Please Just Play the Adventure (One Shots)

MarkB

Legend
Alternative Title of Thread: Just Engage with the %$#@ing Adventure

For free RPG day I ran a one shot at my friendly local game store, and, well, I didn't have as much fun as I'd hoped. I haven't played with a group of strangers since, well, it's been at least 5 years and I was a player not the GM. But come to think of it, I kind of had the same WTF reaction to the actions of the players back then like I did this time. So maybe I'm the problem?

It doesn't matter what game I was running yesterday, but the premise was that the characters were traveling through the desert when they come across a dead horse and the rider lying in the shade of a cactus some twenty yards away. Even without speaking to the rider, they can tell that he's a wealthy young man by his clothing, and they can also see by the condition of his horse that it was ridden to death. One of the PCs rightly figures out that this dude is running from someone or something and I'm thinking, "Yeah, we're off to a good start here." I describe the rider as being in a bad way, obviously suffering from heat stroke, he asks for water, and they help him out. The rider suggests they post a lookout and goes back to sleep. This is where the trouble starts.

The PCs start figuring out what they want to do. Which is great, because I normally love to see players engaged by having them discuss in character what they should do next. I cleared up some things for them, the rider isn't lazy for snoozing he's actually suffering from dehyrdation and heat exhaustion and genuinely needs some rest. During the course of conservation, we got your typically bad PC ideas and a few good PC ides, but the most popular choice was to leave the rider some water and just continue on with their journey. Which leaves me rather flummoxed thinking to myself, "This is the adventure, guys. If you refuse to nibble on the hook, that's it. You're getting 3 hours and 45 minutes of your time back." And I feel the need to stress that just leaving the rider was something they were seriously contemplating.
Seems fixable. If they make their minds up to start riding off, just have them spot the telltale dust plumes of riders on the horizon, heading their way, then the fugitive wakes up long enough to gasp "please don't leave me, they'll kill me!"
After much debating, they decide to wake the rider and go ahead and travel with him. So, yay! They notice they're being followed by about a dozen riders, and the rider, Billy, explains to them that this group is after him and intend to bring him back to his family. But he doesn't want to go. Since the PCs can't outrun these hunters, they decide to hole up in a nearby abandoned mining town. Things get a little weird from there. They find some miner's clothes and ask Billy to change in order to disguise himself. Billy balks, explaining that these hunters no doubt have an excellent description of him, this outfit won't hide him, and besides, it doesn't suit his style. One of the PCs decides its a good idea to pull a weapon on Billy and threaten him which doesn't work. But another PC persuades him to change which he does even if he thinks it won't work to disguise him.
Why is this a debate? Just let them win the argument, disguise him, and have it not be very effective.
Long story short, the PCs defeat the hunters. During the course of the fight, when things looked to be going south for the PCs, one of the players decided his character was going to sneak away during the fight, steal the other PCs horses, and leave. Which I really thought was an unnecessary, crummy thing to do. But, whatever, by the time his plan was coming to fruition the tide had turned and PC victory was fairly certain.

So the whole experience kind of left a bad taste in my mouth. What bothered me most was a bunch of people signed up to play a game and when we got started didn't seem interested in engaging with the adventure. That's just super frustrating. It's a one shot, guys, just go with the flow. I don't mind if you surprise me, but surprise me by how you engage with the adventure rather than running away from it. Then there's the odd behavior. Why would you point a weapon at the guy you're ostensibly trying to save?
Why would you be invested in trying to save someone you only just met, who for all you really know might be a criminal on the run from justice? And if you're not that invested, threatening his life is going to seem like a decent way to get him to go along with your plan.

Ultimately, the players don't know The Plan, so they don't know that they're deviating from The Plan - and when they come up with what seem to them to be perfectly good ideas to resolve the situation, it's not their fault if those ideas don't happen to match what's written in the scenario. And with a lot of people, trying to push back through in-character interactions is just going to make them dig their heels in even more.
 

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billd91

Hobbit on Quest (he/him)
Some players are really clueless at detecting and interpreting plot hooks so I get the idea of just starting them on a declared mission rather than having a hook show up in transit.
That said, it’s a con game. Subtle and sandbox aren’t things in the menu for a 4-ish hour slot. It’s typically a quick mission, series of encounters, or situation/site. There’s not usually enough time to develop much more and give the players a satisfying time and feeling of accomplishment.

That said, why not disguise the guy on the run? There’s nothing terribly wrong with that plan from the PC perspective. And if it fails because they have a really good description, so what? It sounds like a fun thing to play through even if it fails.
 

