[RPG] How to handle when the players overestimate the importance of an encounter/a location


TL;DR: How can I (and should I) make the players' efforts worth their while when they overestimate the importance of an encounter or a location?

I am running a homebrew DnD 5e adventure where the players' goal is to find the grove where the witch has kidnapped some children. Nearby there is a mansion where the local lord lives. The initial plan was for the players to be able to go to the mansion and find some clues to the witch's location.

However, as the players arrived, they became certain that the children are actually inside the mansion, and started devising elaborate plans to sneak inside. Having spent almost a session on sneaking through what I thought would be a fifteen minute "walk in through the open gate, ask some questions, continue", I feel like I now have to provide some more reward for the players' work than "the princess is in another castle".

What are some strategies to tackle players spending too much time on things that were meant to be minor?

I see three options:

  • Making up some reward in terms of resources that can be useful in the climactic finale
  • Giving no reward more than the initially planned small clues, as the players were simply unlucky with the path they chose/failed to solve the puzzle I presented
  • Being clearer that this encounter is not going to yield a satisfying reward (but this time around it's too late for that)

On a meta level, I am wondering about how to deal with such situations in advance. Is it a good idea to plan each encounter/location with different rewards based on how much time players choose to spend there? Or rather to redirect them away from unimportant locations through narration?

Best Answer

I’ve seen this issue from both sides. As a GM, it’s really easy to say something ambiguous or describe something in a specific manner that the players interpret as “ooh, let’s check that out” instead of as “hmm, interesting, now let’s go”. As a player, I (which may not be the same for your players) find it fun to check out every little side thing even if nothing is there.

Sometimes, when you have a very specific timing out of game for the session (like if you are running a one shot and won’t be able to continue later), or if you’re running a published adventure, you may not have time or the information to devote to these little side quests. In that case, I would tell the players, out of character, that whatever they’re doing could be done an easier way or with less effort. It’s okay to tell them things out of character, especially if it makes things easier on you.

With that in mind, however, sometimes the most fun stories come from failure. I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve been a player, we’ve made all these plans to get in unseen and succeed on an objective... and then discover we overthought stuff. If you’ve got players that like trying things even if they fail, it’s okay not to give them a big reward if that’s how you think it should go.

As a GM, my favorite session was when my players were stopping a dragon, they made some huge plan to sneak into the well protected lair, and discovered... a pile of cheap romance novels. I got a handful of dice thrown at me immediately after this reveal, but after the session, one of the players told me she actually really liked that not everything they did had huge rewards. She thought, like I did, that the fun was in the doing, not in the reward.

If your players enjoy it, there’s no problem with just giving them the planned reward. If they start to complain, I would suggest asking them whether or not they want to be warned when the plan is too complex. It’s okay to tell them their plan is not the easiest way to succeed. All in all, whatever you decide to do is fine and will end up making the game better.