Sometimes, as Dungeon Master (DM), we have to be explicit with where to go and what to do next or we risk leaving the party either confused at the lack of direction or hampered by analysis paralysis. It’s important to know when to railroad the party to the next scene or point them the right way to keep the game moving. Often you can preface this with phrases like “you see…” or “you realize…” followed by something along the lines of “…that the only way to proceed is through the oak doors to the north of the chamber” or “…that the criminal you’ve been pursuing has gotten away and you’ll need to regroup at camp.” This is fine and sometimes necessary!
Otherwise, it is vital to give the party the freedom to choose their next course of action. What this looks like depends heavily on context. There should be more than one hardcoded way to proceed, to gather information, to diffuse or overcome a conflict. The important part is not to overwhelm your players with too many options at once.
One form of choice is the illusion of choice. Two directions to pick from that, cheekily, both lead to the same destination with no discernible difference in how the journey plays out. The players won’t know that both choices result in the exact same outcome, but it may give them the illusion that they have a choice. While this can sometimes be useful, it’s not what I mean by giving your party the freedom to choose. (As an aside, there are genuinely great implementations of two paths having the same destination.)
The freedom to choose is, in essence, giving your players and their characters breathing room. It’s allowing them to take in a scene and get familiar with the options available to them. It’s okay to take a backseat for a moment and prompt your players with subtle opportunities to see how they want to engage. Give the party time to ask questions, examine surroundings, and invent their own opportunities before you try to resolve the scene in a particular, predetermined way.
At some point during my Sweet Dreams session 1 I knew that I wanted to have a child peddling peculiar trinkets called dreamwards. I didn’t know when or where, I didn’t know who the kid would be, how old they’d be, or even how much the trinkets would cost. The party wizard happened to ask, while spending time in the Sleepy Owlbear tavern, “do I see any children around?” I immediately knew the answer. “Yeah, actually. You see a young boy in a hat peddling little trinkets to anyone who will listen.” The wizard’s player had queried the world and the world delivered.
You don’t have to force a scenario to play out exactly as you imagined. You don’t have to assign a specific NPC or location with a specific piece of information, unless it logically makes sense to be bound to that entity. And you most definitely should not expect the players to land on the precise solution you had in mind. It’s more important that players have a few options to work with as they interface with the the world and resolve conflicts. Whether you sprinkle in hard defined choices or the players invent their own path forward doesn’t matter — so long as the players have the freedom to choose session to session. To help facilitate this, it’s a huge boon as DM to have a list of secrets, rumors, and general information you need the party to be aware of at your fingertips. When the players exercise their freedom to choose how they progress, drop in an appropriate piece of information where it makes sense to. This rewards their curiosity with meaningful results, when applicable. Information and secrets should be earned!
No matter the variety of choice, it’s worth noting that actions do have consequences. Even if the party’s way forward is successful, it may have unforeseen repercussions. Just because the party can do something doesn’t mean they should.