What To Do When Your Players Don’t Know What To Do

Last month I presented some advice to players for what to do when they didn’t know what to do.  As a Dungeon Master, it is important to remember that you are the lens through which your players perceive the game world.  The story, the characters, the environments, the puzzles, the encounters, etc., they are all very well defined for you (and probably fresh in your mind from prepping) but most of it is new to the players.  Details that are crystal clear in your mind may be muddy or convoluted to everyone else at the table, and what seems obvious to you may not even occur to them.  New players don’t have the years of experience and exposure to gameplay tropes to help them figure out how to interact with the world.  As their DM, you need to be able to recognize when players are stuck and facilitate getting them back on track.  Here are some tips on how to do that:

Establish Your Receptiveness

When you start DMing for a group, particularly a group of new players, let them know that not only is it okay to ask questions, it’s encouraged.  Let them know that they should feel comfortable speaking up if they are confused or uncertain how to proceed, and tell them it’s okay to admit when they don’t know what to do next.  Let them know that although you will be revealing a certain amount of information up front (e.g. through “read-aloud text” or other descriptions), they shouldn’t necessarily assume that there isn’t more than can be learned.

For your first few sessions (or even in established games if there are long breaks between sessions), you may have to reiterate this message a few times before the players take it to heart.  In the past I have done so as part of the pre-game prep and recap, but you can also bring it up when the table gets quiet or the players seem like they are uncertain as to how to proceed.  Reminding them to ask questions in these cases gives them an immediate invitation to speak which can be particularly helpful for the more shy or inexperienced players, or the observer types, who normally aren’t inclined to chime in.

It’s also helpful to reinforce the idea that, as the DM, part of your job is to decide how to apply and enforce the rules.  In a game as codified as 4th edition D&D, it’s sometimes hard not to think only in terms of what’s written down on the character sheet in front of you or spelled out in the Rules Compendium.  Encourage them to think in terms of the actions and deeds of their character, not simply a list of skills or powers.  Let them know that when in doubt, they should tell you what they want to do, and you will determine what game mechanics apply.

Recognize Confusion or Indecision and Address It Directly

It’s not too difficult to spot a player who is struggling with a decision at the table:  furrowed brows, frantic poring over power cards and character sheets, general hemming and hawing, or just blank stares and silence, are all pretty clear indicators.  How one handles this depends somewhat on the situation, but one thing to avoid is saying nothing at all:  long, awkward silences at the table are uncomfortable, and as a player (particularly a new one) the feeling that the whole table is waiting on you to make a decision can be excruciating.  Instead, ask questions of the players to spur them on.

The standard DM query is the well-worn, “What do you do?”, which works fine for indicating to the players that the next move is up to them, but isn’t as useful for eliciting responses at a quiet table or helping a confused player make a decision.  In fact, in the latter case it can come off as sounding impatient which may cause a player to shut down and choose the path of least resistance (“I guess I’ll doing nothing”) in order to get the focus off of them.

Offer Assistance To Perplexed Players

It seems obvious to say, but if a player looks confused or hesitant, sometimes the best way to handle it is by offering help.  No need to beat around the bush, just simply come out and say, “You seem uncertain of what to do, how can I help?  What are you unsure about?  What information would help you decide how to proceed?”  This allows the player to vocalize their thought process and give you the opportunity to feed them useful information (either directly or as the result of skill checks).

A player poring over his or her character sheet is often either trying to find a skill or power they think could apply to a situation, or already knows what they want to try but don’t know how to do it in the context of the game rules.  Sometimes it is sufficient to ask them, “What is it that you are trying to accomplish?” to get enough information to continue play.  Other times, you need to decouple them from the game mechanics for a moment to let them problem-solve without worry about how the rules will apply (that’s your job after all).  Tell them to forget about their character sheet and powers for the time being and think about what they (or, more specifically, their character) would do in that situation.  Free from worrying about rules or mechanics, the player can concentrate on the problem before them, and you can now offer advice based on what they want to accomplish.

Pay Attention To What Your Players Are Saying

DMs should be ready to key off what the players are saying out loud as they work out problems. If they say “I wonder if this item is magic?” or “Do you think they’d build a back door into their lair?” you can prompt them for an Arcana or Dungeoneering check.  Readily responding to what players say–particularly when talking amongst themselves or thinking aloud–in ways that allow them to gain information can reinforce the importance of asking questions and encourage them to think about problems in a realistic (as opposed to mechanical) way.

Focus Their Attention With A Pointed Recap

I some cases, groups aren’t sure of how to proceed because they’ve forgotten what it is they set out to do (particularly at the start of a session after a long break).    They may have lost sight of their ultimate goal, or they may need a reminder of their immediate motivations.  A brief, but descriptive, summary of the party’s current condition, interjected when the table is indecisive, can move the game along nicely.  For example: “You’ve caught your breath and tended to your wounds. Around you a half score of enemies lies vanquished, but you know more may be coming if you tarry too long.  Somewhere deeper within the complex lies the ancient artifact you seek.  The door to the north lies open, but those to the south remain closed.  How will you proceed?”

