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I have just experienced my first D&D game, and I was thinking about creating my own world to DM a campaign in. I'm trying to learn and research as much as possible for this.

One thing is that, when the players suddenly say something (in any given situation) that you didn't anticipate as DM, then I assume you try to respond with something that's in-world.

But what can you make happen when they say something that would avoid the main adventure?

For example:

  • “We turn around and go home.”
  • “We leave the monsters alone and decide to go back.”
  • “We do not open the strange door.”

In such cases, what can you make happen to tell your players not to do that, using only in-world responses?

(Ideally I'd like things that work with my specific world, but sadly I'm still working on it. So I'm hoping for things that work within general D&D lore, since I don't know yet where I will be going with my design.)

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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to the hobby. If you're new, you possibly may benefit from learning about the concept of railroading. Some questions from that list are related to your question. \$\endgroup\$ – Nox Jun 16 '16 at 10:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'd highly recommend you don't choose your favourite answer until some other people have had a chance to answer the question, as it tends to put people off. Generally I'd give it a day or two at least \$\endgroup\$ – Wibbs Jun 16 '16 at 11:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ [Related] What is player agency and what is it good for? [Also related] What is 'railroading,' and is it a bad thing? \$\endgroup\$ – LegendaryDude Jun 16 '16 at 13:07
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    \$\begingroup\$ [Also related:] How do I handle players who make unmotivated characters? \$\endgroup\$ – SirTechSpec Jun 16 '16 at 22:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ @TheNate If you believe this to be a duplicate, please link the duplicate here in the comments so those of us with vote to close privileges can review and determine if it is indeed a duplicate. I looked long and hard expecting this to be a duplicate of something and found nothing; I did link a few related questions that don't answer this question directly. \$\endgroup\$ – LegendaryDude Jun 17 '16 at 16:38
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Firstly, the assumption you're making is well-meaning, but wrong: as DM you shouldn't feel like you can never “break character” to just speak as a person to the other people at the table. You're playing a game, and sometimes you need to pause playing and just talk about the game directly. It may seem counter-intuitive, but games work much better when you've all agreed to play together in the same way.

Avoiding avoiding the adventure

When players start doing things that will result in not going where the adventure is, or defeating the point of the adventure before it even starts, you have many options, enough that there's too many to really detail in one post. Some of those methods are in-world, and some of them are not.

In general, you want to choose a way that works and that is appropriate to your personal level of DMing skill. As a new DM, that means that the more subtle, clever ways are actually likely to be poorer choices, because they take experience to pull off successfully that you don't have yet.

A non-exhaustive list of methods:

  1. Just tell the players. “Hey people, the adventure isn't that way. We could go that way if you want, but I have nothing prepared in that direction and I'd rather not be making things up on the fly.”

    This is the easiest method, is very fast, and tends to be very effective, but it has no subtlety. Still, just talking about what's on your mind is often the right choice. What it lacks for subtlety it makes up for in speed, so it may actually be more fun than a more subtle in-world method, since it lets everyone quickly get back to the fun stuff you've prepared.

  2. Let them do or go wherever they want, but move the adventure's start so that it's in front of them anyway.

    This is very effective, and requires no out-of-game conversation. How simple or complex it is depends on the details of your adventure, since it's easier and more obvious how to move parts of some adventures and harder for other adventures. However, this method is also “politically” fragile for your group: if the players (not the PCs) realise that no matter what they do, what you want to happen will always happen (“railroading”), they can become unhappy at their lack of agency and unhappy with your game. On the other hand, some players prefer an entertaining story more than having choice, so it depends on your particular players.

    (In online jargon this method is called the “quantum ogre” technique, and there is controversy over whether it's a good or bad idea.)

  3. Just let them avoid the adventure, and improvise what happens next based on what makes sense for their actions and what would be fun to make happen. Save the adventure for later when they do go in that direction, or recycle its parts for a future adventure.

    This method gives players maximum agency, but also requires skill at improvising from the DM, so it's not necessarily a “beginner DM” strategy. On the other hand, some DMs have natural talent at improvising, so it's worth considering. It requires no out-of-game conversation, but is not always as fun as running prepared material.

