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Something that's happening frequently at my table recently is that the players are making choices deliberately to waste my preparation.

If they see something that obviously took some preparation that they can skip, they'll skip it on purpose and then laugh at ruining my plans. If they learn that I've done more preparation work for one choice than for another, then they'll take the option that wastes more of my preparation and then laugh about it. (They'll do this even if it's just because if they take that option, I need more material prepared, not that I prefer that option.)

For examples:

  1. (This was last session.) They are traveling through a desert when they spot a static tornado/giant dust devil a few hundred feet ahead of them. They approach and see that the tornado thing is swirling inside an ancient amphitheatre and that there's a music being played inside. The sand seems to swirl around the amphitheatre along the rhythm of the music.

    Then the players go like "Oh, that seems curious, I bet you want to trap us inside that! Let's go guys! I ignore the tornado and continue walking on our way. Sorry DM, not this time." Then I'm like

    "... Okay... You continue on your way..." Puts notes related to that aside

    "We did it again guys!"
    Players start laughing.

    (The rough version of what would have happened if they'd investigated: They would have found a Simulacrum of a very famous NPC that's playing the music inside the amphitheatre, after a test she would teach the bard a stronger version of Mold Earth and maybe tell them somethings about the desert if they asked her.)

  2. An example where there were multiple paths that they could choose to get to a place:

    When they were trying to get to a village at the top of a mountain, they could hike the mountain and invade the village through the front gates, or try to sneak through some caves that would lead them directly to where they wanted. The group likes the stealth approach and I had prepared for that — I had maps for the cave and stuff. They choose to hike just because I had prepared the caves that much.

Some things to consider:

  • I never gave them a reason to think that unusual things are “the DM's traps”. I have never pushed the "you activated my trap card" button, like locking the players inside a trap room with monsters or anything like that.

  • PC deaths are quite rare on my table, and when they do happen, the bard quickly fixes that with revivify.

  • They are mostly, if not always, fully rested when they find “side quest” things like that.

  • “Side quest” content is pretty much always related to the main quest in some way. This might give them some info on something they didn't know about, a new magic items, some ability/spell that gives them another option later on and things like that.

    The players know this. Our sessions are short so I've told them that we don't have much time for completely unrelated content to the main quest. The players want the story to move on, so almost everything is related.

  • Later on when they should/could use the information/power/whatever they get confused/frustrated that they can't go that way/don't quite fully understands what's happening.

  • There's never only one right answer/way to the objective, but there sure are optimal/more rewarding ones.

  • The only thing I can think of for why the players are avoiding side quests is that a few weeks ago, they were doing one of these side quests with one player that was an oathbreaker paladin. At one point there were 3 of the 5 players in a meeting with a few lords of the city. The paladin started insulting the Lords, and even used his channel divinity to frighten them. When they demanded that he leave he attacked them. The other 2 players followed his lead and the 3 of them died.

    But they realized that that was stupid and not my fault. That's the only thing remotely like having a bad experience with a side quest.

So, they're skipping through the content that I prepared for the session, on purpose, for some quick laughs about ruining my preparation. Skipping this stuff will frustrate them later on, and I lost my time preparing for something that won't see the light of the day.

In the end, everyone loses.

I don't have that much time to prepare for multiple paths, so I usually focus on one, having only mental notes for the others. Skipping through what I'm mostly prepared for usually hurts the session as a whole.

I know that "Extra" and "Sidequest" means "hey, this is not MANDATORY", but if they don't have much reason to skip it, should I still just play along with 'OK"?

Is this just another "talk to your players situation"? I'm somewhat a new DM, so this might just be a part of it and I don't know.

I just wanna leave a disclaimer here.

I like my players, I really do. They are overall awesome and dedicated players, but it became some sort of trope or joke for them to skip things like this. It may be related to the case I talked about, it may not, it's not like they do this every single time, but they do it 2 out of 3 times without much reason. So, I just wanted to say that they are amazing players and that this is the only thing that I wanted to try to "fix".

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    \$\begingroup\$ ♦ Reminder: Please do not answer in comments on this stack (including partial answers or alternative solutions) because comments do not support features like proper voting and the wiki-style editing that allow us to vet, correct, and improve the content. Comments are strictly for helping improve the post, not for helping solve the problem. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Feb 23 '18 at 18:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ "This is a bad answer" is not a reason to answer in comments. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Feb 26 '18 at 18:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ We the mods see the flags that the wide range of opinionated and poorly-substantiated answers this question is getting, and encourage the community to handle it themselves. If an answer does not Back It Up! with expertise about doing that thing - downvote it. If an answer doesn't seem to even address the same game, vote to delete it. While sometimes we muster the strength to wade into a swamp like this, get the OP to put more qualifiers in their question, post notice and delete poor quality answers, we'd also like the community to do a better job of doing it without requiring us. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Feb 26 '18 at 18:53

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If they habitually skip the prepared content: "That's all I've got. See you next time."

If you've prepared a certain amount of content and the players choose to skip it without a convincing in-character rationale and while mocking you as the DM, then tell them they arrived at their destination without incident... and just end the session, right then and there. Pack your stuff up and move on with the evening or whatever post-game plans you had.

Be honest and explain that that's all the content you had time to prepare for that session and that anything else you might come up with on the fly would be less entertaining and lower quality than what you had spent your limited time and energy to prepare in the first place, because you prefer to present content that you've had time to craft and polish.

Don't be vindictive about it. Just be clear and to the point. Moreover, if the conventions of your campaign do not normally allow players to retcon character decisions that the players themselves later regret then do not treat this case any differently. Unless there's a plausible reason for the characters to change their mind after reaching their destination without incident, then the players do not get a second chance to experience the content.

