Players like to do their own thing. It’s one of the major challenges of being a DM. Nothing can destroy the best laid plans of great Dungeon Master like players. One of the best ways to keep players on the path you want is to use a method I call the illusion of choice.
The illusion of choice centers on giving your players no option but to follow the path you’ve laid before them. It’s not railroading, it’s not pushing, it’s roleplaying. The best DMs do this. It requires an understanding of their characters. Instead of trying to explain, let me give you an example here. Here’s a hook that doesn’t give the players the illusion of choice similar to one that follows that I’ve presented to my players:
The lord of a local town asks the players to investigate the dwarven ruins in the nearby mountains offering a substantial.
The pirates that attacked the players earlier have been spotted in the mountains exploring ancient dwarven ruins.
Both of these hooks lead the players to same place but one is more personal. The second one ties into the game more and gives the players an opportunity to further their own stories. This method requires knowing your players’ characters. If you present them with an option that their character would and should pursue, the chances are they will. It ties the needs of the characters with the ongoing story you produce. Instead of giving quests, you give choices, tailored to challenge the characters’ morals. When you give them journeys to further their own personal goals, you give them a more engaging experience. But more importantly, you have a more predictable experience. This requires some work from your players too. They have to have clear goals and needs for their characters.
One argument against this is problem players can never be completely avoided. I’m pretty lucky that the only problem my group has with each other is that we want to talk and hang out too much sometimes and put the game to the side. But, it’s harder for players to be disruptive when they’re invested in their character. If you make your players have goals for their characters, it organically leads to more roleplaying and easier adventure writing for you. When you know what the characters in your story are after, you can put the path they’d most want (or not want) in front of them.
When you perfect this method, you no longer tell your players where they’re going, they tell you where they want to go and it’s where you planned.