I'm GMing a Dungeon World campaign with players completely new to tabletop RPGs. Every time I present them with a situation and ask them what they do next, none of them ever arrive at a conclusion, and I end up railroading them by suggesting what they do next. How can I stop this from happening? I'm thinking of trying "choose to do either X or Y" type choices if all else fails, but I really think that detracts from a game's open-endedness.


2 Answers 2


First, stop railroading them when they don't do anything. You're here to make the world do stuff, not make the players or the PCs do stuff. Making their decisions for them just teaches them that it's not really important to make those decisions themselves, and that's the last lesson you want people new to roleplaying to take away from the experience.

Second, when they sit around and look at you, follow the GM rules: make a move. ("Suggest they do X" is not a GM move, for good reason.) Look over your GM moves and use one. Unless the situation is completely static and non-hostile, something will naturally happen if the PCs just stand and stare at it. Two moves that suit not-obviously-threatening situations are Show signs of an approaching threat and Offer an opportunity, with or without cost. If you've already established that the situation is dangerous, that opens up the rest of the moves. But really, when in doubt Show signs is your default, go-to move, with Offer an opportunity as a nice variation.

For example, if you've put them in front of a cave entrance with eerie mist drifting out of it, and they stand around debating what they should do, Show signs: "The sun is setting, and the forest around the cave begins to come alive with unnerving sounds. What do you do?"... or Offer an opportunity: "As you watch the cave entrance and your eyes adjust, you notice a faint glint within the gloom. What do you do?"

If they simply do nothing, you are now allowed to make any move you like, as hard as you like.

  • "A pack of demon wolves slowly pads out of the forest, surrounding you. What do you do?" (Show signs again, this time setting up Make a monster move that will likely Deal damage.)
  • "The glint shines more. As you stare at it, you feel drawn toward it. You get to mark XP if you walk openly and directly toward it. What do you do?" (Make a location move that Offers an opportunity.)

They're standing around because they don't know how RPGs work, and they know you do, so they're deferring to you. Get the game moving by keeping the world moving, giving them new things to interact with or that will interact with them.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Nice answer.. there's the reminder that something happens even if they don't make a choice (might be something worse than if they did). And the insight that they're probably deferring to the GM (this one I hadn't thought about). \$\endgroup\$
    – Roflo
    Oct 19, 2013 at 1:30

Ask good questions, get good answers.

...is the ideal, anyhow. What you should do depends on the kind of questions your party are blanking on. Do they go "uh, um, er" when you say:

At last you've arrived. The castle town of Dobravia spreads out before you, full of possibilities. What are you doing?

or when you say:

The stone stair sinks very slightly under your weight. The ceiling rumbles, and a giant boulder crashes through the archway at the top of the stairs and careens downward, bouncing unpredictably off the walls. Sir Justice! You've got the heaviest armor here. What are you doing?

If you can't tell the difference between those two, you're probably saying the first one a lot more than you really ought to. If you can, great! But for the sake of those who search this problem, I'll first explain how to ask questions like #2 there, and then get into what to do when that still doesn't move your PCs to action.

Making GM Moves to Ask Charged Questions

GM Moves are not a sometimes food. You should be making one whenever everyone looks at you to find out what happens. Making a GM move in response to people not knowing what's going to happen isn't railroading, it's just how you play.

And why are you asking PCs what they want to do? Usually it's because they looked at you to find out what happens. So always charge your questions with a GM move to present something definite about the world for PCs to react to. Not only does this give them something simpler to respond to than a purely open-ended question, it also increases the chance they'll continue acting under the auspices of things you've prepped, rather than deciding to sail off to another continent and corner the mustard market.

Now, just because you're also called on to make them when PCs roll a miss, that doesn't mean that GM moves are necessarily going to be to hurt the PCs and the things that are important to them. They're just putting a spotlight on part of the world that is of interest to PCs at the moment. Here are some sample ways to set up that first question while incorporating a GM move:

Show signs of an approaching threat.

