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One curse I've had while playing and in particular while GMing, is that one group of players I have is stuck in the mindset that things are laid out, one after another, in linear fashion for them to go through. So, if for example, I make special mention of some critters out of place and behaving oddly, and then other relations like seemingly domestic versions of those critters in another town. Most people get the idea and realise there's something to investigate, something else going on behind the scenes. This one group, however, after all the setup, asks 'So where's the main monster lair?' of one of the NPCs. Totally stuck on this go kill boss monster get reward train and seemingly unable to grasp that he can take any action, he's not limited to north, east, south, west, open treasure chest, grab loot, etc.

Do any of you have tips on how to jar these players into actually playing and pretending they're in the situation?

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12 Answers 12

up vote 28 down vote accepted

Lots of answers to the question but I'd make the suggestion... Slowly. Keep in mind that the goal of a game master is to help everyone have fun. To these players fun may be a World of Warcraft-style dungeon crawl with boss fights. Instead of fighting that directly, run with it; only add a few twists and turns along the way. Allow them to come to the conclusion on their own that their methods, while effective, could have been more efficient if handled less directly.

The way I see it, if my players aren't interested in my layers of intrigue, then I must not have made things interesting enough. After all, even in video games, I pay attention to those with interesting stories. It's only when I'm bored that I scroll to the bottom and say, "Okay so I have to collect 10 badger ears."

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As you and Jmstar have suggested, that's not something I'd really considered. When I'm GMing I put the little quirks there cause that's what's fun to me, investigating and finding out that there's something more then a random jabberwock guarding a mcguffin. Whilst I don't have an answer at the moment, my assumption is that the group has trouble enjoying it -because- of their lack of ability to think of it in any other terms then your standard videogame, I'll have to investigate more into that. Thanks both of you. – Katniss Aug 27 '10 at 22:31
Good luck! It really sounds like a mismatch in your expectations and sources of enjoyment. A discussion will either straighten it out or you'll know that you need a different group that shares your enthusiasms. – Jmstar Aug 28 '10 at 0:35

That style of play can be fun, so maybe that's what they enjoy. There may just be an incompatibility in what you want out of the game, and that's worth discussing with them.

If they are open to what you want, maybe try presenting situations where they have to make difficult choices for which there is no clear, objective answer.

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I like the idea of no clear, objective answer. +1 – Aaron Mar 17 '11 at 22:17

Several good solutions come to mind.

  • have them define a character goal (or 3)... but don't put any direct reference to that. If they take an action that would help achieve it, immediately reward it.
  • Reward failure with as many experience points as success...
  • include their own banter and ideas into play; if they start talking about there being a balrukh behind "door X", give them one. Perhaps a small one.
  • Don't use the classic trope of resurrecting dead PC's - it's been overdone in Computer Games. No "lives"...
  • If they go "off the adventure," give them bonus XP.

Alternatively, have them play a game where the PC's frame the scenes, such as Burning Empires. You give each of them (and yourself) a budget of scenes to frame... and let them say who is there, and what the scene is about. Then run with it....

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I like the notion of turning the tables on them with a system that has them define part of the scenario. +1 – Aaron Mar 17 '11 at 22:19
+1 Perhaps a small one. :D – Haugholt Feb 9 '15 at 20:36

Get them to play better video games. Lots of video games are not linear rollercoasters.

Tell them that there are acheivements. Every session write down 10 things (related to the adventure at hand) on nifty businesscards that they can do all titled,

Achievement - poked a cow 10 times

Achievement - Saved the princess

Achievement - Haggled a Shopkeeper into cost pricing.

Videogames are not the problem, as it says in a favorite oldie of mine,

"What we have here is a failure to ... communicate"

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  • React with realistic responses that the NPCs would give. "Where's the monster lair?" "What? I don't know and I don't care to know."
  • Prompt them frequently with "What do you do?" rather than explaining how they should solve a situation. If they get to a cliff, explain that there's a cliff and don't explain anything more, let them decide to use rope or to go around or whatever solution. Encourage non-standard solutions.
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Talk to them about it. Do this at the first occasion, plain and friendly. You probably have different expectations, so you need to sort it out and find a style of play you all like. This may take some trial & error through more than a few one-shot games, probably with different Systems. But the key is to talk about it.

