Tell the player the consequence of what will happen if he takes the action, before he takes the action. Do not play 'Gotcha!' 'You didn't say!' or 'Guess what I'm thinking!' games with the players.
"If you do that, you will be visible down the corridor. Do you still want to do that?"
"If you do that he will get to attack you, do you still wish to do that?"
"You can explore that entire building if you wish - there is stuff there - but if you're looking for treasure, there probably won't be much in that building"
What's in it for me. . .
If your players cannot make a decision because they lack information, give it to them!
"Maybe we shouldn't go there, he could just be saying he has a magic sword."
"He actually has a magic sword - if you do the quest he will get it and give it to you."
Remember. . .
It's not that they are stupid or retarded - it's that they have stressful jobs, kids, families, and lots of responsibilities other then gaming and can't spend as long as you making sure they remember ever last detail. That's your job.
1:"Are we going west or south."
2:"South has bugbears, maybe we should go west."
DM:"Well, south also has the temple, which has a lot of treasure in it, and also the cult leader you have been getting clues about lives there - and if you go west, you can't forget that griffon's haunt the pass, as well as the inevitable mountain giants and their pet red dragons."
DM:"Yes, but due to the curse from the yis-gothka, they-"
DM:"The temple guys."
1:"Oh, I remember now - let's go get those giants."
DM:"Ok, so giants over treasure in the temple and the cult leader, correct?"
No, but. . .
Listen to your players. If they are asking questions they are telling you what they want to know. Don't ever tell them no - always say the reason why you are telling them no, and provide them a path to accomplish what they want. Be realistic about what is possible and not, and allow them to deviate from what you envision for them.
"Can I get my horse raised?"
Restricted agency response: "No, you don't know how."
Pro-agency response: "Well, you don't know how, but you could pay a sage or ask at the temple and I'm sure they could tell you more if that's something you'd like to do. There are likely to be some drawbacks, and it will probably cost some gold."
There is an appropriate way to run a crushing ceiling. This is the one area of the game where you can have a Gotcha moment - but there are rules if you wish to do it this way.
First, you must make it very very clear that they are in an area where something like this can happen. The game makes it easy, because usually this is the entrance or threshold into the underworld. It must be explicit that this can occur. They should be on your guard for this type of thing.
"This structure has stood for innumerable years, who knows what devious and arcane protections it may possess?"
"You see the sign of the devious kobolds, the hammers and gears of their deadly trapwork lay scattered about assuring a risky venture into the depths"
The second thing that must occur is that you must make the trap obvious. A good way to do this is to describe one or two unimportant things, with one important thing. Often the naturalistic effects of the trap will dictate this conversation.
"Ahead in the chamber is a cool breeze, dust swirls around on the floor and an earthen smell assaults your nose."
"I examine the dust and chamber."
"The dust appears to be finely ground stone, there are several dark stains within the room. On the walls scrapes and gouges run vertically up and down the walls. Do you wish to enter the room?"
"No. what do the stains look like?"
"They could be rust. . . or blood."
Party together "Collapsing ceiling."
When the players ask for something say yes!
AND THEN GIVE THEM 3 PROBLEMS TO GO WITH IT. There! Now they are having the adventure they want!
Yes, but. . .
When the players ask for something you can't give them, tell them what they need to do - both in and out of game turns.
"I'd like to learn that reduced facing skill that's so cool"
"Well, you'll have to ask a sage how to do that"
Player pays information tax
"Well, you have to go through the valley of the slow centipede, traverse the central forgehammer mountains, and seek out the Loydan monastery where there are monks who teach it. If everyone stays focused, it will take one session of hex travel, and one session of doing a quest for the monks - unless you have a better way to convince them to help to complete."
On misinterpretations of the nature of Agency
"I should keep things secret from my players for realism! Because sometimes people lie! They shouldn't know if the guy has an actual magic sword or not before they do the quest!"
Clearly you're interested in doing something other than playing a game for fun. What's the result here - you being their only source of knowledge have tricked them into doing something just so you can laugh at them taking your word? Because you're trying to teach them people are shitty? Do you think that's why they came to your house to play Dungeons and Dragons?
"They should have listened when I told them about the duke, and then know he was lying to them!"
They are other human beings who are busy and in a room with 2-8 of their peers that they like and haven't seen in a week or longer. It is not conducive to catching every last detail. They are there to play a game, not hang on your every offhand word.
"You said you should tell your PC's when the NPC's are lying to them! You are a terrible DM and must have no skills if you can't communicate this information in game! If you can't drop clues so they can figure it out, you are a terrible person and a worse GM!"
Ok, several things.
First, that advice is about clearing up adventure hooks for the party - so they can make an informed decision as people about what they want to do tonight in your game. Clearly based on the other advice in the article I am not advocating that the players be informed of everything by out of character talking. I am expecting a certain baseline intelligence in the audience who understands that these are situational pieces of advice to use to restore the players ability to make informed decisions.
Second, what the above is describing is a particular form of douchebaggery. Leaving 'really good clues' around everywhere and expecting players to guess your intent is not 'skillful' play. In fact, forcing the players to play mind reading games and 'guess what I'm thinking' are exactly what this type of article is aimed at addressing. There is no way for a group of random human beings to know what your baseline expectations are for a situation - how often have we been surprised by how another person deals with something? If you don't give them information, and you're not explicit about it, then you are destroying their agency. If you think what I just said means you have to tell them something out of character, then you have failed the minimum requirements necessary for reading the article and should start over, or better yet, start playing other games.
