It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of non-linear plots and story structures. However, as the Game Master, you are responsible for making sure the story progresses and certain things happen. Sometimes the players just aren’t picking up what you’re putting down. Here are a few things that you can do to help your players stay on track, without having to railroad them.

1. Make The Clues Obvious and Give Them Context
Ruh Roh Shraggy. It’s a crue!  A lot of pre-written and self-made adventures have clues and tidbits to lead the characters on towards their final goals. A piece of scarlet cloth that matches the cloak of a noblewoman, a letter sent to the newspaper threatening to blow up a bridge or a slimy viscous fluid that was probably dripped by the monster du-jour. All of these are great clues that can lead a party to the proper conclusion, but they mean nothing out of context and might be easily missed.

Keeping the clues obvious to your players is one part of making sure the players piece it together themselves. Make sure the clues are big and vibrant, story-wise, and the players have a reason for picking up on them. If you need to be blatantly obvious with them then use Index cards and write them out once they enter the story. It might make the game feel a little board gamey, but the players won’t forget about them.

Letting the players know the context the clue fits into is another important step. Most clues don’t make sense unless the players have a way to link them to the desired end result. The players might have to do a little digging to find out that the piece of scarlet cloth is rare and available only to those who can afford its exorbitant cost. As the Game Master, you might have to make them aware that the clue will mean something with some more investment of time.

Letting it come down to something as simple as “I go research the clue.” and making a single roll can really speed along the game. If it feels like you are giving away the information, try this: Let the player make the roll and give them the relevant information, but ask them to tell you how they found it out. Let them have free reign with the narrative. They’ll feel like their search was more than just a roll and you’ll keep the story moving along.

2. Avoiding The Ever-Necessary "Make Me A Remembering Roll" By Making The Information Character Centric
Characters aren’t players and won’t remember every little detail. Players are always more focused on their character in the story, rather than the story itself. A player playing a rouge sees a thiefish way out of every situation and a person playing a fighter sees a potential combat in every situation. That thought is a bit extreme but relatively true. People play to the way they design their characters. Even  multi-dimensional characters have a definite concept that  defines their actions. The knowledge seeking archaeologist rogue will be looking for academic and rouge worthy solutions, while the conniving con-man rogue will be looking for diplomatic or scam-like solutions.

With this in mind, give information to the players in ways that will make it relevant to their characters. Putting the pass-phrase to open a magical door on the wall of an ancient tomb will be more remembered by the archaeologist rogue, while the con-man rogue will remember it more easily if he tricked the information out of someone.  It might still be relevant to the players 2 sessions later, when it comes into play, and the player will feel like their character was important to the story.

3. Write Important Things Down In A Big Visible Place Once The Players Discover Them.
This is applying a bit of classroom dynamics, but if you have a big piece of paper or whiteboard, just write it down when the players discover something important. Out of sight means out of mind. Make sure it’s in front of their eyes, so that when they’re trying to figure out what they’re missing they don’t have to look far. Even better than you writing down important information on a big,
visible-to-everyone whiteboard point out when something is important and let them write it down.

The visible-to-everyone piece is very important in this. When people are trying to figure something out they tend to look at their surroundings and see if anything jump starts their memory. Seeing a symbol drawn on the board will make them wonder if there are any unique symbols on the guards uniforms.

4. Tell The Players What Is Going To Happen Beforehand.
A friend of mine, who wants to get into Game Mastering, told me all about the adventure he wanted to run for somebody, and then asked me to play it. I already knew all the ins and outs but wanted to give him some experience behind the screen with someone who would work with the mistakes that all first time GMs make.

Knowing the plot points, information and twists beforehand made it a little hard to be surprised or not meta-game, but it also made me aware of how to play the adventure.  If you give your players a few tidbits about your game beforehand, they’ll have a better idea that the bandits aren’t the ones to chase, but the vizier is the one to investigate. It is kind of like figuring the plot of a movie out before you get to the end. You realize that the astronaut is a clone or that the evil monster is actually misunderstood about halfway through the movie. It doesn’t ruin the rest of the movie, in most cases, but helps you realize why certain elements are important.

5. The Journey Is As Important As The End Destination, But All Roads Lead To The End Destination
The players have careened wildly off course and are investigating slums around the city instead of trying to track down which one of the corporate board members is the werewolf. There is no way the players are going to get back to the place where they realize the truth. There are 2 things you can do:

     1. Try to move the players back to the path
     2. Do some quick recalculation and let the players find the information they
         need in the slums.

Going with number 2 will give you a few benefits. The players will feel more satisfied having gotten the information without prompting from the Game Master. The players will also keep the information more fresh in their heads because of the way they got it. It will feel like their idea from the beginning and having that idea pay off automatically assigns it a higher level of importance. You may have to change some parts of the story to meet with the new direction, but the game will continue and people will keep having fun.  The big story points are still in-tact, the road to them just changed.

The biggest piece of advice that I can think of for keeping players on track is to make the game important to their characters. The more involved they are, the more the story matters to them and the more they pick up on story elements. What other ways do you have to keep players on track without railroading?