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Many PCs get into this because of the current emphasis on linear, plot-driven games. It may be worthwhile to try weaning them off of this by using hybrids of linear plots and sandboxes.

One useful hybrid is the "home base" concept. The PCs have a home base with a variety of interesting, nearby locations to explore. The relevant resources of the home base are laid out beforehand so PCs can take stock of what they'll have available. There is some diffuse or abstract threat to the home base, and they must solve the problem somehow.

For example, in an OpenQuest game I'm currently running, the PCs' home base is the medieval village of Breakwood. The problem is that its granary has recently burnt down in an accident, and without either grain or money to buy food with, the villagers are going to starve. I planned a few leads on possible ways to make money or find grain, and let them go out to save the day.

This is close enough to a linear game for people used to that style, but is actually part sandbox, part linear. This will hopefully prevent the game from becoming a series of fetch-quests assigned by a jive-talking wizard.

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You could give the players a situation where killing everything in the main monster lair is counter-productive.

In most systems, there are skills other than combat. Give the players more challenges related to skills where they have to think their way through it. A political puzzle, murder mystery, or something of the sort where they really have to use critical thinking skills and come up with their own solution.

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First thing to do is look at the system you're playing. If the system is 90% about combat, your are going to get 90% combat related play. I do a lot of advising on setting and system design, and many GMs don't realize the cause and effect involved. If 90% of the skills and abilities of the PCs are based on one area of an RPG (e.g., Combat, exploration, social, problem solving), don't expect the game to go elsewhere.

Secondly, if your PCs see things through a certain lens, change the lens OBVIOUSLY a few times to make them see things in a diffrent way. If they are linear thinkers now, give them a few very clearly multiple choice scenarios WITHOUT a traditional end.

Thirdly, reward Roleplaying tangibly. I do this in two ways, with success bonuses to a task and with session-end Roleplay EXP awards. Anytime a PC declares an action, then roleplays it wel, I normally tack on a +05% to +10% to the success. I am also know for dropping in a -5% when a Player doesn't even go through the motions. You'll be amazed at how implementing this changes things. And the end of night awards add up as well, and are good reminders with an excellent 'recency' effect (last thing the PCs get every night...stronger reminder). If the PCs start vying and arguing about who deserves these, you've won.

This is hopefully a good start.

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If you have any experience with them, consider putting some of the things that make intriguing storylines from video games INTO your adventure to catch his interest. I can't say for certian that he'll go for it, depending on which games he plays, but there are plenty of 'gamer' ways to draw a person's attention.


When a gamer is looking for a cue as to what they need to investigate next, an NPC will, nine out of ten times, be able to guide them in the right direction. Maybe in your example of certain townsfolk keeping monsters as pets, you could have a local policeman point out "hey, you notice how so many people have been adopting those monsters around town? Well, truth be told..." If they encounter this situation as an obstacle, rather than a riddle 'on the side', they're more inclined to pay attention to it, and the best way to do that is to feed them the riddle through the mouth of a trustworthy NPC.

Explicit Directions

So maybe they don't care if the town guard is doing their job, and just want to get to the next 'dungeon' that they can explore. This isn't a problem either, necessarily. Assuming they can follow simple directions, and at least ONE of your players are tryign to figure things out, you can feed them simple instructions on how to proceed. Maybe it will ruin the riddle for certain players, but if they're not going to figure it out on their own, trying to drag them thorugh it is only going to frustrate them (and you) the longer you let it drag on. Nothing is more frustrating to a gamer than being stuck in Town X talking to every NPC until the right one feeds you the right dialogue to move the plot along.

