of death. However, a good intimidation roll should still be useful - "You don't scare me, ugly beard face! When my winged mistress comes down and burns you with her glorious breath of fire, you shall suffer!" "Oh, your mistress flies and breathes fire, hmmm?"
Or they could be overly informative.
Or the captive could just tell what they know. Maybe as part of a bargain. Maybe because they want to go home. Maybe they hate the current leadership. Maybe because the PCs are just that scary and awesome. There's a reason why minions are kept in the dark about the evil mastermind's plan and this is it. Maybe they were even lied to. But you should make sure that the minion uncovers something interesting for the players to know so their efforts are rewarded.
How often do you run into the situation where NPCs are hard to get information out of? How much information do you let your PCs get before the adventure starts? Do they ever get too much and ruin the encounter?