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TL;DR: How can I (and should I) make the players' efforts worth their while when they overestimate the importance of an encounter or a location?

I am running a homebrew DnD 5e adventure where the players' goal is to find the grove where the witch has kidnapped some children. Nearby there is a mansion where the local lord lives. The initial plan was for the players to be able to go to the mansion and find some clues to the witch's location.

However, as the players arrived, they became certain that the children are actually inside the mansion, and started devising elaborate plans to sneak inside. Having spent almost a session on sneaking through what I thought would be a fifteen minute "walk in through the open gate, ask some questions, continue", I feel like I now have to provide some more reward for the players' work than "the princess is in another castle".

What are some strategies to tackle players spending too much time on things that were meant to be minor?

I see three options:

  • Making up some reward in terms of resources that can be useful in the climactic finale
  • Giving no reward more than the initially planned small clues, as the players were simply unlucky with the path they chose/failed to solve the puzzle I presented
  • Being clearer that this encounter is not going to yield a satisfying reward (but this time around it's too late for that)

On a meta level, I am wondering about how to deal with such situations in advance. Is it a good idea to plan each encounter/location with different rewards based on how much time players choose to spend there? Or rather to redirect them away from unimportant locations through narration?

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    \$\begingroup\$ I've replaced system-agnostic with dnd-5e since I believe you will find the answers much more helpful being focused on that particular system. Many other systems would handle this differently. For example, Powered by the Apocalypse games inherently reward some types of failure and thus would warrant a whole different approach to answering this for that system (an approach that likely wouldn't help anyone playing dnd-5e). \$\endgroup\$ – Rubiksmoose Aug 13 at 15:00
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I’ve seen this issue from both sides. As a GM, it’s really easy to say something ambiguous or describe something in a specific manner that the players interpret as “ooh, let’s check that out” instead of as “hmm, interesting, now let’s go”. As a player, I (which may not be the same for your players) find it fun to check out every little side thing even if nothing is there.

Sometimes, when you have a very specific timing out of game for the session (like if you are running a one shot and won’t be able to continue later), or if you’re running a published adventure, you may not have time or the information to devote to these little side quests. In that case, I would tell the players, out of character, that whatever they’re doing could be done an easier way or with less effort. It’s okay to tell them things out of character, especially if it makes things easier on you.

With that in mind, however, sometimes the most fun stories come from failure. I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve been a player, we’ve made all these plans to get in unseen and succeed on an objective... and then discover we overthought stuff. If you’ve got players that like trying things even if they fail, it’s okay not to give them a big reward if that’s how you think it should go.

As a GM, my favorite session was when my players were stopping a dragon, they made some huge plan to sneak into the well protected lair, and discovered... a pile of cheap romance novels. I got a handful of dice thrown at me immediately after this reveal, but after the session, one of the players told me she actually really liked that not everything they did had huge rewards. She thought, like I did, that the fun was in the doing, not in the reward.

If your players enjoy it, there’s no problem with just giving them the planned reward. If they start to complain, I would suggest asking them whether or not they want to be warned when the plan is too complex. It’s okay to tell them their plan is not the easiest way to succeed. All in all, whatever you decide to do is fine and will end up making the game better.

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One way to deal with this is to nest a side quest within the encounter where they have overestimated the importance. Rather than making the encounter more significant than you originally intended, keep it the same, but offer them something else—perhaps the chance to help the lord or someone else in the manor with another matter entirely—so that the encounter feels like a step towards several different outcomes.

Personally, in these instances, I like creating some sort of fetch quest that may or may not overlap at least partially with the main quest. Finding this new side quest becomes a bit of a reward in and of itself, and forcing the party to fetch an item can help move them through things narratively if it feels like they're getting stuck.

