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I'm fairly new to DMing, but I really enjoy it. My campaign is still pretty early in, and plot is moving forward pretty well; last session actually revealed a huge chuck of the relevant current events. Last session was also a nightmare; the entire party suddenly became hectic and chaotic (borderline murder-goblins). Next session is going to be pretty quiet in comparison; not really any new information, or any new goals (yet), and really, their characters are probably in trouble for causing several messes in town.

I'm not sure how to rectify this. How can I keep the players entertained while they're not going anywhere or doing anything that progresses the plot? How do I make sure they're having fun while the plot is at a standstill?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Have you run a session zero with your players (rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/147962/…) to know what they find fun? One of the sessions I've run was pretty much just a shopping trip, but we all loved it. \$\endgroup\$ – StuperUser Jul 9 at 9:02
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  1. Before I start, a note on perspective: the players don't know that the plot is at standstill and not moving forward; only you, the DM, knows.

  2. Give them a chance to advance their characters. Let them play their features and peculiarities, shop around, spend money, carouse, prepare for the next adventure. Do they like games of chance? Dragonchess? Indulge them! Have they gathered money, used up their potions? Let them replenish their supplies! Shop for better weapons/equipment; maybe even a chance to 'silver' items!

  3. Give them a chance to build relationships with NPCs. You mentioned that they are probably in trouble already by creating messes, let them roleplay to solve them and clear themselves out. Meet NPCs, instigate socializing; they should create friends and enemies. Did they lie to the gate guards for getting in the city without paying the toll? Someone will snitch them and the magistrate will question them! Did they break everything in the inn's common room? Let them discuss with the keeper for making amends! Maybe the thieves' guild is interested in hiring them for missions because of their troubles with the law! Or, even worse, the local lawyer...

  4. Whatever captured their interest, or advanced significantly their personality, find a way to tie later into the plot; they will be "wow" when they discover the consequences of their actions. The guy they tricked to win at games of chance was impoverished and he tried in despair to bounty-hunt the same BBEG the PCs are hunting, and they will find his dead body on their way. The satisfied innkeeper will provide them with a rumour about a stream that its cold water rejuvenates. Some lawless band may come later to their aid in their time of need because they enjoy the confidence of the local godfather.

  5. It's a great time to provide background for your setting and your plot. Is the baron cruel? Have a public court and hanging for missing tax payments! Are the goblins dangerous? Have poor orphan beggars line the streets because the outline farms are burnt! Fill in the specifics of the world and the plot, by showing, not telling.

  6. It's a roleplaying game, not only a war/tactics game; yet sometimes a short fight is needed to spice things up and wake some players. Give it to them! A local gang that's pressing the innkeeper comes to collect; let them beat them for fun. Or help the local militia with night patrols outside the walls in goblin territory...

I've done all of these in my campaigns, and they work wonders for immersion and keeping interest in the world/setting/story.

Plus, they allow a DM to flex sandboxing muscles instead of pulling tight railroading reins.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Great suggestions for any point in a campaign. \$\endgroup\$ – Verdan Jul 8 at 13:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ just adding on to what adonies said, you can also let them do some weapon training to gain proficiency in new weapons. \$\endgroup\$ – pineapple Jul 8 at 16:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 especially for #3 and 4. All the best story beats I've ever had in my games were not from things I carefully planned out, but from random NPCs that the players latched onto and who I happened to find ways to tie back into the story later. Take notes of your story crumbs -- 90% of them won't come to anything, but the 1 in 10 that does will look like genius storytelling from the other side of the table. \$\endgroup\$ – Darth Pseudonym Jul 8 at 17:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ Great ideas! The only thing I can think of to add to this list would be 7. Pick up any hanging sub or side plots and 8. Pick up a sub-plot from a PC back-story, if any. \$\endgroup\$ – CaM Jul 9 at 16:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ "Or even worse, the local lawyer..." Odd that you mention the thieves guild twice. \$\endgroup\$ – Bagahnoodles Jul 11 at 12:25
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Plan fun sessions, plot is secondary

This is somewhat of a challenge to your premise, but bear with me. adonies' answer covers a lot of particulars that you can include. I will try to take a slightly different perspective.

A session that doesn't advance the plot doesn't need to be planned any differently to one that does. When planning your sessions you should be trying to make it as fun as possible, if that happens to also advance the plot that's a bonus.

For some groups, fun is derived solely from completing goals and progressing the plot. If that is the case with your group, you may want to reassess why you are having a low-plot session at all. As DM you can control the passage of time and you can quickly progress to a point where the plot will begin moving forward once more. Thus avoiding this situation entirely.

Other groups, instead take enjoyment from the entertaining or dramatic moments within sessions. "Remember that time when..." type moments. In my experience these moments are impossible to plan for. Sure, beating a BBEG is memorable, but the ridiculous thing the rogue did was the real highlight of the session. For these kind of groups you want to present them with many and varied situations to give them the best chance for something exciting to happen.

Most likely you have a group that is somewhere in between these two, or you will have a few playing in each category. This is why campaigns tend to have an ebb and flow to the tension of sessions. Some are high stakes with plenty of drama, some are silly side quests or shopping sessions filled entertaining NPCs. Whatever happens in your session your goal is to make it fun for your players.

This session doesn't sound like it is lacking plot

Let me just highlight one thing you mentioned:

their characters are probably in trouble for causing several messes in town

To me, this is a hook enough for an entire story arc, let alone a single session. In fact, I have done it. My players got into a scuffle with some locals and decided they needed to leave town in a hurry. I turned this into a 3 session arc where they had to fight tooth and nail to regain their freedom after doing a dodgy deal with a slaver to smuggle them out of town. Sure, it wasn't advancing the plot as I had planned, but the players enjoyed it.

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