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Getting Out Of The Ditch

Posted By Phil Vecchione On May 11, 2010 @ 2:00 am In GMing Advice | 11 Comments

You have spent weeks crafting an incredible web of intrigue. It is a like an onion, with layer after layer of clues and red herrings. You have guided your players into this web and watched them pickup clues, trying to put the pieces together to discover what amazing twist lies in the center of the web.  Then at the moment where they are on the verge of the big discovery, they come to a grinding halt.

How they come to the halt is a topic for another day. What has happened is that the group is stuck in the ditch, and they can’t find their way out. The momentum of the evening is slowing down, and the players frustration is rising. They are running in circles, and the harder they work the farther they are from getting out of the ditch. Now they are looking at you to get them out of the hole.

So what do you do?

There are a number of ways that you can, as a GM, help put your players back on the track.  The trick is to do it in a way that restores the original momentum, and does not patronize the players. Here is a short list of my favorite techniques:

  • Take A Break– the first thing you should do is call a 5 minute break, let the players get up from the table and walk around. Sometimes simply changing from character to player and then back, is enough for them to get themselves unstuck.
  • Let Them Know What They Have (and Don’t Have)– Sometimes players are stuck because they think they have all the clues they are going to get, and prematurely start trying to solve the mystery. Other times players are still trying to collect clues, when none exist, delaying their efforts to solve the mystery. Letting the players know if they are missing any clues or not, can allow them to reset their perceptions and may be enough to get them on track.
  • Walk Them Through The Clues– In this case you walk the players though the clues they  have, reminding them of early clues that they may have forgotten. As you are walking them through the clues, you can ask innocent questions, that can covertly connect the dots for them.
  • Give Them An Extra Check– There are times when you have to give an extra clue to get things moving. Ask the players to make some kind of additional skill check, or an attribute check, so that you can deliver a new clue that will hopefully give the players that “ah-ha” moment.
  • Tell Them What’s Coming Up– Giving the players a glimpse of where they should be next, can sometimes help them get moving. Tell the players something about the next scene: the location, an NPC who will be in the scene, etc. Don’t tell them why or how they get there, just that they are present.
  • Have The NPC Help–This one gets very close to just telling the players what to do next, but sometimes things get desperate. In this solution, an NPC turns to the players and delivers a helpful clue. This should be a last resort.
  • Tell Them–This is not really a technique, but when all else fails, it is better to give up the mystery than to frustrate the players to the point of not having fun.

No one technique is going to work best, and no pattern of techniques works for every situation.  You need to read your players, and gauge their frustration level, and how close they are to solving the mystery on their own, and then pick the technique that gives the players the most control of the story. The goal is to get the game moving again as fast as possible.

The best way to help is to start with the least invasive approach. I recommend either Take A Break or Let Them Know What They Have. Neither of these give the players any additional information, and if they make a breakthrough, it was done by them. If those fail, then I move quickly to either: Walk Them Through The Clues or Give Them An Extra Check.  If these fail, I move right to the final three and end the mystery before everyone is too frustrated to continue.

Check Your Pride

There is a bad habit among some GM’s to let their players twist when solving a mystery. The GM had great fun creating the mystery, and is having fun watching the players work hard getting from clue to clue, and some enjoy watching them be stuck. These GM’s often fail to account for the entertainment value of the players. I am here to tell you that no matter what fun you had creating the mystery, if your players are not having fun solving it, then you are not doing your job.

Time for a quick story… Once I was at a small game convention. I was running a Paranoia game for some friends, and having a blast. Some of my other friends were playing in a D&D game at the table next to us; about to assault a castle of evil. Five hours later, the players had not made their way into the castle, completely stymied on how to enter the building, because there was a mystery around how to get the gates opened. The GM rather than letting the game progress into the castle, just sat and let the players twist in the wind, trying to figure it out. None of the players enjoyed their time playing that session.

So the moral of the story, is that there are times as a GM that you have to let your players jump over your incredible mystery, and let the game get moving.

The Mystery Of Hints…Solved!

The mystery can be an awesome tool for creating that “wow” moment for your players.  When it goes wrong, it can become a quagmire of frustration that will suck the fun out your game. So pay attention to your players and when they get stuck, give them a helping hand.