FitzTheRuke

Legend
Some players are really clueless at detecting and interpreting plot hooks so I get the idea of just starting them on a declared mission rather than having a hook show up in transit.
True. If there's only one choice, it's not worth making it a choice. Just say you're looking for this guy to help him right from the start (or something to that effect).

That said, why not disguise the guy on the run? There’s nothing terribly wrong with that plan from the PC perspective. And if it fails because they have a really good description, so what? It sounds like a fun thing to play through even if it fails.
Yeah, I agree. No point in arguing with bad plans. Just go with them.
 

MGibster

Legend
If the scenario starts with them on a journey... I'd say it is partly the fault of the scenario, yes. It's perfectly reasonable for the players to assume the journey is the adventure, and engaging with the NPC is purely optional.
Well, sure, but finding the guy on the road is part of the journey.

IMO, the way to do a one-shot is to announce at the start, "You have accepted a quest to go to X and do Y." No ambiguity, no wasted time, no misunderstanding what you're "supposed" to do.
I certainly can't argue against that. It would have saved us all a lot of trouble had I just come out and said "this is the adventure, guys."
Seems fixable. If they make their minds up to start riding off, just have them spot the telltale dust plumes of riders on the horizon, heading their way, then the fugitive wakes up long enough to gasp "please don't leave me, they'll kill me!"
I would have had the guy speak up.

Why is this a debate? Just let them win the argument, disguise him, and have it not be very effective.
Billy was a dandy who was quite proud of cutting a dashing figure in his well tailored clothing and did not want to dress like a miner. I didn't think it was odd that the PCs wanted to disguise him, I thought it was odd that they so quickly resorted to violence when Billy balked at changing his clothes. And while I found this part odd, it wasn't all that annoying because at least they were engaged with the adventure at this time.

Why would you be invested in trying to save someone you only just met, who for all you really know might be a criminal on the run from justice? And if you're not that invested, threatening his life is going to seem like a decent way to get him to go along with your plan.
Admittedly, I have an expectation that PCs are going to be one of the goods guys. Not necessary perfect, mind you, but the type of people who will help others, or, at the very least, aren't prone to threatening to murder someone who has done no harm to them. That's on me.

Some players are really clueless at detecting and interpreting plot hooks so I get the idea of just starting them on a declared mission rather than having a hook show up in transit.
Yeah, which is why I have to agree with my esteemed colleage @Dausuul that it would have been best had I just said, "This is the adventure, guys."

That said, it’s a con game. Subtle and sandbox aren’t things in the menu for a 4-ish hour slot. It’s typically a quick mission, series of encounters, or situation/site. There’s not usually enough time to develop much more and give the players a satisfying time and feeling of accomplishment.
And that's where I was coming from. This is a con game, and it seemed obvious to me that this person they find on the side of the road was the adventure. Were I a player, it wouldn't have occurred to me to ignore him.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
The scenario starts with the PCs on the road to a well known city. They know one another, but I never establish why they're going to the city. And the reason they're in the desert is because the whole region is a desert.
So, then, the goal is to get to the city. We know this because that's what we're told we're doing when the game starts. This guy by the side of the road is probably a diversion or something. The meat is that-a-way towards the city.

The problem here is that the hook isn't. It relies on the PCs abandoning the first hook (go to the city on this road) and it isn't even hook-shaped enough to catch. If you want people to bite a hook don't make it a hook, make it a harpoon. Don't confuse them with other hooks, like the setup of riding to the city. Don't let the hook be boring, like give this guy some water and then stand watch over him. Drive it home hard and set it with action.

"You're headed through the desert towards Dodge City, no good reason why, but less of a good reason to stay where you were. As you travel, you come across a dead horse, clearly ridden to death by the dried foam on it's haunches and the spur marks in it's side. Aways away, there's a richly dressed young man huddled up in the shade of a bolder (there's a few of those around). He calls out, "Water?" As you look towards him, shots ring out from a nearby stand of catci and an angry voice yells, "we're taking you back, Billy, even if we have to kill your friends!" More shots ring out, and Billy, who you can only assume is the young man, cowers further down behind the bolder and whimpers. These boys, whoever they are, clearly have the wrong idea about you being friendly with Billy, or do they? They're shootin' to kill, what do you do?"

The key thing here is that you have to have an idea of what comes next if they give Billy up. Maybe meet his girl waiting at a watering hole up the road a bit, who pleads his case and offers a rich reward for his safe return. If they turn that down, well, ask them to describe what their long trip to Dodge City looks like, and tell them to make it a nice one because you have, oh, 3 or so hours to kill with it.