I've had success with this technique as a DM and with a similar technique as a teacher.* It really only takes one aborted session for people to get the point: your time is limited and valuable, so don't intentionally squander it, because that inconveniences and insults you.

(* An example: I told my students to be prepared to discuss a topic during the next session, but nobody reviewed the material, so nobody was prepared to discuss it when I started the next session. I dismissed the class in the first minute, telling them I was going to work on some important grading and that I would see them again next time if they were prepared. They were, indeed, prepared next time, above and beyond my original expectations.)

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Show Them Why

Before discussing it "off the table", you should first try to integrate this issue into the narrative. Based on some of your comments, it sounds like there's a bit of an adversarial tone between your PCs and you. This is a common attitude in newer groups, and one that is discouraged by having the DM tell an honest story. Have the narrative provide reasonable and informed options to the players.

If they are passing up plot-related scenarios, then have the NPCs or even the world at large address this. For example, have the nearby king demand to know why they didn't investigate the magical tornado a few miles outside of his town. Any of their associated guilds should send them assignments or missions to pursue these things. Perhaps a relation from one of your characters writes them a letter to find out why so many travelers have gone missing when walking through the forest by moonlight.

If they're passing up on fun side quests, you can even include teasers from other NPC groups - imagine that while they're sitting in the tavern instead of exploring that inexplicable mummy's tomb, they see a group of NPCs come in and show off their new magical items or boxes full of gold that they found while plundering the tomb.

In other worlds, demonstrate that ignoring world elements has repercussions. These can be in the form of negatives for them (like punishments from a local authority figure), or in the form of missed-opportunities (like not gaining a powerful magic item). Generally speaking, players want loot and success. There has to be motivation for them to risk their PC's lives, and that motivation can either be story progression or character improvement. Show them that these things exist.

Some groups are motivated enough by "hey that's a weird thing over there, let's go look at it because why else are we at the table today?" but others are more discriminating, either because that's "what [their] character would do" or because they're cynical gamers who fear a wrathful DM. Regardless of their motivation, adapt your storytelling to accommodate it.

Only when this failed - when your PCs do not want what you are clearly offering - would I start discussing the issue outside of the game.

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Invest less of your prep time in skippable events

Here's an example of a skippable event: "You see a weird thing. Want to go poke it?"

Here's an example of a non-skippable event: "Night is falling, and you hear wolves howling. The howling is coming from in front of you and behind you, and it's getting closer. The howling behind you sounds different -- deeper, somehow alien. Whatever's behind you, it isn't a wolf. What do you do?"

Here's an example of a motivated event: "Your NPC friend was infested by a purple fungus. If you guys don't find a cure, he'll turn into a fungus himself, which might infest most of the village if you let it emit spores. There's a fungusbane sword which we know can cure this, but it was lost in the swamp when the hero wielding it was overwhelmed by fungi. Now you guys are in the swamp, near where you think the sword is, and you see a weird thing. Want to go poke it?"

The non-skippable events can still be fun -- the players have some interesting options they can employ, like running for defensible terrain, or trying to attack one of the groups of monsters before the other can reinforce it. (And if they do somehow find a clever way to skip an event you'd thought was non-skippable, congratulate them and move on!)

But the motivated events are better. The trick is to get the players to agree to the motivation! If they declare that their characters are antisocial loners who don't care about anyone but themselves, you might have to switch to rumors of treasure to get them engaged with the story. But most groups will respond to a message like "your friend is sick and needs help".

Keep doing the skippable events, though

It sounds like your players are enjoying the "ha ha, we're not going to walk into a trap" routine. If they're having fun, keep serving them obvious traps to not walk into. Just -- don't put as much prep time into them, is all.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This answer is a great trailhead into a style of DMing that really helped make my games better, which is detailed in a book called "The Lazy DM" by Sly Flourish. It outlines how to not prepare for a game session that seems counter-intuitive, but once practiced, really amplifies your ability to improvise. It comes down to the way in which you plan your storylines, and uses index cards as a tool to help you develop them and quickly adapt to the inevitable unexpected actions of your players: slyflourish.com/lazydm \$\endgroup\$ – L0j1k Feb 28 '18 at 5:12
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The easiest way would indeed be to talk about the social contract at your table

If you don't have the time to prepare a lot of different paths and you want to focus on one way then you should tell your players that you would appreciate if they take the bait - at least from time to time. It's not like this is hurting them in some way according to your description. They are there to play the game after all. And the way you described this it sounds a bit rude from the perspective of being a relatively new DM myself. Creating new content that you think will be interesting is quite some work and it would be nice if people could appreciate that. Laughing at the fact that they willingly ignored something would feel to me like a statement similar to "We don't appreciate it - your fault for doing so much work for nothing", which is definitely something I would point out.

I've had players skip parts because they were afraid. In those cases I would normally allow a couple easy skill checks to get a rough feeling for what is awaiting them. For example I once used someone with a fireball spell when they were standing packed together. They became afraid of small corridors basically immediately, so allowing them to scout ahead, know something about an enemies fire affinity and spellcasting abilities or giving them bigger corridors was enough to help them in-game. If it continued I'd have talked to them in a style of "Hey guys, you remember that fireball? You didn't catch the warnings the first time, but you'll see them the next time. No need to be afraid of every corridor."

If you want to try an in-game approach you might also have NPCs give them information about the powerlevel of the dangers waiting and the possible treasures. I'd be so glad if you could get my priced family heirloom that I would be willing to talk to the mayor about giving you the special armor of plot! We lost two of our three rangers in the last week that were scouting there. The returning one reported that there were lots of Spiders and they even seemed to be able to kill an Owlbear, though the Owlbear seemed to have killed quite a few of them...

