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.