D&D 5E When Players Are Indecisive

Mad_Jack

Legend
Disregarding the larger meta-game conversation, one thing to keep in mind is that you've had the party officially deputized - as members of the city police, they don't necessarily need to find information on their own... At any moment, a hot lead or some new rumors with sketchy details could come in from the several hundred other cops in the city and/or one of their informants.
(Which means that someone else took all the (real or imagined) risk involved, and suffered any possible consequences.)
You have several ways available to point them straight at the clues you want them to find and to give them the information you want them to have.

And if their needs to be a slightly greater sense of urgency at some point, there are many ways to poke the horse:

An informant turns up dead, which means that somebody knows somebody talked about something and that might mean sudden changes to the way business gets done...

Dead dealers/other employees of the BBEG turn up, indicating a possible rival or even possibly some lone vigilante taking justice into their own hands. Other folks declaring war on the bad guys, whether organizations or single nutjobs, isn't good for the party's work...

Someone wants to talk, but either they want some outrageous payoff for it or some ridiculous level of safeguarding from the repercussions. Which means the party may need to pull off some shenanigans to get the person what they want or to convince them to be more reasonable...

Someone's decided Something Must Be Done to end the "scourge of these drugs plaguing our streets" and has begun organizing protests and more importantly putting pressure on the party's bosses to make progress. Starting out with a gentle nudge (the team gets called in for a progress report) and slowly building up to the "I don't care how, just get this S.O.B.!!!" speech from their boss's boss allows you to test the waters to see if the party is just taking their own sweet time about things or if they're actually lost...
(And, if you want to, to introduce a shortcut - the mysterious and/or shady npc (or group thereof) who can solve their problems for them - but always with a cost (rarely ever just money) that may or may not be worth it. Adding more or less pressure to get the job done can influence how willing the party might be to take advantage of the potential shortcut and deal with the guy. Which also sets up some interesting scenarios regarding the possible repercussions later on of dealing with them...)

Sometimes rotating the board slightly can give you a new perspective on the game, but if you turn the board a little this way and a little that way and the players are still playing the same game, then just shrug and carry on the status quo.
 
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overgeeked

B/X Known World
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?
Don’t prep plots, prep situations. If the players are interested, they’ll follow up. If not, they’ll walk away. If they’re investigating, that suggests interest.
So...realizing that everyone has different tastes and tolerances: thoughts, ideas, suggestions? Should I let the PCs continue to investigate at their own pace?
Yes. It’s their game, too. If they want to be slow and methodical, let them.

Blades in the Dark has a great flashback mechanic. It helps players skip overthinking and just diving in. You spend a resource or take a stress to retroactively do things. This pushes the game ahead a lot faster than if the players have to make plans for 30-40 minutes only for them to inevitably fall apart upon contact with the enemy.
 

Bigsta

Explorer
All the DMs in my group follow this basic houserule: "When my wife starts to look bored, a fight breaks out." That could be a random encounter, a bar fight, a drinking contest, or anything that gets the dice rolling, whatever the DM finds appropriate in that instant. It ensures a healthy mix of role playing and action with little downtime.
 

bloodtide

Legend
You want to do something.

It can be nice to have a "slow" session once in a while. Maybe. But you want to be very careful.

A LOT of players simply won't "do" anything: they only want to react to what the GM does. So they will happily sit there all session waiting to react.

A LOT of players are followers, so if the other players are "doing it" and "seem to be having fun" then they will follow and do that too.

A LOT of players will just sit there and "pretend" to have fun, even if they are not.

The end result is that a player might feel it was just wasted time. Sure listening to gnome jokes for an hour was funny....but it's not what they came over to do.

Again, a LOT of players don't have all that much free time. So it's a big deal for them to make time to Game. And they often want a minimum of something to make the game time "worth it" This is a bit different for each player....but you can safely say most want combat, action, adventure or to move the story plot along.

So, as a GM, it's often best to toss in some "combat, action, adventure or to move the story plot along" to every session.

That way, the players can't say the "whole session" was a waste.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
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?
Let them carry on at their own pace while at the same time quietly getting ready to handle a complete left turn by the party/players. I say this because sometimes what looks like player indecisiveness is a reflection of player disinterest in the current plot or adventure.

What I really hope you have in either case is a player who, be it in or out of character, will sooner or later get bored and do something - anything - to stir the pot.
 

Quickleaf

Legend
I'll offer some observations & suggestions very specific to your situation...

The big picture – let's not forget this – is PCs hired/deputized to arrest a connected narcotics-dealing Evil Wizard. When in doubt, scenes should feed back into this. It sounds like part of your issues may be that you haven't fleshed out your clues enough (or possibly that your clues are fixed to very specific locations/individuals that players aren't encountering).

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 explored a bit, heard rumors of a fire... They spend a while investigating the fire, which was ultimately inconsequential; an accident resulting from the fire-based performances.
Why did the players attach so much importance to the fire? This seems like an unnecessary red herring. I know players can fixate on odd things, but it seems like the theme was pointing in that direction.

Rather than making it a bounce-off point – i.e. "nope, this isn't important" – you can always pivot and either move a clue here (if it makes sense) or improv to seed hints of a clue somewhere else. For example, maybe the fire was caused by someone high on drugs... and that arsonist can be found in a catatonic state, maybe persuaded to mutter some bizarre words that hint at the Evil Wizard.