Maybe they will give you a good reason for why they are not taking the bait and saying things like "Sorry DM, not this time". It sounds like there was a time when something happened that they still remember. Maybe there was a time when going the side track was a problem because they lost something on the main path and didn't realize there was some sort of time limit. Unspoken expectations from both sides about how this game works could be a problem.

It could be that they feel a bit railroaded and want to choose one path or another just for the sake of choosing something. Maybe you could try to use one of the things that you prepared and didn't use and adapt it a bit to each session and then prepare another thing as usual. That way you will have two things at hand in case they want to say whether they want to go left or right.

A session 0 as a session x.5 might be a good idea if this situation happens repeatedly. The focus should be on why they are doing this and what the problems with this behaviour from your point of view are. Telling them all the things you told us should go a long way. Just make it in a general introduction style as if you were really explaining how a future campaign will work.

Depending on how the session goes you can adapt. Either by preparing a bit more, but shorter adventures/dungeons. Or by giving them the main option and a side quest, with a promise that they will check out the side quest in one of the next 3 sessions. Or you could come to terms that railroading is not that bad and there should only be one way. Different groups prefer different play styles.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I think this is really the root of the issue: Our group frequently skips content via "mark it on the map and keep moving" but we almost always go back to it later. If players are intentionally avoiding hooks like they are the plague, something is wrong with your session dynamics. \$\endgroup\$ – TemporalWolf Feb 23 '18 at 22:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ This. Players need choice, so be ready to have them sometimes skip things. But if they do it intentionally, the problem is clearly outside the game. Talk. \$\endgroup\$ – Tom Feb 26 '18 at 8:04
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Establish why they want to avoid quests/plot/hooks

In my preparation I have a number of small side-quests that may never get played. Most are fairly generic ones that I can pull out for a single session if I need something to keep the PCs entertained while my villains put plans into motion. Many of these I don't expect to actually end up being played through, and the players may just not take the bait I had set up for them. If they don't happen I shrug and keep them handy in case they come up again, and they typically haven't take long to prepare.

Some of these I can later tie back in to the story, some take place over multiple sessions, but the main thing is that they aren't directly necessary to move the main plot forward. If you are dropping those in their way and they believe them to be superfluous it may be that you have to accept that, sometimes, the players just don't take the bait.

That being said, the act of actually being happy to be avoiding quest/plot hooks is the part that interests me and I shall focus on for this answer.

As Secespitus suggests there may be a desire to avoid a quest from prior experience, and it may be I assume malice where there is none, however I can't help but feel that this stems from something else. It appears the players are taking delight in frustrating you possibly because they get a reaction from you or know that internally they are causing grief. Depending on their specific language, and taking what you said literally, it also appears to be quite pre-meditated rather than an in-character decision that something is dangerous. If it is the former I would say that is a major issue that needs addressing head-on.

At that point I would be stopping them and being honest about my interpretation of events:

"Look, it takes me a long time to plan adventures and plot for you guys and, whilst I'm happy that not all of it will be used, deliberately avoiding things I have written makes for both a boring game for you all and wastes my time. Is there a reason you don't want to engage with certain events?"

This could go a number of ways:

  • They could open up and start giving you reasons to explain their actions, which then you could be able to act on. Maybe they feel things lack immersion, or aren't sure it's relevant, or have had bad experiences they think their PCs would avoid. These you can all build off and try and create a game that everyone is engaged with (see Secespitus' answer).
  • It could be that they feel like the game is too "Us vs DM", and therefore feel like they "win" by beating you (within their values). That is also something that you can correct for, making adjustments or realigning the goals of the group.
  • Of course, they could be doing it simply because it is amusing to them, at which point you need to be totally honest with them that you aren't happy with them devaluing the time and effort you put in. Maybe they don't quite appreciate how much effort it takes and you can have a mature conversation about that (best outcome), though it could be that knowing how much effort you put in is what makes it attractive. If the latter is true there are most likely some hard decisions/conversations to have.

It could always be a combination thereof, though if you asked me to form an opinion based on your language I would say elements of the second and third points - that they as a group are being wrongly competitive with the DM and a bit insensitive towards you. That's off just your side of the story.

Moving forward

In any case, until you actively find out their motive for doing it there is little that can be done, and trying to power through it may end up causing you to become disillusioned and stop enjoying the game. Hopefully you will get constructive comments that allow you all, as a group, to take your effort and make it work for everyone. If that is the case then brilliant, that should mean you get a game that everyone is happy with.

There is the chance your players are being immature or deliberately obstructive, at which point you may have to make a judgement call about whether that can be rectified or if it is a total deal-breaker.

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There are several good answers tackling the social aspect, so I'd like to approach it differently.

Plan For Failure

When you design any encounter plan what happens if the players succeed or if they fail. One of the toughest things I found as a new gm was what happened when my players messed up or walked away. Having a plan for what happens if they walk away stops them throwing you off balance and steals some of the glee they get from that.

Don't think about quests and side quests, only encounters

Every encounter is to a some extent optional. Players will fail to open a locked door, kill the crucial npc or distrust the barman more often than you think. And you'll be tempted to railroad them past easy challenges. If you push them to succeed on important quests but don't care about others then of course your players will only care about some encounters.

Once you stop telegraphing that an encounter is unimportant, they will care more about every encounter.

Avoid yes/no choices

If you let you players choose between 2 encounters rather than to do it or not, then it turns a negative choice to avoid something into a positive choice to do something. E.g. "it's high noon do you want to continue in the heat or investigate the misty amphitheatre?" (Fatigue rolls with possible ambush by bandits could be an encounter if they stay out)

Make their choices matter

By allowing players to walk away when they want and treating all encounters as decision points, you put more of the story in their hands and give them agency. This helps to prevent a feeling of railroading which ultimately leads to happier players.