Essentially what this boils down to is when you see them becoming enmeshed in a location you weren't expecting them to spend a lot of time in — the manor — rather than changing the outcome of the encounter that brought them there or the purpose of the manor in that quest, add more depth instead. Allow them to find multiple outcomes from the manor in addition to the main goal you sent them after.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I've used this technique several times myself - if the players are devoting "screen time" to something, then it's important to the plot somehow. Maybe not in the way they were expecting, but it's a great time to give less ambiguous clues pointing the direction(s) you want them to go, interesting bits of sub-plot that can become new story hooks, foreshadowing for events yet-to-come, etc. \$\endgroup\$ – Dave B Aug 13 at 16:28
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There are different ways on how to deal with this all of them valid. You will have to choose for yourself what fits right for your group and game.

Depending on what your game and preparation allows, adjust the adventure to give players actions more significance.

This will reward your players for their effort and I find that it generally improves the quality of the story.

You can do this by:

Inventing additional clues and secrets to push them in the right direction: It seems your players missed some plot clues for this adventure, that happens often. You could invent new ones that are more on the nose. (Maybe the lord actually works with the with, or maybe there is a secret tunnel that leads from the mansion to the forest.

Giving the players a cool reward: You could combine this with the previous point. If you want to keep things as they are, you could add something interesting but unrelated to the mansion, maybe a magical item or a bit of lore that could serve as a plothook for future parts of your campaign.

Actually changing the adventure so that the children are actually in the manor: This might be difficult to pull off, but if you are not too attached to your prep, you could just change things around so that the children are actually in the mansion. I usually prepare very loosely for my sessions and often find myself changing up things a lot to fit what my players are interested to great success.

Be frank with your players and lay your cards on the table.

Sometimes players just completely misunderstand what's up, are as a GM just don't want to, or can't use any of the previous options. Or maybe you did and the players didn't get the hint.

There is nothing wrong with leaving the character for a second and telling your players that they are chasing their own tail. It may feel weird, but if the alternative is that they are going to spend several hours wasting their time and they keep ignoring your hins, doing this will prevent larger disappointment further down the road.

As MooingDuck pointed out in the comments there is a way to do this without completely breaking the character. If there is crucial information that the players should have figured out right now, you can just give it to them. Have them roll intelligence or other relevant check and award the highest roll with the info, or just give it to the character that has the best predispositions to figure it out based on their statistics. You roll to do almost everything in DnD, it's fine to allow your players to roll to put together clues and give them the solution if they succeed, especially if they are really stuck and flailing.

Especially if you are a newer DM and are not very comfortable with improvisation, this can help ease the stress of running the adventure and starting to panic when the players are just oblivious to what is going on.

You probably don't want to do it too often, so you don't railroad them whenever they trail off of a beaten path though, so be cautious about that.

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    \$\begingroup\$ When laying your cards on the table, I like use literal red herrings: "You find a small metal box with colorful paintings on the outside" "I open it!" "Inside are several small, cured, crimson fish". (wait for cleverest person to get the joke first). Or "you find a small crimson dagger, with the name 'the red herring' engraved on it" and make it a +1 or +2 masterwork dagger with an insight bonus to performing feint attacks. But if it actually does something, they might miss the joke... \$\endgroup\$ – Garrett Motzner Aug 14 at 0:15
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There is no rule that the characters wasting time has to mean the players wasting time

One technique for cutting this sort of thing short, especially if your time at the gaming table is limited, is to quickly gloss over the details by saying something like "OK, you spend half the day searching the mansion for the missing children, but find nothing even remotely connected to them. What do you want to do next?"

If they try to continue their search after that, perhaps the residents of the mansion will start becoming annoyed with their intrusion, threaten to call the local law enforcement, etc. If the players still don't get the hint, it's permissible to step out of character and tell them "Guys, look. There is nothing to find here. Try something else."

You don't need to reward misdirected effort

I run a very exploration/simulation-focused game, where the game world is what it is. If the kidnapped children suddenly teleported from the witch's grove into the mansion, or if the upstanding lord became the witch's accomplice, purely for the meta-game reason of "the players expect it and invested a lot of time into that expectation", that would be anathema to my gameplay style. (Note, though, that there are other play styles where this would be appropriate, even expected. I'm just talking here about how I prefer to do things.)

