A little while ago a buddy of mine decided to run an impromptu game. It was his second attempt and he did pretty well. There were only a few newbie GM mistakes and the game went over pretty well for the limited time we had to play. The biggest thing that I saw, and that sparked a thought in my head, was that the game was overpacked with details and sub-plots. There were too many plot lines going on at once, too many things for the players to focus on, and too many details that didn’t end up being relevant. Had we been playing more than a one shot this would have been a good foundation game, but in context of the 4 hours we had to play it was too much. I could see the “Crap, I expected them to go left!” look in his eyes more than once.
In the long walk across the large city where my character was to meet a contact, the Game Master kept dropping things into our path. Knowing that he was new, and these things seeming important, we dutifully picked up what he was putting down and pursued anything he put in front of us. Some of these things were important and some weren’t. We were trying to find the rails to help him out, but it wasn’t long before it was hard to tell where the main plot was. I could see that he was working towards be an open Game Master and run a more sandbox style game, but there was one thing he didn’t account for: Players get Tunnel Vision.
Chekov’s Gun Will Appear
 Yup. Players focus on the things they think are important and don’t always understand when things are just window dressing, and they usually focus on things the Game Master didn’t intend them to. If an NPC even remotely SEEMS like they have a name, they will be hounded until their purpose is discovered – especially if they aren’t at all important to the plot. If an element is described with any kind of detail, it MUST important and examined with an electron microscope. Like Chekov’s gun , if you introduce it then it has to be fired at some point, and the players aren’t going to stop until they get to.
So Let Them Fire it!
If a player is hounding something that seems important but really isn’t, don’t shy away from it or try to turn them back on the rails. Let them fire that plot-gun. They’ll toss it aside once they realize it’s empty AND they will have the satisfaction of achieving a goal. It doesn’t matter if they hovervan over what could be a challenge. If they feel that they have successfully overcome something they will be full of satisfaction and start looking for the next thing to overcome, increasing their immersion into the game.
If they chase a thief who ran from a crowd, but that thief wasn’t really important to anything going on in the story, let them quickly catch him and have him surrender. It could be a very quick two hit combat  or no combat at all – the players just need to overcome the challenge and realize the thief wasn’t important. If a player wants to try to hack into a building’s security system before a raid, let them do it. The player doesn’t really want to delay getting to the mission that is coming up, they just want their hacker character to be useful to it. Provide them some information, like a keycode or access to cameras, and they will be all the more ready to jump into the actual raid. The group might have a great idea for a way to increase the selling price of their loot with a little roleplaying, but that doesn’t mean it needs to take a long time. Even though it isn’t the group’s Loot Selling Standing Operating Procedure , let them pursue it and act it out a bit, make a roll to determine if it is successful, and then be done with it. Players hate to try things and be shut down. As the Game Master you have to control the story pacing and make sure they get to everything, but telling a player they can’t try something or actively trying to dissuade them is like shooting the fun level of your game in the foot. Instead, let them try it. If it isn’t majorly important then there is no reason not to give them an easy victory or quick attempt.
Tangential plot-lines crop up all the time, and sometimes they are worth following and playing out and sometimes they aren’t. As Game Masters, both new and old, we don’t always focus on the same things about the game that our players focus on. Knowing when to follow up a plot line or story element is incredibly important, but knowing when and how to end it quickly is also important. Let the character fire that plot gun and hit the target. With a feeling of satisfaction, they’ll drop the empty plot-line and go looking for the next one.
Ever had a situation where the players focused on something that wasn’t important? How did you handle it? Ever been the player in this situation?