|"So, Boblin, what's up with the smoking man there? And what the hell is he drinking, eh?"|
However, instead of trying to push your players back onto the course you had planned for them, you'll get better results by just finding a way to get them where you want them to be using this new thing that's caught their attention. Or, at the very least, throw them a bone to show that interacting with the world (even in unexpected ways) garners results.
How, Exactly, Does This Work?
All right, let's start with the infamous tavern scene. As a dungeon master, you've put one figure in the bar who is clearly marked as an important NPC. Maybe it's the hulking man in the ragged cloak with his hood up, attended by three floating eyes of fire as he drinks from a skull that isn't the bar's standard cup. Perhaps it's the woman in the plain cape that keeps slipping, not-so-subtly revealing her badge of office, or the tattoo that marks her as a member of an infamous assassin's guild. Whoever it is, they may as well have a big, glowing sign over their head that they are the person the party is meant to interact with.
|All right... but who ELSE is at the bar?|
Instead of going and interacting with the NPC whose name, backstory, and prepared dialogue you've got ready, though, the party asks about who else is in the tavern. And you don't want to say, "No one, just go talk to the NPC you're clearly here to meet," so you toss out a few other random characters. There's the ogre-blooded bouncer leaning against the support post in the corner, the gnome waiter, the long-limbed bartender with her one eye, and a handful of other patrons. And for some reason the party just fixates on one of these other NPCs. Maybe it's that you made up something really cool and flashy on the spot, or there's something endearing about them, but now they're focused on the wrong thing.
Or are they?
As I said in Avoiding Railroading (More Than One Way To Skin A Cat), you get a lot more mileage out of deciding what goals need to be met instead of how the party needs to meet them. So instead of trying to figure out a way to get your players to focus on what you think of as the proper way to move forward, ask instead how you can progress from the direction they're currently facing.
|It's all connected!|
For example, say your party is at the bar so they can meet with the local thieves' guild rep to get some information. You already put together the dual-dagger wielding, slick-talking thief with the badass facial scar and black cloak, but the party decided they wanted to spend their time talking to Shengo the blue-haired gnome waiter instead. If the party doesn't actually know who the guild rep is, the easy thing to do is just to make it Shengo instead. Now you can take most of the information you were going to put into that guy in the corner booth that everyone's ignoring, and give it to your party via their new friend. This makes you look smart as a DM, and it lets your players feel rewarded for interacting with the scene you set up.
Another option you have is to connect this random thing the party has focused on to what you want them to pay attention to, making them part and parcel of the same overall scene.
Let's go back to that treasure chamber for a moment. There's this super-epic sword of legend in the middle of the room, but for some reason the party is focused on the jade statuette. Instead of just telling them, "Look, it's a normal statue, it's barely even worth gold at the level you're at, stop paying attention to it," add some flavor that connects it to the item you want them paying attention to.
For example, have your party make a check for the item's history, realizing that this statue was connected to the last-known wielder of that blade. A funerary statue, it was meant to contain her soul, and to keep it safe when she finally laid aside her weapon. Alternatively, you could put a legend into the back of the statue, the words declaring the origin and powers of the Seven-Body Blade. Now the party feels smart because they got to sidestep the check to know the weapon's history, and you still brought their attention back onto the item you want them looking at. You could even give them a cryptic warning about how once the sword is hefted, it cannot be put down until death, alluding to how it bonds to one wielder at a time.
Everything in Service of The Overall Goal (When You Can)
By focusing on the general goals of your game, rather than on the specific characters the party needs to interact with or the particular paths they have to take, you add an air of flexibility that allows you to respond more quickly with creative solutions to the actions your players take, and the things they show an interest in.
You just need to get into the habit of asking, "How do I point them toward the end goal?" rather than, "How do I get them back on track?"
|Subtlety is your friend, here.|
Admittedly there will be times where you can't come up with some way to tie this particular thread your players get stuck on into your overall plan. The scarf-seller on the corner isn't an undercover agent of the crown, and that beggar sitting in the shadow of the alley doesn't have some dire secret that the PCs need, they're just background that the players are zeroing in on. Sometimes that bauble they found in the dungeon really is just a bauble, plain and simple.
If your players are willing to put in the effort to interact with your world, though, give them a reward for doing so. Maybe let them buy a headscarf that doubles as a star char to help with navigation, or let them make a friend out of the beggar, who can come back later when he's in trouble and needs the PC's help. If they are fixated on finding the origin of a random ivory cat statue and its secret meaning, then give them something. It doesn't have to be big or important, but make it a unique item carved by a noted sculptor, or maybe it allows them to talk to cats as long as it's been dipped in milk that day.
Rewards, even minor ones, will get players more interested in the setting, and encourage them to explore. Which is more than worth the cost of shuffling around a few NPCs, and taking the long way to get to certain plot points.
Some Additional Advice
The first thing I would recommend for all the DMs out there is to not put passive situations in your game if you want the PCs to do something specific. If they really need to talk to the guard captain, or they have to get this piece of information from the duchess's chambermaid, then don't wait for them to figure it out and go looking. Have the NPCs approach the party, and get the interaction started. It immediately takes the guesswork out of the situation, no one gets frustrated, and no one will try to use creative (or "creative") solutions to figure out what will move the story forward.
|But... but I had the molotovs prepped and ready to go!|
Another thing I'd recommend is that, if you want to give the PCs freedom to mingle, put as few "strictly background" NPCs in the scene as possible. That way no matter who they approach, you can keep the scene moving forward in some way, shape or form. If you're looking for useful characters to add into the mix, I've put together 100 NPCs You Might Meet at The Tavern, along with 100 Merchants to Encounter and 100 Nobles to Encounter, all of which are filled with PCs that can provide rumors, give helpful information, and generally assist you in moving your plot forward.
Make sure you never fold your arms and wait for the PCs to hit a certain DC in order to go forward. I covered this more in my recent post Dungeon Masters, Embrace The Concept of Failing Forward, but if your PCs fail to disable a lock, or make a high enough Diplomacy check, don't just say, "nothing happens," and wait. Succeed or fail, if the situation was important enough to warrant a test, then something needs to happen whichever result turns up.
Lastly, remember the characters that are actually at your table. Who knows them, who are their friends, who are they related to, and what enemies do they have? These aspects can often help you come up with appropriate ways to tie things together in your game to keep everyone moving forward. You'll find more detailed advice along these lines in The Small Legend: Character Reputation in RPGs, as well as in my other recent post Who is in Your Character's Rogues' Gallery?
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That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday. Hopefully you enjoyed, and if you've used this tactic successfully in your games why not leave a comment below?
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