For a Game Master running a session for a group of players, whether it’s fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons, Kids on Bikes, Weave or any of the wonderful roleplaying games out there (and there’s a lot, for any taste!) the key to success around the table is engagement. We hear that word a lot in the RPG space, and engaging players is a frequent topic for GMs seeking advice and tips. What exactly does it mean, and how do you do it?
Engaging players in an RPG
Whenever I think about this idea, I’m reminded of Nerdarchists Dave and Ted’s appearance on GM Tips with Satine Phoenix. Their segment was about being an improv-heavy Game Master. They shared advice based on their experience like having go-to encounters in their GM toolboxes and moving Point A to Point B when players take the adventure in unexpected directions but the thing that stuck out to me was a bit of sage wisdom.
“You’ve got two ears and one mouth, so you should listen more than you talk.”
This tip is invaluable. If you’re a veteran GM with decades of campaigns under your belt or someone only recently come to the RPG community and curious about running a game, keeping this in mind handles a lot of the heavy lifting — and not just for engaging players. When you strive to hear what the players who gather to take part in your game have to say, you can learn everything you need to know. What do they like and dislike? What kind of adventures do they want to have, and how do they envision their characters’ place in the setting?
Finding the right flavor
It’s not uncommon for players and GMs alike to think they want one thing but through play those interests become something else. I played in a short D&D campaign once and during our session zero we decided we were going to play classic dungeon crawl adventures. We made our party, a traditional group of a fighter, rogue, wizard and cleric, intending to begin at the dungeon entrance, quest our way through and haul our treasure back to town. During character creation, we wound up with a group whose backgrounds included a charlatan, criminal, outlander and haunted one. We joked about how they were all sort of fringe personalities and probably the kind of group that would get up to no good. In our first session, instead of starting at the dungeon entrance, we began under arrest by the local law, with a chance to pay off our crimes by going on a clandestine mission the local leaders couldn’t be publicly involved with. So basically we were the Suicide Squad.And we loved it! The campaign was absolutely nothing like we’d discussed, but because our GM listened while we bantered about what crummy people our characters were, he provided a scenario those characters flourished in. To this day, Mesmogdu the Magnificent, drow charlatan enchanter, is one of my favorite and most memorable characters ever. And thank goodness we didn’t do a straight-up dungeon crawl either — he would be miserable both personally and for whatever unfortunate companions took him along on such a campaign.
More recently, the live streaming Spelljammer campaign I run on the Nerdarchy YouTube channel followed a similar path. Originally I planned to run a campaign loosely based off a second edition AD&D Spelljammer module. The party would have gotten involved in interspherical politics, infiltrated an evil empire and ultimately led a massive assault against their forces and the capital planet. But during our session zero, I noticed each of the players mentioning food to some extent. They wondered what sorts of exotic foods Spelljammer people ate. One character was repulsed by food. Another was willing to try anything. They wondered about the nature of food itself. I looked at the notes I was taking based on the conversation and an idea came to me.
“What if you’re all culinary explorers on a quest to discover the unusual cuisines out there in space?”
The rest is, well…it’s gotten weirder every week.
An important part of engaging players has nothing to do with preparation, or even listening to what they say before, during and after a session. If you really want to engage a player, the easiest thing to do is simply speak directly to them, or to their character, and ask leading questions. When I run a session, I make it a point to specifically give all the players and their characters opportunities to engage in any situation. If the group is talking to an NPC, and one or a few of them do most of the talking, I just ask the quieter players what their character is doing. Are they listlessly looking around? Keeping their eyes on the NPC? Does some detail in the room capture their attention?
