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We're playing Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition. I'm a new GM, mastering a party of mostly new players.

I take campaign design rather seriously, and I hate railroading. I love coming up with crafty solutions, and I love it when my players do that. That's why I thought it'd be a good idea to not present the players with explicit sets of options. For example, when infiltrating a city, I could tell them they can get in through the gate, over the wall or through the sewage drain, but I fear they'd feel constrained to these three methods of infiltration instead of having full liberty to come up with a plan themselves.

Now I've tried this kind of "zero-options" gameplay, and it didn't work quite so spectacular. I have a city where a major distinguishing feature is a huge tower, which is also my party's quest target. I didn't give the party a list of other locations inside the city, instead hoping for them to explore themselves and find the potion shop being sacked and the wretched dabbler necromancer in the ruined basement. What happened is the players went straight to the tower, and I can kinda see why - that's the only interesting place they knew of, so naturally they went there.

As you can see my attempt at not railroading them wound up railroading them even more, and I may need to present more information to the players to let them choose more freely. So here's the question: How do I present different choices to the players effectively, without forcing them (or making them feel forced) to pick one of the presented options?

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Related/possible duplicate, see rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/29795/… and rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/5582/… –  mxyzplk May 17 at 18:04

5 Answers 5

up vote 13 down vote accepted

You could present the game in a more reactive fashion.

If the players do not appear to be making any kind of indications of the sort of actions that they would like to take then you could simply present low-importance information back to them and again prompt them for action.

For instance: The players would like a means of entering a city and have their reasons not to do so in conventional ways (through the front gate - through the guards).

You could start be describing the city as being... "...on a slope, with most battlements appearing to be well-maintained, the grey slate mostly devoid of growths and only the faint shadows of the sun high in the sky betraying the existence of minor weather erosion. The breeze blows warmly across the landscape and activity at the gate seems calm."

In the lack of an indication of action you could prompt the group with the soft suggestion - "Would you like to explore further?"

(Side Note - if the response is something as low-brow as "we wait a little to see what happens" then an appropriate response could be "You wait a few minutes and watch as a small flock of pigeons rise and fall in the distance over the rafters... Nothing of further note catches your attention. What would you like to do now?" This presents the low-importance information mentioned earlier - unless there is good reason to add information (a time-line like an approaching storm or a nearby threat))

If yes then "OK. Tell me who in the group is going to be exploring and in what manner. Are you looking for anything?"

And in response to the lackluster "Looking for a way in" - "OK - You need to tell me specifically what kind of way in you are looking for and how you are going to do it"

This will engage the players and certain avenues may present options to you. Perhaps scouting the walls in a careless or unstealthy manner might result in a challenge from atop one of the watch towers. Or perhaps they will happen upon a small group of shady characters with which interaction might occur.

You may also be presented with options that you had not considered.

A search of the walls for a means to scale it might reveal a particular location between battlements where external plumbing has been affixed externally to the wall, leading downwards and terminating a short way above a lonely sewage wagon. This would present the possibility of an easier climb DC should they choose this way to enter - although there is no guarantee that it will not be detected or that it will be safe. The small stream inlet further north around the city (assuming that the character searches further) might prove a better bet - especially if you can swim.

Although the players needn't be told that unless they test the waters first - that is part of the fun of being a GM - you don't need to worry about common sense on behalf of the players - you can provide warnings of difficulties if you wish.

In this way you are presenting the kinds of choices that the players elicit from you. If they don't appear remotely interested in going through the gate then there is no need to present the hint (if specifically searched for) that the guard might accept a payoff - or that disguises might work due to the apparent lazy disposition of the guards in general.

Of course you will occasionally want to prod the group if they end up in a situation with no clear way forward. If boredom is setting in and the group is stuck looking for posters of jobs at the guard house then perhaps their attention might be drawn to a short old man who watches them intently from outside the door. That may play out in various ways - whether to present a task or to present a new foe or to direct the players to a location that they would be more likely to find work.

Alternatively it is possible to draw upon the characters' background history - a little clue that occasionally pops up here and there. Whether it materializes as expected is not important - it helps to provide direction and direction is a precursor to momentum.

Presenting secondary events

When you spend time designing secondary plots for the party to stumble upon it is understandable that you would 'wish' for the party to stumble upon them even if they might not otherwise do so.

While you could certainly place all these encounters (conveniently) in the path of your players, there are several factors to consider:

  • Conservation of effort and resources - Is it of particular importance for the players to encounter this sub-plot at this juncture of the adventure? You could perhaps look at different ways to capitalize upon the players missing this plot-line and any reasonable clues (such as the occasional unexplained whiff of rotten meat - or a suspiciously intact section of skeleton laying near a dump site in the sun (perhaps waiting for the dark to saunter its way toward an evil source)) that you might have placed in their path.

