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My players have been operating out of a certain small town for my whole campaign. They've adventured around the area nearby quite a bit already (just finished Session 23).

Recently, my intended chapter boss has arisen nearby, in a particular location (call it The Dungeon) that I'd picked out before the campaign actually began. They have been close by to the location once, and it was the subject of a bunch of ominous rumor from NPCs early in the campaign. It has also been the subject of a series of increasingly obvious hints in the last few weeks: some NPCs known to the party went missing while exploring the area nearby; a monster army appeared and marched towards the town from The Dungeon; a hag that has become a vehicle for me to harass the PCs (and occasionally give vague plot guidance and hints) offered them a vision that included the entrance to The Dungeon; a townsperson who also saw the same vision later commented that they recognized the location; I updated the regional map to include markers on various locations the party has visited, including the area near The Dungeon.

The sooner that I can get them to The Dungeon, the more interesting I can make The Dungeon: if they wait too long, I'll have to make it a short single-session affair, because one of my players is leaving the party this summer. However the players still have not deduced that The Dungeon is where ... well, is where The Dungeon is. Their first action was to wander into the forest in search of the aforementioned hag. Now, they are making plans that include searching the nearby mountains, as well as dealing with other problems of the "wandering monsters" variety (a side effect of there being a Big Monster in a hole in the ground nearby). The Dungeon has not come up once in their discussions at the table.

On it's surface The Dungeon is just an ominous hole in the ground that they never actually explored, and I'm pretty certain that my players have completely forgotten about its existence. So, how do I remind them? Do I keep dropping hints in-universe? Should I address the players themselves, and tell them they're forgetting something? Any other suggestions?

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Are They Having Fun? / Just Tell Them.

Before anything else, take a step back and think about what you want to accomplish. If they are having fun now, carefully consider whether it is necessary to yank them into another part of the game.

If they are going to be happy wandering the forests and not finding The Dungeon, you may not need to do anything. If they are going to hate perceived railroading, consider letting them fail. Etc.

Then, having decided that you want to tell them, just do it.

  • Directly, out of game: "Hey guys, I know we are on a timer and that you are looking for the dungeon. To save some time here, I'm going to let you know that you already found it. It's the giant hole that you found six months ago. How do you want to deal with getting your characters there?"
  • Indirectly, out of game: "Everyone make an intelligence check. [pretend to check the values against a DC]. While you all are looking for the dungeon, you remember that you never explored that giant pit you found. Maybe there's a clue there?"
  • Directly, in game: "The old hermit grumbles, then explains that he hates living here because it's so much draftier than where he lived before, in a pit. But then all the monsters came and he had to move."
  • Indirectly, in game: "This is the third group of monsters this week that has attacked you. They all came from the same direction too. So weird!"

The thing is, these are all basically equivalent. The in game/out of game, direct/indirect differences are essentially just flavoring. You have decided that the players need this piece of info, so just club them over the head with that info until they get it.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This is the most complete and direct answer I've seen about when it's appropriate and how to "railroad" players. \$\endgroup\$
    – Ifusaso
    Feb 16 at 18:23
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Captured enemies

In addition to Fectin's excellent answer, one strategy that has worked well for me is to allow them to capture and interrogate defeated enemies. Especially if you are already using random encounters and wandering monsters that originate from there.

This requires two things of you

  • Not auto-killing every monster that is put to 0 hit points. The characters can actually engineer this themselves with pulled (non-lethal) blows, if they want, but even if they don't you can just apply the same logic about stabilizing to monsters that you apply to downed PCs, if you like.

  • Not having every monster always fight to the death. Instead have them surrender or flee when it is clear they are losing the fight, maybe using a morale check. This has a lot of other side-benefits too. It humanizes the monsters, it (outside of mindless or suicidal monsters) is more believable, it does encourage you to think of their objectives and personalities, it cuts short boring fights that are essentially over anyways, and it tends to be more fun and interesting.