So, as you might guess, I would not deliberately add anything to the mansion to reward the players for their focus on it. The contents of the mansion will still be there, and the players might make their own "reward" by stealing some valuables or enlisting an ally, but they're not going to find any plot coupons unless the lord already was involved with the witch.

You might think this is unpopular with players, but that's not the case. For the most part, people who have tried my games like both that their actions have consequences and that the world feels "solid".

And it can still have an out-of-game payoff when they finally realize that they've been chasing shadows. For example:

One time I was running a cyberpunk-style game and the PCs needed to get some help from a woman who had been hospitalized after a car crash. Somehow, the players got it into their heads that she was being held hostage in the hospital, so they spent most of the session planning an elaborate stealth infiltration/extraction mission, with heavy firepower on standby to blow the building open and get her out by force if they're detected.

After getting everything in place, they sneak into her hospital room, where they find no guards, just the woman lying in bed, reading, and tell her about the situation. She answers that she'd be happy to help and her injuries weren't anything serious, "so just give me a couple minutes to get my things together and check out".

There was no in-game reward for their over-thinking and paranoia, but everyone got a good laugh and a decent gaming story out of it.

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There are a few options, depending on how much work you want to give yourself as a DM and your ability to come with things on the fly!

  1. The players find nothing other than what you originally planned for them to find. This is an option you already considered. There is no requirement for you to offer up additional rewards just because the players accidentally got misdirected in the quest. In fact, as long as you still play it out so that the players still need to make Stealth checks to get past guards, figure out how to get past traps and locked doors and so on then the challenge can be its own reward! Not to mention that less scrupulous players may see an opportunity to nick the family silver.
  2. Turn it into a side quest. The family holds a deep dark secret unrelated to the primary quest. The mansion's family has a monster hidden away in the basement (perhaps an undead ancestor). The uncle is a magical tinkerer and accidentally created a gateway to hell in the attic that they've hurriedly sealed up. They're guilty of tax fraud and don't want anyone finding the documentation!
  3. They are involved in the primary quest in some deeper way. Perhaps they offer up a child every generation to the witch in return for magical power of some kind, and clearly don't want this discovered!
  4. Completely change your original idea. Similar to point 3 above but even more of a drastic change. This can involve some quick-thinking for a DM, and you have to not be too attached to your original idea. But as long as it doesn't contradict anything the players have already discovered, then maybe they are right! The missing children are indeed held in the basement, ready to be sacrificed by the witch who is actually the Lady of the Mansion (in disguise)!

In addition, any and all of these options can provide opportunities for more nebulous awards, such as the ability for the players to make allies or sworn enemies. This can provide fodder to the DM for future quests.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "Completely change your original idea [...] as long as it doesn't contradict anything the players have already discovered, then maybe they are right!" - To try and keep myself in check, I try to follow a mantra of "If it hasn't happened 'on-screen,' it doesn't officially exist yet." Sometimes rolling with the unexpected twists the players throw at you is what will ultimately make for the better story in the end! \$\endgroup\$ – Dave B Aug 13 at 16:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ Hey, now. I'm an immaculately scrupulous player. That's why a kender character would never pass on the silver... \$\endgroup\$ – chrylis -cautiouslyoptimistic- Aug 14 at 2:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ @DaveB I agree. There is a temptation for DMs to get hung up on their carefully crafted encounters then get frustrated when the players don't go the "right" way. But you're right: If you're not scared of chucking away your original plans and can wing it based on the player's actions, the story can end up better. Even if it does twist and turn in ways even you, the DM, didn't imagine! \$\endgroup\$ – PJRZ Aug 14 at 7:58
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This, to me, sounds like the answer would depend on what kind of DM you are.

For some DMs, rolling with it and improvising something on-the-fly, whether that's coming up with a way in which the lord is related to the witch/children plot, or whether it's an entirely separate side quest, would be the best option, if you're the sort of DM with strong improvisation skills that do not require any/much forethought.

