D&D 5E When Players Are Indecisive

Shadowdweller00

Adventurer
So in my latest game session - for the first time in a goodly long while - I ran an episode where essentially nothing happened. There was no combat. There was no strife. No particular clues were discovered. No mysteries unraveled. There WAS some investigation and exploration of a fantasy city. And a touch of roleplaying. It wasn't exactly a slog. The players didn't seem particularly bored. However...My basic question is this: If you personally, Dear Reader, were playing in such a game, would you prefer it if the DM MADE something happen? Or would you rather be the author of your own fate, even if the action gets a little slow sometimes?

Background: The PCs were hired by the ruler of a Greco-Roman themed city to arrest a prominent criminal who has been selling dangerous narcotics that cause possibly permanent catatonia in some users. The criminal is a powerful wizard who is well-connected amongst the city's elite; and of whom the normal law-enforcement is deathly afraid. The PCs have been granted policing powers. The city is in the midst of a major festival that occurs once every three years, coinciding with the conjunction of the world's three moons. Drug and alcohol usage is rampant amongst the population at the moment due to the festivities. And the streets are filled (during the more tolerably cool parts of the day) with fire-based performances as part of the celebrations - fire eaters, fire dancers, pyromancers, fireworks. The PCs don't know where the criminal can be found - but they know he has a manor in the city, owns a vineyard outside of town, and runs a number of ostensibly legal shops in the city, specializing in the sale of wines and tobacco as a front for more nefarious activities. The PCs explored a bit, heard rumors of a fire. They spent a while investigating the fire, which was ultimately inconsequential; an accident resulting from the fire-based performances. The PCs approached one of the businesses run by the criminal, and purchased a sample of the drug (as well as some lemon-flavored wine), but otherwise learned nothing. There WAS for the record stuff to learn there - but not by conducting normal business with the salespeople. They did a bit of snooping outside the criminal's manor, but didn't try to go in. Unfortunately the exterior was walled off by tall cypress trees; with a wooden gate obscuring any view beyond the very top of the house on the other side. (In addition to a sign warning that trespassers would be killed). Maybe I'm being too sensitive and I should just let the PCs continue their investigations as they wish. They were VERY careful not to reveal themselves to employees of the criminal; nor to show too much interest. So I don't have any basis for warnings off or assassination attempts yet. The players were mostly just kind of....noncommittal?

So...realizing that everyone has different tastes and tolerances: thoughts, ideas, suggestions? Should I let the PCs continue to investigate at their own pace? Introduce some unrelated city-based encounters and stuff? Try to move the main plot along somehow? And, if so, how?
 
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Ondath

Hero
The only correct answer is "you should intervene if the players dislike being non-committal" (while not forgetting that the GM is also a player). The party might like moving at a pace that's slower than what you normally like, but if that leaves them satisfied and doesn't annoy you the GM too much, I honestly think no intervention is needed. I was chatting with another GM friend, and she thought there was a problem with her group because the party moved the plot very slowly and one player even likened the game to a slice of life anime. So she thought she needed to add stuff to the game that pushes them, but at that point the players went "Wait, we meant the slice of life comment in a good way! Just let us immerse ourselves in your world." And as a result her games have very little happening most of the time, but the players still leave each session quite happy.

That said, maybe not every player likes this situation. Maybe you don't like it! I know I would be anxious to get the plot moving after a while. If that's the case, you should probably check in with the group to see if they're happy with the situation, if some are happy while others are unhappy, and if they would be okay meeting in the middle with people who want a faster pace.

If people do want the pace to be faster, then there are a few things you can do. The easiest one is "When the party is doing nothing, have a man with a gun walk in." When the party spends too much time to make a choice, throw a new plot development at them that they have to immediately deal with in a clear way.

Another thing to consider is whether you're giving the party enough clues to help them make a decision, and if the choices they have in a scene are dramatically loaded. That could also be one reason the parry is indecisive. You said they know the criminal has a manor and that they visited some of his businesses (but that the business wouldn't lead to anywhere). Why doesn't the business lead anywhere? That seems like a sensible line of exploration, and perhaps that encounter should've given them more ways to tackle the mystery (new leads on where to go, new tools to make the manor less of a scary option and more available to exploration etc.). Did the party have enough clues that they should have gone to the manor, and did they know that a party of their strength need not be afraid of the manor's dangers? If not, it's pretty reasonable for them not to prefer going there, especially if the place seems deadly (the PCs would reasonably value their lives!). Did you think of any alternative approaches that the party might take? Would you allow them to approach the situation differently? After all, TTRPGs are about making choices, and if there's only one correct answer, that usually doesn't lead to a fun game.
 