A Memorable Character

If you want to catch a player's attention REALLY well though, make the person dispensing this information as memorable as possible. Town Sheriff may be an important job, but is just about as important to a PC as the village idiot. Instead, make it a half-dragon Town Sheriff named Goliath who picks his teeth with his sword and chews tobacco then spits it out in a plume of fire. Or give him a moment where he busts apart a theft before addressing the PCs to assert his awesomeness. Or just give him a distnict scar across his cheek that he mutters 'bloody rusty razors' about when asked. If they remember this character, they will care about what they have to say.


Keeping a consistent thematic progression to your story also helps keep the player's attention. Fighting monsters without a care in one dungeon, only to be solving a riddle about why they're being kept as pets aftewards, may confuse a player, because they're in the mindset that they don't need to care about monsters at all. Instead, introduce one of the monsters early on as being sympathetic, maybe even after they've nearly killed one, and paint them in a light so that it progresses naturally that such a thing might happen, or that such a thing is incredibly obviously wrong and off-putting.

Finally, if you want a player to sympathize with a monster, you need to put a lot of effort into that, even if they aren't in 'a gamer mindset', because let's face it, we have all played a tabletop game where we didn't even think about the fact that we've slaughtered hundreds of nameless magical beasts for no real reason other than 'they were in the way and gave us EXP'. It's entirely too easy to not care about these encounters. Instead, make intelligent monsters chatter to one another and form tactics. Make wild monsters roll around and knead at the ground to make soft beds of dirt before the PCs show up and they attack. Have a skeleton tip their entire head to the party before engaging in honorable combat.

The more memorable a character or situation, the more someone is going to care about them later on, regardless of their past gaming experience.

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One thing is to keep in mind that, as GM, you have "the power," so to speak. A good way to introduce the "combat doesn't always work" option is to create situations that combat simply isn't an option then go out of your way to make it as fun and as interesting as possible. You'll find the players will more often or not, accept the concept once they see its not as "boring" as they've thought or heard.

Sprinkle non-snarky comparisons between Console RPGs and PnP RPGs, liberally and after a bit, you'll have an idea of who's going to "get it" and who isn't.

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One way to do this might be to have an adventure that deals with a murder mystery. At some point, the BBEG retreats to a secured location and the players get their dungeon crawl and battle, but first they have to figure out who the BBEG even is, and then back him or her (or it?) into a corner. You can split this into three phases.

The "investigation" phase of this offers plenty of opportunities to notice details. Serial killers make great BBEGs for this sort of thing: they deliberately leave clues for pursuers, and there's always pressure to figure it out before the killer strikes again. The goal, as always, is to figure out whodunit.

Next comes the "exposure" phase. The party knows who the BBEG is, but it's the person people would least expect. Maybe he's a highly-respected villager, or someone so quiet that the townsfolk would assume him harmless. Regardless, the townsfolk will defend him until they have a clear reason not to, so the characters have to prove his guilt, maybe in some kind of court, or maybe more informally. This provides more opportunity to notice background detail and search for clues.

The last part, the "confrontation" phase, becomes a straight-up dungeon crawl to the end. The BBEG has retreated to a secure location, and now you've got go get to it, root him out, and put him to the sword. Your players like this style, so just getting to this phase is a reward in and of itself, and an epic showdown with the BBEG only makes it sweeter. This is someone they've known about and wanted to deal with for a long time (real time, at least, if not game time).

It's ironic that I'd suggest turning to video games for ideas on making things less video-game-like, but if you want some ideas for basic plots, consider the Ace Attorney series of video games. They're not D&D-like in the slightest -in particular, you're playing the defense attorney of someone wrongly accused, so the confrontation phase is a courtroom drama rather than a dungeon crawl- but the plots are fairly generic, so they shouldn't be hard to adapt. They also give a wide variety of character archetypes for NPCs, including both innocent and guilty parties.

I'm not saying you should make all your plots murder mysteries. But one adventure, maybe with another one snuck in a few adventures later, should leave a lasting impression: your players should, at the very least, start paying more attention to the background.

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