by Mike Shea on 25 August 2014
When people sit down to play Dungeons and Dragons, they want to feel empowered. Players want to feel a sense of discovery and a sense that they can influence the world. They want to feel like their decisions matter and their actions lead somewhere. They generally don't want to be led by the nose from one scene to another while their actions have no impact on the game.
Many DMs likely have a good handle on facilitating PC empowerment during scenes of combat and interactions. We know what happens when a fighter hits an orc in the head with an axe or a sorcerer blasts a group of goblins with a fireball. We know what happens when a barbarian tells a noble lord to suck it or a bard sings high praises to an egotistical barkeep. Scenes of exploration and investigation, however can be trickier to run.
When taking part in an investigation, players want to feel the same empowerment they feel when talking to an NPC or fighting a monster. They want to do things and they want those things to help them uncover what's going on. Sometimes, we DMs make it too hard for PCs to actually uncover any useful clues. This results in PCs stumbling around without really picking out the few clues they need to discover whatever it is they need to discover. Instead of feeling like Sherlock Homes, picking up clues that show a big picture, they feel more like Inspector Gadget, bumbling around until the story suddenly appears right in front of them.
Your players shouldn't feel like they're playing the text-based Hitchhiker's Guide game in which almost every action taken results in "I don't understand X" until you stumble on the right word to get to the next frustrating encounter. We DMs can do it better than that.
Our worlds can continually shift and realign themselves to the actions and perspectives of the PCs. If PCs seem to be spending all of their time in one line of investigation while the real answer lies somewhere completely different, we are well within our power and authority to move the clues. Maybe the clue really IS there. Maybe the story itself changes. Maybe NPCs begin to learn things they hadn't known or the map is hidden in a completely different part of the mansion after all. If players are feeling lost, we don't have to steer them the right way, we can change the direction of the whole world and aim it towards the place they're already looking.
If the PCs aren't uncovering the current set of clues, make up new ones.
There's a danger when players feel like their own actions don't matter. They tune out. They reach for their cellphones and become less invested in the story. The less invested they are, the less time we DMs focus on them. We steer to other players who might pay more attention or focus back on telling the story instead of letting it grow from the actions of the PCs. The less we involve them, the more apathetic they become as the downward spiral continues.
We can break this spiral. When we see people tuning out, we should take a moment to ask ourselves why. We can ask ourselves what would bring them back. We can mold the soft clay of our world back into one that interests them. We can put the components in place to bring them back to the story.
What are their characters good at? What skills are they trained in? In the current scene, what sort of thing might they do with their character's skills to learn something useful to the party? What aspect of their background might come into play? Tying their characters back to the world can go a long way to breaking the cycle of apathy.
If you're running a published adventure and find that PCs are missing all the vital clues, you have full power and full responsibility to change it. The idea that "it was written that way" is as bad an excuse as a player saying "I was only doing what my character would do" to justify being a flaming asshole.
You are in the seat running the game. You're the one who has the responsibility to facilitate a fun game. The writer of that module is no where to be found. It's up to you to make it fun and you have everything you need to change the story and make players feel empowered once again.
The story of our games evolves as our players play through it. Things aren't set in stone. We can shift the origin of clues to fit the directions taken by our PC. Instead of frustrating players with a lack of clear threads and lines of investigation, we can shift the location of those threads to the direction in which they find themselves already heading. If they're having a hard time finding anything, make the clues more overt. If they're getting nowhere talking to the one NPC who can help them, make the NPC a bit easier to talk to. The pace of the investigation and the enjoyment of the game sits in your hands.