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Okay, I'll cop to it -- this is totally my fault. I get a little excited at the slightest opportunity to expound upon the setting, and in this case I added a small mausoleum to an otherwise boring graveyard where the PCs are investigating a rash of disappearances.

Naturally, they have now focused their attention on the mausoleum, to the exclusion of the rest of the graveyard, because, really, when people go missing in a graveyard, isn't the bad guy always set up in the mausoleum?

Unfortunately, this has left the players feeling stuck, since their exhaustive searches have turned up nothing relevant. I've tried to lure them out into the graveyard with sounds (e.g. cries for help) that I've suggested they should investigate, but they're terrified of wandering through the omni-present thick fog (my attempt at a little horror-esque atmosphere, maybe too good...). I've given them blatant clues that the mausoleum is a dead end, implying they should continue the investigation elsewhere, but still they hunker within it as if it were the sole thing keeping them alive.

I really don't want to break the "4th wall" and just tell them to move on, but if they don't move on the players are going to get really bored with the campaign that we've only just started. They've already done all the searching they can, so a simple secret door or something similar suddenly appearing within the mausoleum is not really credible at this point.

This is only my own particular case, but I'm sure other GMs have been in similar situations where their players get distracted by something irrelevant, so what are some general-purpose approaches that one could use in a situation like mine?

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This question gives me a bit of deja vu. Not a duplicate, but the answers there might be useful. –  Alticamelus May 4 '11 at 5:48
    
I know this is super old, so I'll just toss in a comment: if your skill checks are run like in this blog post, the party will get used to knowing when there's nothing time intensive or roll-worthy going on; when you seem uninterested, they will realize it's a waste of everyone's time and move on. –  durron597 Jun 9 at 14:29
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14 Answers 14

up vote 34 down vote accepted

One thing you can do when players get stuck is to change things around a bit. Unless you are a strict simulationist, anything they can't see is mutable to the whim of the story.

If you think the fog is keeping them inside, get rid of it, while maintaining the atmosphere. Have the winds pick up and a thunderstorm happen while they're inside. If you're feeling cruel, say the Mausoleum doesn't need to be particularly water tight, so have the rain coming through the roof, soaking them to the skin.

When the storm abates, having swept away the fog, leave a bright starry sky with a nice full moon. When they emerge, it should be easier for them to spot what they need to find, but the full moon should keep them on their toes, making them think of predators taking advantage too.

Finally, if they decide to make a break for it, as they're getting to the gate have them make one last spot check, and no matter what rolls they get, have the character with best check spot something important enough to send them back into the graveyard to investigate. Maybe the rain washed up a recently buried corpse from a shallow grave, or the glint of moonlight from the blade of a hastily discarded knife.

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If you are reluctant to break the 4th wall there are a lot of ways to get things moving again. All of Cthos' suggestions are excellent, as you have noted, and recognizing the concept of The Box will definitely help prevent or reduce the frequency of this happening to the group again. Some additional things you can try when you resume the session are:

  • Compress time

Give them every confidence that they have uncovered all that there is to uncover in the mausoleum, and then just advance time by great steps until they get the point on their own. There is no need to waste real-world time when no result can be obtained in-game. When many hours pass in a sentence (It is now 4am and your bellies are starting to complain) and it is time for them to start thinking of breaking into their stock of rations, most groups should want to move on to the next location. When they leave, they should stumble across some remnant from the screamer's abduction (like a bloody scrap of cloth or shoe), and should have an opportunity to notice the clues you have planted to lead them to the portal, but if they miss them - they miss them. There are plenty of examples in fiction where the mystery is not cracked on the first visit to a location. Use this to your advantage. They are scared now, once they leave they will feel relief at surviving. When they realize that they have to go back...? Terror.

  • Have the Portal be unstable

The portal could be presented as drifting from point to point within the confines of the graveyard. It has been hard for the locals to figure out what is happening as the source of their problem is not tied to a particular point, it manifests within the site's boundaries at random locations at intervals. This allows you to bring the portal near them or even to them as they cower in terror.

  • Have someone else take shelter within the mausoleum

This should not only make it blindingly obvious that the threat is 'out there' not 'in here,' it may also point out by example that hiding out in there is not the stuff of which heroes are made. Depending on the nature of the group, party, and setting, it could even be of use to you to use this fellow cowerer as an in-game means of goading them to action either by pleading to their better natures, or taunting them for giving in to their baser natures. Your mileage may vary, but the sharp-tongued haranguer is an oft-beloved part of fiction - as long as their role is brief, appropriate, sharply barbed/insightful, and perhaps ended with their brutal death at the hands of some fiend.

