I'm GMing a DnD 5e campaign with players completely new to tabletop RPGs. Every time I present them with a situation and ask them what they do next, none of them ever arrive at a conclusion, and I end up railroading them by suggesting what they do next. How can I stop this from happening? I'm thinking of trying "choose to do either X or Y" type choices if all else fails, but I really think that detracts from the game's open-endedness.
Derek: This is a very common issue with new players! Fortunately, you’re on the right track with “choose to do either X or Y,” but let’s talk about the root of the problem before we get into solutions.
More often than not, if your players are hesitant or unable to chart a course of action, you’re dealing with analysis paralysis, or a lack of clear goals. Are your players spending their time debating a hundred different ways to steal an artifact from the wizard’s tower? That’s analysis paralysis: a condition where a person simply has too many options to pick from. How often have you opened Netflix and then spent the better part of a movie’s run time just browsing thumbnails rather than picking anything to watch? While it can be a time waster, this is often a sign of enthusiasm, so you’ve got them engaged! Now, on the other hand, if your players are suffering from a lack of ideas, it’s a safe bet that they don’t understand their situation or goal fully. Given the ubiquitous nature of Quest Markers in video game RPGs, new folks who come from that school of play are going to be particularly prone to this problem. They expect a clear A to B to C to D, with maybe a couple of different paths to bypass C or maybe do D before C. They’re simply not used to thinking in terms of generating their own options rather than picking from preordained choices.
Which brings us around to our solution! Rather than laying out a smaller menu of options in the form of "X or Y," start by asking the players what their objective in the situation is and what opposes them. You’ll often find that what the players think they’re supposed to be doing won’t necessarily align with how you see the situation. This is not inherently a bad thing! Everyone may prioritize different aspects of their circumstances differently, and that’s perfectly fine, but if the players have lost sight of their objective or some critical aspect of the encounter, this will be the moment for you to step in. Correct any incorrect facts (that the characters would know) and remind them of what their core goal is and what obstacles they have to overcome. Giving your players the what, where, when, and/or who, and most importantly the why, will often help focus them on the how. Keep it simple and clear! Strip away any superfluous or speculated details and lay out what the characters are reasonably sure of. This will often help guide the lost to action and ground the overwhelmed analyzer.
And hey, if that doesn’t work, that’s the time to step in with suggestions of “how about X or Y?”
Now, to close out, it is important to note the difference between someone who is paralyzed by too many options and one who is reveling in the creation of their all-encompassing plan. If the players have spent an hour laying out a heist movie’s worth of planning and contingencies with smiles on their faces, let ‘em run wild for a while. If everyone’s having fun with it, they’re engaged! They’re immersed! They are playing the game! That’s your goal, isn’t it? Sit back, enjoy the madness and remember that the journey is just as important as the destination. You should only step in when someone (including yourself) gets bored or you’re on some time constraints, like a streamed or convention game.