As you may or may not have seen, on Friday, I ran the 5th delve into the dungeon beneath Trelleborg. I was "sold out" until a day or two before, and then had someone drop. I lost another about an hour before game time, but picked up someone else, so I had 6 by the time we sat down to play.
I have mixed feelings about the session - although with a few days perspective, i think, overall, it was OK.
One of the techniques I read about recently, and I'll be damned if I can remember where, suggested setting up a scene exactly as it always is, and then add a "but..." to it. I think it was on GnomeStew. Anyway, it seemed right to me that there would be a group camped not far from the dungeon - and the smoke from their fires would be big news in town(the ruins can be seen from the village, since the ruins are atop a big ol' butte.) I mean, who in their right mind camps near ruins over a well known dungeon?
The players weren't terribly concerned (they tend to roll over anything in their way), but they did want to investigate.
Now, I try not to expect anything - I don't do "my precious story/npc/trap/etc." I try not to guess more than at a surface level what my players will do(for one I don't know WHICH players i'll have by start time). But, I guess I was hoping the players would take some decisive action - either ignore them or engage them with some purpose.
Except, they didn't really coordinate any kind of plan that I could tell, so I have no idea WHAT that was. One character tried to call the campers out, and of course they refused, and instead told him to come to them because they had booze. That lead another to go right into their camp, and a few crept around to watch from the woods.
Admittedly, I failed here - I could have had the group attack the players, or accidentally reveal something they didn't intend, or had the spying show something (which I realized on the drive home. Not a terribly helpful time to think of it!). But I didn't want it to default to combat, so I let the dice decide and the reaction check came up overwhelmingly friendly! I suppose that probably undermined whatever the party was planning.
When the campers reacted positively to the lone PC entering their camp, he asked for ale, and what flashed through my head was the chapter by Robin D. Laws in Unframed: The Art of Improvisation for Game Masters, about petitioners and granters, and why social interactions sometimes fall flat: no one knows what they want. I knew we were going down the slope of a "Why have this encounter?" Encounter. So, I tried to throw in a suspicious action on the campers part, which was met with more watching and waiting for the campers to do something.
To use another term I have learned from that book, there was a lot of blocking going on.
Blocking isn't necessarily a bad thing, nor is it always intentional - in fact, i think in this case it was all inadvertent.
When they said they were spying, I told them what they saw, but nothing I described called for any kind of action. Having blocked their proposal of "I'm spying" with "You see some pretty mundane stuff", they probably saw no reason to offer anything else. When I finally did describe something that was suspicious (my offer), they decided to wait to see what would happen (a block) rather than take action and try to stop it.
Eventually, the whole encounter fizzled to an end, despite introducing a mysterious bad-ass of a figure. Fortunately, the dungeon itself went many times better.
Next time, if they tell me they are spying, and the campers are harmless, the answer isn't "you see this, that and the other, but nothing unusual" but , "You see this that and the other. Clearly they are of no threat to you and are not worth further involvement". They might decide I'm lying, but that's on them.
If it IS something they should be concerned about, then the answer shouldn't be "you see this, that and the other but nothing unusual" and then reveal something only later, during further interaction, but rather, "you see this, that and the other, and holy crap! there's crazy ass Satanic symbols all over their cart which is covered in fresh blood!"
I want them to have agency and to play in the sandbox, so, in order to encourage players to drive, I need to do a better job of making enticing offers when their goals in a situation are unclear even to them, in order to give them something to riff off of that will let them move things along in whichever way they would like to go (not that they will get the results they want, but that they are steering this crazy train).
Afterwards, I talked with the new player - he had never played b/x before and he loved it. He even loved the interaction with the campers. And it didn't even bother him that his dwarf died in the last room of the night. That definitely helped change my opinion of the session, from a definite negative to a positive, if only because someone else has been exposed to the joys of old school.