    D&D in general has decent tools for improvising — when in doubt, you can always improvise an encounter with hostile monsters pulled right out of the Monster Manual, which will usually (though not always!) turn into a fight that will be fun and fill session time. Another favourite of mine is to have them run into a non-hostile NPC's home, where they can talk to someone who knows the area and have a bit of friendly roleplaying (though not always!).

    (In RPG jargon this is sometimes called “sandboxing”, though some people use that term for only when the whole campaign is intentionally designed to let the PCs wander wherever they choose. A more general term is “improvisation” or “improv”. Many campaigns are almost entirely improvised!)

  4. Let the players go where they want, but tell them that's what's happening. “The adventure I prepared for isn't this way, but you can go that way if you want. Just so long as you're all OK with me making things up that might not be as awesome, OK?”

    This method gives players agency both in-game and out-of-game: they can make the choices that they want to make for their characters, and also the players themselves know that they're choosing improvised adventure over prepared adventure. They may even suggest that they would rather play the prepared adventure, in which case this method turns into method (1) above. Or they may be fine with improvised adventure, which turns this into method (3) except with player “buy-in” to an improvised session.

  5. Make the PCs' lives difficult until they go the “right” way. This isn't actually a great idea, and is mostly included because you can do it, and it can seem like a good idea at the time, so it's worth mentioning its strengths and drawbacks.

    In general, the only strength this method has is that you can avoid “breaking character” by talking about the game as people at a table. The downside of this method is that it's unlikely to actually work: the players are unlikely to notice that you're trying to change what they're doing, and even if they do notice that the game is being extra-hard, they're still unlikely to guess that it's a message. The players are more likely to just think you're being mean for no reason, get frustrated, and become unhappy with the game.

  6. Set a fresh “hook” by using one or more of the PCs' personality or background details to attract them in the direction of the adventure. This can be an NPC related to them having information or being put in danger, an obvious clue that a villain they've met and personally hate is involved, or some other motivation that you know the players care about. The key here is that it's something the players care about and will want to see more of — it's the players who you're motivating, through their characters.

    The advantage of this method is that it's entirely in-game, and because you're incorporating things that the players have created or contributed to the game, they will be more invested in seeking the adventure and in its results. Roleplaying is inherently collaborative, and there are few things more rewarding than seeing something you've created picked up and built upon by another person at the table — and that goes double for players, who often don't get to make those kinds of contributions. The downside here is that if this method is used too often it can become an obvious pattern, and some players will react negatively and it will stop working. On the other hand, if your adventures are normally woven out of many strands of the PCs' pesonality, background, and contacts, then it will just seem normal no matter how often it's used — but running that kind of campaign takes either experience or having a particular talent for orchestrating dramas of interpersonal relationships.

These are just a few general methods, not a complete list — there are as many more ways as there are DMs to think up ways to respond.

In summary

Don't worry so much about just talking about the game. A roleplaying game is not like a TV show or movie, where the audience never sees the actors out of character. In a roleplaying game you are both the actors, directors, and audience — and real actors and directors have to talk to each other out of character all the time in order to make the TV show/movie work. Same for you and your group: you will have to take short or long breaks to talk about the game, sometimes.

(Besides, if you set your heart on always being in-character, you will just set yourself up to be frustrated when your players break character! Speaking out of character to tell a joke about what's happening or to ask others if they want anything when they get up for more snacks is common and normal. Very, very few players make it a priority to stay in-character for the entire game session — few enough that you may never meet one.)

Focus instead on choosing a method that will be effective at continuing your evening of entertainment, and that will be simple enough to accomplish with your level of DMing skill. Avoid trying to do “fancy” DMing techniques right away — you need to learn to walk before you can run, and there are many, many basic things to learn and get skilled with when you're first starting to DM.


An aside about building the “perfect” world

Building worlds is like cooking: the first time you try to make a particular dish rarely turns out how you wanted it to — like cooking, good worldbuilding is the result of never-ending practice. Trying to make a big, amazing world the first time you build a world is like trying to make a fancy wedding cake the first time you ever bake anything.

To get practice, DM little games in little worlds — worlds just detailed enough for the adventure at hand. Make the worlds to serve their adventure purposes, and make them disposable so you can try ideas without needing to make a commitment forever to those ideas. Running a few short (1- to 6-session) campaigns in little worlds is an excellent way to get practical experience. The lessons learned from actually running games in actual worlds you've designed will teach you how to run games better, how to build worlds better, and how to recognise what kinds of world details are actually important for a world meant to be played in.

