I could use some suggestions on how to deal with in game events when I specifically don't want players to waste time pursuing an objective, either because it is: A) a dead end or B) they aren't supposed to go there yet.

(A) In regards to the former: I frequently make use of false clues in a game. For example, in an investigation, I will happily provide false witness testimony (either the witness is just remembering the events wrong or they are actively lying). But I follow through on this in that, if the players decide to go down that, then I will happily follow it through to the end to their detriment.

Other times, however, in the process of providing background information on the area, I will mention that there is X present. X is obviously meaningless to their adventure and I do mean obviously but, for whatever reason, they decide to follow it anyway.

My group is made up of a collection of personalities. Some people decide to follow X because they know it will derail the adventure and they enjoy that and push others to do so. Others will do so because they think that X is important and don't pick up on the increasing roadblocks that I start putting in the way that reaching X is just not happening. It is this latter group that is the issue.

Now the solution I use (just the other day) is to eventually state, after 30 minutes of putting up with this the other day, that X is a dead end for them and it was just there for world flavour. I honestly hate doing this but I feel it becomes necessary.

We can subdivide the latter group again into two groups in that there are those that once told thank me and say they failed to pick up on the cues and move back on track. And then there are those that get frustrated and annoyed that I would even mention X to begin with and spout off (what I think is nonsense) that if I go to the trouble of mentioning X that X should be something they can interact with.

I like adding flavour to the worlds I create. However this is an issue that has come up a few times. I don't want to bookend all my flavour with things like "this is relevant and this is not" as I am describing the world. But sometimes I feel like I should.

(B) Following on, sometimes I will describe something that I don't want players to get to just yet but is an obvious part of the world (the giant castle looming over the city, etc...).

Again the same groups mentioned above get into play and decide to go from the beginning of the story to the end right off the bat. Basically level 1 characters trying to take on the end bosses which usually ends up with party members being killed and making new characters.

A few campaigns back, I essentially had a stargate that lead to this cordoned off zone. And the players spent 3 hours trying to hack the gate to open up, even after I repeatedly told them from the start that it was completely impossible to hack and they would not be able to open it at this point without essentially the magic key.

UPDATE 10/15/18 So to elaborate a bit more the game currently being played is Tales from the Loop (I was trying to keep things vague in case my players were reading this and some of them are a bit on more sensitive side and I was trying to avoid the chance of hurting feelings but I realize that is not as helpful I suppose). Before we even started I got the entire group to agree to play the characters that are kids as actual kids and not as adults pretending to be kids. This in my mind is not really that difficult. I realize that perhaps for others (and those not actually good at RPing) it is hard to play characters that are not yourself all the time. The flavour detail I inserted was that as they were walking to their original planned destination that an army convoy passed through town on its way to the nuclear power plant. That is all I said. Literally that was the entire sentence that caused this derailment. The descriptions I gave for the actual mystery they were supposed to solve were far more detailed and obvious. Then basically against the wishes of the other players two of the players forced the entire group to try to break into the power plant... those two players were basically arrested by the plant security and had to face their parents eventually picking them up from jail and sitting out the rest of the mystery that the rest of the group got back to after I let them escape the security and actually do what the original mystery was. Now the plant is where the Loop actually is located. Something they as kids and new players to this world (I am not running the vanilla fantastical world in the corebook that has common knowledge of loops and robots, but instead our real 1980's) wouldn't have a clue about. Eventually they will find this out and there will be a way into the plant to get to the loop. But this was literally the second day of the campaign (first for 5 players that session) and they decided to break into the plant... After the session one of those players basically expressed why he didn't like the campaign and that I shouldn't have mentioned the plant at all if I didn't want him to try to go there. I rebutted him by reminding him that he agreed to play the game from the perspective of a kid and why his character would at all attempt this simply based on the one line I gave. He also told me that I need to insert more red herrings into the campaign cause he thought it was too linear (I always run a linear first or second day to introduce the system and world to players) whilst also complaining that I shouldn't give clues that lead nowhere. I said I would take his suggestions in mind for future sessions. So as I was telling him future sessions will have multiple things going on at once now that the introduction is over. But that I had no idea on how to give more red herrings whilst also not giving him any dead ends... Also in regards to people suggesting that if players willfully enter areas that they are not ready for that I should "kill them." I am not against doing so and have done so before. But the same player above has taken the rule in this system that the KIDS CAN'T DIE too literally and believes that they can do what they want without consequences. I immediately corrected him on this as soon as he said it in that though they can't die they might drop out of the campaign for reasons and new characters would need to be rolled. I am not sure that this correction has been taken to heart.

