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Last sunday I experienced my first session playing a TRPG (D&D 5e Curse of Strahd), and after think about the session I found something that I didn't understand exactly.

The session started with all the players (me, another first time player, and a beginner) in a tavern. The GM said there was a barman, a few persons eating and some guards with shiny armor there, then... silence. ... he didn't say anything ... noone said anything ... I tried to break the ice asking to the guards why they were in such small village (with only 4 houses), they said something about a mist, then... silence.

Our druid tried to fill the gap asking to the barman about the mist, he said that everyone would die after night, then... silence. I tried to also speak to the barman and I asked where mist comes from. He said something about a bridge and then the druid asked some other people if the barman wasn't crazy (the GM used the voice of crazy man to talk as the barman). The said he was just a bit crazy and then I don't remember how exactly but I think the GM noticed that the session was going wrong. The guards left the tavern, so the druid follow them, I follow the druid, and the other player follow me... and then there was a combat that isn't important here.

I want to know about the silences.

Our GM said that the session was a bit improvised because it was a basic introduction to TTRPGs and the campaign, but I think the silence was done on purpose to obligate us to talk and move the conversation. (I read a bit of that as a GM technique. I am not sure if it was used properly. I felt that a bit akward). Is that true?
Was our GM trying to force us to take action or it just was an error?

Or maybe he just was giving us time to think?
Do we (players) or the GM have to move the conversation?

The GM was trying to give that work to us, but I am not sure if that is our duty as players.

Is there any suggestion to me (as player) to improve the flow of the game?
"Just make more questions" isn't a good idea, because as new player I wasn't sure what to do, I take too much time thinking about what things can I do, determine the best action and think if that idea could bring problems or not for the group or GM.

I don't want to ask unnecessary (trivial) questions because the GM would be forced to think answers for them.

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Don't worry

It's not uncommon for first sessions to be a little rough around the edges.

The whole point of a role playing game is for players to make choices and decisions which lead to interesting things and adventures

Given that you are new to the hobby, it is not unusual to take a few sessions to get the hang of it.

  • Your DM is probably unwilling to railroad his players: that is a term that means that the DM makes too many decisions for the players.

  • Finding the "just right" balance point for a given group of players - between nudging them forward into a plot, and letting them explore the world on their own - can take a few sessions. That is not unusual at all.

  • Each table will be a little bit different.

What your DM was allowing to happen was to make the story unfold as a reaction to your choices and decisions, be it talk to the barman, talk to the guard, get rip-roaring drunk at the tavern, or whatever your characters choose to do.

That you found it awkward isn't a bad thing: once again, when you are new to an RPG, getting the rhythm of play to work at a given table sometimes takes "trial and error" on the part of both the players and the DM.

Keep playing, and enjoy the adventure.

Your DM is giving you the reins to explore the unknown, which is a core appeal to this kind of game.

To answer your title question

Does the GM or the players move the session?

YES!

After each game session, it is a best practice to have a discussion between players and DM to discuss "this went well" and "this was difficult" and "what the heck was this?" for the occasional goof-up that will now and again happen. You are in this together to have fun, So have fun with it. This is a conversation you need to be having with your DM, and your fellow players. The result of the conversation is to help to get the rhythm of play to be just right for your table.

About asking questions

In the fantasy world that you enter when a DM runs the game, asking questions is a key way for you to get information that helps you make decisions and choices for what to do, or what not to do. In that sense, not asking questions may be an obstacle to the game progressing since you can't make a decision unless you have an idea of what is around you. It is better to err toward asking a few more questions, than asking fewer questions, until you are all more comfortable with the flow of the game at your table.

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Silence

At its heart, TRPGs are a structured conversation - everything else is just bells and whistles.

Like all conversations it relies on all parties to contribute at the appropriate time. Too much contribution and you get a cacophony where meaning is lost, too little and you get what you got - a stilted, awkward conversation.

Silence is a conversational tool - usually it has a purpose. The most common use of silence in a conversation is where one of the conversants has asked a question and is awaiting a reply. The question might be implicit: if so the other conversants might not realize an answer is expected of them - this is your situation.

TRPG

D&D 5e structures its conversation like this (PHB, p.5):

  1. The DM describes the environment
  2. The players describe what they want to do
  3. The DM narrates the result of the character's actions

Right after step 1 the DM will pause and is expecting an answer to the question "What do you want to do?" With experienced players this question doesn't need to be voiced, however, I will respectfully suggest that your DM erred in not asking it explicitly1.

This is where you (the players) do step 2 - describe what you want to do.

