Okay, so, based on the two previous posts, there is obviously a delicate balance between letting players run off and take a game in a direction that is totally contrary to the original plot, and allowing players their "full authorial rights". (Great term there, Mr Mentat).
So, we have a plot based (rather than smut based) game, in which the GM has outlined the plot in some detail, and the players know what is expected. If they drop out at that point, then it's obvious they don't like the plot.
However, if they stay on and keep posting, it should be a fair assumption that they at least want to see how the plot develops?
Thank you, Chrystal, but I can't claim the term is my invention. I picked it up from the discussions with some friends that are into story-game roleplaying
And on your question, that's where terms like railroading come into being! Is the adventure moving on rails, and the GM knows where it's going, but nobody else can change the direction? In that case, they can only decide how long to stop at any given place, maybe get off the train for a while to examine the surroundings, but not for too long.
Whether the group believes that's giving enough importance to their "authorial contribution to the story", or not, is another matter. Like, some people will enjoy this style, for others that's reason enough to drop your game, with or without explanation.
In short, that's an OOC issue, and trying to solve it via IC action is counterproductive. Bring it up OOC, definitely!
"Guys, the plot requires you to go north, not south. Are you interested in continuing with the game we started originally?"
Mind you, when asking this question, it's better to be prepared that the answer can well be "no, screw the MacGuffin, we're off to explore the world"!
And it might well be for the better. I mean, if they're doing something else, and aren't doing it just to spite you, probably they have a cool idea in mind? Maybe you don't see it, or are seriously puzzled what's so cool about it! But the players are finding it cool, aren't they? (And if they aren't, meaning most of them are still interested in the story, the group backing you up means most players would get the hint that they're spoiling everyone's fun. But let's assume the group actually wants to go to the Mountains of Doom, not the Forest of Creepiness
Personally, I'd roll with it and see what happens. Some of my best games I ran this way. I never know, nor care, what the PCs are going to do next. That's up to the players.
I know what the NPCs are going to do next, though. Because that stuff is up to me
! The NPCs have agendas, and presumably, so do the PCs, or why am I running a game for such indistinct individuals that don't want anything?
When the two agendas collide, as they inevitably do, you get conflict, clashes, duels, murders, witty repartees, poison, seduction, manipulation, magic, true love, sacrifice, cheating, courtly plots, corporate mergers, and anything else you need. Mix and match as you see fit!
And here's the little trick. Wherever they go, there will be my NPCs, and if they go in the mountain, the mountain is an NPC the GM controls as well! You've read the LotR, I'm sure, so remember the scene where the mountain resists the Fellowship with blizzards?
I'm sure you get the hint here.
That also means you can't throw me off the plot, ever. You can't avoid having a story. You can change what the story is, how it develops, and how it ends, because it's not my story, it's our story, and I respect your contributions as a co-author. I can use different NPCs, and describe different locations, and the players will have different impact. To use the earlier example, if they go to the Mountains of Doom, as I expected them to, they might struggle with blizzards for survival, meet the locals, fight their champion, become chiefs, and forge them into an undefeated army to conquer the valley.
If they go to the Forest of Creepiness, they might meet man-eating plants, silkworms that feast on flesh of sacrificed humans, the elephant king, and the crazed cultists of forgotten demon cults that provide the aforementioned sacrifices. They might ally with the elephant king to crush the cultists, and burn down their unholy place, or join them, participate in untold orgies, and either become true converts, or find a moment to strike at the hearth of the cult by killing off the leading priest during a ceremony, which brings forth the demonic masters who start eating the cultists before returning to their dimension. Then they'd only have to survive while the masters can remain in our realm, without being eaten, or get eaten with them, knowing they have warded off a great threat to everything good and holy!
Yeah, I can't tell which one is better. But either way, this is the story of some characters who set off to explore the wilderness at some point.
At least, that's my approach. It's strongly character-focused, and the plot just follows the characters. There are other approaches as well, but they lack the main advantage I see here.
Namely, whatever the story ends up being like, it will fit the characters, and they wouldn't feel like someone forced them to take part in this adventure.