This does lead to more prep as a gm, but there's nothing to stop you reusing encounters which they bypassed.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This is a great response, IMO. If a quest is mandatory, it's not really a side quest, is it? It's a required part of the main quest. It feels like the OP wants the players to be on rails -- which is more of a Pathfinder kind of game. I really like Phil's answer here, and Secespitus's answer about the social contract. \$\endgroup\$ – Br.Bill Feb 28 '18 at 18:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ This answer comes the closest to some advice I received from the best DM I know: don't plan out a strict narrative with every character/encounter mapped out beforehand, but have lots of encounters/characters rolling around in your head, and pull them out as appropriate when the PCs start engaging with some part of the world. \$\endgroup\$ – TehShrike Feb 28 '18 at 19:37
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You and your players have different expectations.

I've played some games that sounded a lot like this. We, the players, wreaked havoc upon the GM's plans, setting, and NPCs. When presented with two paths, we knocked down a wall instead and set the room on fire behind us. Every once in a while, we did the obviously intelligent thing, just for variety. When we were looking for something to do, we sailed off for a random city (that would let us dock, anyway). It was us versus the world, and we took no prisoners.

The difference is that the GM enjoyed this just as much as we did. It sounds like you're not enjoying it.

I've also played games with a much more prepared narrative. When we were looking for something to do, we'd take the GM's hints. We knew that the GM had prepared material well in advance, and we generally went along with it. This sounds like the kind of game that you're trying to run, but it's not the way your players are playing it.

You have to talk this out with your players. It may be that your players would be happy to go along with the kind of plot you want to run if they understood that the game isn't working for you as it stands. Or you might find a compromise where you plot less elaborately and less far in advance. Or it may just be that you and the players aren't interested in the same kind of game.

A lot of the answers here try to solve the problem of making the players consume the GM's plot. But if the players aren't looking for that kind of experience in the first place, railroading them will only lead to further frustration and bad feelings.

That may lead to the need for more DM improvisation.

Improvisation can be hard, especially in a crunchy system like D&D. One principle I've found helpful is that nothing is part of the world until the players see it. Anything the players skip over can be reused later. In your first example, the players have seen the tornado, but not the amphitheater or the NPC. In your second example, you have ready-made caves that you can add back in whenever you like (with an extra monster or two for your trouble, of course). The players won't know that the catacombs under the temple are just the mountain caverns with the walls squared off.

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Players make choices you don’t think they’ll make for lots of reasons. It’s not likely they’re trying to waste your time. Laughing about it is a bit oafish, and understandably annoying, but it isn’t proof that this is malicious.

This answer addresses (1) how to avoid wasting prep time, and (2) why that alone is probably not enough to rescue your fun.

Don’t prep the content until the party has committed to it

I learned this trick when I ran my first roll20 campaign — after throwing away a few hours worth of carefully-made screens.

(In my case, I had some players who were nice enough to try to steer the party towards things I had prepared, but I didn’t want to oblige the party to do this or that.)

Decisions at end of play session

Ask the players about their plan of action at the end of the play session, then prep for what they chose. When they (predictably) forget what they picked, or otherwis change their minds, go ahead and remind them that you prepared the adventure they chose.

We would joke that changing your mind after prep would lead to “the lair of penniless disenchanter beasts," but it was probably most effective when I simply reminded the party that they had chosen the adventure, and I had put in hours of work to provide them with free entertainment based on their choices.

At this point, if your players insist on skipping what you prepared anyway, then you are justified at feeling ill-used. (But see Communication Gap below!)

Stalling so you can prep later

If play progresses at a faster rate than you anticipated, and the players get to a decision point before the play session is over, have some little episodes ready to occupy the time.

These can be “quantum ogre” encounters, where the same group of creatures attack the party whether they approach or skip your side quest. They could be different, but simple combat encounters, that don’t require significant prep. Or it could be non-combat, where you introduce an NPC or do other role-playing.

But is it really just the wasted prep you resent?

Ask yourself, though, is it really just the wasted time spent preparing that’s irritating you? You had this cool idea of a magical tornado, and the party just strolls past it. Even without hours of prep, it can be annoying to come up with neat ideas just for the players to reject them out-of-hand.

Your communication gap

You are jumping to the conclusion that your players like to make your life difficult, “for the lulz.” I don’t think that’s likely. You need to ask them. And you need to let them know this is affecting your enjoyment of the game.

If the players think it would be better to avoid your prepared areas, you need to know why.

It may well be that they prefer the simpler sort of play you offer when you are improvising. That magical tornado sounds…complicated, and it’s not causing any obvious problems — so why bother with it? The other way there are probably some goblins to pound.

If your players just want to relax, roll dice, and kick butt, you need to decide whether you can have fun providing them that experience.

I’ve been on both sides of this. Typically, it’s the DM that devises a cool, intricate adventure or mystery. The players tend not to want to be baffled, and would rather just “roll initiative.”

Player Character Motivations

Another way to a party into an adventure is to leverage PC motivations. In other words, develop your table’s shared storytelling.

Your players may also be tempted to dive into your offers if it fits their characters. Apparently, you don’t have any characters that are relentlessly curious, so don’t simply put something interesting out there and ask, “Don’t you want to investigate?”

Was there a particular reason for any of your PC’s to want to investigate the whirlwind? If there wasn’t make sure there is, next time.

Talking about the PC’s motivations will (a) help you devise adventures that would appeal to them, and (b) help the players flesh out their characters, and remind them they should play true to their characters.

Come to an accord, or move on

I’ve been on both sides of this experience (DM/player) and yeah, it’s not always a fit. If you find your party is skipping adventures because they don’t enjoy the sort of adventures you like to provide, then maybe you’re not the DM for that table.