Should all of these fail:

  • Drill a small hole in the 4th wall

Tell one player privately that the group has gotten distracted by local colour, and that you are trusting/tasking them with getting things going again without revealing that they know this site has no greater importance. All it should take at this point is for one of the players to initiate the conversation: "I think we may have gotten carried away..."

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+1 for compressing time. Nothing quite like "okay, nothing happens for hours, and now you're uncomfortable and need to do something…" for moving things along. –  SevenSidedDie May 4 '11 at 14:45
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In my group, this is known as The Box. In the first session, the smuggler PCs were commissioned to transport a box from point A to point B. The box was a pretext for Mr. Johnson to bring the PCs to him, but they grew obsessed with opening the box. They knew the couldn't just open it. Could they x-ray it? What about dissolving the glue to re-glue later? Maybe they could find out where the box was manufactured... this took at least two or three hours of the evening until they finally gave up and took it to Mr. Johnson, and then it was quite clear what had happened.

Sometimes, The Box is a good mistake to have happen once. From that session on, the PCs never wasted that much time on a dead end again. They learned that if they couldn't find a way forward in a reasonable amount of time, they better find another way to go. This has helped the game keep moving. Five years later, the players will still say, "Wait. Is this just The Box again?"

(I think it's important for me to note that the question of whether the PCs were mistaken is very group-specific. There is a very enjoyable style of play in which if they really cared about the box, the GM would want to make the box become important per se.)

So, suggestion one: let them exhaust their ideas inside The B-- I mean, inside the mausoleum. They will realize that they were obsessing for no clear reason. This can be an important lesson to learn.

Suggestion two: go with it. Totally change direction from your plans and let them figure out the mystery of the mausoleum, opening a portal to Nil-Space, Realm of the Unborn. Obviously, you have to be careful taking this step, because it will be the first of many such direction-changes you will inevitably find yourself taking in the future.

And then there's a compromise, suggestion three: allow them to find something truly mysterious, but make it clear that they are not ready for it. Behind the most mysterious vault door, they find a locked gate, sealed with very powerful magic that only a Level 3 Lockomancer could ever charm. Or they realize that this is the resting place of a Big Bad, and they better not come knocking until Level 10. In fact, if they fear that the Big Bad is waking up, they'll flee voluntarily, and if you're lucky, they'll be excited to have a place to return to later!

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This is definitely our The Box! I don't like the play style where everything the PCs focus on suddenly becomes important -- it takes away any challenge of figuring stuff out! They have exhausted their ideas inside the mausoleum, though, so maybe they'll learn their lesson and move on now? Then we can have The Mausoleum (except that that word is a lot harder to spell than Box...). –  Kromey May 3 '11 at 23:20
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Depending on the system, there may be support for you planting an idea in the player characters' heads without breaking the 4th wall as much. Take a 4e example:

Player 1: "We've already checked everything in the northern wing. We found the secret room with some treasure, but we've looked for similar secret doors. Maybe we should try covering the floor in torches, spread out in a 1-foot grid, to see if we can see any abnormal air currents..."

Player 2: "I don't think we have that many torches. Still, if we cut the torches into smaller pieces and burned our cloaks and some of my javelins..."

DM: "Would everybody please make a dungeoneering or insight check?"

*rolls, unless they are terrible assume the roll passes *

DM: "It occurs to you that all the reports you heard were of disappearances in the graveyard, and that nobody mentioned the mausoleum specifically."

(Depending on roll and past events, you may be able to fit in something even more solid, like "in fact, you remember hearing that the ferrier's son disappeared visiting his grandmother's grave on the eastern edge of the graveyard, while Old Man Jasper was visiting the grave of his daughter near the grove of trees in the north... neither of which is near this mausoleum.")

This gives a decent way to ... bend ... the fourth wall. You don't actually have to speak person-to-person outside of game (other than what is normal for asking for rolls), but you do get a way to communicate to the players that there are other options. Insight in 4e is brilliant for this, but any skill loosely related to the situation can work (and the more you feel they NEED the hint, the easier the roll should be and the more skills you should let them apply to it).

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Oh, this is a really good idea. Especially since the family that built this mausoleum was pretty much despised, a very simple check could tell the PCs that the folks who disappeared were almost certainly nowhere near it! –  Kromey May 4 '11 at 16:29
    
+1 Players winning knowledge with a roll makes them a lot less likely to suspect it. –  Karl Bielefeldt Apr 25 '12 at 3:02
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I have had several times when this has happened to me in campaigns. I find there's several major approaches you can take.

