<GM> You just arrived in the Dancing Dragon Inn as the night falls in this small town. As you stretch your legs after a long day of traveling on the road, your wounds just freshly healed after your brief encounter with that band of gnolls in the woods, you are approached by a middle-aged man with well-kept silver hair and the hands and face of a man who is not used to hard work or the dangers of the wild. His eyes dart nervously across you and just briefly rest on your weapons and impressive armors. “Well met!” he says in a trembling voice. “.. I need your help brave adventurers! You see, my trading caravan has just recently..”
<Player Jane interrupts> Hey, can you pass the chips?
<Player Jim> Sure, here. I really prefer those paprika ones though. Do we have some of these?
<GM> .. guys..
<Player Jane> Yeah, I think we still have a pack of those somewhere, wait I’ll get it.
(three minutes later, everyone back at the table)
<GM> .. so as I was saying, the person who started to talk to you introduces himself as Aras Silverbag, a local trader. His caravan has been attacked by a band of Gnolls and his wife and children are missing. He asks you for help.
<Player Jane> Hey Jim, your character still has that emerald from last time! Give it back, I want to buy a fine sword at the blacksmiths here.
<Player Jane to the GM> Does the blacksmith make fine weapons? What does a fine Longsword cost?
<GM> uhm.. it’s night and the shops are closed. Also, someone is trying to talk to you right now about ..
<Player Jim> I don’t actually have that emerald written down. Hey GM, what was that emerald worth again?
Any of this sound familiar? If not, great for you – count yourself among the lucky GMs or players who have a nice respectful gaming group. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. Sometimes things don’t go as smoothly as they maybe could on the gaming table.. and this can lead to some frustration for both players as well as game masters. Luckily there are some things we can do to improve the situation and hopefully get back to the point where everyone around the table has fun and enjoys a great time.
Here are some possible reasons why players don’t engage or ignore what’s going on, and some suggestions on how to fix it:
Possibility 1: The players are bored
This doesn’t have to be the GM’s fault. Sometimes too much of a good thing can lead to players not really engaging in the story. Maybe it’s time for a break, maybe switch to a different setting for a bit – maybe even a different system. In the past I played a LOT of fantasy RPGs like MERP, D&D, Rolemaster, and some others which lead to the group getting less and less excited to play – switching genre to a SciFi campaign made a huge difference and the spark was back.
Possibility 2: The players don’t get enough attention
Sometimes you spend a lot of effort in creating a complex backstory for your character, you know every detail about their family and their background and your character sheet shows a printout of a portrait of your character that you commissioned on Fiverr. But as the gaming session starts, it’s all about the plot and you have no chance of contributing to the story.
When this happens, it can feel very restrictive to some players and may lead to them disengaging from the game or not caring about your plot hook because they’d much rather have an interesting interaction where their character can play his role.
There is an easy fix for this though: as the GM you can give each character some limelight every gaming session. They are the heroes of the story, so feel free to make them part of the narrative. They could know the person giving them the quest – maybe they give the quest instead of an NPC.
Possibility 3: Players don’t have time to interact before the game
Your gaming group may be just meeting every now and then, and some or all of them may be friends. They may want to talk about their week, catch up a bit, and have some exchange before the game starts.
This is one of the mistakes I actually made a lot when I started out. I wanted to get the game going right away not to lose time and ignored that, well, players are humans – and they’d like to have some human interaction besides just exploring a fictional world or story that I made up in the last few days (and that I’m eager to run).
So as a GM it helps to look at this from the perspective of: these are my friends – let’s give them some time to catch up. We’ll get to the game eventually because we all are here because we like to play.
If things go on for too long (say more than an hour), you can gently nudge people in the direction with a friendly “Hey, should we get started?”.
Possibility 4: Characters are not challenged
Now this one probably needs it’s own blog post some time but it just happens – characters have achieved very high levels, maybe the GM was quite generous with magical items, etc. and now they have 300 hit points, can rip out a tree with their bare hands and the wizard in the party could basically lay waste to a small town with a single fireball spell.
If they are faced with a new orc incursion somewhere or a tribe of evil giants they may already know that there really isn’t any challenge for their characters. They may go through the motions but that random encounter with a pack of wolves the GM just rolled doesn’t do much to create excitement – and people might get bored.
While you could, of course, go the way of trying to strip these characters from their magical Longsword +6 and their Wand of Obliteration, the players most likely won’t enjoy that (and I guess neither would the GM in their stead).
There is another way though – at this stage, the characters are essentially superheroes. They will be so legendary that others have heard about them – bards may even have written songs about them. Instead of challenging them directly, think about how comic book writers approach such superheroes like Superman. Superman is invincible except for Kryptonite and Magic (maybe other things I am not aware of) – but there is still plenty of challenge and some great stories to be played out regardless. Also here, add some more limelight, make the characters the main focus of the story and find (or introduce) some kryptonite for each of them (where needed) to, every now and then, add that challenge element.