After last night's session, my players and I had a long after-action discussion in which they expressed frustration at how their own in-game decision making has led them to circumstances that they find frustrating and un-fun.
I try to run the game in a way that is objective-based, but still fairly open - the players will have a goal, but may not know all of the details of what or how to accomplish it; they have to explore and make decisions, sometimes with imperfect information.
When planning the adventures (everything is 100% homebrew), I try to plan for a few decisions that the players are likely to make. One or two of them could be considered "optimal" - they give the players a quick path towards their goal. Other choices could be considered "sub-optimal" - they may force the players to take a more circuitous route to their goal, but they will always have a way to "fail forward".
Based on the conversation, my players feel frustrated for two reasons:
- They feel like they ended up in a frustrating and un-fun situation
- They feel like the decision that landed them there was really the only viable decision to make (what I thought to be the "optimal" decision was dismissed early on)
From my perspective: I do try to give hints at better options, but sometimes those go unnoticed. There are also times where if the party were to just push ahead a little further, everything would work out for them, but they change directions (of course, the players have no way of knowing this).
In summary, my question really comes down to two things:
- How to increase player satisfaction with in-game decision-making, given that they have to work with imperfect information?
- How to keep players happy while they deal with the consequences of making sub-optimal choices?
The party recently arrived in a city in which adventurers are not allowed to operate without the lord's permission.
They are presented with 3 options:
- Be conscripted into the army
- Pay a hefty "conscientious objector's" tax
- Face arrest
There are two additional options that I thought of, but didn't explicitly present, to allow for lateral thinking:
- Skip town
- Go into hiding
The players deemed options #1 and #3 unacceptable. #4 was likewise not an option because the quest that brought them to town was time sensitive and unskippable for broader campaign reasons. I gave them a hint that the area of town that they needed to go to for their quest wasn't frequently patrolled by the guards, hinting that Option #5 may be viable, but they instead choose for option #2 and pay out a large sum of gold.
(Had they pushed further down their main quest in the city, they would have found opportunities and allies that would have made Options #5 and even #4 more viable, but they had no way of knowing that at the point they made their decision.)
The party goes to the castle to pay the lord's minister who is disdainful of them for choosing to pay rather than be conscripted.
Almost immediately after leaving the castle, the party is attacked by a group of thugs sent after them by a businessman that they ran afoul of earlier. The players chose to attack the thugs lethally and kill them (even after I explicitly asked at least twice if they were dealing lethal or non-lethal damage) and then chose to wait for the city guard with the bodies after the fighting had ceased. (This is due to a personality trait of one of the PCs to implicitly trust authority.)
This winds them once again in front of the minister they had angered earlier, who charges them with "disturbing the peace" and gives them the choice of arrest or immediate exile.
At this point, the session was drawing to a close, and I could tell that the players were unhappy, so I gave them the opportunity to adjudicate it with the lord of the city in our next session.
So based on all this, it's not a single decision that has the players upset. It's a culmination of decisions that has put them in a tough spot.