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 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.
When players have difficulty digging into the adventure, typically I see 2 roots causes (there are more, but these are the most common) – (1) they're new players who haven't gotten that "anything is possible" / they're players accustomed to linear adventure path style games, or (2) the GM / adventure hasn't provided enough context, clues, and meaningful differentiation of options.

For an example of (2), you give them a list of locations – manor, vineyard, shop. Without more information, however, these are effectively describing dungeon doors by color: "the door on the left is purple, the one in the middle is burgundy, and the one one the right is bronze." Without context, these may as well be doors A, B, C. Here's an example of more meaningful differentiation:
  • The wizard's Manor was recently attacked and a magical ward is in effect that polymorphed the last messenger (bearing spell components) trying to reach the door. This invites questions: Who attacked and why? Is the ward of the wizard's making? How does the wizard come and go / circumvent the ward? Did they need the components cause they are up to a ritual?
  • There are cases of drugged wine throughout the city, including otherwise reputable vintages. Strangely, one of the only wines that seems untainted are those made at the wizard's Vineyard. However, several sommeliers & vintners swear that the reputable wines (now drugged) have a citrus acid quality – typical of the wizard's Vineyard – that they didn't have before. This invites questions: Is the wizard using his grapes in the production of the drug? How are the tainted grapes getting from the Vineyard to the other wineries? Is it sabotage or a conspiracy? Is there a way to trace the source of the drug and recall the drugged wines? Is there an imminent delivery that the PCs need to intercept?
  • The Shop is run by a well-known apprentice of the wizard, who has great ambitions and is known to purchase all kinds of questionably sourced magic, especially being fond of spellbooks and new/rare spells. In fact, the apprentice is frustrated that the wizard isn't being forthcoming about teaching certain spells, so the apprentice is looking for ways to circumvent their master & teach themself. He's taken to using the drug himself, but in controlled dosages, to augment his magic. This invites questions: Could we use this as leverage to manipulate the apprentice or cause conflict between apprentice & master? Do the apprentice's drug experiments hint at a potential remedy? Is there some spell we could trade to the apprentice to gain information about the wizard's plans?

The players were mostly just kind of....noncommittal?
When players are blasé, non-commital, not too interested – one trick is to make it personal. Another trick is to kick in the door. Or do both at once.

For example, a messenger arrives with an urgent message that one of their NPC contacts/allies has fallen into a catatonic state (after imbibing the drug).

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?
Let's go back to the big picture – the PCs were hired/deputized to arrest a connected narcotics-dealing Evil Wizard. You've talked about the importance of arresting the wizard. You've talked about the evils of the drug they're dealing. But...

...what about the wizard's elite connections? And what might that mean for the PCs' deputization?

What I'm driving at is if the wizard has "Friends in high places", now might be a good time to showcase that in a way that creates trouble for the PCs. It doesn't need to be directly targeting them. It might instead be political pressure on their patron or the police force which causes all deputization writs to be suspended – in other words, this is the classic noir trope of "detective taken off the case" (and, of course, having to redouble efforts to thwart villain without the support of the law...or possibly with the law being turned against them).
 

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.
All good advice. 3 more thoughts:
1). Mysteries are notoriously difficult in RPG’s. One way I’ve seen (in Dungeon) is multiple clues, and if they missing it all, the criminal escalating by attacking people they know. Doesn’t quite work for a drug dealer versus a serial killer, but perhaps they could have their innkeeper’s kid go catatonic and the innkeeper ask them for a magical cure - they are big deal magic wielders from the NPC’s POV, right?, even at 1st level.

Some wise person - like the cleric or rogue or mage’s mentor or a magic shop owner - could tell them rumor says there is a cure - and guess maybe the fantasy Narcan is in the dealer’s shop’s back room or at the dealer’s mansion. Surely they wouldn’t risk having this stuff without the antidote, right?

2) Give them an NPC with ideas on how to investigate. I’m guessing neither DM nor players have done real-life investigating, but you could have a NPC point out flashier ideas from detective action shows, like a stakeout or sneaking into the big party in disguise or as caterers. Have the NPC be an ex-cop drummed off the force who comes up with an idea - realistic or cinematic - for them to execute.

3) “Yes, and …” Do some improv to go with their ideas.
 
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mamba

Legend
If you think they are simply slow / cautious and methodical, let them. If you think they are out of ideas what to do, introduce something that can be helpful (overhear something / be ambushed by some thugs that can reveal a bit of information once overcome (and not killed) / getting drugged and robbed, and once they track the robber down they can get a lead on where / how he got the drugs / …)
 


All good advice. 3 more thoughts:
1). Mysteries are notoriously difficult in RPG’s. One way I’ve seen (in Dungeon) is multiple clues, and if they missing it all, the criminal escalating by attacking people they know. Doesn’t quite work for a drug dealer versus a serial killer, but perhaps they could have their innkeeper’s kid go catatonic and the innkeeper ask them for a magical cure - they are big deal magic wielders from the NPC’s POV, right?, even at 1st level.

Agreed, investigations can be tough to handle. Handing out more clues than you think they'll need is a good idea. I'm also fond of having a "if the PCs get stumped, do this" scenario in my back pocket when I've got a mystery adventure to run.

As far as when to nudge the PCs along, if they are enjoying themselves, sometimes it's fine to have a slower, less action-packed adventure. Sometimes it's nice to just enjoy exploring the world and role-playing your character. However, if the PCs are starting to get frustrated or bored, then that's the time to look at "how do I move this adventure forward?"
 

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