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to rpg.se. Take the tour, it's a useful introduction to the site. Most importantly is that this is a Q&A site, not a discussion forum. As currently written this kind of seems like a rant disguised as a question. Is there an actual problem that you're trying to solve here, other than you just being frustrated? If that's the way the players want to play the game then why are you trying to change that? What problem is that play-style causing? Are there conflicts that are arising from the situation? \$\endgroup\$ Oct 13, 2018 at 0:24
  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ Deltafleer, your recent update just turns this into a massive wall of text that's hard to read and doesn't really seem relevant to the actual problem (of which I'm still not sure what that problem is). Context and details defiantly help but too much information that's not entirely relevant is hard to pick through and understand what is being asked. As I stated in my previous comments, questions here work best when they focus on the actual problem. What is the problem you're trying to solve? What is the actual question you're asking? \$\endgroup\$ Oct 16, 2018 at 3:48
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ As I also previously stated, we're not a discussion forum. We don't handle idea generation, brainstorming, or opinion polling. Questions here need to conceivably have a single, "best" answer. You might want to check out our curated list of recommended forums and ask on one of those instead. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 16, 2018 at 3:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ Alright that's fine, I've misunderstood the purpose of this place. I guess a mod can go ahead and delete this thread or lock it down. \$\endgroup\$
    – Deltafleer
    Oct 16, 2018 at 3:54

4 Answers 4


You have multiple problems here

Judging by how you have split up your players you actually have multiple different problems here. You may need to address all of them or only 1 and the others will then be tolerable. I'll try to address each of them

Campaign Expectations

As you will find with many questions on this site you need to establish clear expectations for the kind of campaign you are running. This involves things like how much of a sandbox the campaign is, if the DM should include red herrings and a bunch of other social contract stuff. Tools like the Same Page Tool and the Session 0 Checklist are a good place to start for this sort of thing.

Problem players

Some people decide to follow X because they know it will derail the adventure and they enjoy that and push others to do so.

Personally I classify these sort of players as problem players. This site has lots of good question on problem players and you can find some good advice there. Particularly this question for players misbehaving because they enjoy it, and this question on differing player priorities.

Most advice will come down to talking to these players, find out why they think it's more fun to derail the campaign rather than play the content you have prepared for them. Again the questions in the campaign expectation tools can help here.

Rewarding side tracks

Previously have you indulged their tendency to go off track? Provided rewards or interesting side missions for them to explore? If so you may have established a pattern that they would like to continue.

Personally I appreciate when my players go off on side tracks as it shows they are engaged in my world. However, I can understand that if they constantly do this it puts a lot of strain on you to think on your feet and doesn't progress the story.

You have a few options here:

  • Continue to reward exploring the world. But set a time limit on it. Make it clear to the players that while they are off sidetracking the main quest is still progressing and things will get worse for them in the long run.
  • Make sidetrack short and less interesting. Let the players follow the sidetrack but keep it short, let them find whatever it was that got them interested in it quickly and they will get over it. After a few times of this they will discover that the session you actually planned is probably more interesting that the sidetracks.
  • Ban sidetracks altogether. I don't actually suggest this but it is an option. The players wander off away from the main quest and you instantly jump to: "You waste the next day wandering around chasing down leads and eventually decide that yes, that talking rat was just a trick." Then go back to where they were with a day of time wasted.

Skipping story line

See this question on players missing important parts of the story. The best way to deal with it is just to run with it. The players will show you what they are finding interesting and build the adventure from there.

