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For my next session with my PCs, I'm planning to have them witness an attack on an NPC that's intended to hook them the adventure. The plan is for the party to encounter his daughter, who also has a target painted on her back. I want the players to be making choices throughout the adventure, whether to fight back during an encounter, or to hide, or to flee.

These players are new to RPGs, so I want make sure that they realize that attacking isn't their only option. So far all we have run is a run of the mill dungeon run.

I was thinking of having the NPC attacked where he's far enough away that they might not get to him in time, but I want the players to feel like trying to save him could be a possible viable option.

The initial encounter should guide the player's expectations. I don't want trying to rescue the man to seem like the only option but I don't want it to seem like it's not an option. How do I help my players realize that they have more than a single option available to them?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Do you play on a map/grid (especially for combat)? I find that using one is tantamount to signalling players to think only in terms of combat. \$\endgroup\$ – Rykara Feb 18 at 17:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Rykara No map, we place dice for general location \$\endgroup\$ – NeutralTax Feb 18 at 17:44
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As these are all new players, there's nothing wrong with a bit of "out-of-game" DM guidance at these early stages.

After describing the situation you can simply say: "What you do now is your choice. You can attempt to calm the situation, shout at the attackers, fetch help, attack or something else!" Then ask each player: What do you do?

You can even explain that calming the situation will call for a Charisma(Persuasion) check or that shouting will need a Charisma (Intimidation) check and so on (with advantage for good role-playing if that's how you play!).

To keep things a bit more "in-game", you may find it useful to have additional NPCs around to act as witnesses and "exposition helpers". E.g. When the attack goes down, someone can call to the PCs to "Go fetch the guard!" while another passer-by simply grabs a different PC and says "Oh my! You must help that poor man", while others simply pull their hoods down and hurry on past, not wanting to get involved.

In fact, making a point of having other non-combatant NPCs around - shopkeepers, merchants, foresters, city guards - will give the players a good idea that its not just "Them vs Monsters".

It won't take the players long to get the feel of it and realise that tabletop RPGs are far more open that video games!

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    \$\begingroup\$ Have to +1 for the bit on in-game RP bonus, tbh if the players role-play a conversation well enough I just give them success without rolling, keeps the story moving along, I never give an automatic failure though, the goal is to reward and encourage good RP and not to come down too hard on someone that isn't that good at it yet. \$\endgroup\$ – Slagmoth Feb 18 at 17:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for telling them directly, I would write the same in my answer. My two cents: just make sure your players see that you are treating them as intelligent people that are allowed to not know some things. Sure that's what you mean, and we know that, but they need to feel it. \$\endgroup\$ – Mołot Feb 18 at 17:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ So close to what my answer would have been, I need not bother. One thing some GMs of my acquaintance do is tag, "...or you can yell 'The King is a Fink!'" at the end of their list, which they explain is a hard reminder that 'something else the GM hasn't thought of' is a real option. I was puzzled by it, until I got the explanation, but with the explanation I've found it a useful addition. \$\endgroup\$ – Novak Feb 18 at 20:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ Talking about video games, I like to make tutorial levels for my players. For example, let says that I want them to learn that they can interact with the environment. So, I put them into a situation where the environment is used against them, nothing deadly but really annoying. After I reverse the situation, I put something similar for them to annoy a power enemy. And, slowly, making it more complex and more subtle \$\endgroup\$ – Chepelink Feb 18 at 22:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for having NPCs yell out different courses of action. With new players I often talk to players directly, but as we get into the session I start to "show, not tell." One addition to your list: if the party starts to bond with the secretary or child of the attacked NPC, they'll be more likely to consider fleeing if that character needs help getting to safety. It seems that if a five year old plays hide and seek with my party and then gives them one of his three favorite rocks, they'll do anything I--I mean, he--wants. \$\endgroup\$ – raithyn Feb 19 at 14:32
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What you're facing is one of the hardest problems to tackle as a DM, and probably one of the harder lessons that any teacher must face in their career. That problem being the balance between shielding them from failure and letting them learn from their mistakes.

On the one hand, you want your players to have fun, and you want to create an interesting storyline where not every encounter ends by the sword.

On the other hand, you want your players' choices to matter. If that means that they miss out on a cool questline due to their murderous actions, so be it.

The difficult part is finding a balance between the two. Here's what I've found works best.

Earlier in the campaign, show them the tools they can use.

One of the bigger problems I've seen players face is that they tend to grow complacent when they find a strategy that works. If they win every encounter by fighting, then they'll see little reason to try any alternatives--and the same goes for other strategies. They charm their way past guards a few times in a row and suddenly they're rolling Persuasion on every NPC they encounter, regardless if it feels appropriate to the situation.

Once they fall into a rhythm it can be exceedingly difficult to break them out of it, so from my experience it's best to keep them off-balance early in a campaign so that they learn to assess a situation before launching into a particular stratagem. Let them lose some fights against guards or ruffians; perhaps they get robbed of their belongings or they get thrown in jail. At the same time, reward them when they use roleplaying and wordplay to their advantage, but make sure they fail when they try something that would never work, regardless of their roll.

Failure early-on into a campaign is the best way to show the players that their choices matter. And more often that not, it'll lead into interesting developments that'll feel more organic and immersive than anything you could have planned on your own.

But what do I do if they keep failing?

If your players are struggling to break into new strategies, you can tell them their options. New RPG players are often simply unaware of their options, so it's important that you make them aware of the full breadth of their abilities. This can be useful even with more experienced players stuck in the rut of habit or simply unused to the class or system they're playing.

Stating the available options can sometimes feel like you're "railroading" your players, but from my experience, the brief awkwardness is greatly outweighed by the benefits it reaps.