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    \$\begingroup\$ For number 5, if your players do work out what's going on and why, it can easily lead to the same issues as in number 2, except potentially to an even greater extent... \$\endgroup\$ – Aether Jun 16 '16 at 15:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ Great frame challenge, but you're missing the fact that there is a good answer to the question as asked: give the PCs a reason to play along based on their personality, goals, and values, assuming they have some. It's a compromise between 2 and 3 with the bonus that it can actually make players more involved in the story, not less. E.g. as the characters are walking away they hear a friend scream, or a rumor that something they want already is behind the big door. \$\endgroup\$ – SirTechSpec Jun 16 '16 at 17:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SirTechSpec I knew I'd forgotten a good/major option halfway through the list! \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jun 16 '16 at 17:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ @RafaelLambelin Oh, it sounds like part of the question is that you're thinking of DMing while having your own player character? Is that the case? \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jun 16 '16 at 18:07
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    \$\begingroup\$ "some players prefer an entertaining story more than having choice" -- and furthermore this is not absolute. Some players demand that there be choices, but do not demand that all things must be theirs to choose. The amount of acceptable constraint varies, as do the ways the GM is "allowed" to apply the constraints. \$\endgroup\$ – Steve Jessop Jun 16 '16 at 22:14
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It's pretty much up to you. Players won't like to feel like they're being forced down corridors, but it's hard to craft a coherent day's play on the fly (especially if you're just starting out). For now, I'd recommend being honest with your players and saying "Guys, I'm new to this, cancelling the mission will mean me winging everything and it probably won't be great for you guys until I learn the system a little better".

In the future, this will happen and it can happen regularly depending on the group. I've had players spear off from what I would expect them to do just to explore nearby landmarks etc. It's a good idea to keep a list of enemies ready to go so you can at least throw in some combat in any situation. Same with maps if you use them. The best campaigns come from being as flexible as possible, which will only get easier with practice.

You can also buy some time by throwing combat encounters at them - if you can fill the rest of a session with fun combat it gives you time to plan something a little more structured for the next meetup. Another option is having a few missions planned but make sure they are not location specific - you can throw them in whenever you need them.

Good luck!

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for that especially the creating sub-missions that are not location specific... The world im creating is not for now now now, its something for the far future so I want to try and be as good as possible when I do it for the first time :) So I will propably experience more from games with other DM's , but your answer got me on the right path so thx ! :) \$\endgroup\$ – Rafael Lambelin Jun 16 '16 at 11:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ Your last paragraph is one of the techniques I use. I'm getting ready to rehash a campaign I ran years ago in 3.5e, but for a group of brand new players and we're running it in 5e now. The campaign has an overall plot, but experience has taught me that the players often won't go where you thought they would go/planned for them to go, so although I have a batch of "encounters in the southeast corner of Darkwood Forest" I also have 2 "random cave encounters" (with premade internal maps) and 5 "random wilderness encounters" (draw random trees and brush on blank graph paper on the spot) made up. \$\endgroup\$ – Dan Henderson Jun 16 '16 at 20:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ Keep in mind that if you have random encounters just for flavor or combat, not all players appreciate taking time out that doesn't advance the plot. (Others love them.) If they're more substantive missions that are in sequence regardless of place, that's the quantum ogre again. If different locations genuinely have different issues, that's great, but a good sandbox like that requires either a lot of prep or great improv. No approach is without risk; as d7 said, for a beginning GM the fastest route to fun is often to just level with your players, and experiment a bit when you're ready. \$\endgroup\$ – SirTechSpec Jun 17 '16 at 0:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ SirTechSpec - Agreed - these encounters are backups for when players specifically choose to leave the plot, which has happened to me a few times. It's like in RPG video games where some people just can't pass a landmark without poking around a bit ;) Rafael - No problem, good luck! \$\endgroup\$ – El High Groundito Jun 17 '16 at 9:17
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As a GM, Never Decide A Correct Course of Action, Only Decide Consequences

As a GM your calling is to create a great story. Stories are about conflicts that arise as characters with motivations make choices. Thus, the best thing you can do as a GM is to structure the 'adventure' to be about the story and the conflicts, and not about something concrete being done.

