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In basically every game I've run or played, regardless of the system, I've encountered the same problem: things that should be quick decisions end up taking ten, twenty or even thirty minutes, and not for any really good reason. Gameplay generally goes something like:

GM: Okay, you're standing on the edge of the forest.

Player 1: Okay, I ready my bow and start forward.

Player 2: Hold on, I'm still talking to this other guy.

Player 3: Did we stock up on bread? I need to put on my night vision goggles.

Player 4: [Crazy roleplaying thing!]

GM: Okay, are you guys going into the forest?

Player 1: I am, yeah.

GM: Okay, but are you going alone? Is anyone else going?

Player 2: One sec, I need to cast detect evil.

GM: Okay, what about everybody else? Is player 1 in the forest by herself? What's happening?

And so on ...

Since part of the point of playing roleplaying games is being able to manifest your own character and make your own decisions, it's hard for any one player to enforce a consensus in he group (except in some rare cases), and it's even harder for me as a GM to justify undermining player agency by just saying, "Okay, well you're all in the forest now." What if Player 2 feels cheated because he didn't get to cast detect evil and find the scary monsters? But at the same time, when this kind of hemming and hawing happens constantly, even at not particularly crucial moments, the game really starts to drag, and more action-oriented players start to tune out. So basically, this question has two parts:

  1. As a GM, how can I design adventures to minimize these moments?

  2. How can I move players smoothly past these moments when they do arise?

I'm not interested in answers that use a stopwatch or other artificial method of advancing the game, because I find that breaks immersion. I'm looking for storytelling and facilitation techniques. Pointing out game systems that specifically avoid this is also welcome.

Also, as a corollary, is there anything that individual players can do to help things along?

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Maybe I'm treating the question as more specific than it needs to be, but in your example it appears to me as though player 1's agency is being denied. Twice she stated her action clearly, and yet somehow she failed to get the results of that action back from you.

You don't have to wait until all players are agreed before allowing a player to act. Now, OK, you don't want the party to split unless really necessary, but until they're actually out of earshot of each other, let each player get on with what they want to do. Running through your example hopefully will show the principles I mean:

GM: Okay, you're standing on the edge of the forest.

Player 1: Okay, I ready my bow and start forward.

GM: fine

Player 2: Hold on, I'm still talking to this other guy.

GM: Player 1, are you scouting ahead alone?

Player 1: I'll take a look, I won't go far until the others catch up.

Player 3: Did we stock up on bread? I need to put on my night vision goggles.

GM: If the bread's not on your equipment list then you didn't stock up [or if that's not your style of game, "yes, you stocked up on usual provisions at the supermarket yesterday"]. You now have your goggles on.

Player 4: [Crazy roleplaying thing!]

GM: [Crazy roleplaying response]

GM: Okay, are you guys going into the forest?

Player 1: I am, yeah.

GM: You start to walking into the trees...

Player 2: One sec, I need to cast detect evil.

GM: No problem, but Player 1 was already doing this while you finished with the other guy and that roleplaying thing happened.

... the undergrowth is mostly pretty thick, but you easily find what might be an animal trail. You'll be able to travel much faster along the trail if you want to. Player 2, if you've finished your conversation with the other guy, you cast Detect Evil. Nothing in range. I assume you maintain it as you start into the forest?

Player 2: of course

GM: You can't see exactly where player 1 is, but she can't have got far. Okay, actions from everybody else?

Principles:

  • Stay in the conversation
  • Respond to actions and requests for information as quickly as possible. But in the case of Player 1 setting off ahead alone, I think it's also reasonable to give the others an opportunity to react and for Player 1 to confirm before doing something that takes a little while and might be foolish. You don't want a conversation that goes, "1: I ready my bow and start into the forest, "2: hang on a sec...", "GM: 1, you fall in a spiked pit and get ambushed by 40 goblins", "1: well, actually, I didn't mean I'd leave the party, I was about to say I'd have waited when 2 said to hang on but you interrupted", "GM: Ah. I totally didn't get that from what you said".
  • If something can happen, narrate it happening.
  • You don't need to design the adventure specially to avoid delays. Once the players get used to the style, they can keep the action going just by acting. Or they can stop when they really need to, they're in control.
  • Don't ask the players what's happening. Ask the players what they're doing, tell them what's happening.

Now, there's a whole other scenario you have to be able to deal with:

GM: Okay, you're standing on the edge of the forest.

Player 1: Okay, I ready my bow and start forward.

All other players: WAIT!!! We need to make a plan.

Player 2: Also, I'm still talking to this other guy

GM: Player 1, are you scouting ahead alone?

Player 1: No, I'll stick with the others until we have a plan.

All players: refuse to move while they spend 30 minutes arguing the best tactics for hiking.

