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.