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  • [Ask-a-GM] Mailbag: Problems with an Open Ended Aventure

    This week's Ask-a-GM comes from our mailbag. Cody asks,


    I'm currently GMing a game for a group of friends, and I'm having a big problem getting them to make decisions. I had decided from the start that I would simply decide where the bad guys were at any given moment, and let the players decide how to defeat them, so I didn't railroad, and it would be their game. I started the game, ran the first session, and then *smack.* The players looked at me expectantly for a plot hook. They knew that there were three big bads out there with a stolen jet engine and nuclear bomb plans, but they wanted me to essentially tell them where they were. I tried dropping small hints at what they could do, but I basically had to say "go here" before they would do anything! So how do you nudge players in the right direction without railroading them?

    Thank you,

    Cody


    Cody,

    A completely open ended adventure that relies heavily on the players providing their own direction can be daunting -- to the player and GM both. You may be ready for anything the players might throw your way, but if the players seize up (as it sounds like they did in your game) the entire session can come grinding to a halt. One of the first questions I would ask is how experienced of a group do you have? A group of relatively new players is generally going to need a lot more direction, so a more tightly constrained campaign would probably be appropriate for them. If that isn't the case, I suspect that they might have either not known what to do, or they just weren't properly motivated.

    Start the Game Out with a Bang

    One of the problems that you may be running into is that your players aren't really engaged with the story yet. Sure, there are some bad guys out there who are cooking up a plot to detonate a nuclear device somewhere ... at some point, but simply having a problem to solve isn't necessarily sufficient motivation to spur your players into motion. Even for players who drop easily into character, the first session can be especially tenuous as everyone struggles to get a feel for their characters.

    A technique that I like to use is to start the first game off "mid scene," with the characters already in the action. I briefly set the stage with the actors and enough background for everyone to understand what's going on (at least well enough to get started), and I drop the players directly in to something exciting. The tension starts high with the characters already already in peril in some way -- whether bodily or otherwise, and the players instantly have a reason to care about what's going on, i.e. their need to survive.

    Using your campaign as an example, perhaps the first session starts off with the characters in direct conflict with some goons in a bank robbery that has gone south. The players might be the ones tasked with bringing them down without getting any hostages killed, or perhaps they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. During the course of the first scene, you can drop clues about one (or more) of these bosses and set the players up with enough leads to investigate further once the failed bank robbery plays out.

    The important part is that you've started the game out with some excitement before you ease the tension back a notch and thrust the group into investigation mode, which not every group necessarily finds all that exhilarating.


    Give Fewer but More Meaningful Options
    "We can never see past the choices we don't understand." -- The Oracle (The Matrix Reloaded)

    It is also possible that your players are confronted with such a wide array of options that they aren't even sure where to start. From what it sounds like, you may have left it so open ended that the players would have to "explore" to even find out what their options are. A veteran player might be able to take that ball and run with it, but a more novice group is just as likely to freeze up like the proverbial deer in a headlights. So, you might try narrowing the options down to a few different avenues they can pursue. Equally as important, make sure the players have enough information to understand the differences between the choices they are given.


    Bring the Story to Them

    If the players have become completely lost and aren't sure what to do, you can always bring the action back around to them. Perhaps an informant has heard that the group is looking for information about this group of terrorists and seeks one of the characters out to give them some information -- in exchange for something he needs, of course. Maybe the group went looking in all the wrong places and now they've tipped off some of these bad guys who aren't too happy about someone snooping into their business. Or, perhaps the next leg of the plot happens and the bad guys test detonate some explosives, blowing up a warehouse and literally reigniting the investigation.

    Those are some of my thoughts anyway. I hope some of that advice might be helpful.

    With that, I turn the question over to the P&PG community at large. What do you think? What advice would you give Cody to help nudge his players in the right direction while still keeping a fairly open ended game?



    Do you have a tough gaming situation or question you'd like to have answered by our panel? Send your questions by email to askagm@penandpapergames.com.

    About the Author: Robert A. Howard has been a roleplayer from the tender age of twelve when he cracked open that first red boxed Dungeons & Dragons set and all the way to today. The vast majority of his gaming experience has been with D&D, but he's also been able to convince his gaming group to try something new on occasion... Oh, and he runs this obscure website you might have heard about, Pen & Paper Games. *grin*
    Comments 13 Comments
    1. mrken's Avatar
      mrken -
      You can always do a few hand pumps in the air as you say, "Choo, choo, all aboard!"
    1. bigironvault's Avatar
      bigironvault -
      Definitely start off every campaign - every session with a bang. From there you can build on recurring villians or some decision that the players might think was straight forward but actually had major consequences in the game world.