In this case you have mass analysis-paralysis. There are a few ways to break it:

  • Specifically tell the players that their precise plan doesn't matter. As soon as any encounter begins you will prompt them for their formation, and you will allow for sensible precautions. This doesn't suit all playing styles, but it saves a lot of time making preparations for things that never happen. The game style issue you want to resolve is, will the players be punished for acting without thorough explicit preparation? If so, then that might be why Player 3 is worried about bread, and it's the nature of a "10 foot pole to check for traps" game.

  • An extreme version of this is to run the game such that whatever the players suggest is considered reasonable. The world conforms to their expectations rather than the other way around. Then they don't need to plan at all, and the way to reach group agreement is not to wait until everyone agrees, it's to take turns to speak, and agree with and build on whatever the previous person said. They can improvise, they can take turns to contribute, and no matter how stupid what they do is, you will respond "yes, and...". Not "no, because" or "oh, this other thing first needs to happen first", or "you do that but you die because you never said you'd put your armour on". Again, this won't suit all styles, it's not very simulation-y. But they'll stop doing pointless boring things, because any interesting thing they think of is worth saying.

  • Guide the players through making the plan. You don't want to give them too much OOC information, but usually the characters have expertise that the players don't, and you can bolster their confidence by confirming their guesses and supplying general information at the right times. Confident people make decisions quicker:

GM: Okay, you're standing on the edge of the forest.

Player 1: Okay, I ready my bow and start forward.

Player 2: Hold on, I'm still talking to this other guy.

Player 3: Did we stock up on bread? I need to put on my night vision goggles.

Player 4: [Crazy roleplaying thing!]

GM: Alright. Player 1, you're going to scout ahead, and you're ready for trouble, that's sensible. Player 2, sorry, the other guy really doesn't have anything else to say. Player 3, yes, you're fully stocked, the night vision goggles will negate the darkness penalty under the trees. Player 4, I like your style. Do you all fall into formation behind player 1?

[In your transcript, at this point you said "aare you guys going into the forest?". That is to say, you asked the group for a consensus before giving them any feedback on their individual issues. If you do that a lot, it's probably the main reason things get stalled.]

Player 2: One sec, I need to cast detect evil.

GM: I'm fine with that if Player 1 will wait?

Player 1: For one round? Sure.

Player 3: I'll stick close behind Player 1 since I have the best sight.

GM: Good. 2, Results of Detect Evil are [whatever]. 4, once you're done invoking the wrath of Gragnar on any fool who dares oppose you, where are you in formation?

Player 4: Rear-guard, if everyone's happy with that. The Book of Gragnar commands us to, "Pity especially the fool who tries to sneak up you in a forest".

GM: Sounds good. Doing that thing you normally do when you're rear-guard? That leaves player 2 in the middle. Onwards!

  • Design adventures so that the party doesn't have a lot of time to waste. You don't have to railroad, but make sure that there is always something happening to them. They can deal with it however they like, but they must act. After all, arguably if there's nothing happening to them and they're free to delay as much as they like then that's practically the definition of "downtime between sessions" ;-) So, players don't arrive at the edge of a forest at their own leisure, they arrive at the edge of a forest as a consequence of dealing with the previous problem:

GM: Okay, you're standing on the edge of the forest. You can hear those enraged villagers with pitchforks approaching, but as you already know they're very superstitious about the forest, and you suspect they probably won't enter it this close to dark.

All players: start to plan

GM: [after a couple of minutes or so, representing the party's head start] The villagers have crested the hill behind you, and the front few break into a run. They're in missile range and will reach you in a minute or less, but then again you never thought much of their combat ability.

All players: No, we're not slaughtering the whole village! We get into the forest.

  • Finally, be aware that "keeping the game moving" doesn't need to mean physical activity or plot progression. If Player 4 goes off on a crazy roleplaying thing that the other players react to and enjoy, then it's irrelevant that it isn't part of your plan for the session. It's as much a part of the game as anything you invent. So encourage it to play out properly, and as long as it's not boring the forest can wait. Similarly, if the players just plain enjoy bickering in character over their plans, you can let that be part of what defines that particular campaign. Just build 20-30 minutes per significant group decision into your session plan. Less work for you!