PCs entering an area they aren't ready for

Kill them. Or don't but make it very clear that their characters aren't ready for this part of the adventure yet. Generally I hate advice that ends in "TPK the party" but if they are determined to follow this course you may run out of options. On the upside you should only have to do this once.

My preferred approach would be for BBEG or whatever it is that they are not ready for to simple dismiss them as not worth their time. Give a grand display of power and let the PCs flee with their tails between their legs. Gives good motivation to get good and go back to revenge.

If you still want to say no

I suggest letting it play for a few minutes and then going into summary mode. Let them make a roll or two to determine how well they did then just summarise it and inform them of how much time/gold it cost them to found out.

In General

  • Make sure everyone is on the same page about how the campaign should run.
  • Reward what your players are interested in, they are engaging with your world. This is a good thing! Let them explore and shape the story around them.
  • Be prepared for them to chase after any interesting thing you mention.
  • Summarise things you don't want to play at the table

Don't have any dud leads in the first place.

Your players have no way of knowing which leads are duds without exploring them. If you keep using them, the players will keep following them. It's like the old joke: "Doctor, it hurts when I do this!" "So stop doing that!"

I've read that Victorian novels used to ramble into side-stories that had no bearing on the story's ending, while modern stories, movies especially, consider that bad storytelling. Think of a movie where a seemingly unimportant event occurs, only for this to be critically relevant later in the movie. Modern players may have come to expect that everything they encounter is relevant.

Redirect the dud leads to real leads.

Suppose the players are investigating a murder by a werewolf, and a dagger left at the scene is a red herring. If the PCs investigate the dagger, perhaps they find its original owner, who mentions that he lost it yesterday when he was mugged by a werewolf.

Gloss over irrelevant leads.

If something is meant to be unimportant, cover it very quickly so that it does not expend time. You might even say, "it's not important." Never use this phrase with something that could be important, so the players know they can trust that when you say the innkeeper is unimportant, he's unimportant.

Subtly encourage "correct" play.

Suppose the players are investigating a murder, and someone suddenly says "We get on the airship bound for Sarlona." Say, "Are you sure? You still haven't completed your investigation." Act surprised that they would do such a silly thing.

Practice improvising.

Suppose the PCs get on the airship anyway. Adapt your story. It turns out werewolf is on the airship with them, or has an agent aboard the ship, and plans on killing the people investigating him to cover his tracks. Now the PCs have to discover who the villain is or they'll be in trouble.

If done well, the players will be impressed that you were able to react dynamically to their input.


Set expectations

It sounds like you and your players have differing expectations. Many GMs do not mention something unless it at least has the potential to be important. You and your players seem to have different ideas on what the best approach to take on that question and you need to be on the same page regarding that, especially in an investigative game. Plainly telling them that you often include irrelevant details may help, though not including many irrelevant details is another approach that might work for your group if most of them expect every detail to matter.

Be careful with false leads

In a real life investigation, dealing with false leads is a significant part of the investigation. In fiction, you generally want to include some since having none can be unrealistic. However, you say you let them follow it to "their detriment." Depending on your group, that approach may not go over well. You do not want to punish players and punishing characters for being misled when you try to mislead them should be done lightly and carefully.

Instead, a false lead should either be dealt with as simply part of the puzzle and they need to eventually realize it is false. This isn't "to their detriment" it is just a normal part of the puzzle. Or, it should lead into a specifically laid trap in which case they find out the false lead is playing a significant role that they need to address, just not a helpful one.