Then let them decide later on what tools they want to use.

Sometimes it's best to let the players keep doing what they're doing, as long as everyone is having fun. If that's not the case, as the campaign progresses, it becomes more difficult to break players out of their habits, so the options available to you generally become more extreme.

Making the players learn by their mistakes can still be useful, but at later points in the campaign you risk causing a lot of dissonance between yourself and the players if their tried-and-true methods suddenly become ineffective (e.g. "are you trying to kill the party?", "did the rules change?", "I feel like I'm being targeted").

That's why, at this point, your best option is almost always going to be a face-to-face conversation with the players. It's fully within your rights to tell them that you feel their strategies are getting stale. If you tell them that they have a chance of failure, they'll probably start being more careful with their choices, and they'll be better prepared for failure in case it happens.

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Setting the Scene

Another answer mentioned talking to your players out of the story to give them suggestions and let them know there are options, and that is absolutely something I would suggest as well. But for an in-universe option I would say that your narration and setup for a scene can provide a ton of hints on what options your party has. Something like this would be both a good lead in to the action, and let your players know that they have multiple choices:

"As you make your way down the street where Friendly NPC lives, you several brutish thugs entering into his house with weapons drawn. Friendly NPC told you that he was having trouble with Local Crime Boss and now it looks like things have escalated. If you hurry you can make it to the house and hopefully save Friendly NPC. You also know that there is a guardhouse just a few minutes away. Maybe getting the law involved is a good idea, since you aren't sure if you can take that group in a fight. And there is a tiny voice in the back of your mind, asking just how much you like Friendly NPC and whether you should get involved in his trouble..."

Now you can hand over control to your players while having seeded a couple of choices in their brains. They can fight, they can run for help, or they can decide it isn't their problem. You can (and should) also give them those choices explicitly out of story, and reiterate that they can do anything else they want as well.

Starting out in tabletops can be daunting just because you have so much freedom in how to respond. Giving new players options and guiding them is a necessity in my mind just to help them get used to playing the game. It is much easier to make a decision when you have three choices instead of infinite. Even if your players go off in a completely different direction than you expect, having options that they don't like will get them thinking about what they do like.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ "one thug lagging behind sees you approaching and asks you to stay out of this, he offers a gold coin but remains wary" [In General have different NPCs directly suggest courses of action] I like your answer, just wanted to give some extra details :) \$\endgroup\$ – Hobbamok Feb 21 at 11:10
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One technique I use to ensure players can (and sometimes should) run away is: I send a massive, but otherwise peaceful, giant walking across the landscape passed them. Something 40m tall. Tell them they realise, upon seeing its vast size, that they obviously can't defeat it. It will ignore them if they try to talk to it - they have nothing it wants.

So they hide and cower. Let them know there are things in the world they cannot defeat. The world is not all 'level appropriate', and not everything they meet is designed to be battled.

If any of them are actually stupid enough to try to attack it, the giant will laugh at them and keep walking. If they insist, it kills the whoever is most bold of them, and walks on, shaking its head.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I recommend against this. The group I play with would devolve into tactical discussions on how to beat it anyway. \$\endgroup\$ – You're bad and should feel bad Feb 19 at 13:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ Your group sounds like the people that need this. \$\endgroup\$ – timje Feb 19 at 18:03
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On the "flaws" of DM based RPGs is that players know there is "off the rails" unplanned stuff, and "story hooks" for long well laid out and planned adventures. The off the rails stuff is fun and all, but it can never match the epicness of Defeating The Big Bad of Evilness (tm). This means that even if players KNOW they have multiple options, they can find themselves in the trap of "which action must I do to initiate the planned quest?". After all, there is content they expect to be there, and they WILL experience it! So help the Gods! If players think you expect them to do something, they will usually do it (unless they think it's a trap made specifically because you thought they would walk into it... but then they may still walk into it just to find out what the trap is)

This is why when setting the scene, I like to seed "action clues". for example

  • There is still some distance between the bandits and the girl. You believe if you leap in now, you could beat the them to the girl... (charge in action)
  • ... however, you don't believe the bandits have noticed you ... (ambush action)
  • ... besides, bandits in this area rarely actually hurt anyone ... (ignore action)

The point is these little bits of explanation serve two purposes. They provide important context so they don't have to ask what actions are possible/plossible, and they give they players reminders or multiple expectations of possible things they can do. (You can charge in murdering so often, you can easily forget that ambushing the enemy is an option) You mentioned it, therefore they know it is a valid way to follow the hook.

Another thing is sometimes it helps to be clear to the player whether something even is a hook, or just random content. And if it is a hook, what are the "objectives" to successfully trigger it. This is meta knowledge, but you are giving them the bare minimum info required to alleviate the "can't miss out on content, must charge now!" impulse.

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Props

Create some big printed sheets. At the top of them put the option you foresee. Give them different colors.

Include a rough sketch of what they'd do to do the headline action, so you agree on what "ATTACK" means (CHARGE with weapons drawn).

The point of these props isn't to railroad, but instead open up some options. Explain that these are not the only options that they can take.

After giving them that kind of options (Ignore, Flee, Attack, Distract) a few times, always saying "you can also try anything else you can think of", say "ok, I'm not giving you the options in this next encounter". When they pick something, pull out the sheet afterwards.

Then stop using the sheet.

This scaffolding is intended to teach players what they can do, and should be removed once they no longer need it.

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I have learned that you just cannot predict what a party will do, even if they run all the time, the one time you want them to, they will not.. So I propose instead that when they witness the attack, they see it from far away, to far to do anything about it. Either from a balcony or with a spy glass after they here shouting... perhaps a clairvoyance spell. Something that lets them see the crime, but not get there in time.

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