  1. Run with it. Your plot is only set insofar as it's been exposed to the PCs. In a long 2e campaign, I had some PCs become obsessed with an abandoned house in a swamp, so I made it haunted, which obsessed them more, so I made it a central recurring part of the campaign. There's nothing wrong with converting the herring to sushi. You want to do this if the problem is that the herring is so cool and interesting that they can't leave it alone.

  2. Just keep going. What would happen next? You don't have to tick off second by second, you can compress time. "You wake up the next morning. It's a cheery day and the fog has burned off." Or waves of zombies keep coming from out in the graveyard, eventually they'll leave to figure out what's up or out of desperation. Let the sim run. Of course you are free to introduce other things to the sim - people, mausoleum fires, whatever. You want to do this if you still have momentum and they aren't in love with the herring, just distracted by it.

  3. Break the wall. In my current Pathfinder campaign, I had a player get very frustrated with a red herring - they were interrogating a guy who they were told had killed someone. They got no info out of him despite a good beating and no evidence from searching his place. Of course, there was no evidence to find, and he had been set up, but they just couldn't make that leap for whatever reason. I also am sim and don't like to break the wall but the one player just about quit the game afterward. I gave him a pep talk on "I run sim so you can trust the game, your instincts were right but you have to focus them in game and not meta" and he got that to a degree but said "sometimes you just need to tell me there's nothing more to be found." And if that's needed some, it's needed. You want to do this if #2 doesn't pan out and they just don't get the hints.

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+1 for "converting the herring to sushi". Oh, and the rest of it is excellent, too. –  Kromey May 5 '11 at 16:29
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Couple of things you could potentially do here, and it really depends on your players.

  1. Appeal to their Heroism - Give them a reason to go outside which appeals to their sense of good and justice. Perhaps they hear someone screaming deeper in the graveyard (whether or not someone is actually in trouble is up to you). This will only work if they are actually heroic, and will backfire if they say "Oh no! If I go outside, I'll die!". This is a variation on the sounds you've already tried, but if something they actually care about is at stake, it might work better than phantom noises.
  2. Appeal to their Greed - You've given them some nice art behind that hidden wall. Perhaps the room shuts, leaving a player trapped inside, and the mechanism to release that player is on the outside of the building (the player on the inside can see it through a window or something similar). Once the players leave the mausoleum they cannot reenter (pressure triggered lock or something designed to keep those theives at bay). Alternatively the secret room ejects anyone who stays too long that did not have a symbol of the family crest on it (or any other number of triggers), and dumps them outside. Repeat locking mechanism.
  3. Make the Mausoleum a place they do not want to be anymore - This gets closer to railroading them, but if you make the mausoleum an inhospitable place, they're almost sure to leave and head out into the darkness. Running a variation on the above, if they take any of the items in the back room, the remains of whomever is interred there decide to get up and run them out of the place (you should make it obvious that it won't chase them out of the building, and should be impermanent enough to not harm them in the long run...fear effects would do nicely). This could potentially backfire if they think that the thing is the big-bad.
  4. Variable Geography - People tend to go missing in the Cemetary because the terrain is variable. This is one of the cheesier options, but you could have the mausoleum be an illusion or otherwise it becomes ethereal at certain points. Perhaps it is not usually there, but appears one night every month under the light of the [insert moon phase here] for an hour and then returns from whence it came. This throws off the idea that it's being targeted by thieves a bit, but you can make it work.

Just a couple of ideas. The important thing is to know your players and attempt to appeal to something you know they want. Heck, there might even be a beautiful woman out in the fog...

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Number 1 is what I tried -- the "sounds" were indeed cries for help, which actually just terrified the PCs even more. Unfortunately, the method of concealing the artwork (just a fake plaster wall that they've now peeled away), and the fact that they have gone in and out of the mausoleum a few times (just never ventured far) negates 2. 3 is very tempting, though, but as they already think the mausoleum is important they would then be quite certain that they had found the big-bad. 4, though... I can't believe I didn't think of it, since the mystery actually is a portal to the Shadowfell! –  Kromey May 3 '11 at 23:12
    
Number 3 should really be called "Appeal to their fear" (the four virtues of adventurers being fear, greed, heroism/stupidity, and getting distracted by fire/smoke) –  Snowbody Jun 27 '11 at 15:40
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Why not put the portal into the mausoleum? I have a friend who's DMed for years and he swears that his players have as much to do with creating the adventure as he does. If a player finds a shovel and starts digging holes everywhere, he's likely to eventually find some artifact that is a set of 3 buried artifacts buried by great King blah that need to be recovered...