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Although I think the other answers here are probably more sensible, I'm going to throw these in for the sake of it.

Give them feedback in game

So at the next town have them run into a bunch of incredibly happy adventurers, spending money like water and showing off their new magic items. When asked where they got them from they say "We ran into this incredible tornado in an amphitheatre, and it turned out to be a wizard being attacked, and when we rescued him he gave us all these magic items and lots of gold".

Keep upping the ante

Next session prepare a long list of things for the players to see, each more bizarre and enticing than the last. Go wild. Have them run into each one in turn. No adventurers worthy of the name can turn down twenty things like that without deciding to investigate. Of course when they actually decide to investigate one you are either going to have to make up the actual scenario as you go along (I'm assuming you didn't write twenty complete scenarios), or own up and pause the game.

Make side quests rewarding

Sure, maybe they are traps, but if they walk into them they will end up with lots of loot. Knowing this will change the players' attitude.

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Everything is Skinable

or

How to Appear Ready for Anything

I usually have a stack of encounters prepared for every session. There is always a mix of easy, medium, and hard ones. Before every session I create as many new encounters as I need to, and just recycle unused encounters from past sessions.

If the players go in unexpected directions I just re-purpose an existing encounter on-the-fly. You can get a lot of mileage from a small amount of prep just by changing flavor text and making tiny adjustments to attack types.

Examples of this principle at work:

  • That medium encounter from three sessions ago, before the characters leveled? It's still in the pile as an easy encounter.
  • The ogre boss and his minions from the bad-guy camp the party skipped over last week? Now it's a random encounter.
  • The spiked pits from the set-piece battle they avoided? Those are desert sinkholes now. Same save DC, but you suffocate a little each round instead of taking the fall damage.
  • The kangaroo-tentacle-dogs from the Plains of Whatever that breathe fire? You were so proud of those, but the players skipped them. But replace fire with ice and add thick matted fur to the description, and you have a fine cold-environment encounter.
  • Sad the PCs killed your pride of manticores? Need a quick encounter? Sounds like they just turned into a tribe of winged, knife-throwing demi-humans. Throw in a "shamman" with a single-use lightning attack and a couple of heals/buffs, and the players won't notice they're last-month's manticores.
  • Does the enounter you're re-using seem too easy? Double the bad-guys. Players love an occasional slaughter-fest.

Know Your Easy/Normal/Hard DCs

You can put any barrier/trap/skill-challenge you feel like in front of the party at any time you want to. Just know what DC it should be to overcome and the damage it should do, based on how hard it should be for the party.

Conclusion

Is it cheap? Heck yeah.

Is it sloppy? Sometimes.

Making stuff up on the fly? Obviously.

Does it always make sense? No, and it doesn't have to.

At its core an RPG is improv. It's a big world out there with a lot going on, and people make stupid decisions all the time. If something seems out of place it isn't your fault, the NPC did something stupid.

When the players start making decisions based on your spur-of-the-moment cockamamie ideas, forcing you to invent/re-purpose ever-more-unlikely situations, then you're playing the game right.

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Given all the great advice already given I wanted to give you a "well what if they just carry on doing it?" suggestion or two.

  1. Point out the xp they have effectively lost. Don't give them a figure, but you can say something at the end of the session like "well it's a shame you missed out on all that xp when you ignored the tornado, I was hoping your characters would have gone up a level by now...". Do that a few times and they will start to change their ways.
  2. Have some important information about a future event/encounter in the side plots. You can decide which one when they play this "trick" on you. Let them have an awful time of it and have something or someone inform them of the fact that the info to have avoided the situation was available and they ignored the opportunity. Again do this regularly.
  3. Put a magic item, or key etc. in one of the side plots, again you can choose which one. When they meet the thing that requires it (magical door, creature only effected by the blade "Wishbreaker" etc.) give them a blatant clue that it was "back there in the place you ignored" and make them go back. Do that a few times and they won't walk past things just for laughs.
  4. Get a new group to play with, these folks sound like... well I won't say what I would say to any of my friends who did this for the reasons you state above, suffice to say it does not paint them in a good light and you might be better off without them. Depends on your situation.

    Overall if you are not enjoying playing with these folks then don't, but I would try all the great ideas above first, with an emphasis on the advice that says "tell them about how you don't enjoy it and you might well stop" in some way. The advice I give should not be used to punish them, that won't work. Use it to point out that they are missing important things, so that they start being a bit more respectful. It's your job as DM to challenge them, so it is perfectly within your rights to deliberately make life hard for their characters, just not as a grudge match as that is not fun either.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ 1. They'd likely already know they're missing out on XP so this wouldn't likely help. 2. There aren't many organic ways to do this. 3. This turns those side quests into story quests. Not that it's a bad idea, (I suggested it too,) but it shouldn't be overdone. 4. This should only be the option AFTER talking with them first. ~~~ Your ideas are okay, but I think you put more emphasis on the players being wrong as opposed to things the DM can do to improve. If they're supposed to be sidequests, they should be treated like it and not stressed over if ignored. Also, communication should be key. \$\endgroup\$ – Sora Tamashii Oct 21 '18 at 19:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ @sora tamashii: I deliberately started the post with "what if they carry on doing it" by which I mean the other advice has already been tried and they've not played ball... All the rest of the advice, good advice to try first, is rooted in good communication, absolutely agreed. \$\endgroup\$ – Protonflux Oct 22 '18 at 22:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ My apologies, I missed that little part, therefore invalidating my comment on #4. I stand by the rest of my comments. \$\endgroup\$ – Sora Tamashii Oct 23 '18 at 0:54
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Just talk to them

"Hey guys, I know it's kind of an in-joke that you skip all the stuff that I've spent time preparing for, but frankly, it's not funny anymore. I put real effort into my prep work. I get excited about revealing it to you guys at the table. When you deliberately avoid it for jokey reasons, it's actually pretty frustrating and disappointing for me. So can we maybe not do that from now on?"

