In a recent game, my players reached an impasse. They had talked to two parties, which were in conflict with one another, and had gotten similar but not exactly the same information from both of them. The issue was that they felt that neither side gave them enough information to make a decision clear about who to trust. They were stuck in an information gap, not sure which way to go, based on the information they had. As I sat watching them discuss the issue, I realized that we were in this place where this could go on for a while, unless I nudged things along, but not before I thought a bit more about this situation, and how we as GMs have to help players through these parts when they get hung up on the rocks, so to speak. So here we are…
Making Informed Decisions
In general, players take in information from the GM and use it to make decisions for what to do next in the game. When we are playing there is a back and forth. The GM gives information in the form of description and exposition from the NPCs, the players ingest that information, they then declare their actions, and the GM narrates what comes next. A beautiful loop.
The GM’s role in this is profound. Depending on how we describe a passageway may influence if the players send their Rogue ahead looking for traps, or they could have the Fighter take point expecting an ambush. We walk a fine line of providing evocative descriptions and telegraphing what is coming next.Â
As GMs our job is to be a perfect narrator, providing truthful descriptions to the players. If we, as GMs, obfuscate what is going on, it will lead to a place where the players won’t trust anything their characters’ sense. That said, an NPC interacting with the players is not required to be fully truthful, and can tell the characters anything they want.Â
The Doldrums of Information
There are times in a game when the GM does not have any more information to provide. They have given out the description of the scene, they have answered the player’s follow-up questions, and perhaps the characters have made checks to try to get more information. At some point, there is no more information to be had until the players take an action.
The loop has become stalled. The players have all the information that is currently available, but they do not feel like it is enough to clearly see what to do next.
Normally, what happens next is discussion and debate. The players, sometimes in meta or as their characters, will begin to discuss what they know and try to build a consensus on what to do next. Depending on your group this will be smooth or bumpy.
It is in this spot that as GM, you are walking another fine line. How long do you let the players debate and see if they will make a move until you intervene and get the action restarted? What tools do you have?
How To Keep Things Flowing
The worst thing that can happen is that the player discussion stalls out or the players lose focus and someone does something chaotic stupid, or the flow of the game breaks. So what can you do to keep the group talking and make their decision-making process productive? Here are some ideas:
You can take a moment and recap for the players what they do know. This can help bring up details that some of the players may have forgotten and it might remind them of things that will help them arrive at their next action.
Tell Them Things Their Characters Know
In many cases, the characters know many more things about the world they live in than the players. When the players say something or question something that their character would know, tell them. Clear that up for them. This may help them come up with a fact that they need to act.
Ask Them What The Are Unsure Of
Asking the players to tell you what they are stuck on, which is preventing them from making a decision, can help to clear up any misconceptions. Sometimes, they will be stuck on something that they truly don’t know, but other times when they tell you what they are stuck on, you may be able to clear that up with either of the two techniques above; by recapping some information or telling them something their character would know.Â
Announce Something Approaching
While having a discussion and debate is good for the players, if it starts to drag on too long, you can announce that something is approaching. It could be the sound of something coming through the woods, it could be a text message on their phone, but give them the hint that the world is moving along, and that they are going to need to get moving.
When To Push
Knowing when to get play started again is a bit of an art. It is understanding if the discussion is productive and/or entertaining, or if it’s starting to drag on or become annoying. One of your jobs as the GM is to observe the discussion and get ready to push the game back into action should the discussion become non-productive or annoying. Depending on the circumstances, the players may not need to resolve the current discussion in order to take action. They may be held up in a room in the dungeon debating on what to do with the Big Bad, which they will encounter much later and they can get moving and resume the discussion at a later time.
When you reach the moment you need to resume the game, the easiest way to do this is to jump in with the most powerful phrase you have as a GM – “What are you doing?”
If needed, you can take that thing that was approaching, and have it arrive. Then ask, “What are you doing?”Â Then the players keep debating about the Big Bad when a wandering Ogre hears them and comes to the room to find out what is going on.Â
Some Games Are More Prone To This
There are some genres that are more prone to this problem than others, but it can occur in any game. Games that require a lot of planning and games that deal with mysteries and investigations often run into this issue. In these games, the story is propelled by acting on information, and if the players are not comfortable with the amount of information they have, they can hit one of these doldrums.
In investigation games, the answer to this problem is nearly always to get more information through investigation. The players may be stuck on where to go next for a clue, and you may have to help them find where to go next, through some of those tools.
In games with lots of planning, like games with heists, the group will not want to execute without the information. This is tricky because often they can never get quite enough information. The best of these style games have flashback mechanics that allow the game to operate with less information, and let the characters emulate hyper-competence. If your game is missing those mechanics, then more intel gathering is their only option.Â
Feel The Flow
The flow of information is necessary for a game to stay productive and to keep moving forward. As the GM you have a vital role to play in making sure that information is available, while at the same time, remaining hands-off as the players make decisions. When the players bog down in discussion and debate, your job is to gently keep the flow going by assisting them in their debate, while remaining hands-off. If all goes well, the players will find their way into their next move, but if it does not, you have to be ready to jump in and get the game flowing again.Â
How do you manage when your players are short on info and stuck making decisions? Do you have other techniques from the ones I mentioned above? Do you find that certain games or genres have this problem more often than others?Â
One of the other issues comes up as we increase in scale from adventure up towards campaign level. Sometimes the trail goes cold. There is no more information. You’re not going to be able to advance that particular plot any further. You just need to wait.
I find this seems to be an issue with players expecting completely serial stories instead of multiple plots all running in parallel. Possibly even slowly converging to reveal that they’re each parts of a larger whole. Yet players want to play a single plot from start to a definitive conclusion. When the villain skips town and doesn’t leave any clues, they’re flummoxed. They want to track the villain down and assume there has to be some method. Except there isn’t.
Thus the challenge comes down to conveying this to the players and encouraging them to go do something else. I feel like the simplest method is to see if you have other plot hooks at hand. If so, try working on one of those for a while only coming back when you exhaust everything. Make it clear that this is a big, open world and there are plenty of other things they can be doing. Maybe give them another call to action if they really won’t let go. It’s a definite challenge.