Other DMs may prefer to be more upfront, as you suggest in your 3rd bullet point, not wanting the players to waste their efforts with something that the DM didn't put any prior planning into. If you're this kind of DM, who prefers to have more upfront planning so that you're not "flying blind", this may appear more, although others may find this to be too restrictive or feel like railroading.

There are also DMs who would quite happily watch their players waste their time with something unimportant, perhaps those who have more of a "that's the only way they'll learn" kind of approach, perhaps as a way of training their players to better judge what is and is not important? I'm not this kind of DM so I'm not sure I can do this description justice.

Either way, the point I'm making here is that the way you DM will largely impact how it is best for you to solve this problem. So, how do you feel about your improvisational skills? Or do you feel more confident if you know you've planned at least something beforehand? There is no right answer generally speaking, but the right answer "for you" is simply to go with something that plays to your strengths, not your weaknesses.

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Make it a laugh for the players.

So the characters have this elaborate plan, scheme and execution to investigate the mansion. Let the players do exactly that.

Without knowing exactly how you imagine the mansion I can envisage some investigation in the cellar (find a rat's nest that the inhabitants would be glad to be rid of just never got around to). Some attic where they find a "valuable" painting that the lord of the mansion is missing for some time now. A hidden passage behind the kitchen larder (maybe a lead into a bat cave?). Some long lost key is found.

Make it "difficult" for the characters to avoid the inhabitants. Give some dialogue between two or more inhabitants who do not take things too seriously as they pass by one or more hiding characters.

Some easy enough suspension.

If you notice that your players become restless that nothing is found then you can bring this plot to a close. The lord or lady of the mansion (or one of their children - nobody hits children, right?) "stumbles" across one or more of the characters, maybe inflagranti with a special shiny piece "just liberated". A child is perfect as the questioning can be innocent.

Depending on what the characters did so far "helping" out the inhabitants there is lots of room for comedy - hard to suggest as this depends rather on you and your players.

In the end there should be a good laughter when all the misunderstandings get resolved and the characters might even get a hint towards the hiding place of the witch to move on.

My aim in such a situation is to make the players laugh. That in itself should be enough reward.

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This depends on the style of play of the group, GM included.

Investigations are proper challenges

If you play so that solving mysteries and figuring out how things work is part of the challenge, then the players decide where they spend their effort and the decision might be good or bad. Here they happened to guess wrong. Sometimes they do guess wrong. This is what makes successes meaningful; this, and the knowledge that the GM does not adjust things for or against them.

Investigations are just a context or back-drop for the actual gameplay

Maybe the game is all about combat encounters as sport, about living the life of a hero, or about the interparty dynamics, or whatever. Maybe the investigation is a red herring. Here, feel free to adjust so that the children are in fact in the manor, or not, depending on what is best for the main point of play.

You have not discussed or do not know what is the point of your play

This unclarity on what you are doing causes the kinds of friction you are experiencing at the moment. Consider telling to the players what is happening and asking them how they would prefer you to act in such cases in the future. In the long term this will create greater understanding of what you are doing and greater trust, as well as letting the players know they are parts of the process. In the moment this is likely to not feel very good. Judge whether your group can survive clarity and meta-discussions or not.

In the future, consider cut scenes

If you choose to play in a way where investigations and failing at them are not important, instead of assuming the players will do something, you should instead cut to them doing it. Rather than saying there is a mansion and asking what they do, say that they walk in, meet such and such who tells them this and that. This leads you more quickly to the parts of play where player actions matter and are interesting.

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I played years ago - never as a DM. I remember that the biggest thing for me was immersion.

I remember trying all sorts of real-life type solutions that the DM couldn't have possibly anticipated. Luckily the DM was adept at accommodating this without distracting from the main story.

My solution would be that they find a document that details the location of a hidden passage within the current mansion. They find the passage and travel along it (no side tunnels). When they emerge, they are miraculously back on track as you wished.

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