      Here's an example:

      Players are ambushed by kobolds - players fight kobolds - someone notices a young boy hiding under a log - players defeat kobolds - what next? How do they deal with the boy they find?

      Young boy was son of a powerful baron - who know thinks the boy was kidnapped, but in reality the boy was running away from a wedding his father arranged, so his "wife's" family is after him too. The boy tells the party to not turn him in because he has a treasure map ... so on and so forth...

      Anywho - what I'm trying to say is always start with action!
    1. Codex_of_Wisdom's Avatar
      Codex_of_Wisdom -
      Thanks for the help. Yeah, it's a fairly novice group, I guess. Next session I'll probably give them two or three specific choices. The first tip was a big help to me. If I were to rerun this campaign (which I may do when I move soon), I'll probably start them on the zeppelin while it's being attacked instead of after it's already crashed. And the third tip is what I resorted to for the second session and it worked perfectly, having the bad guys attack the police station. Thank's again!
    1. Q-man's Avatar
      Q-man -
      One thing I tend to do with my players is have the NPC's give them more or less a checklist of things that need done, which might be a worthwhile handout.

      Then as the NPC's is listing the options in character, I'll tend to pick one to emphasize. Typically its the one I'm most prepared to run, otherwise its the one that I think will be the most fun. This way the players will feel a slight nudge to go to that one.

      Something like "Big bad #1 has got the Jet Plans, but we're not sure where his Fortress of Doom is yet so you'll need to find out where that is. Big bad #2 has the nuclear plans, but he's surrounded by a veritable army of goons you'll need some proof to show the authorities so a full assault can be made. What might be a bit more manageable right now is Big Bad #3, he's got some plans but we're not sure if they are nuclear or jets though. His is a small operation on the other side of the city, you guys should be able to sneak in quietly to find out what he's up to."

      They still have all of the options available to them, and they can get started down any path. However, that last one is presented in a way that it seems like the most appealing so they are more likely to jump onto it if they get indecisive.
    1. Malachi57's Avatar
      Malachi57 -
      I agree completely with Farcaster's comments. While I haven't tried all of them, the first job of the GM is to keep the game moving. If the PCs are willing to let you railroad them some (or all the way in the case of my stepson who wants to be led by the nose through an adventure ), then strap on your Mark Twain hat and craft a great story they can run through.

      The idea is eventually they'll feel comfortable enough in the world you've created to start making some choices you may not have foreseen, but in the meanwhile it'll give you a chance to craft something as close to a scripted adventure as you may ever get!
    1. Lender's Avatar
      Lender -
      Quote Originally Posted by mrken View Post
      You can always do a few hand pumps in the air as you say, "Choo, choo, all aboard!"
      That is awesome!
    1. Lord Captain Tobacco's Avatar
      Lord Captain Tobacco -
      Experienced players can manage an open-plot game (sometimes called player driven), but most players will need a push to figure where your adventure will be happening tonight.
      One of my previous groups bogged down trying to find the significance behind every comment made by the most casual of NPC's. "Why did he say that? Is he a spy?Was he involved in that last fiasco?" Funny to watch them panic, but gets old when achievements come to a dead stop...