You are allowed to ask the DM questions: "What can I do?" being a personal favorite of mine as both a DM and a player. This tells the DM that you're lost - their description of the environment has not prompted you to "want to do" anything in particular2 and some guidance would be appreciated.

Notwithstanding, to answer your headline question: Both

1. Some DMs have a pathological fear of denying player agency by "railroading" the players. My views on that are here. Suffice it to say that in satisfying their pathology, some DMs commit the real sin of denying player fun by doing the equivalent of putting them in Harry Potter's Hall of Prophecy and suck the life out of the game until the players go through all the balls one by one until they find the one(s) that actually do something. Wiser DMs have their NPCs say "3rd corridor on the left, 2nd shelf, about halfway down."

2. For all sorts of reasons: the description was vague or obscure, you weren't paying attention, you cant work out what the "moving parts" are in this scene, etc.

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This is a play style question; it depends on the people involved.

At some tables, the DM will keep things moving; at others the players do more of that. I am running two campaigns right now.

One is made up of all relatively new players, and I do more of the work of moving the plot. NPCs do more interaction, and I have an NPC in the party who can step in if the party is lost and dragging. I give them every chance to be proactive, but sometimes they don't know how to do that; they're new, and can use an occasional nudge in the right direction.

The other is made up of very experienced players, and in that campaign, I decide where the bad guys are and what they are doing, and the players decide where they are going and why. My world is very sandboxy, so this works fine. I usually have 3 or 4 possible adventures outlined, and they get to decide what they are interested in, and how to approach it. If at all. This party, in past campaigns, has sometimes decided to ignore the prepared adventure and its clues entirely, and just strike out for the wilderness -- go map the unexplored outback and see what's there.

I have played in games where the DM was a professional screenwriter, and had everything plotted out, and kept things moving along. I had to adapt, as both he as DM and I as player were both trying to be proactive and make things happen, an kept getting in each others way. This same person and I also had to adapt when I was DM, as he expected me to have a "screenplay" to run, and I expected him to pick a direction and go with it, and we spent a fair bit of time at first standing there waiting for the other person to move things along.

The basic plan is that this is collaborative story, and both the DM and the players are part of making the decisions and telling the story. The balance of who does what is not set anywhere in stone; y'all get to work it out.

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I have been in exactly that situation. It's confusing and uncomfortable. Although moving the action in an RPG is a collaborative effort, and specific roles in doing so can vary from system to system, you were playing D&D. In this game, the DM is running the game. A good DM is responsible for being aware of problems in the flow of the game and addressing them. Only the DM really has the power to do this, as they have the explicit ability to introduce characters, events and conflicts, an ability that the players lack.

An attentive DM should be aware of discomfort and confusion in the players, and address it. They may like to use silences to elicit response, but expecting a group of people relatively new to the game to somehow understand this is poor management. If the DM was also new to the hobby, this is excusable, but an experienced DM should have made the players aware of the need to exercise their agency. It sounds like the DM did explain, but only long after the fact.

This could be handled by leading questions: "what would you like to do now?", NPC interaction: "the barman asks what you folk are doing in town", or an inciting event: An old man lurches into the tavern and dies at your feet, riddle with poison arrows and clutching a mysterious shred of map. Silence in the face of confusion is a showstopper.

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I used to do this (the silences) a fair bit when I started out GMing, because I felt like I had to give the players 100% agency in what happened in the world. Think like a video game, where most of the time the player moves around more or less freely from beat to beat, and once a particular objective is achieved (going to a location, talking to someone, finding a MacGuffin) then the next part of the story reveals itself. The game world doesn't really exist independently of the player, it's just something in which they do x and then y happens.

Eventually, I started to feel like this was actually to the detriment of the game. Players would be confused as to what they were actually supposed to do next, or would go off on gigantic tangents (sometimes splitting the party four or more ways, which is a headache to deal with for everyone involved!) just to push the boundaries of what they were allowed to do in the world. And this can get boring for both the DM and other players - I had one guy (who was generally an excellent roleplayer) that often wanted to wander off from the group and go hunting by himself whenever there was no clear direction. This is tough, because it's boring for him if I make him just roll a bunch of dice to see how well his hunt went, but it's even more boring for the other players if he gets his own private little mission that I meticulously describe. I had to try and keep things moving.

A TRPG doesn't have the visual component of a video game, where you often have a UI with a compass marker or a green light on the door you're meant to go through next or a big gold exclamation mark above someone's head.

So my solution was to promote a strong illusion of having 100% agency. I'd describe the environment and the people within it as well as I could, let them interact any way they wanted, but when players started to get too far off the way the plot beats then an event would happen to steer them back in line. Maybe a fight broke out, or an NPC they'd previously spoken to turned up to deliver useful information, have a player take a perception test and if they pass they noticed something suspicious that will lead them in the right direction - you get the idea. And, more than anything, encourage the players to talk in character amongst themselves. I'm all for players asking me questions, but they're all playing characters in this world together and it's odd that sometimes players forget that just discussing and sharing knowledge is something that they can do.