To do this you need to get buy-in from the "more action-oriented players". If all they like is combat then that's pretty much a non-starter, you can't run a game this way for them. But otherwise you need to stop them tuning out by soliciting their responses, and making those responses matter in the conversation. A frustrated character who spends the whole argument saying, "we need to stop arguing about this and get into the forest" in 10 different ways is still an active player. One trick is to keep track of who is speaking, and if someone hasn't spoken for a while specifically ask them, "what do you think, what are you doing while this is going on?". That gives the player the freedom to take a turn in the conversation, or for that matter to wander off into trouble if they like. If you frequently find that you ask a player what they're doing and they say "nothing" and tune back out again, then you still have a problem and need to address personally with that player what they need from the game. Some players enjoy spectating for some of the time, and might look tuned out when they aren't, so you do need to ask.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The suggestion that "sneak up you in a forest" is a typographical error was of course the Yubnub Heresy, which as everyone knows resulted in 100 years of bitter war and the extinction of the hippogriff. Which may seem irrelevant, but you keep things moving by keeping on adding stuff, even if you're not certain it's going to make sense in the end. \$\endgroup\$ – Steve Jessop Dec 4 '14 at 16:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ There are a lot of good points in here (especially "you asked the group for a consensus before giving them any feedback on their individual issues. If you do that a lot, it's probably the main reason things get stalled."), but it's way too long. \$\endgroup\$ – DCShannon Dec 4 '14 at 20:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ @DCShannon: This answer doesn't seem too long to me -- to badly misquote Tolkien, it's just as long as it needs to be. But yes, if I had to distill its key point into just one sentence, it would be exactly the one you picked out. \$\endgroup\$ – Ilmari Karonen Dec 5 '14 at 0:42
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When you ask your players what they're doing, formulate the question in such a way as to suggest an obvious course of action other than 'nothing' as the default.

When you ask a question like "So, what do you do?" you're implying that in order to act, players must declare that they act. (Less charitably, you're assuming that the default behaviour of player characters is to stand around staring into space until they think of something to do.)

On the other hand, if you ask a question like "So, I assume you're heading into the forest now?" you imply that the characters will pursue obvious solutions to problems . (Or, to put it another way, you assume that player characters don't automatically ignore blindingly obvious opportunities dangling in front of them.)

Players can still do anything they choose, but by giving them a default action other than standing around doing nothing, you avoid awkward situations where they stand around doing nothing for no good reason.

Of course, you shouldn't do this all the time - only when it seems obvious that the players would usually do a particular thing. And no matter how you ask your players what they're doing, you should always give them a fair chance to respond saying they'll do something else, in case they do have something else in mind. That said, many players are happy to go along with the default you suggest, provided the default makes sense to them and they haven't already thought of a clever alternative. (Oh, and if you're going to assume the player characters are competent enough to not stand around doing nothing, it's wise to assume they're competent in other ways and act sensibly when following your suggested courses of action, rather than blindly following the literal wording like mindless robots.)

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    \$\begingroup\$ I wish I could accept two answers, because this is really solid, concise advice. Thank you. \$\endgroup\$ – Tack Dec 10 '14 at 4:49
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Assess the Needs of Your Group

Where play styles and player preferences are involved, there's no "one size fits all" solution. Some groups do just fine if you present them with a sandboxy environment to interact with in any way they choose. They'll strike out because they're naturally motivated to do so. Others don't, and it sounds like your group needs something more tangible.

I know your example is likely simplified, but it's handy, so I'll roll with it: the fact that a forest is there and potentially can be interacted with is clearly not enough to entice the group to interact with it. You'll have to figure out what does entice them, and that's going to vary amongst different groups as well as different players. Individual players' preferences don't have to match up perfectly with the rest of the party's. However, players will need to be able to compromise sometimes if there are very different desires and play styles present within the party.

Talking directly to the players is often a good first step. You could just say something like "We seem to slow down a lot. When the game doesn’t progress, people seem bored. Do you feel the same?” You can also directly ask the players whether they’re having fun, what they enjoy in games, etc.

However, not everyone is able to articulate their preferences. It’s important to keep communication lines open, but it's also important to observe your players. What actions does each player try to take? Were there any moments in the game they seemed really invested in? Try to include as many of those elements as you can, as frequently as you can. You’ll have an easier time attracting a cat if you offer it tuna. Don’t offer it celery and expect it to come running.

Make Options Obvious

That said, there are general techniques you can use (and combine them with what you know about your players' preferences). This isn’t about limiting options. It’s about framing options and making the options known to your players. They can always refuse options, and that’s something you'll have to accept to preserve player agency. What they can’t do is pursue options they don’t know about.

1. Start "in media res."

That is, start in the middle of the action, with something exciting already underway. This is the difference between "Okay, you're standing on the edge of the forest." and "As you stand at the edge of the forest, a group of bandits rushes you!" or “A man stumbles out of the forest, his clothes in bloody tatters. He begs you to save his brother from bandits!”

This isn't just a technique for the beginning of a game, either. You can start any scene with a bang. You should also be vigilant about lagging play see if you can introduce action that would jumpstart it.

2. Leave a trail.

This could be physical, like the players waking up to footsteps in the mud and their campsite rifled through. If the characters encounter something strange or suspicious, it can pique player interest.