This improv sometimes leads to an entire new adventure that wasn't planned.

But your change seems really simple--drop the portal into the mausoleum and let them find the hidden switch the next time they search.

Don't consider your dungeon immutable. The whole difference between you and a computer game is that the computer game can't react to a player doing something completely unplanned--you can. Encourage it and revel in the chaos.

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I completely agree. This is akin to when the players fall in "love" with a completely throw-away NPC. Take it and run with it. To me it demonstrates that the players are all in, they are digging the adventure and actively participating. –  Galieo May 4 '11 at 12:20
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Repaint the redness of that herring to match the colour of your story. :) Bring the Mausoleum into the main plot of the game.

How? Make your portal mobile, have it wander within the cemetery every full moon, Friday, or something (anything in their present / very near future.)

If that's too strong, have the artwork your players found reveal the location they're looking for. See, by candlelight (moonlight, moonlight on a Thursday night etc), a secret sketch becomes visible on it: a crude map of the graveyard... with a convenient bunch of short notes that indicate the real place of the portal and the relative insignificance of the Mausoleum itself: (an X at the real portal) "Shouldn't go near here without a lit candle with [God's sign] carved on it, last seen Jack there", (an O at the Mausoleum) "Thieves' hideout, safe" and a few similar secondary markings. Emphasize the X: it's unique, whereas the Os are not, and they're dull as well. ("Uncle Bill's grave, robbed [checkmark]", "Mayor's grave, robbed [checkmark]" etc.)

Note the careful ;) "Shouldn't go there without a lit candle..." part: this is here to allay the fears of your players, to provide them with a false sense of security - without it they may decide to avoid the spot completely and finally, thinking it too dangerous... This should make them think that with the proper prop in hand, they'll be safe(r), somewhat. (And indeed they may be, though not as safe as they think, depending on whether you wish to increase or decrease the apparent importance / reliability of [God's sign].)

Combine this with the options suggested by the other answers for best effect (a wind doing away the fog etc.)

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I agree, take this player interest and expound upon it. The interior of the mausoleum isn't set so why not plunk down the portal there. –  Galieo May 4 '11 at 12:21
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Someone has to suggest this, and might as well be me: Break the fourth wall. Just do it.

Say, "Okay, not every mausoleum in every graveyard is a bad guy's hideout. Please take this as a hint so we can start having fun again."

This is way better than "the players are going to get really bored with the campaign". And, unlike many solutions to problems, it's a super-quick fix! Just do it, move on, and y'all will forget about it soon enough when you're in the thick of the fun again.

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You're right, it's certainly better than everyone getting bored with the campaign in the very first session. I just really hate doing that, and am hoping to avoid it while still keeping everyone interested and happy if at all possible. –  Kromey May 3 '11 at 23:37
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Yeah, I understand. There had to be one answer saying to just do it and get it over with though, and I just happened to write it. Some of the other non-breaky answers are great. :) –  SevenSidedDie May 4 '11 at 14:44
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What about sending monsters through the portal? If you can draw the PCs out of the mausoleum in the course of the combat, have them make (easy) perception checks to notice the portal's activity. A few monsters with ranged attacks from cover at the entrance, or a monster who looks like he might be carrying an important clue when he flees, would do nicely. It would also give the mausoleum the chance to be the important adventure site that the PCs think it is - do a few minutes of background research on real life or fantasy mausoleums, play up the spooky setting and terrain when you're designing your mini-dungeon.

Maybe the portal can have a sound effect which coincides with the appearance of reinforcements for the monsters.

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Destroy the mausoleum, they'll get the hint.

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There's someone hiding in the mausoleum, perhaps someone who now emerges from a hidden, featureless cellar, who knows something about something strange out there, and can show the players where it is.

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They are obsessed with the place because as far as they can tell all signs point to it yet none are there pointing to somewhere else. Next time they succeed at searching something or maybe they try to look for a pattern or whatever in that painting have it point to where you want them to go. This turns your dead end street into a working road to adventure.

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+1 for the metaphor~ –  Runeslinger May 5 '11 at 2:35
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Subtle hints always work better than beating them over the head. The cries for help are a good touch, but if they continue to ignore it for fear of their safety, maybe a reminder that they're ADVENTURERS, and being afraid to help people might give them a bad reputation back in town when the "brave band of heroes" didn't wanna walk through fog.

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