Once the PCs interrogate the monsters, you can have them spill the beans on where The Dungeon is, instead of all the monsters being "more afraid of the big bad, and rather dying than squealing", the trite and boring reason to block this. You need to decide how much more they know about the place, because once PCs start doing this, they will want to get as much information about its layout and defenses as they can.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Great advice, although in my case, impractical: most of the monsters are undead. \$\endgroup\$
    – Izzy
    May 14, 2023 at 13:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ I use this with some frequency, and I still find that my players do not grasp the clues. I have provided more than the recommended "Three Clues" with great frequency. \$\endgroup\$ May 14, 2023 at 18:13
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Remember That The Players Have A Less Clear Image Of Your World Than You Do

The suggestion to let them continue exploring and investigating, providing encounters and further clues along the way, is in my opinion a good one. Letting players have agency is always good, and even if they don't wind up exploring the dungeon before the one player leaves for the Summer (you should think of an organic way to facilitate that by the way, or make it a cliffhanger if feasible), then having a good time trying to solve the mystery is still a good time in and of itself.

However, if you want to keep your players knowledgeable about what places they could explore to try and solve this mystery, you can always simply remind them of all the places they can explore to solve it - they may well have forgotten about the giant hole in the ground, and if they're thinking of different regions they can go, you can just simply mention to them that it exists.

They may not have even considered it a place that they could explore - perhaps your description of an 'ominous hole in the ground' didn't leave the possibility in their imagination that they could enter that hole - so clarifying that it is, in fact, a valid place to explore would be good if they haven't yet realized that.

Elucidate to them that they have the option, if you feel they may have overlooked it, and allow them to make their own decision about where best to put their resources.

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Consider moving the dungeon

This may or may not be possible depending on how you've designed your game, but one strategy which can bridge the gap between player agency and railroading is to let the players decide where to go, and then wherever they turn up that's where they're meant to be.

Will it drastically affect the game if the dungeon is somewhere else? If not, then next time they head off into the wilderness have some encounter or series of encounters which leads them straight to the dungeon entrance nearby to wherever they are.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I'd add that, if physically moving the dungeon isn't an option - you could just have a second entrance to the dungeon. Since they have a vision of an entrance to the dungeon, but haven't encountered it, putting a similar entrance that leads to a long tunnel that eventually leads to a different part of the dungeon could add additional intrigue - if they go there, the dungeon can be longer, and maybe throw a hoop over the part of the main dungeon parts they start in. \$\endgroup\$ May 16, 2023 at 8:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ I've used the "wherever they turn up that's where they're meant to be" concept in many ways. Like if there was a plot hook the players were missing in a scene, I had them all roll a check (Spot, Listen, Search, Int, whatever), and whoever rolled highest was the one who saw/heard/found/figured out the thing. Unless they all rolled badly—nobody would believe that a Search of 11 found the secret lever—in which case I'd mock their rolling skills and try again later. \$\endgroup\$
    – sidbushes
    May 16, 2023 at 18:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ Good advice in general. Shortly after my initial post, though, the party sorta... stopped exploring for a while and dealt with some issues close to the town. Things did eventually work out, though. \$\endgroup\$
    – Izzy
    Jul 21, 2023 at 23:08
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You should consider the fun for everyone involved.

@fectin makes excellent points about focusing on what's fun for your players. But don't discount your own fun either.

It sounds like you've put a lot of thought into this dungeon and a big adversary! Railroading gets a lot of criticism, but it's not rude to expect your players to engage with the material you spent a lot of time preparing. The obligation of respect and consideration goes both ways.

I have a rather direct style, but if I were in your situation, I would state outright to your players what your goals are for the campaign in broad terms. I would remind them that you have a limited number of sessions left, and that you're excited about a big conflict to send off this adventure with a bang. State that you've been setting it up from the beginning. Ask them what they think about that. If they'd rather pursue their own goals and not rush to the end, then it's better to know that now, before you spend more time preparing something that you won't have time to use. That's not necessarily a bad resolution here.

If your players are receptive to that idea, though, I think the problem will sort itself out. It's hard to look for clues when you don't know there's clues to find. But, if your players are excited by the idea of figuring out the big ending you have in store, they will probably talk over things that happened and try to remember the clues. I wouldn't be afraid to correct misremembered information, or clarify forgotten circumstances.

One last thing: remember that you can always repurpose, reuse, or recycle anything you prepare for the game. If you don't get a chance to use everything in this campaign, you can always use it in the future. Eventually, you'll have another group to run for.

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