This way, the story that I'm telling can still unfold and the players still get to have their characters be important actors within it.

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In Every Scene the Purpose Should be Clear

If you want to look at the structure of a session analytically, you can say that it is broken up into 'scenes'. These are basically the bits of time that start with the DM giving a description of an area or situation, continue while the players interact with the said area/situation, and end when either the DM or the players decide to move on and transition into the next scene. The easiest way to think about this is in terms of a dungeon. Each room is a scene. When the characters enter a room, the DM describes it. The characters then interact with objects or creatures in the room. When they are ready to leave, the DM describes the next room.

Every scene should answer the classic questions:

  1. Where and when is the scene taking place?
  2. What and/or who is there in the scene?
  3. How can the characters interact with the objects or creatures in the scene?
  4. Why does the scene exist? What is its purpose?

The fourth point is by far the most important. Lack of purpose leads to the situation you describe, in which the players do not know what they are supposed to be doing. For example, in the inn, your DM described the environment, the objects in it, and the people you could talk to. It was clear how you could interact with the environment: you could walk up to the characters and engage them in conversation. What was unclear was why you should do this.

Usually, in an adventure, the purpose of a scene is clear. If a room in a dungeon contains skeletons, and you want to get through to the next room, then the purpose of that scene, essentially, is to get in your way, to prevent you from getting to the next room. If you are engaging a constable in conversation about a murder, then the purpose of the scene is to get information about the murderer.

In the former case, the end-point is clear: when the skeletons are dead, you can move on. In the second, it can be clouded. How do the players know when they have got all the information they're ever going to get from the constable? The DM should tell them this, and force them to move out of the conversation ("The constable is polite, but insistent, he's not going to answer any more of your questions. You're shown out of the constabulary into the street. You could return to the scene of the crime, question some of the witnesses, or do something else. What do you do?"). If the DM doesn't do this, then the players can be stuck in an endless loop, wondering what they're doing wrong and why the constable won't tell them any more. This is the other possible cause of silences.

What Can You Do?

As you can see, this problem is largely one that your DM needs to solve by giving their scenes purpose. However, if you do find yourself in one of these awkward silences, it's not unreasonable simply to ask (either your DM or the other players): "Why are we here?" or "What are we trying to do?" or "What is our goal?"

If it's clear that there is no goal, then there is no reason to remain in the scene. Tell your DM that you would like to move on, leave the tavern, pursue other lines of enquiry, etc. If you have no overall goal (i.e. you are not actually in an adventure), then there is more of a problem. It should ultimately be your DM's job to provide hooks that will entice you into adventure. If your characters do not currently have a goal that they are actively pursuing, then you need to ask your DM to give you one, or invent one for yourself.

Your DM may be waiting for you to stumble into some adventure yourself. This is usually a bad strategy, particularly for new players, as the likelihood that players will find your well-hidden adventure hook is usually quite low.

Summary

Each scene should have a purpose. If you can't see a reason for remaining in a scene, then leave it (your DM should signal this clearly). Your characters should be pursuing a goal, giving you somewhere else to go that isn't the current scene. If you do not have a goal, then you need to get one (again, this is really your DM's job).

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Quick answer: It depends.

I think of it like the players are paddling a kayak and the rest of the game, presented by the GM, is the river they're paddling on.

Most of the time, the water is moving at a steady pace. The GM should keep things moving according to the needs of the story, but always have some kind of movement going on, and the players can paddle in any direction they want, within the confines of the story.

During a combat, you have rapids of varying severity. During a between-adventures shopping trip, the river is wide and slow. But the GM should always keep pacing in mind and be ready to push things along or slow them down as the needs of the story dictate or if the players start to peter out. That shopping trip might be dragging along, or the rapids might be too unrelenting, for example.

The players, however, have some control over their pacing. They can paddle with the current, racing ahead, or they can backpaddle, and slow their pace. They can take a faster or slower branch of the river. The river still flows, as the game world still has everything else going on, but the players can accelerate and decelerate as needed.

So it's both the GM and the player's job to keep things moving along, and personal styles play heavily into it. A GM who expects a lot of player initiative and self-direction with players who expect to have the plot drag them along will have some calibrating to do.

Same with a GM who likes to drive the story along at a brisk pace with players who like to delve into lore, or pursue their own in-game goals. It's a balancing act and one the GM is ultimately responsible for regulating.

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