It's an out-of-game, social-level reason why they're avoiding the sidequests, so that calls for an out-of-game, social-level response. If your friends are reasonable, they'll listen to you. If they don't, stop playing with them.

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In my experience, players skip side quests if they feel like they're being lured into something that may not be worth their characters doing. Even if you spend 10 hours working on something, it doesn't mean anything if they're being made to feel like it will be more trouble than it is worth. Often times, the more elaborate it looks (especially with new DMs), the more time that may need to be sunk into playing through it.

Look at your Tornado in E Minor example. Clearly, to an adventurer, that would be an obvious trap. To a normal person, it looks fun and cool. If you want to get them to play along, make it so that

  1. they have no other option, thus making it a story quest [Hard Railroading],
  2. the alternative is a lot more obviously dangerous, such as a monster that would be considered a Deadly Encounter [Soft Railroading],
  3. include something that would be a powerful character motivation, playing into their character's personal weaknesses, thus forcing either the party to go in or split [Personal Experiences],
  4. make it look less initially interesting, but with something still attractive about the situation [reverse psychology],
  5. make it so that, once the PCs notice it, they are forced to make saves in order to prevent being compelled to go there [coercion],
  6. make it so an encounter pushes them there in time or that they notice something that may be useful at the side quest.

    In short, there are many possible answers to your issue, but the simplest of all of them is this: talk with your players about the issue and try to be flexible. You shouldn't spend so much preparation time on a side quest if you think it may not get used. There are many players who like to d*** over their DM. If you can't learn to adapt, it will ruin the fun for you.

Additionally, they may not understand just how you feel when they do this. Be honest and open and try to work it out with them.

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You’ve got some good replies already but they seem to assume good intent from the players. But when I read this “Then the players go like "Oh, that seems curious, I bet you want to trap us inside that! Let's go guys! I ignore the tornado and continue walking on our way. Sorry DM, not this time."” it almost feels like bullying.

So I’ll give you another option: stop accommodating jerks. You could possibly fix the whole situation, but the question you have to ask yourself is if you want to.

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Given your play style as DM includes giving your players paths, one of which requires a lot of content and preparation, and one of which doesn't* then I strongly suggest you provide the choice at the end of a play session, rather than during a play session.

Pace the play session, build up enough content so you can describe the choice and begin the encounter based on their path, and wrap up the session right after they've made the choice.

Then you know which path to prepare, and you can completely skip preparing the other path.

I think the other answers are valid, but somewhat adversarial. Your players are already laughing to you, so it's not without merit, but returning their unkindness with more unkindness (or ending the session early) reads more like a penalty than making the game enjoyable for all. If they choose to skip the encounter you have time to rewrite the story so as to force them into it, show them what they missed by skipping it, or start a new path altogether that appeals more to this party, without making them feel like they're being punished by you personally.

You'll still have choices during the game, but particularly long or preparation intensive choices should present themselves at the end so you can spend your time most effectively.

Lastly, recognize this as an opportunity to practice your story crafting or storytelling. There's a real possibility that they aren't enticed by the story enough to go your desired path. Consider subverting the trope occasionally and giving the real encounter the drab description, while giving a long, loving, well crafted description of the choice that is mundane. Mix things up a little, and present little clues as to what they can expect if you're going to give them a reward for choosing the harder path.

*You need to recognize that this is your play style, and is only happening because it's somewhat at odds with their play style. Neither of you are wrong for doing so, but in this group it's leading to this issue.

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There's two related problems here:

Problem 1: Prepping optional events

Even if the players are not acting like jerks, it's hard to know for sure where they'll go. They might legitimately seize on different clues than you expected, or different goals that you expected.

All campaigns need the players to have some motivation (an overarching "find the X" plot, a desire to level up, a desire to explore, a response to people needing help, etc). What works best depends on the players. It's easy to think of a story but not have something driving the characters forward, there should always be things the characters want to do.

If they don't want to do anything, the group needs to figure that out, some combination of agreeing what the characters want and GM providing a path to that. If the players just turn their nose up, "that's not interesting either", there's not much to do. Although a skillful GM can figure out what might hook the players.

But also, you ideally prep stuff the players will likely encounter in some order, even if not the way your expected. E.g. prep "the bad guy, his outlying lairs, his band of roving hunters", and then whatever happens, the players are likely to be forced into conflict with them sooner or later. Prepping stuff the players can just skip is not ideal, even if they're not doing that deliberately.

Problem 2: The players are acting like jerks

I understand why the players do this. Exploring a new world, it's natural to butt up against the edges, and see what you can do and what you can't -- they're exerting more influence on the world this way than they might other ways. (And possibly giving them more input might help, I'm not sure.)

But they're deliberately ignoring how much work you put in to make this happen, and that they're making this harder for you. Don't lead with "ok, you have to do this because it's the story I prepped." But do offer them some choices for "next session, do you want to pursue A, B or C?" and prep appropriately, and if then they don't, say, "ok, then I've got nothing, see you next time." If they've bought in first they can't deny it if they then renege.

The workaround

This doesn't fix the underlying problems, but it might be a quick fix to get things back on track sometimes. Embrace the game they started playing. Give them a big shiny lure that's actually a fake, and then a real hook afterwards. Give them something that looks like they're not supposed to follow it, and see if they do anyway.

