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I've been a GM for about three years now. I've been GMing for this group for almost two years next month. I have an issue with motivating my players to take action.

It's a sandbox campaign and they're currently going after the BBEG's old lairs to get clues on who he is and how he was defeated before so they can defeat him. The players have somehow got it in their heads that the BBEG is out to kill them; this is not the case because if it was the BBEG would just kill them and there wouldn't really be anything they could do about it, hence the fact that they're searching old lairs for ways to defeat him.

So I have tried laying out side quests where they get to be heroes, which is something the group has told me they wanted to be, to help them power up and gain experience, they even have mythic ranks. However whenever I present something to them that isn't just a straight up monster hunt or a murder mystery, they go "No way are we getting involved, it isn't our problem." The only way I've managed to get them to do anything heroic so far is to use the paladin's code to get the paladin to try and help people and save lives. On top of that I create villains and bad guys for the party to go up against, setting them up for awesome fights, and they retreat thinking its too dangerous, and once again, it isn't their problem.

I have tried using money to pay them, I have tried using their character motivations, but they seem dead set on ignoring everything in the world outside of the "main quest", in a sandbox campaign due to something that has not come up once since its introduction and there has been no in game reinforcement of.

If it helps, the party is level 5 mythic rank 2.

TL;DR: What method can I employ to get my heroic minded, but not heroically inclined, group of players to explore more of the side content so they don't get wrecked at the fight with the BBEG?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to the site! Take the tour. I can sympathize—deeply!—with the the heroic minded but not heroically inclined idea, so thank you for adding that phrase to my lexicon. It may be useful to add—if you can describe it—exactly how much sand's in your sandbox. That is, how do the PCs learn of adventure hooks and how many hooks are typically available simultaneously? Thank you for participating and have fun! \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Apr 14 at 15:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ Let me proactively warn answerers that this isn't a discussion forum; they need to be answering according to the site's citation requirements - something from game rules, or something that they have done or seen done. Random "you should do this!" opinions with no backing up will be downvoted and possibly deleted. See rpg.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/8696/… for more. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Apr 14 at 16:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ Possibly related: rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/29795/… \$\endgroup\$ – Ilmari Karonen Apr 15 at 12:13
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Everything is okay

In the question title you claim that you have a problem having the players do stuff; this is clearly not the case, as they are doing precisely what they should be doing in a sandbox game: They have set an objective and try to accomplish it, while ignoring unrelated hooks. This is good and effective play; I am happy when my players manage to create such a coherent goal and start pursuing it.

Their plan is to check the old lairs of the big evil thing, which seems, given the information you have given, an eminently reasonable thing to do.

You seem to not quite have adjusted to running a sandbox. In a sandbox game, the players take the lead. They are doing that. As a game master, you create the sandbox and content there. You are doing that. Players might have said that they want to be heroic, but play reveals their true priorities - either they see the big quest as heroic, or being heroic is not so important, or they see the big evil as too large a priority to focus on other stuff.

Whatever the case, if they players are not complaining, you seem to have a functional sandbox game going on. Prepare the sandbox in the direction they are going and continue as you are doing. Especially prepare the old lairs of the big villain, if any exist, and their surroundings, information about them, and the ways to get into them.

In my experience, the common problem with a sandbox game is that players have problems focusing and do bit of this and a bit of that, and then wonder why nothing is happening, while they only go to a dungeon here or there once and retreat and then go do something completely different.

Remember consequences

You write that there have been several situations where players have walked away from heroic opportunities. Remember the consequences of these decisions and develop the world according to their consequences.

Do not do this as a punishment for decisions made and paths not walked, but rather, as natural consequences of their action or inaction. In my experience, this creates interesting play, because players face choices which have consequences and they have to decide what to do, given limited time and options.

What if they fail?

In a sandbox game, the players might bite off too much and fail. If they attack an unknown enemy with no good plan for escape, then that is what they deserve. Start a new game some months or years into the future in the new post-apocalypse.

But this does not seem to be what they are doing, since they are explicitly looking for clues and information. Why are you afraid that they would go against the enemy unprepared?

