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In my games, I tend to run into a problem at least once per session. My players just seem to follow the dice and make no effort to either engage with combat or chase adventure. They let the dice fall and decide what to do, but in a very OOC and tactical manner. The tension disappears, as does a lot of the roleplaying.

I really don't like it, but I haven't been able to stop it from happening. The players notice it too, but appear to think it's normal.

We play a homebrew sandbox campaign of AD&D 2nd ed. Normally the sessions are 3-4 hours long, with a few breaks for food.

Has anyone else had this problem, and if so, how did you fix it? (Note: I'd rather have answers that don't recommend other systems, unless you specifically state how the other system fixes the problem and how I can apply it to AD&D 2e.)

In general, how do you raise tension in your games (in the short-term, rather than long-term - less "Upon us rests the fate of the world, we must not fail" and more spur-of-the-moment)?

[I see the two questions as linked (raising tension is one possible answer to the other question). If I can increase tension, my players will probably be more focused. However, if consensus is that it is two different questions, I will edit the second one out and pose it separately]

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My players just seem to follow the dice and make no effort to either engage with combat or chase adventure. what kind of setting are they in ? Usually external forces keep players on their toes. Like a repressive government, difficult battle conditions etc –  pwned Nov 29 '12 at 18:00
    
It's a classic fantasy homebrew, with dangerous uninhabited areas around a safe home city. The problem with the situation I described is that it can happen in the middle of combat or while traipsing through the wilderness. –  Dakeyras Nov 29 '12 at 18:04
    
Do you roll dice in the open and refuse to fudge? That added the most tension in my games out of nearly anything else. Suddenly, die rolls mattered and PCs could die. –  cr0m Dec 31 '13 at 1:00
    
@crom I've never fudged dice rolls, ever, and always roll in the open. I've come perilously close to a TPK before because of it, but a change in luck just staved it off. That was an especially exciting part of the session. –  Dakeyras Dec 31 '13 at 9:43

8 Answers 8

up vote 9 down vote accepted

Make Things Personal

[Since the problem seems to be that the players are wrapped up in the mechanics - this advice is meant to be system/version neutral.]

If you want to increase engagement with something other than the dice, make the situations personal to the characters and by extension, the players.

Give the characters individual motives - each has an individual quest or two. And they may be partially opposed.

A great way to generate motives is to give the players preexisting relationships, as Mike Shea suggests in his blog post at SlyFlourish.com: Fiasco-Style Relationships.

Reward players for chasing their objectives and role-playing to their relationships.

An example

By request many moons ago, I took over DMing a AD&D Dragonlance Campaign late in the series. The previous DMs had treated it as a dungeon crawl and many of the players were bored.

Riverwind and Goldmoon [the last of their tribe] were played by a real-life couple and she wasn't at all engaged. First, I threw them all in the BBEG's Prison. Then pulled her aside an told her that Goldmoon was pregnant and hadn't told anyone yet. Instantly that player became engaged with the desire to protect their unborn child.

Mechanics support

Some games have actually woven story-dependent relationships into the mechanics: Various D&D editions have Themes/Roles/etc. that specifically add motivation to a character. Such as The Neverwinter NobleDDI [in effect, Aragorn's backstory from Lord of the Rings.] Often these include flavored powers that the player can use, often out-of-combat. Even if this isn't your edition, you can steal these ideas to great effect.

Of course, the tried-and-true "looking for a family relic", "avenging my beloved's murder", and the like have always been a great simple motivations. Just drop hints here and there about these items and you'll see engagement spike.

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+1 for player motivation. The second-edition equivalent of the Themes/Roles is Character Kits, chosen at character creation. I may let some players choose a kit for an already-established character. –  Dakeyras Nov 29 '12 at 20:01

Fiction vs. Mechanics

"Fiction" is the imaginary events and actions in play. Players stop focusing on the fiction and focus only on the mechanics when it happens in play that the fiction stops affecting the mechanics.

"Why should I take the energy to give a creative description when it doesn't affect anything and the dice determine how things turn out? I might as well just get to the dice and the numbers, then."

It's not like anyone consciously thinks this, but people tend to take the path of least resistance and easiest solutions. When the fiction stops mattering, they end up sticking to the numbers out of efficiency.

Luckily, there's two easy ways to fix it.

"How do you do it? Ok, here's a modifier"

When the players want to do something, ask for HOW they're doing it. Apply a modifier based on the idea/description and tell them why it earns that modifier.

"Oh, yeah, he's playing defensive but because you're yanking his shield out of the way with your free hand before striking, you get a bonus - he wasn't expecting that."

Alternatively, change the outcomes or add a condition as a result of a described action - "If you do that, he'll be knocked prone! Being laid out completely on burning coals is going to also leave him stunned as he writhes in pain. Vicious!"

Appropriate NPC/monster reactions

Years back I played in a 2E campaign and the DM was a construction worker. One day he pulls out a short sledgehammer. "This weighs as much as a warhammer. Pick it up. Feel the weight? Ok, now imagine getting hit with this thing. That's 1D4 hitpoints. Is that something you're going to shrug off?"