In all cases, you need some prep for what if they do bite on the hook, but hopefully you can have an ideas that could be reached through multiple different encounters. Just make sure you admit that occasionally (to show them you're in on the game and they're not in your league) but not usually (else they feel they're being railroaded whatever they do.)

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I don't know very much about D&D, but perhaps your players want you to be as unprepared & spontaneous as they are?

You're all friends and playing a game together, and, for them, maybe it's all about improv and spontaneity, so for you to be completely and totally prepared and by the book seems at best like you're playing a different game than they are and at worst like you know everything where they know nothing and you're setting them up to fail (even though you aren't).

I would talk to your players and find some middle ground where either you prepare less rigidly (covered in other answers), or they get to prepare some too. Maybe talk with them individually about their backstories and come up with some sideplots that they can be emotionally invested in.

For example, maybe a character had a friend growing up who moved away and was never heard from again and as a side quest, they'd like to find out what happened to them. Maybe at the entrance to the cave there's a torn piece of blue cloth that they recognize as being dyed with indigo, a rare dye found mainly in the region this character is from. That gives one person a reason to enter a cave, and perhaps convince the others to, too. It also gives the player a sense of preparedness that yes, they know where this is going and they helped write the story that got them here, and then you took it from there.

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I have fallen under the impression that your players behave that way on purpose, just to have a laugh at you. This is not a respectful thing to do and it has nothing to do with the game itself, so I will bring out my expertise of out of game similar situations.

If I were you I'd tell them that their behaviour is making the game less fun for you and that there will be no game if they don't start behaving.

If they still care about the game, they will probably stop taking the most prepared route on purpose.

Beware that they might try to convince you that they really wanted to take the less prepared route for completely different reasons. Be a reasonable person, let them explain, take note if it happens as much. Try not to hold grudges and not to be paranoid and only call out their behaviour if it is a blatant lie. You're facing a group, the chances that everybody is good at lying are really low.


The rest of this answer is if I misunderstood the behaviour of this group and it really happens by chance that they take your less prepared route, and they have a laugh at it.

Have a pretty big dossier of unused encounters and situations at hand, but don't put it on the table. Then, whenever your players pick a choice that has you begrudgingly put away whichever material you had planned, let them have their usual laugh. Hey, look, we did it again. Then just say "I fear not" and take the even bigger folder out of your bag.

I hope this creates a very relaxed and sincere laugh at the table and that it helps toning down the problem.


A different approach might be to switch to prepless games. Not everybody wants to play a different game than the one they are currently playing, but there are a lot of games where the GM (if there is one) is not asked to preplan anything (or you need to preplan very little). For the D&D genre, Dungeon World comes to mind. The easier it is to improvise enemies without having to ready statblocks and carefully craft balanced encounters and the more the story emerges from what the players do rather than from a pre-planned adventure plot, the less your problem will be relevant.

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Talking with the players is always good, and probably the go to choice to find out their motivations. But if you wanted to do this, you wouldn't come to stack exchange :P

So heres a perspective your players might have:
You are giving them an option. But then you get "mad"/sad/dissapointed/annoyed when they use their power to make the choice. So, if they just went with what you expected, it wouldn't really be a choice. You are kinda lying to them that they have a choice. (And thats no dig at you, it's hard to GM, you don't do it with malice, and you even go along with their choice, and it's understandable why you get frustrated with them).

So there are 2 Solutions I see.

  1. Change your style, so that there really is a choice. Then there is no need for you to get annoyed when they choose. (And this can be done without more prep time).
  2. Tell them straight how it is. They do not have the choice to skip the content. You give them lots of other choices, but this is not one. Don't say there are 2 paths if you really only prepared one, say there is one path.

    You may have to tell them out of game, that that's the only option you have prepared and everything else will be boring.

I think option 1 is probably better, if you can manage it (because your players seem to really want a real choice). And it's not that hard. You can give them the option of two paths, but still only prepare one path. They are then flavored a bit differently. Maybe you prepare the same encounter, but in a bit of different terrain.
Or you prepare 2 different encounters, but you just reuse the one they don't choose later.
They could walk past 10 different plot hooks you devised, and inside of all of them could wait the same NPC/encounter you have prepared as long as they didn't already see it.

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One thing I feel like you need to remember given the clear level of frustration you're experiencing: Prep is only wasted if you throw it out, having to change a few details of a previously unused encounter is a lot easier than working up new material.

As to how to get your players to actually work with you on "side quest" hooks, that's hard, given the attitude you feel you're getting from your players I'd actually suggest putting the campaign on rails; meaning there is no side work, no hooks, hit the party with everything in the main quest line one mission after another. I've done this, and been on the receiving end too (although that was a player at fault not the GM) it is not fun for anyone at the table but it does get things done. You simply don't run any content that isn't aimed straight at the final goal, anything they avoid makes their eventual victory impossible, you can also limit downtime and elapse time too so that the players and characters are less and less prepped going into encounters. When the players start complaining about the new pace point out that they have demonstrated a total lack of interest in anything but the primary quest line and that you're giving them that content as fast as possible. A compromise can then be struck to everyone's mutual dissatisfaction.

As the GM there are various ways that you can force the party into non-mainline encounters. I wouldn't suggest doing so though; it can be very tricky in terms of stopping players from feeling persecuted because you're plot hammering them away from the "important bits".

One way to pressure players into actually playing the game is to always start a new encounter at the end of the session so you start every session with "roll initiative" for whatever the party ran into at the end of the previous game, this can drastically reduce the amount of time spent on metagaming and usually creates a lasting sense of urgency in individual game sessions.

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Option 1: Don't prepare side quests

If they're skipping your content, it's wasting your time and effort. So just don't do it. Focus on the main plot and forget about the stuff they're likely to just walk past. Your time has value, so don't waste it.