Would it be economical for this basement-dwelling dabbler necromancer to 'move' to a run-down shack in an unnaturally silent part of the forest (think 'Evil Dead')? Or perhaps a next town if the concept would work better in an urban environment.

One last possibility is introducing the possibility of consequences for events that are not encountered and tackled. Perhaps failing to notice the dabbler necromancer would result in an increased incidence of undead attacks in the surrounding country-side as his poorly contained energies seep away and awaken a worse evil than he or she could ever have imagined. This could also apply to the potion shop ruckus - a few ill-mixed ingested potions could release a crazily mutated humanoid upon a rampage.

  • Suspiciously peaceful aftermath - If your players encounter nothing but resistance from varying seemingly unrelated forces before completing the main event, and emerge to sunshine and rainbows within a suddenly peaceful city then one or two players might begin to suspect that one or more secondary plots were contrived - placed before them - possibly denting the suspension of belief that goes with good role playing games (its not so likely if they actively pursued reasonably challenging and scarce clues). Even if you don't happen to have any good secondary plots left for this city you could always fall back on the consequences of the breakdown of the structure of order in part or all of the city (The guards are distracted. Looters ahoy!).

  • Player conditioning towards proactive approach - If the players do not express any desire to explore the rest of the city then they do not have to. Once again you can recycle materials for other locations in terms of shop descriptions and the like (just be sure to keep track of what NPCs and places you put in which locations - jot notes on the fly). Furthermore you could occasionally tease the players by having a couple of travelling NPC casually comment between themselves that "The 20% sale was a novel idea", or that the "Artifact auction was popular" or that "Villagers have started disappearing in the night", etc.

Eventually the players may get the idea that it is worthwhile to get a small idea of a city as you never know what you might find.

Hint - If you are not into detailing maps then you could do worse than to set all the locations (or clusters of locations) on a probability chart. If they roll successfully for a particular location then you could describe that section in shallow detail similarly to when you described the city at first sight - let them explore and direct the flow. Rerolls can attempt to avoid areas already explored - alternatively a good streetwise test (even characters can get lost in some places that are big enough).

Conservation of energy as a GM

While some of these thoughts may hopefully prove useful to yourself in conducting your games, remember that they are a set of suggestions that need not be implemented in full. You will find it desirable to determine how deeply you wish to describe your world and an excess amount of it may be pleasing but it may also entail a greater degree of creative involvement on your part. This is why I mentioned certain time-saving elements like use of pre-determined probability charts - these are tools intended to take a little of the burden off your mind - but should not serve as an obstacle to your doing what you wish to do (you can fudge a roll or allow direct movement if it takes your fancy) - after all, the tools serve you, not vice-versa.

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Thank you for your answer, Avestron. It gave me several new insights. I'll wait and see if there are more answers before accepting but you've earned an upvote. –  kviiri May 17 at 10:46
@kviiri That's wise. Etiquette here seems to be wait at least two days before accepting an answer. –  Flamma May 17 at 12:26

Descriptions Provide Focus and Options

If you never describe what is in your world, your players will never know what's in it. Whatever you present in the world will also be the focus of their attention. The blog post by the Angry DM here goes into more detail about it. Basically, you'll rarely get players who go off exploring when an objective is obviously right in front of them.

Initially Present Problems, Not Solutions

Present problems, which then prompt the players to search for solutions. It can be as simple as "you found the tower/city, but it's barred! The guards are not letting you or anyone else in!" Since they want to gain access to the tower (which requires access to the city), they must get in somehow. The sewer grate/climbable wall was never mentioned, and you shouldn't mention them unless they do some investigation. This focuses your players on a problem, and lets their problem-solving brains to fire up.

What About Side-Quests?

The simple answer is to put side-quests in their way. You want them to find a shop being ransacked? Put the commotion in their way as they go to the tower. Leave it to the players to engage with it or not. Should they have a run-in with a necromancer? Have them walk by and get an eerie feeling about a house, or have them smell the distinct smell of rotting corpses as they pass that home. This presents them options, and they can choose to interact with it or not.

In summary, present players with interesting problems, but don't present solutions or force encounters until the players engage with those problems.

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One of the problems tabletop rpgs wrestle with all the time is the divide between decorative description vs. functional description. You describe the tower and broadly describe the city: the players know for sure the tower is where they have to go, but they don't know if the city has any value at all - so they skip it.

Just as much as in videogames where you spend a bit of time figuring out what kind of scenery is "interactive" and functional vs. scenery you don't have to worry about - tabletop games suffer the problem that the line is not always clear, for the entire time you play.