It could also be social, with NPCs mentioning a subject frequently. Seed mentions of an event here and there (though not like a broken record -- you don't want to annoy your players, either). Make the event obviously relevant to the people and the world the PCs interact with.

3. Make plot issues relevant to the PCs.

Some groups will jump on an obvious issue as a matter of course, just because it's an issue. Others need the issue to actually intersect with their characters. Make something at stake in order to motivate the players to take action. Knowing what the players as well as what the characters care about is important here.

Use as few or as many issues and consequences as you need, and cover multiple characters. If you can make something a problem to every PC, even if it's a problem in different ways, they're more likely to want to do something about it as a group.

Put It All Together

You can combine social and physical evidence with character-related issues and consequences to great effect. If you want an event to be important, make it important to the characters from several different angles.

For example, the boy the PCs bump into in the town square talks about seeing a bandit king, but no one believes him. Then the inn keeper complains about how someone broke in the other day and stole some kegs, and he heard something really valuable went missing from the local shops -– he thought the bandits only attacked people in the forest, but now he’s worried they’re coming into town too.

And at the same time you're leaving this trail, make sure that things are at stake. The PCs might not want to fight bandits because it's not their problem.

But if the PCs' stuff gets stolen, it's their problem.

If the innkeeper refuses the PCs service because he doesn't trust strangers anymore, it's their problem.

If the PCs can't get that one thing they really wanted in town because the bandits stole it, it's their problem.

If the a PC is a bleeding heart in the past and a wounded guy asks them to rescue his brother from bandits, it's their problem.

And if they've heard about these bandits several times before the bandits intersect with them, they'll know it's both their problem and a problem for the world around their PCs. These are all potentially motivating factors to seek a specific action: "do something about the bandits."

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Encourage your players to have goals

Most often when a game gets bogged down like this, it's because there isn't a clear goal for the party to focus on. Your players will respond in their own ways, by arbitrarily aiming themselves at something, by focusing on some alternate point of interest that affects only themselves, or by checking out of the game entirely. This is a recipe for the frustration that your group is feeling.

Depending on the style of the particular game, there are different approaches to solving this problem.

Plot-based games

It is somewhat easier to address this problem in a game that is built around some overarching plot design. In such a game, there is a strong expectation that the GM is the driver of game events, and so using that power to push the players in various directions is generally more acceptable.

You have expressed concerns about limiting player agency, and this is a valid worry to have here. However, in a plot-based game, you will want to make your players reactive to game events to some degree. Particularly in the beginning of a game, the characters need to be defined in relation to the world, and there needs to be an impetus for them to go off on their adventure.

Examples include:

  • Time limits: chase scenes, poisoned characters, advancing armies
  • Obligations: debts to repay, orders from a leader
  • Prestige: save the village, find the treasure

The skill in running such a game lies in carefully creating events that force the players to react, but don't force them to react in a specific way. If you can conceptualize each event as an adversary trying to achieve a goal, it is often easier to improvise in game how that might play out differently in response to player character actions, and avoids the tendency to stonewall when the players do something unexpected.

Sandbox games

In a sandbox, it is less acceptable for the GM to push players. Instead, you want to encourage players to develop their own goals for their characters, and for the party as a whole. If you're having difficulty picking up on these in-game, by all means come right out and ask your players what each of their characters is trying to get out of all this.

Once you know what the goals are (and now you have also primed the players to think about these goals), put elements in your sandbox that work towards the players' goals. You might try to collect a lot of them in one place, so everyone has a motivation, or you might pick only a few, requiring half the party to persuade the other half to join in (this can be risky though, especially when starting out).

Setting all these elements in the game world allows the players to remain proactive, a key feature of sandbox games. The important thing to do as GM is to ensure that the characters are well aware of the existence of these elements which relate to their goals. Then the players have both the motivation and the means to go out and make progress.

You might need to encourage your players to cooperate

It's also possible that your players aren't cooperating independently of the existence of motivations and events and all that good stuff. In that case, you may need to have a conversation with your players about what they each want to get out of the game, and how to balance the different needs of each other during play.

Oftentimes people don't realize that they are focusing so heavily on their own desires in gameplay that it is weakening the group's collective ability to operate. Encouraging your players to be cognizant of these differences and to make an effort to share the spotlight can alleviate these problems.

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Have the players develop party tacticals. "When we're outside, this is our marching formation, and this is what each person is doing." "This is our watch rotation. If someone is severely injured, they'll stay out, but otherwise it goes in this order... this is how we set up our camp and watch posts." "These are the spell buffs [if you have such things] that we cast before going into any official/obvious dungeon." "In every town, we shop to make sure we have this set of supplies on hand:..." That should cut down on a lot of the "oh, wait, did we get horse food?" stuff.