Generally speaking

If you want a sandbox game with a more leisurely pace, then do not have a BBEG and certainly have nothing like a main quest. Rather, have several minor and major forces gathering strength and trying to succeed at their objectives, while putting the player characters in the middle of things happening. Then let them decide what to do.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Just wanted to say thanks. This answer is really helpful, this is the first truly sandbox campaign I've ran before. The BBEG was actually a result from a players background and an unlucky roll involving a nightmare lord. Hearing about the opposite problem of a sandbox becoming more of a this and that campaign, I can appreciate the problem of focused play more and I hadn't considered it, so thank you for putting it in perspective for me. I had already intended on the consequences becoming what they are so, thanks for the reassurance there as well \$\endgroup\$ – Korthar Apr 15 at 0:00
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Check in with your players to reaffirm their commitment to being heroes

It sounds like your players early on communicated a desire to be heroes, but are now failing to act on that desire. I can think of three reasons why this might be the case:

  1. They have changed their minds and no longer wish to be heroes.
  2. They like the idea of being heroes but aren't willing to do the RP legwork.
  3. You have not given them sufficient opportunities to be heroes.

From the situation you have described, it sounds like #3 is not the issue. To identify and then solve issues #1 and #2, the best thing to do is to sit down with your players and say "Hey, at the beginning of this campaign you guys said you wanted to be heroes. I have tried to create heroic opportunities for the group, but you routinely act disinterested. How can I make this campaign more compelling for you?"

If they say they want to be heroes, press them to explain why they haven't been acting like heroes. If they don't want to be heroes, ask them what it is they do want to be. Ideally, you wouldn't have to ask these questions - your players would make their intent known through their actions in the sandbox world. Oh well! Hopefully everyone will learn.

If your players don't want to be heroes anymore, ask them to be more thoughtful moving forward

If your players indicate that they have changed their mind about what they want out of the game, but did not communicate this to you until you were compelled to ask them directly, they have treated you unfairly. It is not your job to read your players' minds. If they say they want one thing, then act disengaged because they secretly desire something else, they are wasting everyone's time. Tell your players that, in the future, you would like them to communicate their change of heart more effectively.

Personal experience

Recently, in my own sandbox game, my players finished clearing a big wizard tower. Along the way, they have found a number of quest prompts and clues. When these prompts were found, the group formed travel and adventure plans for the future, as well as adept theories regarding game world mysteries... but then never wrote any of this down. Consequently, at the end of the wizard tower they focused on the last clue they found, which pointed to a quest they were not very interested in, and reluctantly made plans to make this their next adventure. I could tell they were bummed, and felt railroaded into following just this lead. So I lead by example and texted them a list of 8 quest prompts that they had previously discovered, discussed, and then forgotten. This lead to an excited, session-long debate about what to do next, and the spark has now returned to the campaign. Ironically, they ended up choosing the original path anyway, but I think they were pleased just to know that they had options.

The take away? Sometimes the players need to be reminded (a) what they want as players (b) what they want as characters and (c) how to effectively achieve these desires.

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Really simple answer: NPCs

When a group tends to be affected by decision paralysis, or just a general lack of bravery, you can kick up the thrill-o-meter with one of two NPC solutions I have created to deal with this situation.

The Senior Adventurer

This is an NPC who is looking for a group to lead on an expedition, or just mentor. They are higher level than the party, and have seen a lot of adventure in their days. They are motivated to their ends, and will continue to keep the party moving towards the goal. They have a lot of experience, so you can use them to offer occasional bits of advice to the group ("This hallway looks suspicious, lets check for hidden pits, OK?"), but they don't know everything and can be wrong if the party starts to use them as a crutch.

Perhaps they are older, and cannot physically mix it up as much anymore, so their higher level abilities don't throw the encounters out of whack. (Think of a older Paladin, for example, who can lend some healing and low level spells, but has lost his edge as a mighty warrior)

I have had this sort of character appear as a someone looking to start an adventuring company. She had money and plans for adventures, and the group were her employees. Its a great intro hook.

The Bold Hero

This is a NPC of equal level to the party, that has similar goals. However, they are completely fearless and driven. Perhaps they have a thirst for justice, a thirst for vengeance, or a thirst for glory. But whatever the motivation, every time your group starts dragging their feet, the NPC pushes them forward, with admonitions or just by charging headfirst into the next challenge. This character needs to not be foolish, or the group will revert to dragging their feet, as this character will just prove their fears. The character needs to be bold, but not foolhardy. He/she, isn't a leader but is simplt just focused on the goal at all times and will gladly take direction from a PC.

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