These are great chances for engaging players with the added benefit of opening the door for their own unique contributions. Collaborative storytelling is my favorite part of any RPG, and engaging players with direct questions often adds terrific details and flavor to scenarios. They might share what their character is thinking about, and it might not even be related to what’s going on at the moment but could be a great detail that can come into play later. For example, the party could be guests at a noble’s estate, summoned under cover of night to a secret meeting. While the group’s charismatic paladin discusses discusses how to deal with a cult that’s infiltrated the ranks of the nobility, the barbarian in the party might be wholly uninterested in the details. They’re just waiting until the cult-smashing combat begins. As the GM, you could directly ask the barbarian player, “What is Horgrimm doing while Melkior is talking with Lord Rand?” The player might tell you Horgimm is admiring a painting on the wall depicting a famous battle, one that his people were involved in…and you never even described such a painting! Now you know a bit more about Horgrimm, and by engaging the player directly you let them add something to the story as well.
Players engaging players
When it comes to engaging players, the onus isn’t all on the one running the RPG session either. When we gather together as players, we hope to advance our characters not just mechnically but evocatively as well. Gaining levels, new powers and abilities, and so forth is terrific of course — it’s sort of the meat-and-potatoes of what makes an RPG to some extent.
But we also want our characters to develop, to explore their personalities and construct their own stories. Like characters in any sort of fiction we want them to grow, to arrive at a different place than where they started. And it can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking it’s the GM’s sole responsibility to get us there both mechanically and narratively.
But there’s a wealth of potential waiting to be unlocked by the players themselves. Players engaging players is one of the healthiest practices and RPG group can do. In the length of a campaign, everyone will have their moments to shine, to follow their own arc and resolve stories and plots. The group does it as a whole, and a GM tries to weave individual character growth in along the way.
But there’s something to be said for a player taking the time to boost their fellows around the table. RPG characters go through a lot together — more than most people in real life and certainly more than the average NPCs populating the world. They travel far and wide, facing terrible danger together. Sometimes they even die and go to great lengths to return each other to life!
As a player, it’s a great idea to pay as close attention to your companions as to whatever the GM tells you about your adventures and the fantastic locations where they take place. Perhaps the ranger in the party described a mysterious tattoo they have on their body that they’re not sure how it got there. They woke up in an enchanted glade one morning and it had appeared on their shoulder. Month later, you’re exploring an abandoned wizard’s tower (monster-infested of course) and come across a mouldy tome. Wiping the dust away, you see an unfamiliar symbol, but it reminds you of something…of course! The ranger’s tattoo. You bring them the book and ask if this is the same mark as their tattoo. And it is…
Your own character doesn’t need to be the most important thing at all times. When players engage each other and show interest in each other’s backstories, goals, desires and so on, they enliven the world and make the RPG experience more rewarding for everyone, including the GM.
Describe your imagination
Engaging players sometimes means going the extra mile to hook everyone into the scenario. And most of the time, solid description can accomplish this. As a GM, you’re primary duty is presenting the setting and then reacting reasonably to however the players and their characters interact with it. If you notice the players going on at length about something and seeming unsure what to do next, that could be an indicator they’re not quite understanding what you’ve presented them. This is a good time to try engaging players with more description.
In the most recent Ingest Quest game, the party had traveled through a portal to the Plane of Confection, a chocolate landscape with dangerous pop rock hazards, sugar storms and other candylike threats. I told them in a narrow canyon they saw forced laborers working under the menace of a marshmallow giant. But a sugar storm swept across the landscape toward them and them scrambled to seek cover. One player said they’d jump into the canyon. I might have said, sure, you take 10d6 bludgeoning damage as you fall and hit the bottom 100 feet below. But that would be capricious, right? Instead, I took a moment to more fully describe their surroundings, and their plans were much more successful because of it. Strange, but successful. I’m just saying.
At any rate, my final piece of insight about this is essentially this: engaging players means bring their world more vividly to life for them. Helping players see more clearly through their characters’ eyes is what engaging players is all about. The specific quests, adventures, dungeon delves, treasure runs and battles against the galactic overlords are set dressing. The stories that emerge when players are engaged with the game in a way that lets them act and react to the world in ways that make (relative) sense are the reason we keep coming back to the table to roll funny-shaped dice together. Everyone in the RPG group invites each other to share their imaginations and engaging one another connects those spaces.
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