Improvisation is essential to TTRPG. If you’d rather everyone did exactly what you told them - you should either invest all your time inventing an unethical mind control device…or direct some amateur dramatics. Your choice. (Or is it??)
When you feel at odds with your players, you can either change who you play with or change your own mindset. Sometimes between you and your players, your play styles just won’t jell, and that’s cool. But sometimes you’ve got your blinkers on and it’s hard to know where things have gone wrong.
The joy in TTRPGs is the fact they are essentially collaborative storytelling. It’s not your job to tell the story on your own, but it is your job to provide the setting.
It’s not your story - it’s the group's story.
To put it another way, you till the soil. You do the legwork. You’re not growing the crops on your own but you’re ordering in all the supplies and making sure the ground is fertile before you even begin. It’s your land, it’s your soil, it’s your season, but you need your friends to make things grow. They bring the seeds, and, by Jove, you better let them plant those seeds so they can be a part of the process. You want to grow a story, not resentment.
1) Don’t be so precious; your campaign plans are not an award-winning Oscar script
I know what you’re thinking; Listen, Katherine, I didn’t pay $30 on a new campaign to have everyone just abandon ship. I get it. If everyone is directionless and titting about in the woods, you’ll feel as though you’ve wasted your time and money. All the while, your miniatures are getting dusty in the cupboards. You don’t want that.
On the other side of the coin, there's no point in everyone bringing their own personalities and character backstories to the table if all you're going to do is tick off the story events like they're some sort of checklist. If you’re playing for fun, then there’s no rush.
Campaigns should be vastly different with each new one that's played. If you find everything is very similar and formulaic, then it might be that you’ve put the blinkers on to try and get everyone to finish the story. You're using that checklist a bit too much.
You have to find the balance. No one wants to be bored or unsure what to do next. No one likes to be railroaded.
I love that term; railroaded. I think it describes this situation perfectly. If you’re on a train as a passenger, you’ve got no say in where you go. It’s the most direct and boring route to your destination and if you try to jump off you die. On foot, though, you can decide where you’re going and be the master of your own destiny.
Take Your Time to Respond
Sometimes your player will do something odd. Not because they’re trying to be disruptive but because they’ve thought about something differently. Not everyone is going to have the same approach to a presented situation.
I was at a table when a player found a trap door. He decided to knock on it. Nothing happened. When we opened it up, the enemies were waiting for us. Afterwards, the GM asked him why he had knocked. My friend replied ‘Well if someone knocks on a door, they’re not usually a threat. You’re asking for permission. I thought someone would respond or make a noise or come out.’ The GM admitted he was so ready for a battle (and frankly a little confused by my friend's actions) that he just forged ahead without thinking about how the guards inside would realistically respond to a knock from outside.
If you don’t know why someone has done something, ask them why they’ve done something. You can’t respond effectively if you don’t know what they were trying to achieve. Find out their intended outcome.
Make Sweet Jazz
Let the players affect your world.
When you play together, think of it like making freestyle jazz music. You have a base riff, and then you just do what feels good and sounds right. You’re all playing different instruments but you're all getting your solos in and trying to complement each other. It’s about having fun. Try and get into the flow of the story; focus on the player, the people, and the energy. If you want to instead control the whole orchestra, become a conductor and conduct some Mozart (aka write a novel if you want to tell your own story that badly). TTRPGs should be more like jazz because with jazz it's loose and collaborative.
Get the Story Back on Track
It might be a bold statement but ‘Never say a narrative no’. You’re never supposed to say never (God what a mouthful) but let me explain.
I say ‘narrative no’ because there are more specific rules when it comes to carrying and combat. There are limits to what is physically possible.
What I’m trying to say is: Let your players try dumb things. For example, say one of the PCs seducing the married mayor may result in disaster for the party. Let them do it anyway. If they succeed, then the mayor might meet them in the pub you actually wanted them to go to. Now they have motivation to go there based on their own actions. If they fail, he might put them in jail for bribery or it might just be very awkward. Still, it gives you the opportunity to tell them a lot about the mayor as a character no matter how it shakes out.
Try not to use NPC's morals and written descriptions as black and white. Instead, use them to maybe influence the roll difficulty instead if you don't mind moving off the beaten path. Create the difficulty scale within the realm of possibility. As GM, the worst thing you can do here is say "No, because he’s married, and he wouldn’t". You’re limiting people in a game where their choices should matter, and their imaginations should run wild.
For example, a Nat 20 might mean he’s so besotted with you that he asks you out for a drink. He doesn’t have to strip down naked. I can’t stress this enough: Let your players affect the world.
Make Sure There's a Plan
Give your players a good stage to make music on. Create compelling lore. If you’ve got solid lore, your world will become more meaningful and enriched and alive when the players make changes to that lore through their actions and deeds. But in contrast to all of the above, you do need some kind of overall plan to keep people from being confused or bored. At minimum:
Where are the characters and where are they from? The lore of the place should be solid, deep, and meaningful to them.
Why are they here? If the characters don’t initially know each other, let them get to know each other through roleplaying. People are eager to share their creations.
What motivates them? It will be different depending on each character’s backstory. Once the party has been formed and solidified, they’ll just travel together because they’re good at getting stuff done and they’re a team. But you need that cohesive glue early on for the narrative.
How do they progress? Where do they find information in the world? Have a plan B and C ready for if they miss plan A, but you don’t have to have tons prepared for each scenario.
It goes without saying but I needed to conclude this post somehow. The most important thing (bleh, it’s so cliched) is to have fun and enjoy yourselves.
Maybe what I’ve said is controversial. Maybe your players should do as they’re told and all of you would still have a lot of fun, but it’s more likely people are frustrated or bored if they seem to be actively trying to ruin your plans. Make them feel valued by listening to their contributions.