A common topic of discussion with tabletop role-playing games as well as role-playing games in general is the idea of freedom. The desire to avoid railroading is commonly mentioned and player control is important. However, at the same time, players don't have unlimited control over a game either. That's part of the point of having rules as opposed to just sitting together with friends and coming up with a story. In my experience, regardless of your feelings on railroading or player control, yanking your players back on track doesn't go over well. This, however, is different than just railroading players. It's about taking control from your players, and yanking them to where you think they should have gone. And it is this topic that I will talk about today.
Some Situations Have Fewer Options
Based on your player characters, their level, their magic items, the help they have access to and many other factors, your players have a set of tools at their disposal to solve problems you throw at them. However, it also means that not all campaigns are created equal and not all parties need or want the same tools. This also means that some situations will be more desperate with the players having fewer options at their disposal. I find it that in these kinds of situations, limitations are important. Working within limitations in creative ways is part of the fun You don't want to make your players irreverent either. Find a balance between these two for your players and things will be fine. I've played with groups who liked playing more structured narratives. However, they still wanted choice. Don't take away all choice from the players.
Yanking Back On Course
Problems often happen when players are trying to play the game and they keep getting yanked back on course. You want to avoid situations where players need to replay a scene except in special circumstances in particular. What this does is takes away the meaning of choices and forces them to make the choices that you make. This is one of the more extreme examples, however. In general the game should be going forward with players making decisions to keep pushing the story forward.
This doesn't mean that players can't make mistakes. However, if they do, it works best if they realize that a mistake happen and try to correct things. The alternative is you throwing something in their way that forces them to change paths. The specifics here are important but not really well defined. However, there is a difference between a nudge in the right direction when players are lost (from my experience they often appreciate it) and taking all control by yanking their leash. That said, giving nudges is a bit of a skill in itself.
Different From Hints
Though it was hinted in what I said before, we have to note that there is a difference between yanking players back on track and providing hints. Hints need to be decoded and players then need to use them to set course. They also don't always tell a player what to do, just what they need to work towards. Them being told where they can find information about what they are looking for doesn't help them get their. It only sets their direction. These distinctions are important because it's an inherit part of the give and take relationship of tabletop role-playing games. Dungeon Masters set up a world and conflict while players navigate them and try to influence outcomes through their agency.
Players who don't want to play can sabotage a game. However, trying to yank them into the story you want won't help. They'll be unhappy and you'll be unhappy that they aren't playing. I don't think it helps anyone to try and solve these kinds of problems at the table. They are personal problems that need to be handled as people. Once the real problem is handled, the game can continue and you can all have fun. After all, you can throw you players into an undead apocalypse and have them want to do nothing. Then, if you attack them, they can choose to forgo their actions and get killed. At a certain point you need to realize that you can't force them to play. You can put challenges in their way, you can put restrictions on them that make the struggle meaningful, but you can't and shouldn't play for them.
Challenges to Be Solved
I've written before that I find the best way to think about these kinds of things as challenges for my players to solve. However, they need to solve them. I know what's afoot. I designed it. Of course it will be influenced by their actions and I may need to adjust on the fly, but my fun comes largely from handling what my players come up with to solve the problems I put in their way. It isn't fun for me anymore if I can play the game for them. That's what I'm doing if I yank them onto my story path. But again, that is far and away different from giving hints and providing methods to achieve what they want. There is a difference between telling the characters where the magic sword is, telling them exactly how to get it down to the minute detail, and taking control from them to get it.