When you structure your adventures this way, you entirely avoid the issues of the players not doing the 'correct' thing: everything is, by definition correct, and the interesting part is the results of the choices being made. Let's look at your concrete examples:

  • “We turn around and go home.” In this scenario, assuming nothing is naturally stopping them from going home, you should let them. But ask yourself why they were there in the first place. Was it to stop an assassination? Then perhaps the assassination goes forward, and they see the throne war that begins as a result of a dead king. Was it to put an undead creature to rest? Bring the point home as tales of children going missing rise and priests turn their backs on the PCs.
  • “We leave the monsters alone and decide to go back.” What happens when the monsters aren't stopped by the PCs? Either they continue to wreck havoc, or someone else kills the monsters, gets the attendant rewards and then uses those rewards in a way that impacts the PCs.
  • “We do not open the strange door.” This seems reasonable! Realistic characters won't do dangerous things without a motivation. What is their motivation? Give them a motivation, or tie one they already have to opening the door.

Try and consider all the characters in your story (including the monsters, and indeed the 'environment') and what their motivations are. If the PCs mess with those characters, what do they do? If they don't mess with the characters, what do they do?

Telegraph Consequences

Suppose you set up a story about a dragon ravaging the countryside. If the PCs are implored to go deal with it... and they don't, what will happen? At the point where they have the choice to not deal with it, make sure the PCs have the information to know what would happen if they turn away: in the case of the dragon, this is easy. More livestock is eaten, perhaps a fair maiden or three. Someone's father.

Why do I call this out particularly? Because as a GM the difficult part is tying the consequences of actions to the stakes the PCs have. If the PC has a little brother, or a particularly large field of wheat, these are things that become at risk when the PC chooses not to deal with the dragon. Make sure you draw a line between a 'freely roaming dragon' and the stakes the PCs have. This allows them to have a real motivation to engage the issue.

And in this scenario, maybe they don't deal with the dragon. The little brother is eaten. What does the mother do? Does she silently accept the loss of her child, or does she demand the PCs seek vengeance? If they refuse, what is the grieving mother likely to do? How quickly does the community turn against the cowards? Or perhaps a knight comes along and does the deed, earning the love of all, and is granted the village as a fief. What kind of knight is he? Perhaps he thinks killing the dragon means he gets free stuff from everyone all the time, until the town is in open revolt. Or maybe he's just so goodly that everyone else guilt the PCs into doing things. Or maybe it's a mixture. The point is the world should keep spinning until the PCs are caught up in the situation and start acting on their own motivations. And once that happens, the world should still keep spinning, to add velocity to those motivations, wherever they take the characters.

But to do that you have to telegraph the situation: if the knight mistreats the tavernkeep on his way through to kill the dragon, bragging about how the town will become his after he does the deed, the PCs now know what to expect if they kill it first (the knight goes away empty-handed) and what happens if they don't (they come under the jurisdiction of a brutish thug). Now they can make their choice without being in a vacuum.

Avoid Railroads

There is a door ahead of them, and they choose to turn around and go home. Oh, no! Cave-in. They have to go forward.

The problem with this scenario is that it forces the players into what I call 'airplane mode'. They're basically watching a story unfold before them, and come to understand they don't have much say (like sitting on an airplane). This will reduce the engagement of the players. But stories are about conflicts: if you follow the above advice they're choosing between two different conflicts, rather than one conflict or nothing. Don't make them do that.

The worst thing you can do is put something in front of them that you want them to do, but give them the choice to do something else... only to veto that choice every time they make it until they make it 'right'. Consider:

"I turn away from the door."

"The tunnel collapses behind you, leaving only the door."

"I start to dig my way out with my shovel."

"You get a few feet and then your shovel breaks."

"I cast my 'teleport home' spell."

"The magic builds around you and then inexplicably fades."

"Fine. I sit down and wait for it to come back."

"You find yourself falling in love with the door. You can't help but turn the knob..."

Obviously this is ridiculous, but shows how railroading and forcing a player to make a choice turns the whole thing farcical. (Note: this is functionally different than them failing to get out for other reasons, such as bad dice rolls, which can lend a sense of desperation that is very healthy. I'm only talking about fiat decisions on the GM's part.)