So as a GM how do you help your players when they get stuck?  As a player, tell us some of your stories about when you were stuck in a mystery and how you eventually got out.

About  Phil Vecchione

A gamer for 30 years, Phil cut his teeth on Moldvay D&D and has tried to run everything else since then. He has had the fortune to be gaming with the same group for almost 20 years. When not blogging or writing RPG books, Phil is a husband, father, and project manager. More about Phil.




11 Comments (Open | Close)

11 Comments To "Getting Out Of The Ditch"

#1 Comment By evil On May 11, 2010 @ 10:48 am

I utilize the “Take a Break” method fairly often, but when they’re really stuck, I tend to offer my players a chance to take an inspiration roll. I’ll choose a number (higher or lower depending on HOW stuck they are) and if anyone in the group rolls higher than that number I’ll give them what I consider my ace card – that little bit of information I was holding back that can help crack the mystery. Usually it’s just a reminder to look more closely at something. I know it’s really time to use one of these tactics when all the players are the table are sitting quietly looking at each other.

I’ve only run into one of these type mysteries…it was terrible. The DM threw up a chromatic wall that required a different type of magic for each color. As the lone surviving character (and a fighter to boot), I sat there scratching my head for a half hour and then decided that it was time to get dinner. The game never recovered. Later I was shown the actual solution for the puzzle, but it rested on me having prior knowledge that i just didn’t have.

#2 Comment By Nojo On May 11, 2010 @ 1:39 pm

I love running mystery based RPGs, like Call of Cthulhu or Dark Heresy. There is a nice rhythm to the games, the investigation, the zeroing in on the bad guys, the surprise ally/enemy, combat with minions, the final mystery, the final battle.

Hit and Run: If your players like to beat up NPCs for information, improvise a small hit and run attack on the players, with the NPCs heading for the hills. Ignore the dice that say the NPCs are all dead or all get away. One or more turns out to be alive and present. At least one goes down and gets captured, and that one has information the players need.
If they don’t like beating up minions, the clue could be on the body.

Going Fishing: If your players try *anything* that remotely could work to find them information, let it work. If they aren’t searching near the heart of your mystery, give them a clue to a clue, something that leads them toward knowledge.

My players recently wanted to find a “Mirror Shop, where we’ll ask about magic mirrors.” I had no mirror shop prepared, and I didn’t think magic mirrors were on sale, but I had the saleswoman remember NPC with information the players need who “came in last week asking for the same thing.” A clue to a clue.

As has been said often in the Stew, don’t let bad dice rolls stop the investigation in its tracks. A bad roll could be interpreted as “You know something is going on here, but you don’t have the foggiest notion what it is. You remember / had all sorts of information on this. Now you’ll have to / / if you want the information.” In other words, a failure during investigation is a setback, not a roadblock.

#3 Comment By Nojo On May 11, 2010 @ 1:43 pm

Ooops, I used greater than and less than brackets in my last paragraph and the text didn’t display. :)

Should be:

You remember THAT LIBRARY or THAT SAGE had all sorts of information on this. Now you’ll have to RETURN TO ORBIT or DO A FAVOR FOR THE NPC or SNEAK INTO THE DATA VAULT AT NIGHT if you want the information.

#4 Comment By Donogh On May 11, 2010 @ 2:38 pm

I may be going out on a limb here, but why not allow the intrigue to play out?
Their enemies are trying to do something – if they’re unable to think their way through, then have the plans begin to develop as intended. As events progress, it may become more difficult to stop, but it will give them more clues as to what’s gong on for sure.
I find that players are more responsive in the long-term when they realise they probably should’ve been able to stop things before they got out of hand.

#5 Comment By Roxysteve On May 11, 2010 @ 3:28 pm

As a Call of Cthulhu GM I see this lots of times, especially when long breaks from the action have been suffered (my group meets only once a month and any disruption takes us into two or three months break). I always use the walk through or “What do you have?” technique, sometimes circling back to important clues whose import has been overlooked. If that doesn’t work I use the “ideas” roll to seed hints.

As a player I am not great at problem solving but I like to be given the chance. I recently played in a game which had me frustrated beyond belief simply because the GM no sooner posed an interesting conundrum than he promptly fed us the answer to it couched thus: “As a longshoreman you would know that blah blah blah so it takes about an hour for you to figure out the answer is ‘giraffe’”. It made me want to scream at times.