Enumerate Their Options

Obviously you don’t want to lead your players by the hand, but faced with limitless options, many players choose to do nothing.  An indecisive group can be helped along by providing a list of possible avenues to pursue, giving them something to focus on.  This doesn’t have to be blatant (“Do you go north or south?”), it can be woven into the narrative:  “The last of the goblin war party is finally slain.  Will the adventurers stay here for the night or push on toward their ultimate goal?  And if so, will they continue south the way they have been traveling, or take the eastern route that seems less-traveled?”  Of course, options are not always about which direction to travel or which door to open:  “The Goblin Chief seems unwilling to make a bargain.  Careful diplomacy may sway him, but then again a creature such as he might be more motivated by fear.  Or gold.  Or an axe in his head.”

Engage Timid Players

In any group there are usually one or two people that will generally set the course for the group, with others content to follow their lead.  This often arises out of necessity and as a result of the mix of personalities at the table.  Shy and/or new players may be perfectly content to let others make the decisions, but as the DM you are in a position to draw them out a little and engage them.  When the party is mulling over options, or perhaps when one or more members have announced what they plan to do, consider directly addressing a quieter player and asking what their character is doing at the time.  The goal is not to single them out, but rather to give them the opportunity to get involved without them feeling like they are taking the lead or deciding for the group. It can be as simple as “And what is your character up to?” or it can be more geared toward encouraging that player to step into character.  For example: “And how does Krusk, brave Barbarian of the Northlands, feel about the situation?  What do his keen instincts tell him?”  Some players may not like being put on the spot, so don’t press the issue if they are uncomfortable, but it may help draw out others or at least give them a chance to express themselves.

Go Forth And Facilitate

Be receptive to questions, keep an eye out for players who may be struggling, address indecision directly, offer assistance, pay attention to what your players are saying, focus their attention, enumerate their options, and engage the timid.  Armed with these tips you should be better equipped to handle those situations when your players aren’t quite sure what to do next.

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2 responses to “What To Do When Your Players Don’t Know What To Do”

  1. newbiedm says :

    Great tips.

    When we started 4e, I couldn’t help notice that the power cards were dictating what the players *thought* they could do.

    In retrospect, I think that powers, while great for combat rules, probably ended up doing more harm than good in opening up new player’s minds as to what they were infinitely capable of.

    “What can I do?” is a question that comes up all too often among new players, as they stare at their power cards.

    • Kato Katonian says :

      Thanks newbie!

      How powers are implemented is an interesting aspect of 4th Edition. As a side note, I am a big fan (as a player and DM) of the presentation of powers as rules elements/gameplay aides. I think the uniform, standard syntax and layout makes it easier to use and understand them than in previous editions where powers were usually a paragraph description or in the case of some spells, several paragraphs. This was one thing that really attracted me to 4e when it first came out because, as a DM, I only needed to understand how powers were formatted to be able to understand most of the powers in the game. It didn’t matter what class my players were playing, I could still explain to them their powers even if I wasn’t myself familiar with their class.

      But there is a sense that, yes, the strict expression of powers in 4th Edition limits the way players think about what their characters can do. I think this is to be expected: most people are used to playing games that have a very regimented set of rules that explicitly states the *only* things you are allowed to do (the ubiquity of videogaming only compounds this). Roleplaying games, however, allow you to do anything, with a set of rules to adjudicate how things interact, and a list of things your character is particularly good at (or abilities unique to him/her).

      I don’t know that I’d say that powers did more harm than good. Powers are fun and are a concrete way of representing the awesome things your character can do. Grognards might argue that powers “limit your imagination” but I disagree–powers just expose the math that the systems runs on, instead of keeping it all behind the screen. Powers also let new players feel awesome without having to be a tactical mastermind or a brilliant storyteller. Some players just want to use a cool power that’s already been designed for them instead of having to improvise every turn just to feel like an action hero. And for those that want to break free from the strict confines of their powers can do so–there’s nothing limiting them other than the DM (which has been true in all editions). So I think the power expression in 4th edition makes it easier for new players to enter the game and not feel like they have to be a roleplaying expert or tactical genius to “do well” in the game.

      I also think powers lent more flavor to martial classes and made them more interesting. It used to be that magic users were the only ones that colorful attacks, whereas the poor fighter got to swing his weapon, or swing his weapon -2 and do more damage. This is an oversimplification, I know, but I do think that 4e powers made so me classes more colorful.

      However, I’m straying from the point. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that 4e players instinctively turn to their powers and abilities when thinking about how to handle a situation–this is easy to observe at the table. I don’t necessarily think this is a 4e-specific problem. I have witnessed games in other systems where players pore over their character sheets or class descriptions first to see what they have that might apply (Can I somehow use my Power Attack to sneak past that guard?) And it’s not just powers, players will scan their feats, or skills, anything that’s written down. I think it’s just our nature. One could certainly argue, though, that the strict codification of powers and abilities in 4e may compound this problem. (Interestingly enough, the presentation of powers as “cards” probably also encourages this behavior, through the ingrained association of playing cards equating to “things I am allowed to do”.)

      Ultimately, though, as the DM we are teachers, facilitators, and leaders by example. If we want our players to believe they can do anything in our game that one could reasonably do in the real world, we have to show them first that it’s possible.

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