Keep Them Moving
As a game master, you’re doing a good job as long as everyone at your table is engaged and interested in the game. I’m probably not the first person to tell you this, but it's easier said than done. There’s lots of advice out there, but one of the many pitfalls in planning a session, a lack of information and direction, is often overlooked.
When players don’t have a clear set of paths to move forward on, most become confused and the wheels start to come off your game. This is part of the reason the dungeon-crawl is such a popular and enduring format. As long as there are unopened doors, players always have at least one clear course of action. They may argue over which way to go first, but the game rarely halts because there is no obvious way to proceed.
In a game I recently ran, the group was after a MacGuffin buried under an underwater temple. I decided to make this artifact much larger than they were expecting, building it into the foundation of the structure itself. I created the entire location around the assumption that they would destroy this object by stoking the flames of a dormant volcano and burying it with lava. In hindsight, the way I executed this plan was very poorly done.
I was so trapped in my own head focusing on the story I wanted to lay out that I forgot to plan how I’d show my players that path. I had one NPC (an evil aboleth boss) who could tell the players where the MacGuffin was, and zero clues as to how to destroy it. I had planned for the aboleth to try and surrender, bargaining information for its life, but the party killed it anyway. Why would I assume they would do anything else? The game slowed to a crawl with the boss dead and nothing to do but wander through a few unexplored areas of the dungeon.
The Three Clue Rule
Breakdowns in communication like this contribute to the persistent issue of railroading. It’s not that players don’t want a story, it’s that GMs are either too subtle or too strong in laying the path in front of them. If you go too far in the other direction and directly tell the players where you want them to go, many will revolt and try and find another way to go, no matter how nonsensical, just to try and gain back their agency.
Giving your players multiple small hints instead of one helps you tell a story without the players feel like they have lost control of their characters. Justin Alexander of The Alexandrian calls this The Three Clue Rule. Any time your players need information to proceed, it should be available in three different ways. They’ll probably disregard the significance of one, completely overlook another, but hopefully one will stick with them. And if they come up with an unexpected fourth way of proceeding that still makes sense, by all means use it!
You may feel that adding in more clues amounts to spoon-feeding the players, but there’s nothing to say that you can’t still make it challenging to find those clues. Make some of the information require skill checks or sacrifices to obtain (although this does increase the chance of total breakdown). If done well, the players will feel that they’re working hard to build a case for what they should do next, not that they’re passing signposts telling them where to go.
Improving My Example
In the game I mentioned, there were two big pieces of information that I didn’t have a plan for communicating: the location of the MacGuffin, and how to destroy it.
An evil boss negotiating for its life with information the party desperately needs is a dramatic scene, so it obviously stays. However I could easily also put in a schematic of the entire dungeon, laying out where the MacGuffin is buried, and a magical device that would seek it out. I think giving the reveal to the boss is still the best moment, but it’d also be satisfying if the players already had the information when they fought the boss and could throw that in its face during negotiations.
A plan to destroy an artifact with a volcano is more abstract than said artifact’s location and therefore a bit trickier to do without beating the players over the head with it. Obviously, every ancient temple needs a library with moldering scrolls and tomes. Whether through a book, painting, or magical slideshow, it’s easy to communicate that the builders of the temple tried to use a volcano to destroy the MacGuffin but failed. I could start the adventure with a buried, Pompeii-like city to clue them in to what had happened previously. Had I really been planning in advance, I would have used a much earlier session to tell the group a legend about using the heart of an efreeti to incite an eruption.
Whatever your methods, you need to keep your players moving. There is nothing wrong with enjoying dungeon crawls with very clear paths forward, but other groups will make you work a bit harder. For these groups, make it a major priority while planning to find ways to nudge them along a story without taking away their agency.