No matter what happens, there's a rider watching from a nearby hill that leaves when the fight's over. Billy can tell the PCs that he's probably going back to get the rest of the gang. And they're probably looking for the PCs now, too. "Sorry," says Billy.
 
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MGibster

Legend
The problem here is that the hook isn't. It relies on the PCs abandoning the first hook (go to the city on this road) and it isn't even hook-shaped enough to catch. If you want people to bite a hook don't make it a hook, make it a harpoon.
Going to the city isn't the hook. It just happens to be what they're doing at the time they encounter the hook. Personally, I don't see how anyone could miss that, but, obviously my view on this is rather myopic. I could have also started it, "You're all on your way to Applebees, when you spot a zombie chasing a woman down the street. What do you do?" Are you honestly going to think that going to Applebees is what's important here?
 


niklinna

Snickers satisfies!
Going to the city isn't the hook. It just happens to be what they're doing at the time they encounter the hook. Personally, I don't see how anyone could miss that, but, obviously my view on this is rather myopic. I could have also started it, "You're all on your way to Applebees, when you spot a zombie chasing a woman down the street. What do you do?" Are you honestly going to think that going to Applebees is what's important here?
I have been in my share of games where going to the city (actually a planet) definitely was the intended hook, and we went off the rails due to something like the zombie. We never even got to the planet where the written adventure was. Me & two of the other players thought we were following a hook, and we had a grand time with bar fights and a space battle with pirates and such! One other player was utterly confused. The GM was low-key frustrated. He told us after how we totally went off the rails and we were kind of amazed he let us.

As I said earlier, if players have to interpret or guess at what's a hook or where the path is, things can easily go awry. Best to be very clear about it, especially with strangers. If you told the players they'd been sent to city X to find the particular dude they ran into, they would have been much more likely to stop & help the dude.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
Going to the city isn't the hook. It just happens to be what they're doing at the time they encounter the hook. Personally, I don't see how anyone could miss that, but, obviously my view on this is rather myopic. I could have also started it, "You're all on your way to Applebees, when you spot a zombie chasing a woman down the street. What do you do?" Are you honestly going to think that going to Applebees is what's important here?
No, going to the city IS THE HOOK. Why? Because you told them that this is what their characters are doing right at the start. It's not sitting in a bar waiting around, it's doing something, going somewhere, for a reason. This is the initial problem with your setup and if you're not going to recognize it as such, then I'm not sure what advice might help because you aren't willing to look at the places that mistakes were made. It's only obvious to you because you know everything. One of the big issues with missed things like this is information asymmetry. The players only ever know the little bits you tell them. It doesn't matter how obvious it is to you, if you haven't planted a neon flashing sign that says "here is the adventure," then it's 100% your fault if the players miss the on-ramp. They don't know. Here, you've told them that they're going to the city. That sounds like a big deal. The thirsty guy on the side of the road that immediately requires them to stand around and do nothing while keeping watch just sounds like a delay obstacle on the real path. It's not at all pitched or engaging to be the real hook.

Look, the big problem you have here is that you presented a pretty weak hook and assumed that the one PC's flaw would lead everyone after it. That's poor planning for one-shots. Hooks should NEVER have to be things that are discussed or put to a decision point by the PCs for one-shots. You need to not try and set hooks the normal way (dangle and who cares if they bite, you can dangle it again later), you need to throw harpoons. Don't let them discuss or decide what the hook action is, drive it. Push it. Make bad guys show up or the lights go out or whatever and spear them with your harpoon and immediately tug on the rope.
 

MGibster

Legend
No, going to the city IS THE HOOK. Why? Because you told them that this is what their characters are doing right at the start.
I think we might define hook a little differently. A story hook is a premise that grabs your attention and promises something interesting. Traveling through the desert to a city for unspecified reasons isn't a hook, it's just the establishment of a scene. But what makes the scene interesting? The mysterious well dressed young man lying in the shade of a cactus not too far from the horse he's ridden to death of course. That is a hook because it piques your curiosity (What the hell is this about?), and it's going to lead to something interesting.

Look, the big problem you have here is that you presented a pretty weak hook and assumed that the one PC's flaw would lead everyone after it.
It may have been a weak hook, but it was the only hook in play. No, my big flaw is that I assumed the PCs would see the "Adventure This Way" sign and act accordingly. Which, ultimately they did after a lot of hemming and hawing. Admittedly, this was my fault as I should never assume what's obvious to me is obvious to others.