Out of game advice

One solution is to explain to them the general set up as it happens. "Hey, here's this city, there's some neat stuff in it that might help you, there's also the tower. Getting in and looking around will give you more intel, and maybe more resources. Heck there may even be allies. If you go straight to the tower, you save time but you might be going in blind. It's up to you guys to decide what how/what that looks like, and if you come up with something I didn't think of, we'll roll with it."

Character knowledge

A second solution for providing some ideas is to give information as things already known to the characters.

"As a thief, you know it might be worthwhile to case the joint before going straight in. You might want to ask about other folks who've tried and failed to get in there, there's gotta be rumors."

"Big tower like that? Gotta have guards. And guards go drinking. Maybe as a fighter you can pass off as someone looking for a job - get the skinny on how things are run."

"There's a temple to your god there. And one thing you've learned is that temples often will spare a divination spell or two to find out a bit about the political future of the area - just to know when to stay on the good side of a ruler. I bet they know something about that tower."

etc. And, again, outside of character - "There might be other stuff it would make sense for your character to know - just ask me! This isn't the only ways you can do stuff - I've got 8 pages of notes here of locations and NPCs! You can really come at this in a lot of ways."

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You're trying to give them options by withholding options. You want them to explore the verisimilitude of the world by not describing the world. I can understand this makes sense in your head, but it doesn't at the table. Particularly with new players.

They're new players, so they need to get their bearings. They may have no idea what kind of options there are, what kind of choices make sense. They take your guidance and follow up on that. If you don't want them to follow your lead, give them other stuff to follow.

If that sounds like totally not the game you want to run, don't worry. They will eventually get their bearings, and start making their own plans, and before you know it, you'll be cursing them for constantly derailing your plans. I hope when that time comes, you'll remember that that's what you wanted.

Anyway, there's a few different approached you could take:

Giving them a few starting options, but hint that there's more

When they want to infiltrate a city, you could tell them: "The way into the city passes through a massive gatehouse. This is where normal people enter the city, but you might to run into guards who ask questions. Is that the way you want to take or do you want to look for a more subtle entry into the city?" Players: "Er, let's take the subtle entry." GM: "Alright. What are you thinking of?" Players: "I don't know. What other ways are there?" GM: "Oh, lots. But which are the good ones? Do you want to climb over the wall, perhaps?" Player 1: "Yeah, I'm good at climbing. Let's do that." Player 2: "Wait won't there be guards on the walls too? Climbing seems more conspicuous than simply taking the road everybody else takes." etc.

Sewers are also something not every starting player thinks of. Mentioning it explicitly at least once, possibly a few times, may get them to consider it as an option. Or maybe they think it'll be locked with a grate.

Or, as they walk on the road towards the main gate, you could simply describe a bit of crumbling wall with some sturdy vines and a sewer exit, as well as some other stuff that makes the city feel real, but isn't necessarily a potential entry. Describing the environment is always good. It brings the whole thing to life. There may be plenty of other ways into the city, but simply by walking there, they already notice a few.

The same goes for the shops in the city. Even if they head straight for the tower, they're bound to walk through a number of streets and see a variety of shops and inns there. Describe them, even briefly.

There are different ways to handle this. You could simply say: "On your way to the center of town, you pass an inn with a big crowd outside. A bit further down the street you see a weaponsmith's that's boarded up. As you round a corner, you see some people kicking in a door of a shop that has above the door a sign shaped like a vial or something."

Or you could hide it in the atmospheric description of the city. Describe the smells of the tanning district they pass through, with the leatherworker selling a variety of leather equipment and armor. Later on, they get to the fancier more upperclass mercantile district, where the merchants live, though you can also find alchemist's shops here. If you ever need potions, this is the place.

But these methods still have the problem that you're constantly deciding what they see, and they might believe you have a specific reason to show them exactly that and not something else. You're still leading them. There is a great way around that; an old tradition in RPGs, that's unfortunately surprisingly controversial:

Big Random Tables

The idea is simple: make some big tables with random events. Make every event cool. And make it clear that you are rolling on a table. That last part is vital.

Random tables, particularly random monsters, got a bad reputation, because a lot of people feel that the GM should simply present awesome, relevant encounters, and not risk randomly rolled crappy irrelevant encounters. And admittedly, a lot of random tables are crap. But there are two big things that random tables accomplish, that the GM picking the most interesting relevant encounter doesn't accomplish:

  • The GM is not leading the players anymore; you give this control out of your hands, and if you can't give it to the players, you give it to a die roll. At least you're not dictating the course of the adventure anymore; you don't know what's going to happen any more than the players do.
  • More importantly: if the players know you're rolling on a table, they also know that there is more on that table. They will want to know what. The existence of the table already gives them reason to explore. There's a big world of people and events and stuff going on, and much of it may be irrelevant, but hopefully it's also all cool in its own way.