Suggest the party come up with a party leader. When that fails completely, see if they can figure out some way to decide what they're doing. Call votes or something. Give them a while to discuss things when a decision needs to be made, and then let them know that after another 2 minutes real time, you're going to start measuring game time in terms of 1 minute talking in real time = 1 hour of arguing in game time. Roll for random encounters - ones with low experience and no treasure.

See if they have any ideas themselves to address these issues :)

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The key to both parts of your question is setting limits on the number of options.

The lack of clear and effective limits is what causes the kind of Scooby-Doo chaos you describe, and the only way to fix it is to set and enforce such limits.

As a GM, how can I design adventures to minimize these moments?

Adventures which minimize stalls are adventures which have some kind of natural or artificial restriction on the number of options available to players in any given situation. For example, in the scenario you listed, the players have several conflicting options: enter the forest, talk to an NPC, buy supplies, or have RP moments. A good adventure should present no more than two of these at any given time, with the caveat that one of those two is always "have RP moments". (It's a role-playing game, after all!) This doesn't mean that the adventure can never at any point have the other options - just that you want to have the players decide from A and B now, and C and D later, instead of A, B, C, and D now.

One way to manage this is to have scenes to handle things like NPC discussions, and separate the scenes with interludes to shop or do other individual tasks. This is where the advice for part 2 of your question below will come in handy; the short version is that you want to avoid giving your players too many options. If you need them to enter a city and have an important meeting with a NPC, don't say, "You enter the city, what do you do?". This means every player has the chance to present an option. Instead, simply say, "You enter the city in response to the mayor's summons. Who's going to her office?"

This provides a soft limit on the number of options available to your players. While they are able to declare other options, lots of behavior studies have indicated that people tend to go with whatever default is presented, which helps reduce decision paralysis or an overabundance of options.

You're probably thinking, *but my players always want to go shopping as soon as they enter the city!" This is where part 2 comes in.

How can I move players smoothly past these moments when they do arise?

You have to set limits, but also make sure your players know that just because a limit is currently in place, does not mean they will never be able to do the thing they want to do. In other words, make sure to give them the opportunity to do all the things they want - just not at the same time.

This may mean being a little strict at first, especially if your players are accustomed to having lots of options. For example, you might need to say, "I know you need to shop, but the mayor summoned you immediately. There's plenty of time to shop afterward." It breaks immersion a little at first, but once your players begin to understand that they still have options, it usually stops being a problem.

In situations where the problem isn't that the party is going in too many directions, but rather that the party can't decide whether or how fast to move forward, the way to set boundaries is in how you phrase their options - again, providing defaults to prevent decision paralysis. For example, instead of saying, "Are you guys going into the forest?", you say, "Player 4 is going into the forest. Who's going with her?" This is a subtle bit of psychology, but what's going on here is that when you say to someone, "Are you doing X?", you're giving them the choice between "yes" and "no" (which in most RPGs also gives them the option to do other things). Instead, by stating an action and asking who else is participating, you're giving them the choice between "me" and staying silent. In my experience, most people will say "me" in this case.

TL;DR

Present clear, limited choices to players instead of open-ended questions and scenarios, but also make sure the players understand that they'll have a chance to do the side things they want - just not all at the same time.

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Non-Combat Turn Order

I've used this idea a few times with my groups, either in situations like you described where everyone seems to have their own thing going on, or when I really need to know exactly what everyone is doing at that exact instance (cough Tomb of Horror cough). I find it helps keep things moving and prevents the group's antics from makes sure every party member has a chance to do something.

Essentially, when the group starts acting like you describe, tell them that you are going into a very loose version of the combat round. Since I usually run D&D 3.5 games I'll use that terminology, but the same basic principal can be applied to any system.

Starting with Player One, each player gets a move action and a standard action. The rules for these are much more relaxed than a typical combat round, but I still place some restrictions on what can be done in a turn. This helps players realize that some actions take longer than others. So if Player Three wants to check their supplies and put on their goggles, that only takes a round. Depending on the wacky roleplaying Player Four wants to do, that might take 2 or three rounds. It could also help Player One see exactly where he is in relation to the other party members as he goes to scout, since they has a set move speed per round. The important thing is that everyone gets a chance to act how they see fit.

This technique can be helpful, but I wouldn't and don't use it all the time. If the party is all standing around acting wacky then feel free to let them just go at it and roleplay. But if every party member wants to do something different and it is bogging your game down, this might be a good way to let everyone do their thing without it taking too much extra time.

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In addition to considering the things you can do to speed things along, you might want to consider the things that you should probably avoid.


The bit that sticks out like a sore thumb for me is:

GM: Okay, are you guys going into the forest?
Player 1: I am, yeah.
GM: Okay, but are you going alone? Is anyone else going?