      If only they had as much attention for mission planning...
    1. templeorder's Avatar
      templeorder -
      We recently had to go through a similar phase in our group development. Even non open-ended games suffer from this. As a GM, i simply put forward a command hierarchy; i start by looking at the first in command. The players choose their own hierarchy based on whatever criteria they thought best. When i need to, I work my way down. I don't impose time rules, but i do keep a crib of random things to throw their way to whittle them down if they hem and haw over everything.
    1. Valar's Avatar
      Valar -
      Hi Cody,
      As a GM of some 30+ years, I've used all of the above suggestions to one degree or another and they're all very good. But I think the root cause was over looked. With a novice group, you as a GM have to let them know what kind of game you're running. Let them know they have to establish contacts and use them to gain information and investigate things (probably the toughest thing for a novice group to do). I run a game like yours. It's always the PC show. As they're investigating and questioning contacts, you have an opportunity to use a multitude of NPC's (the bum in the alley, the mugger they just beat half to death, or the all popular "Maggie, the hooker with the heart of gold"... lol) to give them the info they need to continue the story. It will also open up many doors for other storylines you might want to run later. But the group needs to be informed of that's the type of game you run. Never assume anyone is a mind reader. You may be dealing with a history from another GM that leads the party around by nose. Just know as a GM, it's up to you to keep the game from bogging down and you have an army at your disposal, you just need to be prepared to use them. No one ever should say being a good GM is an easy job. Good luck and have fun.
    1. DominarChris's Avatar
      DominarChris -
      Quote Originally Posted by Codex_of_Wisdom View Post
      Thanks for the help. Yeah, it's a fairly novice group, I guess. Next session I'll probably give them two or three specific choices. The first tip was a big help to me. If I were to rerun this campaign (which I may do when I move soon), I'll probably start them on the zeppelin while it's being attacked instead of after it's already crashed. And the third tip is what I resorted to for the second session and it worked perfectly, having the bad guys attack the police station. Thank's again!
      I pretty much always run an open ender like you describe. In my experience, yes, the less experienced gamers need a little nudge. But when we're doing initial character creation I tell them flat out that I am setting the stage and then turning it over to them. I always know where we are headed and all that, but I make them get us there. I also generally use a Main NPC that is with the characters from the getgo to push them along when necessary.I play them as not knowing too much unless there is a legit reason they would know it. I get around some of it by making the character mid-level (say in old money, like 7-11 level), that way, he's been around and is likely to know some stuff.
    1. decline's Avatar
      decline -
      All the campaigns I tend to run are pretty open world/open ended and I've faced this before, or situations where players became more concerned with something very minor rather than some larger potential problem.
      I'm assuming you have some sort of a time line idea and what the chance each group has of succeeding if left unhindered so I would say, if they don't anything....the groups plans proceed.
      This doesn't mean those plans have to succeed. But I don't know how much you plan up the areas.
      Some other residents in the area might ban together in an attempt to stop them without the players help or knowledge....But basically if it boils down to a place being nuked....Oh well, so be it.
      Don't be afraid to destroy your world or kill your NPC's. You put those plans into the game, you should be prepared, as much as it might pain you, to use them and follow through.

      Since you mentioned "hints" at where they were I will mention you might want to take a look at your hints and see if they are too obscure. I'm a bit prone to doing this. A little hint or clue I think is very obvious turns out to actually not be. Familiarity with the material tends to create this problem.
    1. Jormungandr's Avatar
      Jormungandr -
      Unfortunately the only time players are not dead set on derailing a storyline is when their are no rails.

      As it is you may just have to force feed them the first few plot points. The trick is to make it look like you aren't (which is the mark of a good DM). What you need is a talkative NPC here, a flippant comment their, maybe some pointed questions. If you vaguely put forth a few possibilities your players will pick one, or surprise you and find a completely different solution.
    1. Haplo's Avatar
      Haplo -
      Quote Originally Posted by Codex_of_Wisdom View Post
      Thanks for the help. Yeah, it's a fairly novice group, I guess. Next session I'll probably give them two or three specific choices. The first tip was a big help to me. If I were to rerun this campaign (which I may do when I move soon), I'll probably start them on the zeppelin while it's being attacked instead of after it's already crashed. And the third tip is what I resorted to for the second session and it worked perfectly, having the bad guys attack the police station. Thank's again!
      I have a relatively inexperienced group that I have introduced to a fully written campaign of my own. I have specific goals in mind for them, but as to how they get there, I throw in hooks that lead them to the places I want them to go without directly telling them "go here and do this". One thing I might recommend is taking into account any passive abilities such as Insight or Perception. Giving them teasers has led my group to actively rely on making checks of their own without me having to prompt them. Also, what I've found helps is for the DM to actively take control of their characters in a "forced role-play". I give them examples of what their characters are doing and then relinquish control to them. I've found that they enjoy this and I have been weening them off of relying on me to script things for them.

      Another way I might recommend is to get with a single player and discuss a character hook with them. This will provide them with a means to develop the history of their character themselves and allow you to place an encounter or plot hook for them at the same time. Incorporate it into their story and the development. I've found that this has great meaning to my players as it feels like something they themselves have created. Where the DM comes in in this situation is to guide the creation of the scenery, location, etc. When the other players discovered what it was I was doing, each of them were jealous that so and so got to do their hook first and were lining up to do their own. In this way, I have now solidified role-playing in their minds and they found they enjoyed the drama as much as the combat.

      Give any of these a try and feel free to email me if you would like any more advice.

      Haplo