In his game, he was very good about having monsters run if they took a bad hit, or saw someone pull out magic. When you apply the same fiction to the NPCs, the players learn that there are ways to get benefits besides what the straight numbers can provide.

Tension

Now, as to tension? Tension is a special trick by the GM.

First off, you have to realize you can't force your players to care about any specific thing. What you do, instead, is you pay close attention and when you find out something they do care about, you note it and you use it as the thing to threaten/build situations around. You follow the players' leads as to what is exciting.

What DO they care about?

Think about the last time you saw this person excited about something - a new movie, a videogame, whatever. When you see them show interest or get excited, you're on the right track.

Most of the time it's going to be something like a problem with the world, the wellbeing of an NPC or how their character's reputation status is in the eyes of said NPCs.

Threaten

Threatening the things they care about isn't as easy as "or it'll be destroyed!". It's better to make it a clear, but non-final problem. Things can always get worse. Even though, in theory, they can afford the failure... players will break themselves trying to stop bad things from happening to things they care about. Rarely you can put destruction/death as an option but usually after you've put up enough other potentially outcomes.

Actual Outcomes

Player engagement depends a lot on them actually being able to influence the game. If the choices they make do not impact the results, they stop caring. This is most successful when you don't have a railroaded possible answer or result. When the players realize, win or lose, it's up to them? And the choices they make will help create that? they bust their asses. The victories are theirs, the losses are theirs, and that's where players become engaged.

Having a world open to player interactions, outside of what you planned for, is what gives incentive for players to do unique and fun things, and to push their characters to the limit. It also means when you do threaten the things they care about, they don't feel it's a cheap hook to get them to do a specific thing - rather it's a challenge they can take up and fix, and know that it was done by their own work.

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Divide and conquer.

This kind of behaviour is often groupal. They resist immersion as a group. When I face this kind of problems, I try to isolate a player and make him face a personal problem of his character. Or even solve a situation for the group that only him can solve. Or make that a NPC only trust one character.

This way, the play is more personal, and that helps the players get inside their character.

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I've had a similar session, where one guy started hitting an old man for a variety of reasons - however, I had a whole file of info on him as a priest and questgiver! That character got to sit out - literally - on all the discussions and meetings, as well as the giving out of supplies. He was very bored indeed, and since then, he's not hit a single OAP :D –  Dakeyras Nov 30 '12 at 18:38

Music

Don't forget the power of music.

You need tunes that have the right tempo, high paced rhythm for an all out brawl and maybe something by Ennio Morricone for those slow tense moments before the fight kicks off.

Setting an ambush in a jungle? Try something that is quite sedate and dreamy with unexpected breaks, animal cries and changes in tempo. Then swing in with something mournful at the end of the fight (especially if you've bagged one of them - Barber's Adagio for Strings will have them weeping onto their dice).

Execution

Films are a great place to plunder for this. It might seem a little cliché but most people have a shared knowledge of film so something familiar will remind them what mood to be in.

Best to set this up beforehand, nothing quite kills the mood like trying to change tracks mid fight. Try setting up play lists, with an important intro tune, then some tunes that have the right tempo that can just repeat for as long as the scene does. Then you just need to switch between playlists

Consumables

Booze works. Want them hyper? Then fill them full of red bull and haribo. Other consumables are also available. My point what we eat and drink affects our mood.

Let us know how you get on!

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Hi Len, welcome to RPG.Stackexchange.com! Good first answer. Please take a look at our FAQ when you get a chance. –  C. Ross Nov 30 '12 at 14:25
    
Thanks, I'll try to use that in our next session! –  Dakeyras Nov 30 '12 at 14:38

Having the PC's get a bit bored traveling is normal. Minimize travel time or gloss over the travel and actively cut down on the random encounters (as GM, if you don't want them to happen then they don't). During combat it is not normal and problematic. Maybe they don't feel challenged in the combat. Maybe there is too much "tedious" combat or combat for its own sake (random encounters). Talk to them about your observations. Getting some feedback on your game may help. If that doesn't do it for you,

Change it up!

Take a step back and give them something new. A few sessions in which the unexpected happens can perk up your PC's. If they expect the Spanish Inquisition give them Ravenloft.

This setting was made for AD&D 2nd ed so, mechanically speaking, it will fit right in. Conceptually, the idea was that the evil mist of Ravenloft can breach the barrier between worlds and appear anywhere. Those that wonder into the mist are transported to the Ravenloft world. I'm not saying you leave them there but a short term visit to a world of gothic horror may be the breath of fresh air you are looking for. Also, if the transition happened at the right time then some unfinished business back in your homebrewed world can add to the tension for them. Need more?

Give them something to love and then rip it away (brutally)!

Now this is a bit of a long term thing but it is worth it. But I don't use it much because of the danger of overuse which leads to jaded players. Introduce an NPC that works closely with the group. It is important that you have this NPC interact with each PC on a personal level. It can be little things, finding a case of the favorite wine, a new pair of Hermen's Self Heating Mage Stockings, working up a detailed dossier on that villainous noble, or some such thing.

