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Engaging Your Players

It’s Friday night. My group is finishing their extermination of a Sanguine Paw hideout located beneath a popular baker’s shop. The Sanguine Paw, a cult of lycanthropes and fanatics of lycanthropy, are the main villains of the campaign thus far, and they are working with a local goblin tribe. The party is interrogating a goblin named Boarhead (formerly a wereboar) who’s been working as an ambassador to the Sanguine Paw. He’s refusing to speak all but one party member: Dani Dregon, a halfling arcane trickster and polymorphed dragon portrayed by Natalie.

At the moment, Natalie is the only girl in the group, and she’s been quiet. By introducing Boarhead, I decided to try and change that.

As the interrogation progresses, Boarhead clings to Dani, trusting in her both due to her small stature and gentle nature. Boarhead whispers answers into her ear, and eventually agrees to guide the party through the rest of the hideout... and to the lair of the Sanguine Paw’s main ally in the region: A hill giant lycanthrope.

Let’s fast forward a year. Boarhead is still alive and under Dani’s proverbial wings. The goblin has become a stout ally of the entire group and a close friend of Dani’s. In addition, he’s the main reason Natalie is attached to the campaign. As I said before, I knew Natalie wasn’t as invested in the campaign as the rest of the players, but she was not going to state that clearly. Therefore, I introduced Boarhead, a character I knew and specifically designed for her to become attached to.

Players aren’t always engaged, and most of the time, they won’t actively try to remedy this. This could be for a myriad of reasons: They’re shy and aren’t confident in what they have to say, or they don’t want to take the spotlight from other players, or perhaps they’re bored with the game and aren’t interested in the current story.

Before I continue, let it be known that some folks who play Dungeons and Dragons enjoy observing their friends get into absurd situations while sitting quietly in their chair and taking their turn in combat. In my experience, however, this is not the majority of players. If a player is quiet or disinterested or becomes this way as the campaign continues, it needs to be fixed, lest it affects the fun of not only them but the fun of everyone at the table.

That’s bad. Our goal when playing D&D, of course, is to tell an exciting story, fight monsters, and roll dice. Thus, the unengaged and disinterested player must be engaged.

However, this is not an easy or simple task. Some D&D players need their shells cracked. They need to be prodded to engage. 

This is the job of the dungeon master.

Today, I’m going to talk about how you, the dungeon master, can engage your players when they’re showing little interest in your campaign, or even prevent the phenomena entirely.

Let’s begin.

Suddenly, Something Happens!

When you surprise an unengaged player with a sudden twist in the campaign, preferably with something created especially for them, it can quickly bring them into the fold and excite them about the future. Most of the time that D&D players seem disinterested with the current story, it’s because their character doesn’t have a stake in it, or doesn’t necessarily care about it.

Change that!

Introduce a new character into the current plot that the unengaged PC cares about, as I did with Boarhead, a lost goblin cured of a foul disease.

Have something interesting and mysterious happen to that PC. As the party sleeps, describe an epic dream that the PC has, wherein they witness something profound that foreshadows the upcoming plot points. 

Or, if the player’s mood is especially negative, approach the player and ask them what’s going on. Maybe they’re going through something in real life, and their sour demeanor has nothing to do with the campaign. If that’s not the issue, ask what they’d like to see from the campaign. This is something I often do before a campaign begins. I ask my players question such as, “What’s a monster you’d like to see?” or, “What’s your characters long and short term goals?”

If none of these attempts to engage a player from your end fail to succeed, and you’d still like to try and engage them, keep reading. Place the sword in their hands.

Loaded Questions and Character Connectedness

Inserting sudden story beats aimed at a specific player character may not always be the best idea, especially if they love to assist in the worldbuilding and storytelling process. Instead, ask them to create something related to the world around their character.
  • What lies on the other side of the wooden door with the rusty, squeaking hinges?
  • Who holds Blackrazor, the legendary weapon your party’s fighter is searching for?
  • Where does Imlerith, a vicious white dragon, hide in the Icemaw Mountains?
Asking them loaded questions about the campaign or current adventure can immediately pique their interest in the adventure. When they become a clear member of the campaign building team, their interest in the world will explode. 

Doing this before the campaign begins is a way to avoid player disinterestedness completely. Ensuring each player in your group has a chance to connect their character to the world they’ll be playing in is the source of fantastic stories. 

For example, I worked with each member of my home group to connect their characters to the campaign’s story. Let’s go back to Dani. Dani is a prismatic dragon stripped of all her draconic powers and polymorphed into a halfling. She’s on the search for her two stolen children. Throughout the campaign, she slowly learns that the party’s patron kidnapped her wyrmlings and traded them to the antagonist. Natalie, the player of Dani, helped create the patron as well as the unique prismatic dragons of my world. As a result of her baby plot becoming a bigger part of the story and her involvement with a goblin ally, she’s become incredibly invested in the campaign, and my campaign’s story has been elevated to a new level because of her creativity.

In short: Asking players to create pieces of the world or campaign and heavily connecting their characters to the campaign’s story will ensure they are engaged in the game.

And Your Opinion Is?

This last piece of advice is useful for quickly engaging players in the game. 

While you’re portraying a nonplayer character, turn and ask the quiet PC a question. Perhaps the NPC wants their input on the situation or needs something only that character can do. The goal here is to get the player talking as their character. Once a conversation starts to heat up, you’ll quickly see the player’s eyes light up.

This tactic is not always as effective as the strategies described above, but it might work on folks who are having a bad day and need some nudging to get back into the fray of D&D.

In Summary

As the dungeon master, one of your primary tasks is to engage your players. Dungeons and Dragons is a collaborative storytelling game where everyone fights monsters and delves into dungeons, after all, so everyone at the table should be involved! Remember the tactics I discussed to engage or re-engage players at the table:
  1. Suddenly, something happens to their character that piques their interest and/or increases their character’s stake in the story.
  2. Ask your players to create pieces of the world or adventure on the spot, or connect their characters to the story before or during the campaign to ensure they are engaged in the game.
  3. If a player seems unusually quiet or down, have a nonplayer character turn to their character and start or bring them into a conversation.
That’s it for this week’s article, folks. Make sure to like and share the article if you enjoyed it or thought it contained useful information.

Changing the subject for a bit, I’ve been doing some work on other aspects of RJD20, particularly my YouTube channel.

For the past week, I’ve been posting YouTube videos in response to Absolute Tabletop’s #My30DayWorld challenge. In these videos, I answer questions about my homegrown world of Aelonis, and gradually get better in front of the camera and at editing videos. It’s a process, but I’m enjoying the challenge. I suggest you take a look at my YouTube channel here: RJD20 YouTube.

In addition to the #My30DayWorld videos, I’ll start doing videos about my blog topics and session prep. It should be fun!

Well, that’s it, just a quick update on my videos. Of course, articles will be going up weekly forevermore…

Until the next encounter, farewell!

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