Hide Unavoidable Railroads

If they're moving through the dungeon and they're getting close to the door and you're afraid of them backing out... then make sure that you telegraph that they won't be able to. The roof should be visibly unsteady, or the earth should start to quake. If you have to collapse the door behind them, collapse one exit but not the other... and underscore why they might want to go forward instead of back. Make it feel as though they have an out, but keep highlighting the 'interesting' option.

Making this work is very tricky because players will quickly pick up on the fact they have no choice. You have to be very skilled to hide the fact from them that they're not making a choice. You have to know the characters and the players very well. Players often feel betrayed if you're promising a choice and don't deliver. For that reason this is best avoided.

Declare When There Is No Choice

If hiding the railroad is not possible, and the railroad is unavoidable, then make sure the players know there isn't a choice there. Take responsibility for not giving the players a choice.

"You find yourself standing before the cave of the dragon. How did you get here!? It was all such a rush from the moment the farmhand rushed into the tavern. Worse, you know dragons have a keen sense of smell, and now that you've been to the lair, nothing in the world is going to save you. You'll have to deal with the dragon somehow."

By narrating this you're telling them, as a GM that the dragon is simply going to be a problem for them until they deal with it, and you don't even ask them to confront it: you simply put them there. To do this you have to earn the trust of the players: they need to understand that this isn't closing off their choices but simply setting out a set of choices involved with dealing with the dragon, rather than a set of choices amongst which 'not dealing' is an option.

Being upfront about this is like having a good video game teaser video: you don't expect a video of isomorphic city building to be about first-person card-playing. In the former they'll expect to make choices about resources, and in the latter choices about which card to play and where to look.

Using this reasoning, you can also fast forward past boring parts of play: by definition those parts that have no choices to make, no conflict to resolve and no telegraphing to be done.

Accept Offers

Finally, recognize that when players choose something unexpected it's for a reason. Here are some reasons:

  • They are unengaged with the game and don't care about the main plot. This is a meta-concern and you need to find a way to make the main plot interesting, rather than one thing amongst other things.
  • They are actively messing with you. This is an out of game concern: there is no cure for a player who doesn't want to play than to not play.
  • They find something else much more interesting. This is actually great! By 'accepting their offer' to look at that other interesting thing you could open up a huge avenue of adding material to the game. Remember roleplaying is collaborative, and if you are collaboratively finding that finding the buried treasure is more interesting than the dragon eating livestock, by all means follow the buried treasure thread.

For this last reason, if the players are making unexpected choices, try and honor those choices: try to ascertain why they're being made, reinforce that it's a valid choice, and finally add a complication that articulates and expands on the new set of choices that result from the player choosing to go in that direction.

The Dragon Isn't There To Be Killed

If you take away one thing from this, recognize it's all about motivation: the dragon isn't there to be killed. It's a dragon. It has things it wants, things it's good at, things it avoids. If it's not doing anything the player characters care about, they're (probably) not going to go kill it just for the sake of it.

The corollary to this is that you shouldn't add a dragon to your story unless it is there to do something with the story. Don't add it just to be there for the PCs to kill. Smaug went to the Lonely Mountain because it was the biggest stash of gold around, which motivates him. He kicked out the dwarves. He was only killed because the dwarves came back with a hobbit that from him. Smaug went on a rampage in anger... which led to a character shooting him to protect his town from burning down. It would have been a way worse story if a random human said, "There is a dragon. I shall shoot it."

So follow the motivations back. Add them to characters where it's reasonable to justify interactions you want to have happen. Add characters if it doesn't make sense to add it to any of your current ones. And then, when PCs do something unexpected, just see how the various characters' motivations interact with the choices made by the PCs.

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One approach is to think about how stories generally tend to work. There may well be moments when a hero has a moment of doubt or uncertainty but the existence of the story (in hindsight) mean, by it's very existence that they went ahead anyway.

As a GM you can have a certain role as 'fate' to keep the heroic story ticking over, obviously there are serious downsides to abusing this but there may be times when it is appropriate.