By asking the confirmation questions, GM is stopping Player 1 from going into the forest. And by doing so, actually removing player agency; seemingly in aid of getting the party to enter the forest together.

First, this expects the party to act like a single-minded unit, rather than allowing the players to act as individuals. Second, it slows things down until the party reaches consensus - which in some situations (as you've already observed) can be extremely difficult to achieve.

I would go further to say this is a little unrealistic and clinical; more like what you might see in a movie than real life. Compare the first round of player actions with a group of friends taking a trip to the beach:

Person 1: Ooh there's the ice-cream truck. I'm gonna get me some...
Person 2: Actually stopped 20 meters back to apply some suntan lotion.
Person 3: Has been admiring the "beautiful scenery", and didn't notice what Person 1 said.
Person 4: "Sure, let's go. But I left my wallet in the car, I need to go grab it."

The point is, individuals will tend to do their own things from time-to-time. Let it be and let it flow. Yes it can be a little tricky keeping track of individual locations and events. So it's important to create opportunity for the party to reunite fairly quickly.

Now an alternative way of handling the first round of player actions might be:

GM: Player 1. As you pass the first few trees, you see the forest is a little thicker than you expected. But you manage to find what appears to be a deer trail that you can comfortably walk along. Shortly the path splits into a fork.
Player 1: "Right is always right, so I'll head that way."

GM: (Either based on a quick die roll or simply a decision.) Player 2. You're listening to other guy too intently to notice Player 1 enter the forest. He tells you that the path to the right is best because it leads to a well maintained bridge; and you'll be able to cross the river easily.

GM: Player 3. Yes, we'll assume you did stock up on bread. You pull your night vision goggles out your backpack, and as you look up, you see player 1 pass the first line of trees.
Player 3 I put my pack back over my shoulders and try to catch up.

GM: Player 4. As you finish your routine, you notice a meerkat staring at you quizzically before darting into a tunnel. It dawns on you that no one else noticed. Player 3 is about to enter the forest, and player 2 is still talking to the stranger.
Player 4 "Hurry up Doc! They're going without us!"
Player 2: "Thanks for the info other guy. I've got to go." I call out to the others "Hey wait! I want to cast Detect Evil first."
Player 4: "Sure, go ahead. I'll just mark some trees so you can catch up."
Player 2: "Never mind, let's get going."

NOTE: Player 2 didn't get to cast Detect Evil, but not because of GM. It was her decision based on the game environment. Alternatively, if she still wants to cast it then run after the others, let her do so.

It might not even be relevant, OR....

GM: Player 1. You notice the path seems to stop at a dead-end. You all hear a battle-cry. Player 1. You hear a couple of arrows whizz past your ears, and see a third thud into the ground at your feet.... (Player 2 might catch up in the second or third round of battle. And if Detect Evil was cast, will know whether the enemy is evil or not.)


Next up: Don't get bogged down in minutiae.

The more you fuss about small things, the slower the game progresses. You'll also find that at least some of the players will follow your lead in this regard - making the problem worse.

Unless food shortage is a factor in the game that you want players to role-play to; you don't want to waste time worrying about:

  • Exactly when a player bought 2 loaves of bread for 5 coppers.
  • When they eat their meals.
  • How much of the bread was given to a beggar on the corner.

If you do want to factor the cost of general provisions into a campaign, rather do so using a fixed amount per game week, and assume general provisions are catered for.

Another thing you'll notice from the above exchange is that I played a little loose with timelines. The game-time required for player 1 to: enter the forest, find a path, and follow it to the fork; would be a fair bit longer than the time for player 2 to wrap up conversation. This allows me to "doctor" some information given to the players as I choose.


Third on the list is: Discourage players from role-playing characters that are too destructive for group cooperation.

Let's assume player 1 has a habit of getting himself into trouble by charging forth without considering his companions. And he claims to do so because it's "in-character". Then it's worthwhile trying to persuade him not to do so.

You may see this as going against the objective of player agency. But I think the effort would be justified.

It's obvious that his character's behaviour will annoy the other players. But realistically speaking it would also annoy their in-game characters. In real-life, anti-social people tend to get shunned. And similar is to be expected of anti-social characters in-game. So it would be in player 1's best interests to tone down those traits of his character before the other characters decide to let him meet his fate in the next ambush.

One interesting option (but it could backfire in the wrong group) would be to encourage an in-game, in-character discussion about a problem character's behaviour.


And finally: Avoid creating open-ended scenarios.

As an extreme example, if you say: "You step outside, and the sky is blue". This gives no anchor from which players can base their decision. Any range of responses is possible: "I go to the beach." "I run around screaming 'the sky is falling'." "I recite the Fibonacci sequence in High Elvish."

Obviously this is just another way of saying: "Give your players clear options", as discussed in most of the other answers. So I'll avoid the extra detail, but would like to make an example by mentioning 2 classic computer games.

