by Mike Shea on 23 July 2012
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Below is a recent email from a dungeon master running 4e D&D for a group of six players. I have paraphrased and edited the text for brevity:
I have a large group (6 players) that's very devoted (punctual, always makes time for game night, etc) but my players seem hard to fully engage.
Every time I drop a blatant role playing opportunity on the players, or introduce a sub-plot tailor made for one or more of the character's back stories, or bring in a well crafted NPC, the players give me a deer in headlights stare. It totally kills the momentum. When I attempted to let things be a little more open and just try to see where the players might take it, in hopes that they would attempt to figure out creative solutions/goals for their characters, the lack of structure seems to frustrate them. I've tried keeping the game combat driven, just sprinkling story in between encounters, and that's yielded a little success.
Unfortunately after a few sessions of that method, every combat has become the same; the players end up using the same attacks, the same strategies, no matter where they are or what I throw at them. I don't feel like it's a lack of interest in actual role playing, they occasionally have long conversations with mortally wounded goblins or random shop owners (who of course I haven't written a bio for), but I just haven't figured out the mix.
In my experiences, these problems aren't uncommon and I think we could all benefit from exploring potential options to draw players into the game.
Michael Mallon, the Id DM on Twitter and writer of the excellent Id DM Blog, has written a number of excellent articles on the psychology of D&D. One of his main threads is that of communication with our players. Only through non-threatening, non-confrontational, and open discussion with our players can we get to the root of what we all really want to get out of our games. Some folks want a deep and rich story. Some want to engage in a tactical squad-based war game. Others just want to roll some dice and have fun.
Spend time talking to your group about what they want from your game. Really listen to them and take notes — don't just respond to them directly. They probably all don't want the exact same thing, but you'll get an idea what they expect when they come to the table and this will help you prepare a game that's fun for all of you.
From your descriptions, it sounds like the players may have a tendency to avoid the threads you've planned out and instead create their own threads by having long conversations with mortally wounded goblins or random shop owners. Instead of spending your time planning out story threads, spend your time preparing for these off-the-cuff roleplaying opportunities. Keep some NPC profiles handy along with a list of random names. Add in little threads that these NPCs might know.
The less you plan ahead of time and the more you prepare for improvisation, the more organic your game will grow. You might not know where they're going to head next, and that's ok.
There's a careful balance between railroading your group through a series of encounters and giving them such a wide world to explore that they have no clear idea where they should go.
Dave Chalker's 5x5 method can help build a loose structure around your game without getting either too narrow or too wide. You can simplify this a little more down to a 3x3 method in which you have three main plots each with three sub steps.
This way, there are clear meaningful choices for your group to select that empower them to drive the story without analysis paralysis.
It also sounds like your group prefers to spend its time in encounters but, as you said, one encounter after the next can get redundant fast. In D&D 4e, we spend a lot of time in encounters. It isn't uncommon to spend, perhaps 75% of the time in battles. If you want to add more story into the game, find ways to bring the story into those very battles.
Think of each battle as a scene in a show. Instead of it being pure action, throw in story elements directly into the mechanics. Battles don't have to only focus on killing enemies. Instead, consider the following potential encounter scenarios:
Any of these work well as combat outs on top of giving each battle a different feeling and a different goal. They also help tie your story directly into the battle.
Keeping encounters interesting from battle to battle can be tricky, but there are a few ways to do it. Think of each battle as having a set of layers. By changing these layers, you can change up the feeling of each battle. Here are some layers to consider:
D&D 4e's battle system seems to work best when each battle is large and meaningful. Side battles don't work as well given the amount of time each battle takes and the number of options available. Keep this in mind when planning out games. Each battle should be important, challenging, and meaningful to the story.