Once you feel they are invested in the NPC have your major villain take them. It could be a simple kidnapping but, as I rarely use this one, I like a brutal and bloody murder. One that is seen or recorded in someway makes it rather visceral. This will add tension and the players will want to get that villain, not just because it's plot but because they want vengeance. I have had some amazing successes with this method.

EDIT : Having talked about it in comments I see that my first paragraph doesn't apply in the OP's case. I will leave it here for others as they may not be in the same situation and hence find value in the idea of minimizing travel time and/or random encounters.

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The random encounters are the defining feature of the setting. The setting revolves around no-one leaving the area's only city, as the surroundings are really dangerous (and if there are no random encounters, this is difficult to explain). Also, it's a sandbox setting with no major villain, but I guess I could use an orc tribe (or goblins if I'm feeling original :) ). –  Dakeyras Nov 29 '12 at 19:51
    
Still, +1 for the main part! –  Dakeyras Nov 29 '12 at 19:58
    
@Dakeyras Are you saying you don't want the random encounter frequency to drop or that you would need a valid explanation for your players? –  Leezard Nov 29 '12 at 20:00
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I don't want to lower the random encounter frequency. A while ago, the players decided to spend the whole session trekking to a lake, fighting some monsters that they'd randomly encountered before and lost a boat to, and then trekked back home. I think revenge for random encounters is a great way to add depth to a story and make it more organic. –  Dakeyras Nov 29 '12 at 20:04
    
@Dakeyras OK, I see. That makes sense. I was going off some past experiences in which party got bored with random encounters because they got in the way of plot but it sounds like they are part of your plot so not an issue in that way. –  Leezard Nov 29 '12 at 20:10

My players just seem to follow the dice and make no effort to either engage with combat or chase adventure. They let the dice fall and decide what to do, but in a very OOC and tactical manner.

and

How can I increase tension during roleplaying?

are different questions with different answers. Are you trying to increase tension or are you trying to get your players more involved with their characters?

Based on your explanation, I think you're trying to get the players to treat their characters as real people, instead of as battle bots. I've seen a few players like this who view their characters from a totally detached third person view.

I've had some luck by exploiting the characters on an emotional level. If you know what the character gives a damn about, attack it. It doesn't always work though, especially if the character's damn-giving-ness is just some fluff the player wrote up and forgot about.

In that case, exploit the players on an emotional level. This is easier if you're already friends with them. Find something that bothers them in real life and put that into game. I don't mean for you to traumatize your players of course. For example in my last game I found that the players were all big on responsibility. They liked making hard choices and being the one to do the right thing when nobody else would. So I allied them with an NPC who got himself in trouble and let the blame slide to the players. They took it personally and so their characters took it personally too.

It doesn't always work though. I found one players who just doesn't want to invest in his characters. They're all intentionally flawed and irrational. At some point I realized that he doesn't like seeing the world through someone else's eyes. He's in the game to create a high powered lab rat, set it free, and watch it implode. If that's what he gets out of the game, who am I to tell him otherwise?

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+1 for exploiting PCs! I have edited my question about the whole "Two separate questions" thing. –  Dakeyras Nov 29 '12 at 19:59
    
@Dakeyras, TY for editing. I probably wouldn't have called out the two questions thing, but I read this yesterday: meta.stackexchange.com/questions/66377/what-is-the-xy-problem –  valadil Nov 29 '12 at 21:00

I wouldn't recommend doing this for every event that takes place in your campaign, but...

Set a time limit.

A simple ticking egg timer set to 60 minutes (or whatever), paired with an in-world explanation, can add some major tension to your game.

You'll be amazed at the lack of cell phone games and side conversations!

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+1 Very good idea! I think I might use this in my next session –  Dakeyras Nov 29 '12 at 19:57

Try to understand your players' motivations

Not all players that play RPGs play them to role-play. Many are interested in the game side of things, of creating characters and seeing them grow and of killing lots of monsters and making tactically interesting decisions. If your players are playing combat like a tactical wargame instead of a role-playing game, then maybe that's what motivates them.

If they're motivated by tactics, then you can raise the tension by making the tactical combat situation more interesting and challenging. It's not a bad thing to shift from role-play to tactical gaming and back organically as the game goes along. As always, the key rule of gaming applies: If everyone's having fun, the game is working correctly.

If you're trying to get them to role-play more and they're motivated by tactical combat, you can try to use meta-gamey things like awarding tactical combat bonuses for good role-play, but that's a fine line from a motivating factor to another element to be "gamed". You don't want players sighing when their turn comes up and feeling forced to role-play something they don't really have any interest in just to get a +1 to hit.

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They aren't that interested in tactics, they just stop looking at things from an in-game perspective. I think the two are slightly different - a fighter/thief used some clever tricks with his dogs a while back that was tactical but in-game and exciting, while the problems that crop up are about OOC decisions to do this instead of that. Also, we treat our games very unlike war-games - we don't even use miniatures! Still, I like the second half of your answer so +1 –  Dakeyras Nov 29 '12 at 19:56

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