"Space Quest" and "Leisure Suit Larry"; both were similar kinds of games. A key difference is that right from the start Space Quest had a sense of urgency; a short-term goal. LSL however was very open ended. Both games were very enjoyable, but LSL did need a bit of time to get some momentum going. This was okay as a single-player game. But doesn't work so well in multi-player. Even open world MMO's need the quests and dungeons to give parties clear objectives.


In closing perhaps I should try summarise with answers to the specific questions:

(1) Provide reference points from which players can make decisions. And it helps if players can find in-character motivation to make a specific choice.

(2) a. Be practical. Take short-cut decisions to move things along.

(2) b. (also 3) Let players push things along if they're getting bored. (This is a more positive look at what player 1 might have been doing.)

(3) Discourage players from adopting "in-character" traits that interfere too much with the flow of the game.

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Keeping the party together when each character has an independent goal can be very difficult, so it shouldn't be your responsibility alone. Here's how everyone in the game can help keep things moving along.

Leadership

This is something where a single player can have a major impact on the flow of the game. And if you want players to have agency while still stayin on task, I encourage you to pursue it.

The players individual characters clearly have goals, and a single major goal as a whole. If one player is especially set on that goal, say "Player 1" in your example scenario, encourage that player to be the leader, and set out orders for the rest of the party to follow (preferably you should choose a leader before the campaign starts, based on character background and who has more roleplaying experience. Though this role can change as your party's main goal evolves throughout the campaign, or different party members take charge).

As leader, they can give the other players time to do their own thing, but set their own clock by which other members of the party keep time - to discourage them from taking up too much of the party's time in accomplishing their main goal.

Getting To The Point

It sounds like the other party members have their own things they want to do, but are having trouble wrapping those things up. It helps, therefore, for them to make a point of saying exactly what they want to do before starting on that path, and then getting to it as quickly as possible.

This is good role-playing. With few exceptions, nobody wants to spend more time getting what they want than necessary. And by defining what they want ahead of time, they help you know exactly what they're trying to get at, so that their 'mini-scene' doesn't go on forever without resolution.

Wrapping It Up

You as the DM should keep each individual character's desire in mind, and try to reach that conclusion when it's time for the rest of the party to move on. You can do this by wrapping up each scene with an end note. Maybe Player 2's guy who he's talking to has his own business he needs to attend to (NPCs do not have infinite time, after all), and maybe you can streamline the gathering of provisions for Player 3 (Or encourage him to do pre-adventure purchases before/after each session), and maybe Player 4 should clarify what exactly he's trying to do, so that it can be done and the rest of the campaign can move on.


A Question of Time

It would be nice if in every role-playing campaign we could explore every avenue of interest that we notice, stock up on all the triknets we like with no time taken at all, or do whatever Player 4 is trying to do without fail, and still have time for the actual story. But we as players do not have infinite time. So it's the responsibility of you, and the players, to keep the campaign moving.

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I know what you mean. You as the DM want to have a combat sequence of sorts. This is good as long as you're not steamrolling your players into it. It keeps momentum going.

I recommend you have a talk with your players. Your players are real people. They understand its a game and once you point it out they will understand that they are working against the grain when they consider if they packed enough bread while fighting the ogre.

If my team isn't in "Dungeon Mode" while in a dungeon I'll occasionally stop and say "Okay, come on" and at this point they know that I mean "Be realistic, what would your character do?" I know the one guy who is playing the inquisitive Wizard may protest that his character would do some esoteric things. But ask him to do it in a way that flows with the game.

Theres nothing wrong with asking your players to play along. Yes one of the game's best qualities is the freedom you get. However you have to remember you're playing in a group. Every time you exercise a freedom you're taking away everyone else's time to do so. Players have to give and take.

This is something that will come more naturally as time progresses. Eventually your players will understand cues you give them to indicate This is going down. You said you don't want artificial things to do this. Until you get to the point where its natural, you're going to have to work at it and resorting to some artificial means like combat music or breaking character occasionally isn't the end of the world.

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This is not a problem about player agency. This is a problem that the players are all trying to "play different games" at the same time. It's situations like this that I recommend a group sit down with a plan of what gameplay is supposed to look like for this campaign you're playing in.

After you leap that huge hurdle, a small tertiary technique you can consider is if you want to clearly communicate what kind of scenes the players are involved with. If players can expect to be ambushed at ANY time, then the players will be obsessed with specific details to deal with the event at combat at ANY time. But if you clearly say, "This is a roleplaying scene, please do not check for traps every 10 feet, do not tell me which hand is on your sword and which hand is on your belt, etc." you can save a lot of time.