Not everything that happens to them is automatically relevant, so suddenly, they have to decide what they respond to. Ideally, every entry on the table has its own story (which may or may not tie into the greater story), and if the players see the story, they may do something with it. If they don't see the story, they'll probably ignore it, which is also totally fine. By making that decision, the players are suddenly deciding what they want the game to be about.

And they can afford to ignore some events, because they already know it's not vital, because there was never a guarantee that it would be rolled. But it could still be interesting, relevant, or offer a cool opportunity, and they'd be crazy to ignore that.

Designing a good table of random stuff

Note that a table can contain anything. In the past, D&D often had tables of random monsters you could encounter in a dungeon, but it could just as easily be about shops and other events they encounter on a walk through the city, or rumours they hear in a bar, or even possible entries into the city.

A good table entry has a story. Too many random monster tables said nothing more than "1d4+1 Orcs" or "1d3 merchants". That sucks. Why are the Orcs there? What kind of merchants are they and where are they going or coming from? What makes them or their situation different from other merchants or orcs? The best table entries tie into and modify the greater story. Perhaps they meet an important NPC, run into a vital clue, see the handiwork of the evil henchmen, etc. Whether they have or haven't had some encounter may have impact on how other events unfold. Maybe different encounters provide different bonus clues that may lead to different approaches to the main problem.

But there's another technique that could also help you:

Ask the players about the world

The traditional way of roleplaying is that the GM is the final arbiter of every fact in the world, and the players are constantly asking about them. Or if they don't, they simply won't know much about the world, which would be a shame.

Dungeon World is a game system that turned this around. Instead of answering questions, the GM would constantly ask the players about the world, and the players' answer would define a little bit about the world. The GM would't ask about the main plot line of course (unless you want to go there, which you might), but you could ask: "Other than the main gate, what other ways into the city are there?" or: "On your way to the tower, what kind of shops do you see?" You make the players co-authors of the world, and that forces them to turn on their creativity, and not sit passively waiting for you to spoon feed them their options.

And that's really what this is about, isn't it? You want them to think creatively, so make them think, create and decide, rather than hoping passively that they might think of something on their own.

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Present them with options

I have a city where a major distinguishing feature is a huge tower, which is also my party's quest target. I didn't give the party a list of other locations inside the city, instead hoping for them to explore themselves and find the potion shop being sacked and the wretched dabbler necromancer in the ruined basement.

In the session you describe, your players only know that the tower is there. There's a whole city around it, but if you don't tell the players anything about that city, they will probably assume the usual vending machines inns and shops. Naturally, if your players don't want to buy anything right this instant, they'll go to the tower.

In reality, though, if you stroll through a city, you'll see several meaningful landmarks more or less all at once. Sure, there's the tower, but there's also the church, the town hall, the guard barracks, etc, etc. If you want to encourage more exploration tell your players that when you enter town, you're going to roll a couple of times to see what major landmarks they pass. (Telling them is important, because they now know there's something they're missing.)

Have options

The other problem you seem to have is that you were hoping that they would stumble into the One True Plot in the potion shop. Arguably, the reason you are having trouble not railroading your players might just be that you're railroading them. A truly open plot has to have a wide variety of things that could and could not happen, and allows them to shape the evolution of other events.

Not railroading the players doesn't mean that there isn't an ideal sequence for them to progress through the scenes. Maybe because they skip/miss the potion shop the bad guy's guards each have an extra healing potion which makes that combat harder. Maybe not stopping by the church means they don't get the help of a friendly NPC who's been looking to take on the tower. You can (and should) make your players aware that by going straight for the goal, they are missing out on benefits from the other locations. On the other hand, by heading straight for the bad guy, they deprive him of time to prepare for their assault, and might benefit in that way.

A GM Tool

Here's a method you could use to help plan these town adventures:

  1. Make a list of all the important locations in town.
  2. Next to each location write down what the bad guys gain from the location, and what the consequence is if the party goes to the location (and succesfully overcomes whatever challenge is there, if any).
  3. Make a chart for randomly rolling these locations. If you have a weird total or want to make some locations more prominent, give them a bigger range on the die roll. You might also want to make a "Nothing" entry to represent the players just never seeing anything.

Now you can use this chart when the players get to town.

  1. Roll twice on the table to decide which landmarks the players see when they first arrive.
  2. Whenever a player goes out on the town for a significant amount of wandering, roll again to see if they pass a landmark.
  3. Let the players investigate locations as they see fit.
  4. When they finally go to fight the bad guys, assume the bad guys got all of the good things from any locations the party ignored or couldn't beat.
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