In a D&D context, having posed a riddle so cunning the players weren’t able to figure it out I’d get their cleric to pray for guidance and drop hints as dreams.

[Donogh] The initial conditions of the scenario state that this isn’t a desirable path. Sometimes it really isn’t, like when you’re not playing D&D and can’t simply sandbox the night away because the options are huge but boringly mundane due to the absence of wandering monsters. Think “Traveller”. Or that castle assault at the con that was described in the article.

If your idea is workable then there is no problem to begin with and everything is jake.

#6 Comment By Dunx On May 11, 2010 @ 5:21 pm

This is something that I have struggled with in my Call of Cthuhu games over the years, particularly the “bad roll missing a vital clue” problem. I haven’t often handled it well, but keeping the plot going is something I have resolved to do more vigorously henceforth.

Another thing I often see is the players running after a red herring. These take time, but are also a great way to let the players do what they want giving them the sense of free agency. I try very hard not to shut them down. For example, I once had a player pursuing an NPC who he thought was a vampire. The chase rolls got progressively harder and eventually he found what he thought was the vampire’s lair. In fact it the house of some harmless old lady who woke up in the morning to find the doors and windows in her home no longer squeaked since the PC had been oiling everything as he went to avoid making noise.

[roxysteve] When I restart my CoC campaign, the first session is likely to be a review of information uncovered thus far. Or I could just forge ahead and remind the players as I go, I suppose. Cairo will be much more interesting in that case.

#7 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On May 11, 2010 @ 9:45 pm

An NPC in my game usually asks the party to lay out the known facts, and the rationale behind their suspicions. The NPC will then ‘play Socrates’ and ask questions until the party clues in.

For instance, the party had been making headway against a cult, but have recently been stymied by a large group of refugees. Despite my best efforts, the party is not connecting the dots that the two are related. So their resource on the cult (a somewhat eccentric professor) starts asking them all kinds of questions about their experiences so far.

When the party gets to the problems with the refugees, Professor NPC notes that they’ve otherwise been well-behaved for the most part, and off-handedly asks if the party suspects a connection between them and the cult. Light bulbs went off so fast around the table, it looked like someone turned on a chandelier…

I don’t think I’ve overused this technique, but it does seem to risk becoming a habit. I’ll have to change tactics next time; thanks for the ideas!

#8 Comment By Scott Martin On May 11, 2010 @ 11:44 pm

Heather Grove has a great article about this from the player’s side. When you’re lost and don’t know what to do next… go for a walk.

#9 Comment By Roxysteve On May 12, 2010 @ 8:43 am

@Kurt “Telas” Schneider – I’ve done that too, and it works well because you can guide the players with leading questions without breaking suspension of disbelief.

Also, of course, when the players are stuck they’ll cut the DM a lot of slack once they twig that they’re being helped.

#10 Comment By BryanB On May 13, 2010 @ 10:00 am

I’ve often felt that if the group can’t get on track within a reasonable amount of time, then I have done something screwy as a GM.

Furthermore, a GM should never hinge the entire adventure around one clue or plot element without providing alternatives for getting such crucial information.

I like the ideas in this article. I also agree that each situation is different. We all have “off” nights where we collectively can’t think our way through a wet paper bag let alone solve a mystery. A good GM will help things get back on track with one of these methods or come up with something else.

A GM shouldn’t let such a situation bog the game down in minutia for the duration of the session. That only increases player frustration and tedium, neither of which makes for a good game session.

#11 Comment By mougoo On May 13, 2010 @ 10:07 am

I usually experience this problem a bit differently. I generally have little problem figuring out if a player is getting frustrated, and it is generally easy to determine the best kind of bone to throw that player.

But notice I used “player” in the singular.

When it becomes “players,” things get muddied. I’ve been in situations with four other players, where three are ready to have the gods fire an arrow from the sky into the lever that opens the door, but the fourth player says, “No, I’ve almost got it figured out!”

I’ve tried myriad approaches to this: letting the 3 players deal with the obstinate fourth, letting “majority rules” dictate and letting down the fourth, trying to provide a blunt clue (which can backfire!), etc…

One player who is stymied is easy to deal with, but a handful who experience the game differently get far more challenging.

Damn players….

;)


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