  • \$\begingroup\$ So the game is Tales from the Loop. Before we started the game I explicitly told my players that they should always keep in mind that their characters and children and should be played as children. How an adult thinks and how a child thinks are very different. \$\endgroup\$
    – Deltafleer
    Oct 16, 2018 at 2:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ Sorry I didn't realize how limited the comment system here is so I cut down on my last reply to the following: As far as expectations go my players know that I include world flavour in my games that are not meant to directly be part of the plot. It's just that one of them specifically is terrible at picking up on things and gets mad when I point this out to him. Coincidentally the same person who I was talking to after the game about why he hated it said I need to add in more red herrings and at the same time not have false leads that are pointless... frankly that is not something I can win. \$\endgroup\$
    – Deltafleer
    Oct 16, 2018 at 3:03

I would suggest that you go along and have the story proceed without them. The world keeps going whether the players are there or not. When they're purposefully avoiding the story and ignoring what you say, especially when you clearly say that the NPC is just there for flavour or that that the stargate can't be opened without the magic key and so on, then make them suffer the consequences of their choices IC.

Since you seem to have two kind of players, I'd suggest to punish only those who are doing it on purpose. We can all miss a clue for whatever reason and go on a wild goose chase following false leads. But if there is a big arrow pointing one direction and some of them decide to ignore it to go somewhere else, then you should strike.

If they want to go talk to a background character instead of going to the castle where the evil scientist is running is evil experiment, let them. They'll spend a nice evening chatting around tea and crumpets, then the evil scientist will unleash his army of evil zombie chinchillas and everyone will be forced to flee or die or submit and become slave to the chinchillas. The evil scientist doesn't need slaves anymore, he has his chinchillas to do his bidding, but the poor things needs to have some fun as well.

Continuing on your example with the stargate, I would have whatever power that controls or watch that thing come in and arrest them about 5 minutes after they began trying to tamper with it. They get sent to jail, in secrecy, are interrogated, their whole lives dissected, etc, and they're now on the watch list of that power. And they'll have constant reminder that they're being watched throughout the rest of their adventures.

The game master at an Amber campaign I was part of some years ago found another way to punish that kind of behaviour. The campaign was set during the novels, and the GM told us that we could influence the story through our actions, and basically change what happened in the novels. I was quite excited about that.

Halfway through Part 1, much to my dismay, most of the group basically decided to skip the main story more or less on purpose, and go frolicking around the universe. The GM let them have their fun, meet some NPCs, visit nice places and such. However, since there wasn't much really happening and it wasn't even remotely close to the campaign, he gave very little in the way of XP.

When we started Part 2, which was the attack by the Chaos on Castle Amber itself, the group was way underpowered to play any meaningful part in the battle itself or face off the dangers that sprouted around Amber afterwards. And we all suffered through the rest of Part 2 because of that.

It reminded those wandering players, quite acutely, that there was a main story going on, one that was quite obvious, and they were suddenly way more interested in it. The group went back to it and tried to resume working on the mystery we had and the old leads, which made me quite happy as I was in the minority who wanted to stay and keep investigating the mystery, and had no interest to go gallivanting across the universe.

This can work for most, if not all, games, as XP is something that most players expect at the end of an adventure, to become 'better' and 'stronger', however they define it. And, in this campaign, not having the XP meant that we were less likely to be able to influence the story.

Killing the characters is the easy solution, but the players you describe do not seem to be the kind of player who would learn from a character death. Make their character miserable if they do things like what you describe should make them think twice after a time.

And if it doesn't, well, either change your play style by putting invisible walls everywhere except where the story leads, or change players.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ This sounds a lot like you are suggesting "punishing fun". Your suggestion about reduced xp is a good one and you could improve this answer by making your good points more consise. \$\endgroup\$
    – linksassin
    Oct 13, 2018 at 0:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ No, I'm suggesting punishing players who purposefully disrupt the game, as is the case with part of the group described in the question. And, personally, as a player and GM, I do hate when some in the group decide to purposefully drop the story mid-quest to go do something else with a random NPC. Especially when it's been agreed beforehand what the campaign or story would be. \$\endgroup\$
    – Sava
    Oct 13, 2018 at 1:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ I agree with your point I'm just not sure that your answer read that way. \$\endgroup\$
    – linksassin
    Oct 13, 2018 at 1:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ I tried to clarify my point, does it reads better now? \$\endgroup\$
    – Sava
    Oct 13, 2018 at 1:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yes, good clarification \$\endgroup\$
    – linksassin
    Oct 13, 2018 at 1:40

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .