I've started DMing a new group. We've only had two short, 2hour sessions, and most players are new to DnD. I've been a DM before (though just a dozen or so sessions) but in those cases it was with a group who had years of experience, so I only have a little experience leading a game.

Right now the players seem to play the game in a way that is best described as 'everything is a simple linear story and everything that happens is there to progress the story'.

For example, they go to a castle that was used by mages as a school of magic. My idea was for the castle to be abandoned - after investigation they would find that it was the site of a large battle, and that would lead them to the 'main' quest line I had in mind.

When they got to the castle, they spend about half an hour (real time, not in-game time) banging the door waiting for it to be opened. When that didn't happen (after I told them maybe they should start considering alternative ways in), they found a cave off the path leading towards the castle, and went in. In the cave, they found a large cavernous opening, 40-50 feet tall, 150 feet across, with some light trickling in from the sky through a small opening. When one of them asked me where they were with respect to the castle and then rolled a natural 20 on their survival check, I said that this would be under the castle somewhere.

As a result, instead of looking for ways out of this cavern where I planned some interesting encounters with a group of goblins, they spent almost all of the remainder of the session trying to get a grappling-hook style thing up through the little hole and then climb out.

I hope that somewhat paints the issue I'm having right now - the PCs never seem to look for clues and just expect everything to be there because they are supposed to 'use' it (there is a hole with light, it must be the way out). Even after repeatedly failing to do what they think they should do, they just keep going, until I tell them to try something else, reminding them that not everything in the world is there just to be in their story.


I don't think I am railroading, though reading back over my question it does appear that way. I didn't plan anything ahead of time. Simply, I had in mind that the castle would be empty, and abandoned after a fight. Then after a while of banging on the door one of the PCs went 'I want to see if there are any caves or tunnels around' and I thought hey, I guess that would make sense! And so on.

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Your players are new to the game (and new to your game). Unless you've told them what to expect, how could they know what your game is like? Getting stuck investigating small details or trying to get their way in through the door could plausibly be what your game is about. I think you should be more active in leading the game towards the direction you'd like to see it play out in.

When they got to the castle, they spend about half an hour (real time, not in-game time) banging the door waiting for it to be opened.

The solution to this problem is simple in principle: don't let them do this. You are not obliged to let the players try banging on the door indefinitely long in real time. Consider the following example:

GM: You stand before the heavy, wooden castle door. It's eerily silent.

Player 1: I knock on the door.

GM: You rap on the door, but hear no response, no footsteps, nothing from the inside.

Player 1: I knock on the door again, then.

GM: Still no response.

Player 2: I bash the door too.

GM: Still no response.

et cetera...

This can go on for arbitrarily long unless you or the players stop it. Do something like this instead:

Player 1: I knock on the door.

GM: you rap on the door, but hear no response, no footsteps, nothing from the inside.

Player 1: I knock on the door again, then.

GM: You spend a while knocking on the door, but getting no response, it becomes apparent that if there's anyone in there, they're not going to open the door for you.

If you want to be really explicit about it --- which I tend to recommend especially to new players and GMs, add something like:

GM: You're going to have to find some other way inside.

The important trick is that you don't let your players spend time on anything boring, and that you pass the long, boring time their characters spend on knocking the door with a sentence or two. Repeated attempts at mundane tasks is something you don't have to focus on, and indeed shouldn't --- time spent in-universe doesn't have to be mirrored in real time.

Similarly, your example about the hole in ceiling shouldn't take an hour under any circumstances: the first time a player attempts to grapple themselves there, you can come up with a reason why they can't go there:

GM: The hole is just large enough to let a bit of light in, but there's no way you can fit through it.

Or, to take an alternate path:

GM: You climb up the hole and notice, to your disappointment, that it leads only through a crack in a rock outside the castle, surrounded by thickets that obscured it from you before. This clearly isn't the right way in.

Whatever you do, don't make your players try something and roll for minutes. If the task is something where failure wouldn't be interesting and they could just try again, let them succeed without a roll. If it's something that can't work out, tell them it's impossible after the first try.

A few words on railroading and linearity

You say your players seem to think of the game as a simple, linear story, but to be honest, that sounds like a pretty good assessment. You have a castle where you've planned a lot of content that's accessible only through the caverns where you've also planned a lot of content, and you're upset because the players aren't engaging with your content. You are running a railroaded campaign.

A common misconception is that railroading is bad, period. It's not. Railroading is fine, as its own genre, but you need to be open to your players about what kind of a game this is and need to have clear cues for your players to follow in order for it to work. Without clear directions, your players are still as railroaded as before, but will spend time stumbling, feeling their way in through the invisible railroad instead of having fun advancing along it.

A few words about storytelling

Even after repeatedly failing to do what they think they should do, they just keep going, until I tell them to try something else, reminding them that not everything in the world is there just to be in their story.

What you're saying is contrary to the usual principles of RPGs and storytelling. You're making a story with the players: everything in the world exists for that story and the players' (including you, the GM) enjoyment, and not for anything else. Isn't that why the whole world you're playing in exists?

Different genres of fiction handle different narrative tropes differently, but one fairly major principle that works its way across genres is that of Chekhov's Gun: if there's a gun hanging on the wall in a play, it is there to be fired. More generally, if a work of fiction describes something, the reader/viewer/listener/player will assume it is going to be important and is usually absolutely right.

This is not necessarily true, nor necessarily realistic (for groups who prefer that sort of thing). However, it is so prevalent in normal storytelling that it's essential that you make sure your players and you are on the same page regarding how it is to be applied, because your players are going to assume it holds, consciously or not.

Think about it: you went through the trouble describing an appealing hole in the ceiling and told them they were under the castle they were supposed to infiltrate --- it seems obvious to anyone who hasn't heard your side of the story that the hole is of vital importance!

The Same Page Tool & Talking with your players

Finally, check out the handy Same Page Tool which gives you some things to discuss with your players regarding the type of game you want to play. Note that it's not a survey, nor a list of things to vote on, it's a discussion aid. It might help you clarify what kind of a game you want to play, overall.

You should also never hesitate to talk with your players, off-game, if you're not having fun with the way the game is playing out, and encourage them to be open with you in a similar manner. Table time is too valuable to spend on rolling for futile grappling hook attempts or other fumbling.

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    but reading over your answer, I think I need to work on the way I word things, to stop them from doing things like I described. Thanks! – Joren Vaes Nov 16 at 15:08
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    @JorenVaes What would have happened, if they did not start to look for tunnels? If the castle is so important, you might want to have prepared a default way in, like an open sally gate on the back (Something that can be found via exploration. In this case, they might have found the cavern earlier anyway, but it sounds like you did not envision the entry yourself). For the caverns, it could be that you did not emphasize the exits on the ground enough compared to the hole in the ceiling (that could also be done later, by referring to smells, sounds or drafts near them). – Chieron Nov 16 at 15:23
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    +1 for mentioning Chekov's Gun. Good storytelling techniques are essential to a DM. D&D works better as a storytelling medium than a real world simulator. Leave non-essential details out if you want to keep the game interesting. – Seth R Nov 16 at 19:47
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    “which I ... recommenced especially to new players and GMs” - old players and GMs too, after all, we have less time left to waste. – Dale M Nov 17 at 2:39
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    @JorenVaes if there is only one possible way in, then it is railroading, on that part. If, on the other hand, they can use your road, but also can climb the walls, chop the wooden gate with axe, use shape metal spell to open metal gate, and so on, in other words - if you are really, truly open about making their (sensible) ideas work, then it's not railroading. – Mołot Nov 19 at 12:05

Players

The players are new and possibly overwhelmed by having too many options. Thankfully, this is easily solved by talking to them and reiterating that the game you play is more open world.

Make sure to ask the players what they would feel would be a good prompt for them to make new decisions.

You can encourage them to do just that by describing thing in more detail. The castle seemed to be in one piece and standing just fine. So, instead the door should have had arrows in it, scorched marks, and there should be crows everywhere. The walls look impenetrable but there's a massive crack in one as if a sally was done -- clue for caves, assault, and of course another mean to get in.

GM

You are doing a little of rail roading: You planed the castle exploration, getting into the caves, and interesting encounters. Then the players did not follow your plan. That is your fault for having a plan.

A fix is instead of saying "no", say "yes, and …" or "yes, but … ", or "yes. How? …". This leads the players to feel (rightly) that they have agency in the world. It allows you, as the GM, to add complications to ensure that the story moves in the right direction.

So, in your example: they spend time trying to climb up. Great, let them. Now, they are in the castle, ready to explore it. However, while climbing they made such a racket that the orcs heard them. Cue: Drums! Drums in the Deep!.

As for clues, remember that you know what things are clues and what are not. To the players, all your say have equal value. Therefore, if you say something like "fluff, fluff, clue, fluff" all your players hear "thing, thing, thing, thing". Which one is important? This is where the 3 clue rule applies: make sure any vital clue is shown at least three times.

If they players do something weird, it is quite alright to question it. For example, the players knock on the door. You could say "You knock. After a few heart beats, you hear bunch of birds take off from within the castle. As you look up, crows stream out towards the sky. Something wet drops on X's face. It is a drop of blood, probably carried by a crow overhead. There is no response from the castle. What do you do?"

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    I really want to know what happens next in your last example... – GPPK Nov 16 at 15:14
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    @GPPK Many of my players would say "nothing good whatsoever". Personally, I would go a scene of carnage heralded by the smell of rotting flesh. Maybe a few orcs with a "Wizard Soup" cauldron welcoming the PCs for dinner. Or maybe suddenly all those dead empty socketed skulls turning towards the PCs and crying out "Why did you leave us to die!". Or after some exploring and finding many dead people, a chime maiden rings her bell and The One Reborn rises… So, yeah nothing good. – Sardathrion Nov 16 at 15:23
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    +1 for "That is your fault for having a plan." – Dan Henderson Nov 16 at 17:38
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    It's good for the GM to have a plan. It's better for the GM to modify the plan on the fly when the PCs do something different. That encounter with goblins later in the cave? Now the goblins are based in the castle's old stables! The plot coupon that was on the far side of the goblins? Now it's somewhere in the inner ward! (If you want to risk going to TV Tropes, look up Xanatos Speed Chess.) – Codes with Hammer Nov 16 at 18:36
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    @CodeswithHammer That sounds more like the "Quantum Ogre" to me. – John Montgomery Nov 17 at 0:27

When dealing with new players there are three key things that I'd use to help them understand that the game is open to options and ideas rather than following a single course and encourage them to think for themselves and get ideas rather than just follow a course.

Talk to them out of game

Getting them to understand what and how a game works out of character, either during the game or before it to help them understand how things work - for new players who are used to games with defined rule sets (like Settlers of Catan) or stories where there are only a single path this can be a bit of a confusing concept; you can help this by prompting them out of character when they first played and laying the options out for them clearly in out of character comments, they also may not be listening or remembering other options.

You're already telling them this after they've been failing for a bit, but try to lay the options out for them so they realise there are paths earlier.

GM: "You bang on the door and it's very loud, you're pretty sure that no one could have missed that noise who was on the other side. Now players, just to remind you; there's a low balcony that you could possibly climb up to if you were athletic, the door itself could be battered down with an axe if you had a mind and a lot of time, and there's also that grate down at the bottom of the moat that could be crawled past, there are other possibilities, if you can think of something you can try it."

Spoon-feeding ideas and options can help them, and then you can move into playing it through descriptions...

Use visual cues

The options above can then be woven into descriptions rather than telling the players openly what their options are as they get more experienced, describe other doors, loose bricks, low windows and so on - lowering the amount of OOC info you give so that they'll hopefully start picking up ideas from your description, remind them to listen to the descriptions and repeat if necessary - it can be a bit tedious at first, but they're learning so you need to be patient :)

Sidekick helpers

I also find it helpful if players have a familiar, sidekick, or any sort of animal (my MERP group had a Rohan warhorse that was the smartest person in the group) that can help feed these ideas or quest for ideas to them without breaking into OOC.

GM: "You've hammered at the door to the keep for ten minutes now without any help. Siggy the Warhorse has wandered off and is chomping down at a large patch of tasty green grass right next to a large crack in the wall about thirty feet away, looks like it might be wide enough to squeeze through."

New Rule: One Scene, One Try

There are several exhaustive answers here, but I wish to focus on a particular issue I often encounter:

they spent almost all of the remainder of the session trying to get a grappling-hook style thing up through the little hole and then climb out.

Did it go something like this?

DM: You see a small opening in the top of the cave with light shining through.

Player 1: my character takes out his grappling hook and 50ft of rope and throws it up at the opening.

DM: Ok. Make a roll.

Player 1 rolls dice.

DM: Your grappling hook soars through the air but misses the opening.

Player 2: Wait wait wait. My character picks up the grappling hook and tries.

Player 2 rolls dice.

DM: The grappling hook again soars through the air, misses the opening and strikes the cave wall with a loud clank.

Player 1: Let's try again, but this time I have my character assist the other character.

Player 2 rolls dice and with assistance bonus.

DM: The grappling hook misses. Again.

Player 3: What if we try it from on top of this rock over here?

Player 4: Spider climb could help... etc..

In a dice based game this play style is guaranteed to produce:

  1. A high enough dice roll to tackle any problem (i.e. a natural 20)
  2. Waste an inordinate amount of time on small tasks.

If you have players that fall into this play style, you need to be more firm with not allowing continuous retries. I prefer the one scene one try rule: the players, collectively, get one try per scene* and must abide by the results. The above example would play out like:

DM: You see a small opening in the top of the cave with light shining through.

Player 1: my character takes out his grappling hook and 50ft of rope and throws it up at the opening.

DM: Hold on. The 'one try' rule applies to this scene. Take five minutes and discuss the best way you can work together on this roll.

Players discuss strategies for five minutes.

DM: Ok time is up. What is the plan?

Player 1: Player 3 will have their character cast spider climb on my character. They then walk as far up the side of the cave as possible while carrying the grappling hook. If I am unable to reach the opening, my character will attempt to throw the hook at the opening. Player 2's character will give me an assistance bonus by helping me aim the throw and keep the other end of the rope from tangling.

DM: Great! If everyone agrees with this plan, cast spider climb and make a roll.

Player 1 rolls dice.

DM: Here's what happens..

*A scene is defined as a part of the game that is larger than an 'encounter' but smaller than a 'session'. A night spent drinking at a tavern, a visit to an abandoned castle, a walk through a creepy forest are all examples of what I call scenes. A single session may have several scenes. From the description of your session, I would say the visiting of the castle is a scene that includes the cave. The characters could not just leave the cave and go back in and expect a retry (it's the same "scene"). However, if they left and traveled into the forest only to be chased by owl bears back into the cave, that would be a new scene and merit a retry. As with most things in tabletop RP, the DM will need to use their judgement when a scene ends for the purposes of re-rolls.

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    While your houserule has its own merits, most editions of D&D have a rule about taking 20. If the characters are not time-pressed, they can just spend enough in-game time trying many, many times until they either succeed or understand that their attempt is hopeless. Since there's no rolling involved, it takes way less time. – Zachiel Nov 16 at 18:28
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    @Zachiel: I've seen that approach discussed here as, loosely, "if there is no penalty for failure or for repeated attempts, success is automatic." (Edited to add an example: "After a few throws and PC 2's assistance, eventually you land the grappling hook in place.") – Codes with Hammer Nov 16 at 18:41
  • There are some RPGs which explicitly codify your "one scene one try" rule, usually (in my experience) under the name "let it ride". You roll once for a given action and then "let it ride" until the situation changes significantly, such as a scene change. – Dave Sherohman Nov 17 at 10:02
  • @Zachiel Take 20 did not show up until 3e. That is not "most" editions. (Just a minor nitpick) – KorvinStarmast Nov 17 at 21:12
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    @KorvinStarmast I guess it depends on how you count them. Nitpick accepted. – Zachiel Nov 17 at 22:13

One of my favorite experiences was when our party was presented with a quest and we went "outside" of the story line: we were asked to be couriers of a letter, and a convoy was traveling to the said destination tomorrow. I turned to the group and said, "Guys, let's go today, deliver the message, and come back by tonight." My group went for it, and it completely circumvented a MASSIVE amount of the story line.

The cool part: my GM rolled with it (no pun intended).

Instead of requiring us to stay overnight and go with the convoy, he completely designed a new story arc for us. We ended up fighting the same bad guy in the end, but an entire branch of his design went out the window (because we had prevented the death of a city mayor that was supposed to be assassinated while we were with the convoy). After we had finished the campaign, the party had enjoyed it because we got to do what we wanted (which was circumvent 'the bad guy'), and he enjoyed it because it allowed him to do more design between sessions and think more on his feet.

It may be outside of your play style, but if the party wants to do something different, roll with it. Come up with new content, even if it means that your original story goes out the window, but keep it real with the story line that you had planned. If the castle is abandoned, leave it abandoned. If there are supposed to be goblins in the cave, have them show up while the party is half way up the grappling rope. If going into the castle now would prevent a thief from looting some magic item from the castle which would be used later in the story, change the story in accordance with how the party acquiring the object would affect things.

It's difficult to pull off sometimes, but it makes for an awesome play experience in the end, which is the whole purpose of playing the game in the first place.

the PCs never seem to look for clues and just expect everything to be there because they are supposed to 'use' it

That's not what is happening. I remember being a novice. In fact I never went on to play seriously because I found the games too rule bound.

Novices get enthralled by being submerged in a fantasy land. That is in itself immensely enjoyable. They don't think things are there "because they are supposed to use them", They think things are there because they are there - just like in the real world.

In the real world throwing a grappling hook repeatedly seems like an obvious plan. Keep going until someone succeeds.

You can just say that the opening is 100 feet up and the rope isn't long enough or no-one is strong enough to throw it that high. A simple in-world explanation related to people's real life experiences will satisfy them and they'll move on.


P.S. The opening may not be meant to be used but the grappling hook clearly is. Why wouldn't they want to try and use it?

  • Good point about novices. When I was a child, I played a lot of text adventure games. I never got really far in many of them, but I did love the imagery they inspired - of ancient castles with storied histories, of sweeping mountain vistas down through the forests to the sea, and the political machinations of societies I barely understood. – Robert Columbia Nov 19 at 13:57

In addition to the other answers, one of the things I remember seeing a while back about GMing well was giving the players multiple things to focus in on as potentially important in order to disguise the thing the players actually need.

For example:
(And yes, I yoinked example this from wherever I heard it, but I'm having to make up my own details)

You open the door and stir up a thick layer of dust on the floor of this old study. A desk in one corner next to a bookshelf has a thick tome resting on it, the red velvet cover standing out despite the dust that fills the room and covers everything. A shaft of light from the room's only window falls across the messy desk and glints off the book's brass corners.

What object here is important?

The red velvet book. Clearly.

Your players are keying in on a single detail of your area descriptions and taking the fact that nothing else was described in the same level of detail as the obvious clue, when for you it was just a random scene element.

Lets try this room again, only this time with a few more details...

You open the door and stir up a thick layer of dust on the floor of this old study. An elegant many-drawered desk covered in bits of old decayed parchment sits in one corner of the room under the room's single, narrow window. A shaft of light catches on the brass corners of a thick tome resting in one corner of the desk, the red velvet cover standing out despite the dust that fills the room and covers everything. Next to the desk stands a tall and sturdy, if otherwise ordinary looking bookshelf that holds dozens of tomes in a variety of sizes; some are even bound in what looks like dragonscale. On a high shelf, the ends of several scroll cases peek out, having avoided the worst of the accumulating dust. Meanwhile the corner of a poster betrays its presence, otherwise almost completely hidden behind the room's furniture.

Now which object is worth further investigation?

Gosh, take your pick. The desk has a bunch of drawers, the red velvet book might be important, who knows what those scrolls have on them, and what's up with that poster?

Each of your players will pick up on something different and scatter. It doesn't matter that the only important bit of plot is the book. Maybe one of the scrolls has a useful spell on it, and maybe the poster came off its mountings and fell down and isn't important at all. By giving the players several options, they'll naturally split up and investigate different things and someone will find the clue you wanted them to find. Anything else you drop, as a reward for following up on the red-herrings, is a bonus and makes everyone feel like they contributed. Who knows when that +1 throwing dagger that they found, lost under a bed, will come in handy (and gosh, aren't I going to look under the bed more often)?

When they are repetitively trying something like banging on the door, just ask them how long they plan on continuing to try this. Then tell them, "After knocking for [half an hour], there's still no answer".

For something like spending ages trying to roll a natural 20 or whatever it takes to get a grappling hook into the hole, just tell them "You continue to try for half an hour, and you eventually get it hooked on." then when they climb up, they find nothing interesting and it's clear that this is not the way into the castle.

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