Exactly how heavy handed your deus ex machina is should depend on the circumstances. eg

Option one :

  • the party halts in front of the forbidding dungeon door
  • hmmm...sod this for a game of soldiers it looks dangerous, lets go back to the inn.
  • general agreement
  • a sudden rockfall seals the passage behind them, now the only way to avoid certain death is through the door.

Option 2 :

  • A pall of smoke hangs over the village and the breeze carries the unmistakable scent of death, hulking shadowy figures can be seen prowling through the smoke.
  • I'm sure I saw a nice coffee shop back down the path obviously this village is having some local cultural festival that we shouldn't intrude on.
  • Suddenly a small child comes running through the smoke....'please help me they are going to kill my parents.'

Obviously if you are dealing with peopel who don't want to either fight against the forces of evil to protect the innocent or at least kill the forces of vaguely evil looking to steal their stuff, or indeed kill the forces of looking at you in a funny way for general amusement, you may have a fundamental conflict of interest in why you are playing the game in the first place.

Equally kicking down doors and slaughtering goblins 'coz thattz wot we do innit' may wel wear a bit thin after a while so you may need to think about what sort of story hooks your players need to get them through the door voluntarily, not necessarily because they want to but because they feel they need to.

It may even be that turning around and going home and wandering around the nearest town with everybody involved improvising is exactly what is needed to come up with a fresh story or even just to take some time to explore their characters.

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I'd like to share a story with you about how one of my campaigns began to illustrate how I handled a situation like this.

“Shopping, some bandits, and an execution gone wrong”

At the start of this campaign, the party found itself in the hometown of one of the party members. They were made aware of an execution which was scheduled to happen at noon, but otherwise had the morning to do whatever they pleased (purchase supplies, visit the inn, etc.). During this brief downtime, one of the players decided to check a message board near the center of town to see if anyone in town needed help.

Before I continue, let me provide some details from my notes about how I had planned this session to go:

The players spend the morning doing some last minute shopping, learn about the world by asking questions in the inn, or in general just pass the few hours before the execution. At the execution, the players discover that some cult is using the execution as a guise for a ritual to summon a demon into the world. The players intervene, preventing the ritual from completing, and discover some terrible plans for this to happen in another town about two days north of them. During their journey northwards, they're ambushed by some highwaymen who have been preying upon travelers on the main road.

My goal is to get them to this new town, wherein many other things happen to set them upon their adventure. These highwaymen are mostly just a throwaway encounter to give the players some experience and break up the monotony of an otherwise boring travel. It also serves to encourage the players to keep watch at night, lest they be attacked while they are unprepared.

So, when the players decided to go looking at the message board, I used it as an opportunity to foreshadow their encounter with the highwaymen by creating a wanted poster for the bandits they would eventually meet. The descriptions were intentionally vague, mostly because I was improvising, but also because I didn't want to derail the players from attending the execution. Despite this, my players decided to immediately set out into the nearby woods in search for these evil-doers.

Since this was just a throwaway encounter that doesn't really have anything to do with the story, I can really let the players encounter them at any time. So, after a few hours searching the woods, the players eventually encounter and defeat the highwaymen. Their task successful, they return to the village in the mid-afternoon. Unfortunately, the execution ritual was at noon, and they were not there to stop the ritual from taking place so the cultists successfully summoned the demon and this creature has completely destroyed the village. With nothing left for them here, they have little reason not to move on towards the closest settlement, which just so happens to be the other village I wanted them to end up at.

Practical lessons

So, let's examine how I handled the situation. The players had their own idea to check what is essentially the local want-ads, and is the rough equivalent of asking an innkeeper what's going on in town. I could have just responded with "nothing interesting" but I knew that the players were looking for something to do, and I wanted to make sure I encourage their motivation and initiative. Prior to the session beginning, I ensured that I had "improv material" — the throwaway encounter with the highwaymen in this case — which I had a general plan of when to use if everything went as I wanted it to (they meet them on the road northwards) but could be used at any time if the players want to go off and do their own thing for a little while. This is useful because it means you don't have to frantically search the Monster Manual or invent dialogue on the fly because you have something to fall back on which will at least give you some structure.

Now, I also ensured that some key aspect of the adventure was time-sensitive (the execution happens at noon). The world you create is a living thing, and the NPCs in your world have their own motives and plans. If the players ignore these things, then events can unfold without them. Because of this time-sensitive event in the adventure's storyline, I can use the adventure itself as a method of steering my players back on track, without negatively impacting their feeling of agency.