Third, it probably could have been a better worded example. Here is a blog example of players following an adventure thread when they wanted to do one thing, but didn't figure out from in game clues that they couldn't do what they wanted there.
"There's nothing fun about blind luck! And if you don't fudge the dice and alter the story that's what it comes down to!"
If you never let anything bad happen to the characters, I understand why it seems that way. The reson it doesn't all come down to blind luck is player skill. The skill comes in creating a situation where the fate of the whole party doesn't rely on a single dice roll. If your players are often in a situation where it all comes down to blind luck it's because anytime something bad has happened, you've protected them from the consequence, so why would they try anything different? As long as you are there to pull their fat from the fire, they will engage in every combat knowing they can't lose. In the long run this is less satisfying then winning a victory against the authentic chance of a loss.
"But I can't let them destroy the epic encounter at the climax of the adventure by a lucky roll!"
Think about it. The example of Beedo's players causing Strahd's death wasn't the result of a lucky roll - it was the result of planning, thought and skill of the players. Making them fight some long battle is taking away from the very epicness of the situation! Beedo's players will be talking about how they killed Strahd for much longer than any of his other 'boss fights'. Because it was their plan, it was real, it mattered, and it stuck.
The real key to this is, it swings both ways.
"But if they don't have this encounter - they won't experience my precious plot."
"They have to have this encounter or the game just won't work."
Is this because you're not creative enough to work it in around what the players choose to do? Or is it because you don't respect them enough to ask them what they might want to get out of the game? Or is it because you're not bright enough to pick up on what they want to do? The thing is, if you have a key encounter, and you give it to them, and they refuse it - forcing them to have it doesn't improve the situation. Also, if you're giving them half a dozen options - are you telling me there isn't a way to tie many of them into your precious plot one way or another?
"There's no right way to run a game. My players have control over the world and we do improv storytelling, and everything is tied into their story!"
Yes, believe it or not, I've run games like that before - where players know their plot arc, and have script immunity, and it's about drama and acting. That is not D&D. It's not structured that way - it's a game, and one with fairly clear expectations and rules. You can certainly change up and add to D&D - it's designed that way. But this is a blog about the game of old-school D&D, the type where you don't name your fighter till level 3, and it's structured around exploring dungeons and clearing hexes. I'm glad you are having fun, but be clear about your house rules being house rules - if you say that characters can just say anything and have it be true in improv style, I promise you won't find the rule about characters making up story elements as a part of play in any of the rulebooks.
Also: Don't be surprised if you call it D&D and when I see it isn't I get up and walk away from your table.
"Newer games give you lots of agency, because there are lots of rules. And you don't just use those rules to make your character, in the game you have lots of different options during combat, meaning your making lots of decisions and choices, and those choices matching your intent! That's player agency also"
Of course. Chess has a ton of player agency, in the realm of tactical and strategic options of a board game. I play lots of boardgames and tactical strategy games and they are lots of fun. Again, not Dungeons & Dragons though (no matter what people call it) and that's what I'm focused on providing agency in.
"If I have a wandering monster table with 1 encounter and a 100% chance of that encounter - how is that different then the quantum ogre?"
Cute. :-) Well, the original article postulated 3 options (groves of trees), and a DM that no matter what the party did, found the ogre in the first one, and the mcguffin in the last one the party entered. And there was nothing they could do to change or avoid the outcome. (It's technically a Schrodinger's ogre, but that's overused, no?)
This strawman assumes that all improvisation on the part of the Dungeon Master is negative. Clearly there are appropriate times to do all of the things that I recommend against doing. Older editions even contained rules to bypass the need to do them! A classic example is morale. In Pathfinder, if the party has clearly won the fight, and there are just a few orcs left, having a player kill one instead of leaving it with one hit point is a perfectly acceptable time to fudge the dice, because the outcome doesn't matter. All you are doing is facilitating interesting choices, instead of uninteresting ones. In earlier editions they would have already fled due to morale failure.
You will spring an encounter on the PC's You will roll sometimes and ignore it. You will dictate player actions. Just always be sure to do so in a way that maintains agency. ("Well, unless you two are interested in playing homosexual characters - we're going to re-roll on the how did you meet table", "You set up camp and turn in for the night")
"I don't want a bunch of random things happening! I want a story!"
Two things. First, is that all the randomness in a sandbox is supposed to simulate realistic things - don't put ice worms on your volcano encounter table.
Secondly, the idea is that the events and choices of the players are the things that we look back on and tell stories about (as per blogs - I can link to a few hundred posts if you like) and these posts that are about what happened aren't about the DM's 'precious' plot, but about the thing that's greater that's shared between a group of people. The sandbox is a living breathing world. No prescripted outcomes, no predetermined plots. Whatever you have in mind, can only be improved by the shared creativity and experience of other people.
"The players don't know the difference! I can lie to them all I want! There's no difference between a quantum ogre and a wandering encounter."
Have you ever seen the film where they underestimate the audience? Notice how all the best films don't do that?
"Everything in my game has to have a purpose!"
The unspoken part is - of your design. How about you let the player purpose themselves into your game?