I am freestyling a campaign w/out an “official” system, and I have run into a problem. With certain players, they refuse to play as adventurers, choosing instead to get a steady job, then saying things like: “I sweep the tavern floors every night for three months.” Then, with the subsequent money they obtain from this three-month saving session, they buy awesome gear and easily defeat everything I planned to put in their way. How do I get it into their heads that they are not mundane people and therefore should not act this way?
Have you ever DM'd Dungeon World, or other Powered by the Apocalypse games?
In Dungeon World, there exists the concept of the "Front". A "Front" is a collection of linked dangers which can be engaged by your PCs. The following are examples of "Fronts":
- The ravages of the Orc Horde on the outskirts of the mountain;
- A nearby wizard is obsessively searching for the key to lichdom;
- The king is suffering from a mysterious sickness; and,
- A scheming noble is looking for the opportunity to attack the vulnerable kingdom.
If the PCs do nothing to engage with the Fronts, these Fronts continue to progress and the PCs hear news of this (what DW calls "Grim Portents"). If the PCs don't react to the portents, there are real consequences.
It works like this. At the start, the PCs are hired to investigate orc raids on merchant caravans. After a few weeks of the PCs ignoring the threat, the PCs hear that larger groups of orc raiders start sacking villages on the outskirts of the mountain. If they continue to ignore the threat, they hear news that an orc Waaagh has been called, and that a huge orc warhost is marching down the mountain. Urgent help is needed or all will be lost. If they continue to ignore the threat at this point, the orc horde is at the gate, and the PCs can only try to escape with their lives.
And so on.
The consequence is, the PCs are free to ignore the fronts and play as they want, but the fronts will progress independently of them regardless. The threat should be narratively appropriate and reasonably connected to the PC's actions, not level appropriate. The trick is to make sure that you make it obvious to the PCs what the threat is and what their choices are at a certain point, to give them a good sense of the consequences of their actions. If the Orc Horde is at the city gates and the PCs try to fight them head-on, that's a TPK. Time to re-roll some new characters.
Session 0 (that is, a pre-planning session with your characters before starting the campaign) can be important to establish your expectations for the game. If you want to run a tight, fast-paced game and the PCs are expecting an open-world sandbox, you're going to have issues. Both kinds of games are fun, but they are also very different to run and play.
Retirement is a Real Thing
Another option is to retire the "mundane" character. This isn't a punishment - it's great that their character has reached their goals and has settled down into civilian life. Not every PC's career needs to end with death or the end of the campaign.
If the PC again becomes relevant and re-joins the party, why not let the Player pick up where they left off?
PS: I get that the "sweeping the floors for three months" thing is not intended to be specific. See: Tippyverse.
NautArch's answer of "Session Zero" is an excellent starting place, and should be the first option.
If, however, everyone claims to be on the same page - and that page is "adventure in the great wide world" - yet there are still those who want to sweep floors for 3 months then buy enough gear to plow through whatever comes, there are still some tools to bring out:
- Living in civilization is expensive: in the city, nothing comes for free. Even living modestly, there are bills to pay: rent, food, cleaning supplies, etc.
- Sweeping floors isn't that lucrative. It may well be possible to sweep floors every day and have enough money to pay the rent, but it'll take a long time to save up enough for a Sword of +5 Awesomeness.
- The world is progressing without them: while they're sweeping floors, they hear tales of mighty adventurers going out to free dragons from evil princesses, and the sky does seem to be getting darker day by day (and surely that blood-red moon's nothing to worry about, right?)...
- Challenges are challenging. If the players can turn their meager savings from a couple of months of no-skill manual labor into tools that let them bypass the challenge, the challenge isn't challenging enough.
- Boring jobs are boring. Play up the tedium of sweeping the same floor every night, hearing the same tavern regulars tell the same stories over and over again, every night, for three months. Don't let it pass with a single sentence of narration: milk the repetitiveness of it all, the tedium, the lack of diversion. And, play up the couple of times that adventurers come in to rest between adventures, bringing in new and exciting tales of the wide world outside the inn.