At last you've arrived; the castle town of Dobravia spreads out before you. It looks like they've already started building the scaffolding in the public square; in three days Lord Featheringstoke will be tried and likely hanged for a crime he didn't commit. So, let's go over the plan. What are you doing first?

Offer an opportunity that fits a class's abilities.

At last you've arrived; the castle town of Dobravia spreads out before you. It looks like the tournament will be held this afternoon, Sir Justice; it's the easiest way for you to get the ear of the King of Dobravia. You'll need to claim a space and perhaps scope out the competition, but what's on everybody else's plate? Stringfellow, Shanksworth, are you going to try and get a betting racket going again? Fightgar, are you going to sign up too, or just see what kind of weapons they make around here? What's everybody doing?

Put someone in a spot.

At last you've arrived; the castle town of Dobravia spreads out before you. And then someone shouts "FIZZGIG! You've got some nerve showing your face back here!" Wizzrobe, a halfling is storming towards you from the noble quarter, ranting up a full head of steam. Looks like your no-good brother has been here and left his usual wake behind. The commotion is starting to draw a crowd. What are you doing?

Use a monster, danger, or location move. (ambitious organizations: attack someone directly)

At last you've arrived; the castle town of Dobravia spreads out before you. There's a sudden commotion in the market and a cart bearing the livery of the Red Sashes opens its doors for a frantically diving robber. The driver whips the horses and they come bolting for the main gate at speed, people trying vainly to follow on foot. Crap, they're making moves this far south, already? It'd be easy enough to stand aside and let it pass, but something tells me that's not what you're doing. What are you doing?

When PCs Don't Know What To Do

If you've presented your PCs with a stone boulder crashing down at them and they're still going "uh, um, er" it's probably not because they're 100% willing to stand there and get pasted. So why might it be happening?

Do your PCs know what they can do, mechanically? Have you taken at least a little time to go over their playbook moves? Do they have their own reference sheet for the basic moves, and have you taken time to go over those? Similarly, have you got copies of the basic moves and their playbooks so that if they're trying to indicate they want to do something that's on them you have a better idea of what that is? I realize you've got to do it to do it and all that, but if Sir Justice knows that mechanically it's possible to block the boulder or turn and run, that helps shape a more directed response than if he doesn't.

Are your PCs afraid they're being hunted by the dread demon No Backsies? And they'll die if they say the wrong thing? Like, if Sir Justice says "I block the boulder" or "I turn and run" you'll just say "lol why did you think that would work enjoy being boulder paste noob"? You're not here to play gotcha. If people are unsure about what to do, they can propose any course of action they want, you can tell them the requirements or consequences, and keep going like that until everyone agrees what move's being made and what the stakes are:

Everyone at the table should listen for when moves apply. If it's ever unclear if a move has been triggered, everyone should work together to clarify what's happening. Ask questions of everyone involved until everyone sees the situation the same way and then roll the dice, or don't, as the situation requires.

"Making Moves", from the github

Do your PCs know what they can do, narratively? This one's trickier. Not everybody who plays fantasy role-playing games has necessarily internalized the logic of fantasy adventures. Or maybe they have, but they're playing a different type of character from usual, or this is their first game of Dungeon World and things haven't really clicked yet. In that case it's not wrong to more explicitly offer an opportunity, with or without cost:

You could brace yourself and block the boulder, rolling Defend. You'd almost certainly take some damage even if you hit the roll, but at least nobody else would get hurt. Or you could call for a retreat and pelt down the stairs, which would be Defy Danger. You might make it out safely, but how likely is it that you're going to hit it clean?

Do you have audience members playing PCs? That might seem like a weird question on the face of it, but Apocalypse World, and Dungeon World after it, expect a certain style of play. They expect everyone to be not only engaged with the world but ready and able to step up and fill in important details about it or make weighty decisions. But some people show up to game night just to be an audience. They don't make complicated characters, they largely take direction from the GM or other players in the matter of rolling dice, and they don't expect to be in the spotlight. Very few games would work if they were made up entirely of audience, but Dungeon World doesn't work well with even one audience member. If you've got a playgroup with significant audience presence, it might be best to find a different system.


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