Shadowdweller00

Adventurer
The business DOES lead somewhere. It's just that normal buying and selling from the business won't. The PCs could try to search the place for hidden documents or clues, hide and scope out how supplies are delivered there, attempt to listen in on conversations between employees, possibly even arrest and/or try to intimidate... ahem interrogate or use mind-control or mind-reading magic on employees to get them to reveal information. For example. They might not have considered such ideas; or they chose not to do them for various reasons. Yet, at least. I think they might have been...scared... to raise a fuss?

I confess I wasn't as well-prepared for the session as I could have been. And it's always possible that I didn't provide sufficient information for them to make decisions; or provided too much background detail for them to discern what might actually be important. But they know or should know if they think about it that the criminal owns and supplies the business (they purchased some of the narcotic there); and that money should ultimately flow in return back to the criminal somehow.
 
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Mort

Legend
Supporter
So in my latest game session - for the first time in a goodly long while - I ran an episode where essentially nothing happened. There was no combat. There was no strife. No particular clues were discovered. No mysteries unraveled. There WAS some investigation and exploration of a fantasy city. And a touch of roleplaying. It wasn't exactly a slog. The players didn't seem particularly bored. However...My basic question is this: If you personally, Dear Reader, were playing in such a game, would you prefer it if the DM MADE something happen? Or would you rather be the author of your own fate, even if the action gets a little slow sometimes?

Background: The PCs were hired by the ruler of a Greco-Roman themed city to arrest a prominent criminal who has been selling dangerous narcotics that cause possibly permanent catatonia in some users. The criminal is a powerful wizard who is well-connected amongst the city's elite; and of whom the normal law-enforcement is deathly afraid. The PCs have been granted policing powers. The city is in the midst of a major festival that occurs once every three years, coinciding with the conjunction of the world's three moons. Drug and alcohol usage is rampant amongst the population at the moment due to the festivities. And the streets are filled (during the more tolerably cool parts of the day) with fire-based performances as part of the celebrations - fire eaters, fire dancers, pyromancers, fireworks. The PCs don't know where the criminal can be found - but they know he has a manor in the city, owns a vineyard outside of town, and runs a number of ostensibly legal shops in the city, specializing in the sale of wines and tobacco as a front for more nefarious activities. The PCs explored a bit, heard rumors of a fire. They spent a while investigating the fire, which was ultimately inconsequential; an accident resulting from the fire-based performances. The PCs approached one of the businesses run by the criminal, and purchased a sample of the drug (as well as some lemon-flavored wine), but otherwise learned nothing. There WAS for the record stuff to learn there - but not by conducting normal business with the salespeople. They did a bit of snooping outside the criminal's manor, but didn't try to go in. Unfortunately the exterior was walled off by tall cypress trees; with a wooden gate obscuring any view beyond the very top of the house on the other side. (In addition to a sign warning that trespassers would be killed). Maybe I'm being too sensitive and I should just let the PCs continue their investigations as they wish. They were VERY careful not to reveal themselves to employees of the criminal; nor to show too much interest. So I don't have any basis for warnings off or assassination attempts yet. The players were mostly just kind of....noncommittal?

So...realizing that everyone has different tastes and tolerances: thoughts, ideas, suggestions? Should I let the PCs continue to investigate at their own pace? Introduce some unrelated city-based encounters and stuff? Try to move the main plot along somehow? And, if so, how?

It depends:

If this is a continuing game (be it weekly, monthly, whatever) and, especially, if the players are enjoying the pace? Then periods, even long periods, of relative inaction and quiet are just fine. The players are getting to know the world, absorbing the ambiance, interacting with each other etc.

If it's a one shot (especially something like a timed convention game) or an otherwise very limited time commitment? Then the GM absolutely needs mechanisms in the adventure to push the action and ensure the players get the most out of the setting and the adventure. Best for the adventure to have some way for the plot to come to the PCs (as @Ondath said for a man with a gun to come in shooting...).
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
So in my latest game session - for the first time in a goodly long while - I ran an episode where essentially nothing happened. There was no combat. There was no strife. No particular clues were discovered. No mysteries unraveled. There WAS some investigation and exploration of a fantasy city. And a touch of roleplaying. It wasn't exactly a slog. The players didn't seem particularly bored. However...My basic question is this: If you personally, Dear Reader, were playing in such a game, would you prefer it if the DM MADE something happen? Or would you rather be the author of your own fate, even if the action gets a little slow sometimes?
I don't think these things are mutually exclusive, but action getting even a little slow is for me not preferrable. Sandboxes are great. Quicksandboxes, where there's little action and you're interviewing quirky, cagey NPC all night trying to find the fun bits, are absolute session killers in my experience. Players being noncommittal is to me a sign that's what's going on - they lack direction or information sufficient to get after it.