Time for a Session Zero
If you haven't already run a Session Zero, then it's definitely time to do so. If you have, then it's probably time to have another one.
It sounds like everyone isn't on the same page about what they want/expect from the game. A session zero is an opportunity and a tool to get everyone on the same page. There may be compromises that have to be made, but you currently have a disconnect and you need to reset everyone's expectations (including your own) and get everyone to agree on the game being played.
Structure the game differently.
Make time meaningful, make ordinary work too low-paying to interact with the game proper, make the plot about things that happen to your players rather than things your players seek out, or any number of other things.
Make no mistake, if you allow this sort of play to lead to success without drawbacks, you will never be able to convince your players that this is not an effective strategy. Because if it can succeed without drawbacks it's probably a dominant strategy over any other possibilities.
If the game is set up such that players can choose to burn three months, and the plot will wait for them, there is no downside to allocating unlimited downtime to build up resources. Players don't spend any time or attention, at all, on boring mundane tasks, but they do get all the same rewards as if they had done so.
They may as well spend infinite downtime in a particular forest fighting boars, reaching an infinite level of progression in your system, and thus having infinite options for how to address conflicts at a time that maximally suits their convenience. Think of it this way: what are the real-life factors which prevent someone from putting in three months' work and then becoming an unstoppable action hero?
The most direct solution is to, formally or informally, forbid or frustrate strategies which allow mundane tasks to accomplish in-game goals. You could do this with a specific player-GM agreement that they will not behave that way, or at the other extreme could make time a critical factor in the game such that spending enough time at mundane activities to earn the money to make challenges trivial also means that the opportunity to engage in those challenges has passed.
If their task is to steal an artifact, maybe it's only in town for two weeks as part of a travelling museum exhibition. Players fundamentally cannot wait to try to get the artifact.
If plot elements are things that can come to the players, whatever they may be doing, then you can decline to allow them to spend three months doing ordinary work without encountering content you've planned.
Maybe worthwhile equipment is so expensive that sweeping tavern floors will never generate enough income to buy it, and playing through your planned content is the only way they can get that kind of money.
As the game master you have unlimited options to enforce the things you want to enforce. You do not need to, and should not be expected to, simply agree to anything any player suggests at any time. As in NautArch's answer, a Session 0 is a great way to get everyone on the same page. But even without such an agreement you, as GM, have far more control over whether or not these mundane playstyles are workable than you seem to think.
Use that power to bring the game to your players!
One of the best practical pieces of advice I have gotten for campaign design in lighter, more free-form game systems is this:
- Always have a plan for what happens if the PCs do nothing or run away
- Always have deadlines in mind
- Always have the consequences of doing nothing or running away be negative
Now, those three sentences still imply an incredible breadth of options and details for you. It's still on you, the GM, to communicate the tone and style of the game (or to reinforce it, if it is set during a Session Zero exercise.) It's still on you to make those negative consequences meaningful-- which usually means personal to the PCs-- without feeling like railroading. It's still on you to make these connect from being a sequence of arbitrary deadlines into something that's coherent with the narrative.
So it's probably not appropriate to respond with, "When you show up to work the next day, someone has burned down the inn and murdered the innkeeper." Not right out of the gate, anyway.
I don't want to turn this into a brainstorming session, but you need some kind of imminent situation that will get successively worse for the character or characters over those three months, and that depends on what all the characters are doing. Figure out what ties the characters together, and threaten it.
And it's on your players, to some degree, to bite at these hooks instead of "Somebody Else's Problem"-ing it. (Which can also be discussed in a Session Zero.)
If sweeping floors would be so lucrative, there would be much more people sweeping floors, which would increase the competition for getting a sweeping job, making it much harder to land such a prospect.
