Imagine you’re running a session. You bring your players down a long stone corridor and at the end the path splits in two direction. Down one path you hear the sounds of someone in distress, down the other, sounds of monsters shuffling around arguing. So now you ask the players “What do you want do?”
Depending on your game and your group this next decision could be made in seconds or it could take an hour.
What causes the big difference in time and how do you help your players make good decisions?
Group Decision Making
Every DnD group has to make decisions together at some point. If you’ve done a good job as a DM players typically have a good idea of what options they have and reasons to choose one or the other. Even if you’ve done everything super well players can sometimes spend a whole lot of time on relatively small decisions.
Whether it’s differences in strategy, a failure to vote, or even just stubbornness, all of these things can slow down group decisions. In worst case scenarios no decision is ever made and the players discuss in a nebulous circle. So, how do we deal with this and keep our games moving forward?
Before we can fully identify the solutions, we need to better understand the problems.
What Stops a Group From Making Decisions?
Everyone Has an Opinion
By far the most common issue you might face will be when every player has an idea. This is frequent in smaller groups as each person has more room to voice ideas. While it’s not bad for your players to come up with ideas, too many can be a bad thing when no one works to narrow it down. I’ve even seen cases where every player has multiple ideas and none of them overlap.
Fear of Making the Wrong Choice
Another common trap players fall into is thinking that there is a right and a wrong choice. This can cause them to overthink every situation and draw out even simple decisions. If they think that the choice they make is too important, they won’t make any choice without a full deliberation. This problem is often seen when players are too focused on “winning” rather than on storytelling.
Refining an idea is a good part of decision making, but it has its limits. In some cases a group of players won’t know when to stop. Each new idea gives someone else a new good idea and the planning gets out of hand really fast. Players in this situation may make a decision, but it takes a long time to get there. At least they are working together.
Sometimes it’s not the group. Sometimes it’s one stubborn player who insists that their solution is the correct one. Worse still, this can halt the game further if they want to take the time to convince everyone else that their plan is correct. Sometimes they’re right, sometimes they’re wrong, but every time this slows down the game.
Looking for Possibilities that Don’t Exist
While not as common, some players will try to get overly creative with simple choices. This is like if a person didn’t like any answers on a multiple choice test question and decided to write in their own answers. Props to them for their creativity, but often you’ll have to tell this kind of player “No” a dozen or so times before they get back to the options they have at hand.
How to Help Your Group Make Decisions
There are all sorts of ways to help your group make decisions. Often you’ll need to employ more than one solution, so it’s good to know your options and how to use them in different scenarios.
These helpers come in three flavors:
- Long Term
Let’s explore each one!
Preventative Measures to Decision Paralysis
Preventative measures are the things you tell your players when you give them a decision. Your “What do you do?” statement opens the room up for discussion, but you can also give players gentle nudges. Before you ask them for a decision you can give them a sense of urgency. Telling them that if they hide in a spot too long and they might be seen can work wonders.
Another way to do this is to give them actual in-game pressure. “The monster rounds the corner on patrol and may be back any moment. What do you do?”
These kind of statements prompt the players to make actionable decisions quickly and are the gentlest of reminders to move along more quickly.
So what about when the players are safe and can take as long as they want to make a decision? This is when you bring in the real world clock. Maybe give them 15 minutes (which is a long time). Tell them at a certain time you’ll ask them what they’ve decided and then use the time in between to take a break, you deserve it! If they haven’t made a decision by the time limit, move on to immediate measures!
Immediate Measures for Decision Paralysis
While preventative measures were the gentle nudge, immediate measures are a shove in the right direction.
If players take too long to make a decision, sometimes the decision gets made for them. Wandering monsters can appear or additional clues can force their hand. The situation they are in can change in a variety of ways!
If your players can’t make a decision be ready to move the story on differently. If they go past a time limit, describe how the plot moves forward while they’re inactive, even when players have a long time to make a decision in a safe place.
This can be harsh and seem cruel, so it’s best used only when preventative measures fail. You’re not doing it to be mean or take away anyone’s fun, but instead to ensure the game can move forward at a reasonable pace.
Long Term Measures to Reduce Decision Paralysis
Long term measures are all of the aspects that fall into meta gaming. This means talking to your group and players. Ask them if they think the decision making processes are too long. If they say yes, talk with them about ways to speed these things up. If they say no, you might just want to resign yourself to a slower game or tell your players how you as the DM feel about it. Communication is the best way forward with most group problems.
Another step that you might need to take is talking to a single stubborn player. We’ve covered problem players in the past, but just like any issue it should be solvable with communication. If your player understands that they’re causing the game to slow down or making it less fun for other people, they’ll likely try to change their ways.
This also works best if you give them productive solutions that they can use in the context of their character. If their character is meant to be stubborn, give them an outlet for that in the game while also helping them understand how to use it constructively to move the story forward. It also bears pointing out pretending to be a jerk and actually being a jerk can be indistinguishable in some games.
Lastly, you can prevent a lot of decision paralysis by helping your players know the group better. Do campfire sequences where players talk about their characters and their pasts. Have NPCs ask specific characters about their fighting styles so they get a chance to discuss that in front of the group.
You can also ask players post-session to talk about the perceptions they have of the other characters. This can help everyone get a sense of how they’re playing their character and think about others in the group. It’s very easy for players to spend all of their time thinking about their own character when they are trying to role play, so help them refocus on the group.
Players sometimes have trouble making decisions. This is totally normal, but as the DM you need to be ready to help move the story along in different ways. Frame decisions that imply a deadline and give people reminders of real world time usage when necessary. Don’t forget that you have opportunities to help your players get better at decision making over time by discussing and reflecting on the game with them outside of the context of the story.
Hopefully this will help you move your games forward!