Also, you can also save time by assuming character competence. "The goblins hop out, but you can put yourself anywhere on this map within this area - you're smart warriors and you naturally take better positions in anticipation of ambushes." etc. Do not force the players to have to narrate every single detail or punish them, and then they won't have to waste time trying to narrate every. single. detail. over and over.

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One of your jobs as GM is to ensure coherency of the group

The issue you seem to be addressing is that you want the campaign to progress at the speed of "1 team vs. the world." Instead, you are having to address it as "4 individuals vs. the world," and having to run it four times slower than you'd like. You've recognized the issue, and that's the first part! Bravo!

I would suggest a visual model to look at the situation between you and your four friends which highlights the issue in a different light and suggests a few directions for solutions.

Don't treat your players as discrete individuals with individual wants. People are much more complicated than that! Each person is constantly juggling a legion of wants, not just one. What you are seeing is what happens when Player 3's want "to be prepared before every battle" dominates their actions. You're having trouble moving along because you see Player 3's most dominant desires, and don't want to override them.

I'd like to take a moment to thank you for trying to protect the agency of players. That will go a LONG way for you as a DM

So you obviously don't want to squash their dominant desires, so what's the other solution? The other solution is, of course, to try to encourage a common set of desires in all 4 players and yourself. Sound hard? Of course it is. We literally pay people to do this for a living... they're called managers!

So what can I do?

Recognize that, even though it is their character and they deserve agency, the progress of the campaign is a shared thing. The campaign includes the characters, so you have every right to act for the characters. As long as you act in the interests of the players, you will not undermine their agency by acting for them.

If Player 3 is always having to take the time to do the long term preparation work consider taking some of it off his hands. That way, he can start paying attention to the coherent team goals you want him to:

  • In your pre-fight speeches, consider having Character 3 automatically check some of the things Player 3 tends to care about.
  • Give Player 3 clear timeframes where the group should be thinking about long-term planning
  • Give Player 3 hints as to places where you think the group may need to do additional long-term preparation... such as when you happen to know a long quest is about to occur. The less surprised they are, the better.
  • When all else fails, be a kind and just DM. If you have taken over some of the long-term planning, and later find out that Player 3 would have planned different, give him the benefit of the doubt. Make sure they understand this is a symbol of respect... as long as they respect you by not abusing it, they'll keep getting to do a little retroactive adjustments here and there.

Another important technique is starving desires. If Player 1 is constantly having to "ready his bow" for every combat, start letting him fight as though his bow was ready, even if he didn't say it. Eventually he will realize those phrases aren't helping (and are sometimes costing him 1 turns worth of action), and stop.

In all...

The Players are not living in your storyline. They are living in you World... the storyline is shared and not owned by any one person. Listen to what Players want to see, and make it so that they get what they want if they act in cohesion. People are smart, they figure it out pretty fast.

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I'd suggest you don't ao much try to avoid it happening (it will anyway), but simply try to keep players "in character" as much as possible.

Confused, distracted, interrupted table conversations can be seen simply - as in real life activities that require co-ordination and group decisions - confused, distracted, interrupted conversations between people (i.e. PCs). That can be frustrating for the action oriented characters, so at the same time, move the action along.

[Sometimes you have to interpret a little (e.g. "did you write that potion on your character sheet" is interpreted as conversation nearer to "can you remember what the potion is that's in your backpack?" -- but you should constantly encourage questions framed the second way so that the conversation is plainly in character; eventually some players will do that, and it works much better)]

So "Hold on, I'm talking to this other guy" is assumed to be in character conversation.

While you might say "Do you wait?" or "I assume you're still doing what you said", you might instead say (taking the role of an NPC) "Who are you calling 'this other guy'? My name is Mister Tibbs!", or you might move the action along a few seconds first ("You're past the first few trees already ... are you going back to wait for their conversation? You hear a faint rustling noise further ahead into the forest"), or you might describe an event that occurs while they're talking ("While you two PCs are distracted by that conversation, two boars run squealing from undergrowth in the forest, and they're headed right for you. They seem to be runnning in a flat panic - in fact they don't seem to even realize you're in their way.")

.... and so on.

When the more action-oriented players have stated an action (as they usually do), if they don't choose to stop, they just happen: "While you were conversing with Mr Tibbs, Jasko the archer continued into the forest; you can't see him."

Such muddled conversations and potentially uncoordinated actions will naturally occur, but you can refashion them into being conversations and actions that are happening in-world. If you're fairly relentless about this reinterpretation and redirection (at least as far as you reasonably can) - it keeps directing players back into acting in character, and the muddle and confusion of their choices of actions is then just part of how they act in their group. Keep things moving along. If someone interrupts a spellcaster mid-spell, say "well, you started your spell when you said - are you letting a conversation interrupt your spell or are you trying to concentrate in spite of the distraction?"

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