I've been GMing for a few months and have run two campaigns. In each of these campaigns, people have ended up leaving because of problems I could have fixed if I knew what was going on. So how do I get players to be comfortable talking to me about the problems they're having? Is there anything I can do about it? Or is this something that just happens?
Communication and Expectation Setting
While you can't force someone to communicate, you can create an environment where they feel more comfortable doing so.
Starting off with a Session Zero can help set the stage that the group/campaign is a work that everyone is involved in. You can discuss where you plan on taking the game and your expectations for combat/roleplay/etc, and the players can discuss their expectations and desire for what they want to get out of the game.
This can create a starting point where everyone hopefully feels comfortable to talk about the state of the game and sets the expectation that they can always discuss things if they feel it's going off those earlier defined rails.
Set the expectation that they aren't just players in your game, but that everyone is playing together. That can greatly help to create the environment where everyone is comfortable discussing issues they may have.
You can also also start sessions with a recap of the last session and an opportunity to discuss any issues or concerns. This gives the players time to cool down if there was a problem at the last session and gives you an opportunity to get feedback that you can integrate into your campaign plan. It is at this time that you can bring up anything you've noticed from the last session and explicitly ask them for feedback as well.
Doing a similar followup immediately after a session is another possibility. Immediately presenting an option for feedback can be either a boon or a bane depending on the players and how you react. After a session emotions may be higher, but it also gives an opportunity to be able to adjust before the next session. The most important bit here is directly applicable to the Keeping Cool section below. You can ask for feedback, or raise concerns you noticed or felt, but be very careful about how you present and how you respond. I recommend not responding at all and just listening to their feedback. Responses can be discussed at another time (either in between sessions or at start of next) when everyone is thinking more clearly and has had time to cool off.
If you are open as to your plans and work to try and make it fun for both you and the rest of your table, then you are creating an environment where people feel more comfortable coming to you because you have come to them.
Keeping your cool
You are also very like to get criticism during your campaign. Some may be constructive, others not so much. But keeping your cool and listening to the players will move the relationship and the table forward. You don't need to do what they ask all the time, but give them a chance to talk and for them to understand you are listening. Explaining the why behind a decision can go a long way.
Have a session zero. Talk to your players about what you expect from the game, and ask them what they expect of the game.
Setting expectations up front about what type of game it is:
- hack and slash heavy dungeon crawl,
- role play heavy epic story,
- political mystery,
Tell them what the expected behavior is:
- Is swearing allowed at the table
- Is alcohol allowed at the table
- Where is the line on graphical content
- Political (real world)
Tell them the house rules for the game, and what variant rules you might be playing. The more the players know up front about what they can expect from you, and what you expect of them, the less likely you'll have player problems.
Tell them you are open to hearing their thoughts on how the game is going, and what they'd like to see in the game. Adjust the game to fit resonable requests. Make it clear that if something is going wrong, to tell you about it privately. Weather it is something you're doing that you're unaware of or something another player is doing that is ruining the experience.
Issues related to players feeling like there isn't fair play, or there is favoritism might come from on the spot judgments. So, when you make a ruling on the spot, do it quickly to move on with the game. But write it down. Then after that session, look up the rule. Decide there if you follow your ruling going forward, or the RAW for that rule. Tell the players next session at the top about the decision.
Pay Attention to Your Players At The Table
Let a Player Recap
The recap at the start of every session might be something you want to pass off to a different player each session. What you thought happened last session that was important, and what the players thought was important might be two completely different things.
An encounter with a minor NPC might have seemed like it was the main plot hook. An NPC trying to dissuade the players from doing something might have come across as the DM trying to prevent them from doing something. Pay attention to the way they state things, and adjust to the tone.
Read the Players Faces
As DM, you're focused on encounter balancing, story telling, dice rolling, and adjudicating what happens when the Half Orc decides to shove an immovable rod into the dragons mouth... But, you are also there for your players, so among everything else, you need to pay attention to how the players react to things. Is the Warlock bored of just spamming EB? Is the Paladin's player getting angry that the party wants to become murder hobos? Is someone looking distracted, upset or frustrated?
As DM, we need to take a step back at the table sometimes. You're not the star, the player's are. You are the stage and the props. After you drop something on them, be it a big monster or trap, there is an important thing you have to do. Shut up.
Let them talk. If you don't allow metagaming, then it is in character, but they still have to have time to talk. While they are talking, they are revealing what they feel about the situation, and where they think it might lead. Pay attention to who is and isn't talking. If someone doesn't seem to be engaging in the conversation, as DM you might ask them something to see what is going on inside their (and their character's) head(s), like "What does your character feel about this?"
You can use this information for many game reasons, but on a personal level it will also let you know if there are any players who have withdrawn because they are hurt, angry, or otherwise upset.
How's My Driving?
During a break every few games, event when you think everything is crusing along without a hitch. Try to get a different player alone, and ask them: "What do you think of the game so far?" and/or "How do think I'm doing at this DMing thing?" Keep going until you've checked in with all the players. One-on-one to a causal question, they might feel more at ease to let you know if another player is being a jerk, you keep making a mistake in their damage calculation, or they really want a story element to come up...
When Problems Occur
Try not talk to player about problem behavior at the table in front of other players, but instead catch them at a break, before the session or after the session. You're all there to have fun, and raking someone over the coals in front of the other players will leave a bad taste in all of their mouths. If it is something that crosses all lines of decency, then you may have deal with it right there or the behavior will continue, but should be the extreme exception.
Deal with problems as close to their appearance as you can do so civilly. If you need time before talking to someone so you're not angry or defensive, take the time. But, the longer something goes dealt with, the bigger it will be when it boils to the surface.
One thing you can try is talking about non-game stuff. I am assuming this is a group of people that aren't comfortable talking so this assumes you aren't all close friends. Bridging that gap could help get them comfortable talking about the game.
You can also try talking about great scenes they played out, especially if someone did something especially cool or funny. How they felt about the stuff you notice can give you some insight into the players. The stuff they bring up is even more enlightening.
Communication is Key
As stated above, keeping an environment where everyone has some time to talk about the session is a good idea.
One technique not mentioned yet is to have a player recap what happened in the last session. This will help you to hear what the players thought was important and might give you insight into anything that might be going wrong. It can also give clues as to what the players want to be doing.