I'm GMing some Shadow of Esteren games with friend. If you do not know that RPG just take a look it's very cool :-).

I'm following the scenarios given in the official book (don't have time to set up my own campaign and don't know the game much for now so it seems to be the best way to go) and sometimes the players are taking the "wrong path". Of course in a RPG there is no such think like wrong path and the GM must fall back on his feet to keep the adventure interesting for the players. But on the other way we don't want it to be too easy for them and not thinking about some crucial things mustn't lead them to the right answer directly, so I think.

The thing is I have difficulties to handle correctly such moments. I do not want to block players just because they don't take that way instead of another, but if they neglect some crucial element I don't want to simply make the way they choose the right way in order to give them access to the main plot.

I've an example of such a situation that happened before. They were following a poisoned river and were regularily testing the water after each possible source of poisonning) to determine the cause. But they forgot one of the possible cause, they didn't think about it. I let them going on their way but the thing is that at that point there were nothing really interesting and I tell them they follow for hours and hours finding nothing.

I feel a bit disappointed about how I typically handle this situation and I wondered if there was a better way?

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    \$\begingroup\$ This seems playstyle-dependant. I guess a good answer should ideally describe how different playstyles factor in to dealing with this kind of situation? \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Sep 10, 2015 at 0:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ What was the cause of the poisoned river and why did testing it fail to work? \$\endgroup\$ Sep 10, 2015 at 1:35

3 Answers 3


I think 'the dark wanderer' and MC-Hambone have really good answers, but I wanted to add a few more suggestions. I read up on this specific scenario to get an idea of what the players may have missed, so I'll give my suggestions for how to handle it in this specific situation, and possibly how to use these suggestions more generally. Hopefully at least a little of this will be helpful.

What are the symptoms of the problem the players are trying to solve?

Think of the plot conflict as an illness that the players are trying to diagnose. If they keep thinking that it's Lupus (it's never Lupus), give them another symptom. First things first, when you read through the scenario prior to the session, keep in mind how the main conflict could be effecting the world. The official book should give you a lot of this, but try to think of any "unintended consequences" to serve as a fallback to give clues to the players.

In this situation: the plants along the riverbank could've displayed signs of being poisoned downriver of the poison source, but no signs of poisoning upriver. This way, if the players move past the source, you can just mention that they move into an area where the plants are lush and healthy. Don't specifically say "the vegetation here is not poisoned"...just say that it's beautiful glade, or has green grass, etc.

If they continue to move in the wrong direction, then mention that the most perceptive character notices that the plants there are not poisoned. This should give them a pretty strong clue that they have moved beyond the source of the poison and need to double back. If their samples keep showing up poisoned, then it should tell them that they have a flaw in their methodology.

More generally: regardless of how the conflict began, consider: were there witnesses? Could those witnesses have mentioned it to anyone? Would they seek out help? Would they seek out any of the player characters specifically?

If there were no witnesses, what sort of "footprint" would've been left in the immediate and surrounding areas? ie, did the responsible party have a campfire in the area? Did they leave in a hurry and forget to extinguish it? Maybe this caused a small forest fire that the players could spot, or even smell days after it was extinguished.

What's special about the player's characters?

Within the game world, why is it that these specific people are the ones who can solve this problem? Why can't the town guard, or random civilians, figure it out on their own? What skills/background/items/traits do the players' characters possess which make them uniquely suited to this task?

In this situation: If any of the players' characters hail from the region, they could have a childhood friend who might work in the place where the poisoning began, and would be willing to confide in the player's character. Maybe one of the players has a skill which might help them notice that the poison levels are too regular (if they aren't cleaning out the pot/vial they're using for the samples), such as magience, or a nature skill. This gives you an opportunity to simply say "You notice _____" if the players are going completely off-base.

More generally: At least glance through the players' character sheets beforehand (though ideally you may want to have a copy of each one handy during the game) so you have an idea of what skills/feats they have. If none of the characters has a high enough passive perception (or equivalent) to notice a clue, and the clue itself is vital for game completion, then consider how their unrelated skills might color their perceptions.

For instance, if the players are trying to track down some bandits, and they notice footprints heading north away from the site of an attack, they might just start heading north. If they don't think to actively track the trail (ie, they just say "we go north"), then they won't notice that the bandits turned east after a few miles. You can push them in the right direction by rolling 1d4 and stating that after that many hours, the character with the highest tracking/nature skill (or equivalent) notices that there is no sign of anyone traversing the area. This tells the players that they need to double back and try to find the bandits' trail, but also gives them a realistic little penalty for going off half-cocked.