I've seen similar bizarre behavior at con games I wasn't running. I remember one fantasy game where all of us PCs arrived in town and were going to stay in an inn. One PC, the Ranger, insisted that his character wouldn't go into town and would instead just find a place to sleep out in the woods. After we wasted about 15 minutes talking to this character, the GM finally just said something like, "Look, if you don't come into town you're going to miss the adventure."
 


Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
I think we might define hook a little differently. A story hook is a premise that grabs your attention and promises something interesting. Traveling through the desert to a city for unspecified reasons isn't a hook, it's just the establishment of a scene. But what makes the scene interesting? The mysterious well dressed young man lying in the shade of a cactus not too far from the horse he's ridden to death of course. That is a hook because it piques your curiosity (What the hell is this about?), and it's going to lead to something interesting.
No, we don't have different definitions. You started play by introducing a goal -- go to the city. You may not have meant this to sound like a goal, but it is, and it's clear. You then introduced what you wanted to be your hook in a soft way. Nothing went boom. It's all just talking. And then the hook requires the party to stand watch while they sleep? This isn't advancing us towards that goal of getting to the city the GM said. We should probably ditch this clown and get on with what we're supposed to be doing. If he's important, he'll turn back up or something.

This is what your players were thinking. I shouldn't be arguing here to show you that getting to the city was the hook you actually set because that should be obvious from what happened in the game! What did the players try to do? They tried to continue on to the city. You thought that was stupid only because you knew that wasn't the goal, but whatever you actually presented gave the players that impression. Getting to the city was the hook you actually set while trying to set the one you wanted. This is a big problem for one shots, and if you're not going to recognize it, you should be prepared for more similar instances of confusion in play as to what the goal actually is.

I'm not trying to be mean, here. Tough love, a little bit, because I've done this exact same thing. More times that I want to admit. A one shot is a distillation of a game to a purer, crystalline form. This means you have to up your game on the hook and get it in and hard with no mistakes. One of the biggest mistakes in one shots is hiding the game, and that's exactly what almost happened here. So, stop arguing that what you did was fine, because it was exactly what led to your game almost imploding. This is you, not the players. Own it.
It may have been a weak hook, but it was the only hook in play. No, my big flaw is that I assumed the PCs would see the "Adventure This Way" sign and act accordingly. Which, ultimately they did after a lot of hemming and hawing. Admittedly, this was my fault as I should never assume what's obvious to me is obvious to others.
No, it wasn't the only hook, because the players were following the 'go to the city' hook.
I've seen similar bizarre behavior at con games I wasn't running. I remember one fantasy game where all of us PCs arrived in town and were going to stay in an inn. One PC, the Ranger, insisted that his character wouldn't go into town and would instead just find a place to sleep out in the woods. After we wasted about 15 minutes talking to this character, the GM finally just said something like, "Look, if you don't come into town you're going to miss the adventure."
And that GM made a similar mistake -- they started play and let it happen without setting a hook. This is one-shot 101 -- get that hook in from the start. If you need to let the PCs 'get to know each other' in some scene, make sure that scene doesn't require any decision on the part of the PCs to get to the scene where the hook sets.
 

MGibster

Legend
No, we don't have different definitions. You started play by introducing a goal -- go to the city. You may not have meant this to sound like a goal, but it is, and it's clear.
Sorry, I don't see going to the city as the hook. A goal isn't a hook. If you do, okay, but we're in disagreement there.

And that GM made a similar mistake -- they started play and let it happen without setting a hook. This is one-shot 101 -- get that hook in from the start. If you need to let the PCs 'get to know each other' in some scene, make sure that scene doesn't require any decision on the part of the PCs to get to the scene where the hook sets.
At some point, I do think the players bear some responsibilty for actually engaging with the adventure. The obstinate player wasting all our time insisting his character would sleep in the woods instead of going into town was the problem not the GM. Except maybe the GM could have said, "Hey, dummy, the adventure is this way."
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
Sorry, I don't see going to the city as the hook. A goal isn't a hook. If you do, okay, but we're in disagreement there.


At some point, I do think the players bear some responsibilty for actually engaging with the adventure. The obstinate player wasting all our time insisting his character would sleep in the woods instead of going into town was the problem not the GM. Except maybe the GM could have said, "Hey, dummy, the adventure is this way."
Right, okay. You're not listening, and aren't looking for advice on how to improve your GMing of one-shots. That's fine, you want to vent and bash those dumb players. I'll let myself out.
 