So...realizing that everyone has different tastes and tolerances: thoughts, ideas, suggestions? Should I let the PCs continue to investigate at their own pace? Introduce some unrelated city-based encounters and stuff? Try to move the main plot along somehow? And, if so, how?
I would say let them investigate, but present fun and appropriate challenges, while also putting the clues right in front of their faces. Even if you think you're being way too obvious, they'll ignore it or misinterpret it sometimes and go around in circles, but if it's not obvious, that outcome is almost a certainty and you risk losing player engagement.

An event-based adventure ideally in my view has a timeline or countdown to doom. If the PCs don't do the thing by elevensies, the doomsday device goes off or whatever. Make it clear that's what'll happen if they don't succeed at the outset, throw fun challenges in their path, and watch them get after it. If they don't or try but have a tough go of it, then Bad (But Fun and Memorable) Stuff Happens as a result when time is up. Just make it so everyone can live with the aftermath and play on in the face of it.
 

Reynard

Legend
Supporter
Surely the villain will now take an interest in this motley crew of people snooping around his properties and businesses. When the PCs get an invitation to dinner with the villain, will they accept?
 

You describe frightening criminals and PCs are acting with caution. Seem right?
The PCs try to conceal themselves but the DM seem ready to send an assassination squad. Maybe players fear harsh consequence of any errors they could make?
 

Li Shenron

Legend
So in my latest game session - for the first time in a goodly long while - I ran an episode where essentially nothing happened. There was no combat. There was no strife. No particular clues were discovered. No mysteries unraveled. There WAS some investigation and exploration of a fantasy city. And a touch of roleplaying. It wasn't exactly a slog. The players didn't seem particularly bored. However...My basic question is this: If you personally, Dear Reader, were playing in such a game, would you prefer it if the DM MADE something happen? Or would you rather be the author of your own fate, even if the action gets a little slow sometimes?
It's very difficult to know, not only different players have different preferences, but also the same player might have a difference preference depending on the mood of the day... a really good DM would have the skills of sensing the feeling around the table, and make something unplanned happened if the players seem stuck or clueless or bored, but not otherwise. The game is perfectly enjoyable also when you don't have to worry about an imminent threat, and can focus on exploring, roleplaying, gathering knowledge... what if the players are enjoying one quieter session to do thing they normally don't have time to under pressure, and the DM interrupts that with some stupid random encounter that nobody likes?

But then again, that DM's skill is not something you can learn just by wanting to. It has more to do with psychology and empathy than with actual gaming skills. I can definitely remember many times when we all felt stuck as at the table, and thinking by myself "please DM do something before we die in agony", but at the same time I don't like a DM who keeps having more stuff happen without understanding when the players want to think more.
 

ichabod

Legned
So...realizing that everyone has different tastes and tolerances: thoughts, ideas, suggestions? Should I let the PCs continue to investigate at their own pace? Introduce some unrelated city-based encounters and stuff? Try to move the main plot along somehow? And, if so, how?
As others have said, whether you should prod things along depends on whether the players (and you) are enjoying things. If you do want to change the pace, I think you should move the main plot along. The fire was probably enough misdirection. Since they didn't find the clues you left them (which happens, but think about how accessible your clues are), give them another clue. Have another death happen, and have a clue toward either what to investigate at the business, or a safer way to investigate the manor.
 

Warpiglet-7

Satan’s Echo Chamber! Muhahahaha
I always say I want challenge. I want verisimilitude but in the end I don’t want it to an extreme.

I don’t want the plot given to me as a player nor do I want to feed it to players when I dm. But personally, I like clues to be more obvious if the whole movement of the game depends on them.

If they don’t unravel the plot or find every secret room, great! But if the movement of the game hinges on doing a specific thing…or it stalls…as a player and DM I would be dropping hints or nudging.

Do any of you have X spell? Are there people in the temple you have not consulted?

I may have ADHD but I need movement. Not a giveaway, but real movement toward goal or conflict
 

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