  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for the "think of the problem as an illness, then tell them the symptoms" idea. It's a great way of conceptualising this. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Sep 11, 2015 at 4:54

You need to actually evaluate the plans your players execute. For example, if the players are following a poisoned river upstream, and randomly decide not to test where the source of the poison is actually coming from, they should definitely find no (or less if there's multiple sources) poison at the next place they test. Because the players missed some information that was critical, you decided that the entire search operation was a failure, which is not appropriate. Generally, it is preferable not to describe the result of any large player operation like this as failure or success until the players do, because this helps you to not make those kinds of unhelpful sweeping judgements. Instead, let the players play at the points of the plan which you think don't work and see what they do. In this case:

Assuming they just missed it: "Ok, you go along the river as planned, taking samples after every inlet and every two miles. Eventually you find an inlet after which the water is clean. What do you do?"

"Follow it as planned"

"Ok, your first measurment up the inlet is clean."

"We go back and investigate where the inlet meets the river"


Assuming the measurement vial magically poisons any water put in it:

"You travel up the river. Every sample is poisoned the same amount. How long do you want to go for?"

"Uh, until we find the source?"

"Ok, 15 minutes have passed. 30 minutes have passed. 2 hours have passed. Still nothing. 6 hours have passed. You want to keep going?"

"Maybe a little more..."

"Ok, 8 hours having passed, if you don't turn around you won't make it back to the city in time to sleep."

"Alright, alright, we head back"

The point is, you almost never should find 'nothing' when your plan fails, if your plan was at all reasonable, unless 'nothing' is useful information (e.g. "You search the guard barracks to see if any of them had motivation to kill the king. You find nothing. No people, no weapons, no bags, no beds or chamber pots, not even dust.")

  • \$\begingroup\$ Assuming they missed a stream and building the whole answer on top of that makes this answer extremely fragile. I can think of several ways for it to be poisoned that have nothing to do with inflows. Also, it is just a sample situation, not the problem itself; so this is treating the symptoms, not the disease. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 9, 2015 at 16:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ The point is that whatever plan they use should give them information about what's happening, whether false information or accurate. They shouldn't get 'nothing' and in the case of false information, they have the opportunity later to realize that information is false, which usually reveals quite a lot about what's going on. So, in that case, they'd probably find out it has nothing to do with inflows, which is useful, non-nothing, information. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 9, 2015 at 16:24
  • \$\begingroup\$ Except that you end with "nothing" being perfectly correct for some circumstances. So as a whole, the answer tells the OP nothing that they didn't already try in the question. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 9, 2015 at 16:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ Point is: assuming is a bad idea; if your answer rests on an assumption, consider asking for more details. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 9, 2015 at 16:30

I see 2 options to 'get them back on track' that are simple enough.

  1. Add a wandering NPC that can tell them they got off track. Perhaps they know a little something extra like the general location of the point at which the water begins to be poisoned, but not the source. A small bit of info or a hint to keep them from getting bored after they run out of ideas and you have been "traveling for hours".

  2. You could always say something like "You think you passed the source." This should prompt them to go back and double check certain things. and if they still miss the 1 thing that is poisoning the river you could even say in your description "That rotting corpse in the water looks out of place." Some people might not like you telling them what their characters think, though, so be careful with that.

Past those 2 options here are some things to consider: Why not adlib something completely different for them to interact with? An ambush, an interesting location, a weird NPC encounter... all these can add flavor and depth to your world. Getting sidetracked isnt always a bad thing. Maybe they find something even more interesting to deal with, or maybe they get back on the trail of the original quest after their side excursion.

Also, there should never be a single way to accomplish things in a RPG, in my opinion. They should be able to locate the source of poison a few different ways, maybe multiple points of contamination, maybe a few different skills they can use, or other things to maximize the chance they find the clues you want them to find. and If you only have the 1 thing and you want them to find it, remember the GM is a narrator and storyteller first and foremost, you can just 'let' them find it. Make it obvious enough that once they track the river far enough, they just find the source, no check necessary.

TL;DR 1. add an NPC that can give them a hint when off track. 2. Give them narrative hints via "You think you noticed a thing" style prompts. 3. make multiple points they can discover by chance or 1 really obvious thing they cant miss. 4. Dont be afraid to ad lib a side encounter if they get really far offtrack, your world is a living breathing thing with lots to see and encounter.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The first point can be useful to prepare before the session. For each piece of information, there should be multiple collaborative sources - this helps keep the story going if one is missed, and helps to create a single solid world. There's rarely an event that has only one single witness or one single piece of evidence... \$\endgroup\$
    – timje
    Sep 9, 2015 at 16:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ The general rule is that you should plan at least three ways to accomplish anything important. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 10, 2015 at 2:41

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