It’s not that big of a deal, folks!

Occasionally as GM, you’ll be running a game and expect the players to make a quick decision to get on with the adventure. But, all of a sudden, you’ll be facing a dilemma that many GMs before have faced. The players have fixated on a detail you hadn’t considered or thought was inconsequential. The game either grinds to a halt or takes an unexpected turn as the players become unwilling to focus on anything else in the game.

Basically, your players have started making a mountain out of a molehill.

After a couple of games where this became an issue, I brought the subject up on social media to find out what my fellow gamers thought of this particular problem. We had a pretty lively conversation discussing the variations on the problem and some potential reasons why it happens. Before I dig into that, though, let me give you a couple of my recent examples.

In a game where the players were investigating a decades old murder, the GM was blindsided when the players followed the clues to a conclusion that was several steps beyond what the scenario was written to include. We actually had to step outside and have an out-of-character conversation to all get on the same page again. Based on the information the players had, their conclusion was reasonable, but it was also building off an aspect of the setting that wasn’t relevant to that particular pre-written one-shot. The logic the players were following wasn’t necessarily wrong, it was just taking things further than the scenario needed.

Players are going to fixate on things you don’t expect and sometimes blow inconsequential things way out of proportion.
For the other game I ran into this, the PCs were faced with a decision: do we give this magical thingy to the potentially adversarial group that came here to find it (and we wouldn’t have even known about it if they hadn’t shown up looking for it in the first place)? If we give it to them, we’ve potentially made some allies, but also possibly given some questionable folks a powerful item to do some harm. Of course, if we don’t give it to them, we absolutely turn them into enemies. As it often happens in these situations, the players started endlessly debating the potential outcomes of the scenario and catastrophizing the worst possible outcomes of either choice. It ground the game to a halt and even this particular GM, who has a tendency to let his players meander a little too much for my tastes, was starting to roll his eyes.

In both of these situations, the ultimate consequence was that the game ground to a halt. This type of thing happens all the time, so every GM is going to need to develop a set of tools to cope for when the players start getting caught up in endless debate or fixating on red herrings of their own creation.

After my conversation on social media, it seems like there are three root causes to players making mountains out of molehills:

  • TRUST — The players don’t trust the GM so they’re trying to cover all their bases and make sure nothing is going to come back to bite them as they move forward.

    This was a lot more common when the adversarial GM was the rule rather than the exception, but I still run into a fair number of players who play this way, indicating there are still GMs out there running games this way. Thankfully styles have evolved and most games seem to encourage a less adversarial role for the game runner. GMs still need to challenge their players, but most have realized it’s more fun to work with the players than against them.

    When I run into players who are acting like they don’t trust me to not screw them over and as a result fixate on trying to make sure every teeny little thing is accounted for, I will often ask them point blank what they’re trying to achieve. What is their end goal in these questions? Hopefully I can reassure them that I respect the competency of their characters and won’t screw them over.

  • INTERPRETATION — The players have interpreted the information presented differently than the GM intended and have put more significance on something than the GM intended.

    Investigative games are notorious for this, but it can honestly happen in any game. It’s a mistake to think that logic is universal and that if something makes sense to you, it’ll make sense to everyone. We all think a little differently from one another and what one person can think is perfectly logical would not even be considered as a possibility by another player.

    When the players seem to be fixating on something that you didn’t intend to be relevant, it’s worth taking a step back and trying to figure out why they think that thing is relevant. It’s possible the clue you thought was straightforward and obvious isn’t leading the players where you thought it would.

    Sometimes you can just gently redirect the players back towards the relevant information, but sometimes you’ll realize that you’ve got a giant plot hole you now need to compensate for.
    (Years ago I had a campaign go belly up for this very reason. I didn’t consider the full implication of what I had set up as the campaign premise and panicked when I realized the game had turned into something very different than I had intended.)

  • INTEREST — Occasionally, your players will completely ignore the actual plot clues and completely focus on other things that you hadn’t intended to be relevant to the game. Sometimes when this happens, it is simply because they find what they’re focusing on far more interesting than the plot hooks you were dangling in front of them. Honestly, in these cases, it’s okay to toss out or modify what you had intended to use for the game to adjust to what the players are actually interested in.

    When I was running Dragon Heist, my players became fixated on the Nimblewright that they were pursuing. Because they felt pity for the other one they met in the Temple of Gond, they decided the one they were pursuing wasn’t fully responsible for his actions, so they needed to save him. Well, the adventure is written expecting the players to fight it and kill it out of hand. He became such an important NPC to them, that I adjusted the scene so they had a chance of saving him. While their fixation on him was blowing that aspect of the scenario out of proportion, it was more satisfying to them with the way we ended up playing it.

So, what’s the takeaway here? Players are going to fixate on things you don’t expect and sometimes blow inconsequential things way out of proportion. The best you can do as a GM is to understand why they might be doing that and adjust the game as you go.

What about you? How have you dealt with this in your own games?