Option 2: Hint at the benefits

Your players seem to have no problem with meta-discussion about the content, so it's perfectly acceptable for some meta-discussion on your part. If they want to skip the tornado, elbow the bard and tell them they might be sad if they do. If they skip it anyways feel free to tell them (after the session is over) what they missed, and if they want to back-track or ret-con their decision, tough luck, their character was the one that made that decision and has no reason to suddenly change their mind. Besides, once they backtrack, maybe the tornado won't even be there anymore.

Option 3: Figure out why this keeps happening

Really this is disrespectful on their part, but there's obviously some reason they feel like doing it. So ask why, if you can't figure it out. Maybe there's a reason that's obvious to them but not to you.

General advice for a new DM

It's crucial to get feedback anyways, so regardless of what option you choose it's still a good idea to just spend a few minutes after each session asking everyone if they liked what you prepared, what they might want changed, how they feel about the story and characters, etc. Until you've got a really well-developed ability to read your players, you're just going to be guessing at what they want, so just be up-front and ask for feedback. Make your questions somewhat specific, don't just go "Well was that fun?" Simple yes-or-no questions will only get you a simple yes-or-no response, so try to elicit more of an explanation from them and ask follow-up questions about anything that's not clear to you.

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2
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Make The Players The Hunted

Instead of things laying around for the players to find, have things actively hunting. The typical adventure is made of meat with a side of magic items/gold. Make the things of this world want what they have and be willing to hunt them down to take it.

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  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ So they're being chased, how does that get them into side quests? Or is every side quest now a monster trying to eat them, or hurd them into traps? \$\endgroup\$ – Xen2050 Feb 23 '18 at 18:07
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Xen2050 Makes more sense to me than many of the other answers. If you make side-content active, then it doesn't depend on players choosing it to still be a part of play in some way. I wouldn't always make it only a case of things hunting the PCs, but the encounter can still exist in the world, move about, have effects, be interesting, even though the players don't choose it at first. Focusing on preparing things that continue even if ignored seems a reasonable approach. \$\endgroup\$ – Dronz Feb 23 '18 at 18:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Xen2050 Hunt wasn't meant literally I think. The side quest would "hunt them" as in, they would just be going along and then be in the side quest suddenly, with no chance to avoid it. You hunt them with content not with monsters. At least that is my interpretation. \$\endgroup\$ – user38866 Feb 23 '18 at 19:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Dronz & @ AytAyt That's what I imagined too, but the answer as it's written needs some work to elaborate on how it really should be a great answer, and not just "monsters want to eat & rob you" \$\endgroup\$ – Xen2050 Feb 23 '18 at 19:14
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Best advice is to stop preparing in a railroad manner and instead prepare like a Beholder expecting them to veer away from the obvious and planning on it by preparing traps or other encounters.

Make the obvious route the safer route and the path to avoid it will lead to the greater challenge and to your prepared scene. Like setting bait. You know their behavior so use it against them.

Personally I Always Plan for 3 Types of Outcomes:

  • Attack - when the encounter plays out, the stats notes

  • Avoid - that's what your player often do, the traps notes

  • Approach - when they attempt diplomacy, the NPC roleplaying notes

Hope that helps. Enjoy!

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Plenty good answers so far. Some of my thoughts that have already been answered include that you should talk with your players (and/or look for new friends depending on the result), hint at useful or quasi-necessary stuff they missed, make the world out level them because they skipped not just some but all side quests.

But one thing that no one suggested yet is taking away your players choice - perhaps by giving them the illusion of choice. If they don't want to find the adventure, then let the adventure find them.

Maybe they walked away from the tornado, but one of them falls into the crypts surrounding the amphitheater or they run into bandits that clearly out-level them and they have to flee into the dangerous tornado, or the amphitheater just appears again and again like a mirage.

If they're not ok with that, they'll have to talk it out with you - which you should probably do anyway. If nothing else helps... I guess that's the end of your group, you clearly don't want to play together.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Eh, this is railroading. It nullifies the PCs agency. Let them skip it. All they're doing is shooting themselves in the foot. If the PCs don't want the clues that will let them succeed, then let them fail. \$\endgroup\$ – user47897 Jan 17 at 17:19
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If they keep on going into territory you have not prep. just throw them unrelated wandering monster and NPC after another. After a while they will get sooo bored just killing useless unrelated monsters and not building any story or adventure whatsoever... I can bet you the next curious thing you throw at them...they will investigate it just hoping to get some adventure thrills...

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Make a part of the storyline seem like a side quest and make skipping it the wrong choice.

For example. They're on a quest to find some sort of magical amulet. This amulet is hidden in an abandoned castle. You have a "side quest", which allows them to go slightly out of the way, and fight some monsters. There's always the possibility for loot. So one of the monsters happens to be a guardian of the old castle that long since ran away and turned into a bandit. If they go on the side quest to fight the monsters and win, he happens to have a key to the castle in his bag. If they don't get the key, then make the door lock harder to be picked, and then they now have to go on a hunt for said creatures.

If they had just gone on the "side quest" you'd provided, they wouldn't have missed the chance to get into the castle and get the quest done. So now they have to waste more time tracking these creatures.

The won't be happy, but it'll teach them that sometimes the side quests matter.

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    \$\begingroup\$ How has this worked out when you tried it at your tables? \$\endgroup\$ – fectin Mar 3 '18 at 20:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ Actually worked out quite nicely. They took it in stride, because they were going to go do the side quest and then got voted out. The one player wanted to go, and he was up in arms because he was right. They have since decided to think about the possibilities of missing a possible bit of information or loot if they skip a quest. \$\endgroup\$ – Thatguy Mar 4 '18 at 5:31

protected by nitsua60 Mar 5 '18 at 0:48

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