Because I had offered the players the "quest" of hunting down the highwaymen when they asked for it, it looks to the players that that's what I want them to do — so they have no way of knowing that the events that eventually unfolded due to their actions were unplanned by me.

It's also worth noting that I had a goal in mind — get the players to the nearby settlement. The improv I used, and the consequences of the players not being at the execution to prevent the ritual, served that goal.

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When I'm planning an adventure, I try to put myself in the PCs' shoes and determine what the next likely course of action for them is, given their motivations and knowledge. I then spend the most time planning for what they're likely to do.

I'm not always right about what they plan on doing. Sometimes I overlook something that was important to them, which results in a different course of action. This possibility requires some measure of preparation, often in the form of an encounter to stall until I can think of something that makes sense. I usually am right, though.

As a result, when the players decide to do something other than what I had planned for, it's often something that doesn't actually make sense if you stop and think about it. Maybe they want to run off into the woods to chase down some highwaymen, despite the fact they have an appointment at noon.

When this happens, it's usually because the players forgot some detail, similar to how sometimes I forget details when I'm estimating what they're going to do. In this situation, it's usually sufficient to remind them of what they're overlooking.

You don't have to do this in a way that challenges their agency. If they want to run off, let them run off, just remind them of the facts that might lead to them deciding to go on the quest you had planned:

PCs: We want to run off that way!
DM: Oh okay. That's a fair distance, it will take a few hours. Even if nothing happens, you'll likely be gone all day.
Player with a memory: Oh, guys, if we do that we'll miss the thing at noon!
Other players: Oh, good point. Let's not go into the woods.
DM: So you don't want to head out?
PCs: Nope.
DM: Okay, whatever you want to do.

Here, the DM hasn't done anything to suggest one course of action or another, and has not challenged the players' agency in any way. There was no reveal of which path or the other was planned.

The DM simply did their job: relay information about the game world so the players can make decisions.

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Welcome,

Your question is somewhat opinion based but I will cover a few play tested styles and situations in my response.

example:

We turn around and go home

This one is easily prevented, often there are reasons not to turn around and go home, I particularly enjoy catering potential quest rewards to the players characters. For example, when creating backgrounds a PC may discover that their grandfathers sword was lost years ago, the quest may bring them to retrieve this sword. There are also mechanical ways of preventing players back tracking, if in a dungeon or cave you can somewhat rail road the adventure without coming across as if limiting options. You could explain that the cave system they are in has a few collapsed tunnels, and once they proceed the entrance could collapse. They can't turn back. The main point here being that they are adventurers and because of this, the likely hood of this occurring in my experience is quite low.

We leave the monsters alone and decide to go back

Dnd isn't always about combat, similar to my previous response you can incentivise combat. Reward per head of monster killed, for example. You could also throw in a riddle or a puzzle in order to cater to different play styles.

We do not open the strange door There can be multiple roads to the same path, often if 'destiny' or fate is at play, there will be a reason for them to return. I have on occasion enacted a divine intervention or something else similar such as monsters blocking the path back. You are the 'God' of the 'gods' so you can give visions, audio or any other phenomena that you choose to make the door or path seem as fun and interesting as you can!

Edit: re:world

Remember that you are the world, it's very easy to become focussed on your single quest but varying playstyles demand different styles of DM'ing. Some people will want to explore, I suggest having a rough idea of terrain, landmarks and potential hostile creatures in each area (a bear in the woods for example, or goblins in the mountains) - you will only gain experience from playing so once you start you will learn what you enjoy and what your players enjoy and cater to those needs as best as you can :) most of all, enjoy the game.

Hope this helps and happy to provide more ideas or examples if you think it would help.

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I would recommend #4 of SevenSidedDie (let them avoid the adventure) but with a twist. This method takes a long preparation so if you don't have much time you may ignore it. Map out immediate area around the group. Nearby towns, their merchants smaller quests, rumors and things like these. So that if they fall off track, let them roam around and enjoy the other parts of your world. After a while, after they tasted their freedom, railtrack them back to the location of the quest or make them meet with someone that stresses the importance of the main quest. This way, they feel that they are in charge.

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