MGibster

Legend
Right, okay. You're not listening, and aren't looking for advice on how to improve your GMing of one-shots. That's fine, you want to vent and bash those dumb players. I'll let myself out.
You missed the part where I admitted I shoud have just come out and make it explicitly clear that this rider was the adventure.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
Sorry, I don't see going to the city as the hook. A goal isn't a hook. If you do, okay, but we're in disagreement there.
Your players, however, did. Because that's what they were started with. You know the hook is the guy with the dead horse. The players don't. And this is a perennial problem: what's obvious to the referee is not obvious to the players. When you think it's obvious, make it about 10x more obvious, then it will be obvious to the players. As mentioned, hard starts work great when the players don't actually have a choice.

This is a problem of expectations. You set up one expectation...get to the city...then pulled the rug out from under the players...by introducing this guy with the dead horse. So the players have "get to the city" as their goal. You've put a minor obstacle between them and their goal, guy with dead horse. "Okay...uhm...here's some water, bye" is about the only response you can expect.

As said, if you wanted the guy with the dead horse to be the hook, you should have set it up with neon blinking signs and a hard start. If you have one thing the players have to do, don't give them the option to avoid it. Start with the thing that has to happen already happening. If you give them the option to avoid it you can't then blame them for avoiding it. Well, you can, but you really shouldn't.
 

MGibster

Legend
Your players, however, did. Because that's what they were started with. You know the hook is the guy with the dead horse.
One of my favorite places to fish for trout is the White River here in Arkansas. The water is so clear, that when you're reeling in your lure you often see the trout trailing after it and sometimes even taking a bite. I don't even really care if I catch any fish because I'm just having a good time on the water. We're not talking about a situation where the players ignored or didn't notice the hook, in fact, just like those trout, I could see them swimming after it. They stopped, examined the scene, asked me questions, spoke with the rider, and came to the conclusion that he was running from something. What they did, was come within a hair's breadth of walking away from the adventure.
This is a problem of expectations. You set up one expectation...get to the city...then pulled the rug out from under the players...by introducing this guy with the dead horse. So the players have "get to the city" as their goal. You've put a minor obstacle between them and their goal, guy with dead horse. "Okay...uhm...here's some water, bye" is about the only response you can expect.
And that's fair. If I were to do it again, I'd set it up so they were looking for this rider specifically in order to save him. I don't think it was unreasonable for me to expect the players to actually engage in the adventure. But I realize that's on me.
 

MGibster

Legend
In my Experience, 9 times out of 10 players do dumb random stuff are just jerks. When most players get frustrated, they most often just stop playing the game.
I might have a rosier view of humanity. While some people are just being jerks, I'm not sure that's what motivates random stuff 9 out of 10 times. In a lot of cases, I think the player might just be bored or otherwise disengaged from the game and are trying to make something happen. I had to have a come to Jesus speech with a player about this a few years back. He'd have his character do these things that he thought was fun but just baffled the rest of us. His character would stir up trouble in ways that just wasn't entertaining for the rest of us.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
What they did, was come within a hair's breadth of walking away from the adventure.
Because they didn't know that was "the adventure." That's the point.
I don't think it was unreasonable for me to expect the players to actually engage in the adventure.
It's not unreasonable to expect that the players will engage with the adventure.

It's unreasonable to expect they will know what the adventure is supposed to be.

It's a problem of you being too close and having too much information. You know "this" is the adventure. The players don't. To you it's glaringly obvious because you've read it a dozen times or planned it and run it in your head a dozen times. Not so with the players. They're coming at it fresh. "The adventure" could literally be anything. Hence the bit about expectations. If you point one way but want them to go another, you shouldn't be upset when they try to keep going the way you first pointed.

If you give them a choice, they might choose "wrong"...so don't give them a choice if they don't actually have one. If they have to turn left, don't give them the option to turn right.
 

delericho

Legend
Yeah, I've had some problems like this. There was the guy who wouldn't accept any quest without reward... and then spent an age arguing over whatever reward was offered. There was the guy who refused to bite on any adventure hooks, and then complained that it was the GM's job to entice him. And I'm sure I've had cases very similar to the OP's description.

Eventually, I got to the point where I simply told players up-front that they had to create characters who were going on an adventure - they could come up with any justification they wanted for their characters doing so, but it was their responsibility to do so. (I also told them that they had to create characters who would adventure together, after one too many parties that just never gelled. But that's another rant...)

The other policy I adopted was to make no apologies about railroading characters into the adventure (for one-shots) or the first adventure (for campaigns). Often, that's really explicit ("Your mission is to...."). Or just start in media res, or whatever.

(I do take the view that once the PCs are in that first adventure it's up to them how they proceed. So I wouldn't have a problem with the PCs acting as in @niklinna's post - I would have to structure that adventure differently.)
 

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