Or look at it from the other way: do you see people getting rich from doing mundane jobs for a few months? No, because that's not that simple. It shouldn't be that simple for your players either. The wages should be way lower, the prices for gear or living costs should be higher or a combination of both.
The way it is now, the numbers and rules result in an unrealistic situation, which your players try to metagame for their advantage. You could (and should!) talk with your players about the kind of game they would like to play, but as a GM (and especially if using a homebrew system) it is your responsibility to come up with a set of rules and values that more or less faithfully represent a world you all are comfortable with playing in. Mistakes do happen of course, as players think of things the GM has never considered, but this is why the GM always has the final say and has the authority even to change the rules on the fly.
Handle it during character creation.
You're running with an informal homebrew system, but a common feature in published systems, in character creation, is to decide how much money and gear your character starts with. The implication is that it represents what they were able to amass from "normal" life (whatever that looked like) before starting their career as adventurers.
If three months working a safe, easily available day job would get you the money to buy a totally sweet suit of armor, then you would start with that, because nobody with half a brain would run off and become an adventurer without their sweet suit of armor.
It's like trying to create your character as a toddler and then spend 15 years studying and exercising to max out your stats. Real toddlers actually do this and it just makes them normal adults.
There are a lot of good answers here, while several allude to the concept none of them directly address the call to adventure by name. (Warning, TVTropes links below).
Provide a direct call to adventure.
A call to adventure is something meant to pull a character out of their mundane life. It is similar to a plot hook, but plot hooks are often dangled in a "take it or leave it" kind of way. Plot hooks provide options. Calls to adventure are normally targeted specifically at the character or a small group and demand some sort of response. Calls to adventure are very useful in RPGs and come up frequently in other mediums. They are almost mandatory in stories that are meant to follow the classic "hero's journey".
Of course, a character may try to refuse the call. In a tabletop RPG, an attempt to refuse the call is probably a sign that the players are not buying into the premise and it is time to have an OOC discussion. Though if you want to keep it entirely in character, it is worth noting that some calls are persistent and follow the characters. Some calls cannot be refused.
For brief examples, having a powerful and mysterious figure show up and ask the characters, personally, for help is a clear call. It is targeted directly at them and would take them out of their mundane lives, though they could refuse.
Having a villain show up and kidnap the characters with plans to sacrifice them later, though in a way they can escape, is a call that cannot be refused. They need to deal with the fact they were kidnapped immediately and even after they escape they cannot just go straight back to their mundane lives because the villain will come after them again. The adventure must be addressed.
To expand on the other, very good answers here: You are the GM. The GMs job is to run a game that is fun to play. That should be your top priority. So i'm going to focus on how much fun your players (and you) might/could have had.
Firstly, why did you mind that your players "easily defeat everything I planned to put in their way"? Because challenges are fun and if they are too easy the game will get boring pretty quickly. To overcome a challenge, your players should have to come up with a plan and/or make clever decisions. But saving up money before taking up the adventurer life sounds like a pretty clever plan to me. I would say that its fine for you to allow this to happen exactly once. Because using the same solution for every challenge is boring, too.
And, like you said, sweeping the floors is not very fun, although it maybe was entertaining for your players to have overcome the challenges you prepared in such a cheesy way (at least my players love to destroy my plans). If your players stay firmly on the position that they played the game the right way and a session zero doesn't change their mind, too, the next time they try doing something like that you make a complication arise. You could, for example, make a lord or other person of high rank appear in the village and demand extremely high taxes. Or maybe you let some bandits show up that rob the shop your players are trying to work at. If you want your players to be adventurers and they don't go out having adventures by themselves, you maybe have to make the adventure come to them. This approach might even double as a hook into whatever content you prepared.
If your players genuinely don't mind using such ideas, they might be the type to put a lot of value into creative play. To fight that, you just have to be as creative as them to keep things interesting. If players use a solution repeatedly, create a list of complications that might arise from that approach. They will probably find it entertaining to find ways around those problems, too.