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I've been DMing a campaign for a while, and it has gone great. Unfortunately, I've noticed a trend in my style that I'm struggling to nip in the bud.

The whole party works together rather cohesively, but one player finds himself frequently talking to that important person or picking up on those small plot hooks into the larger campaign. None of the players have expressed concern yet, but he personally has gone on several side quests that the party hasn't simply because he goes more in-depth into the universe, something I feel as a DM is perhaps unfair.

By no means do I want to penalize him for being invested in the plot, but I want everyone to be able to get that level of personal attention.

How can I make sure everyone can have that full experience when not everyone is as invested?


Detail: The party met with a 3rd party separate from the villains/hero groups, and they asked for help. This player was the only one who wanted to go on it, while the rest of the party said something equivalent to "we're too busy fighting the forces of evil." The player switched to a backup who tagged along with the party, and I had a 1-on-1 session with their normal character where they helped the third party. They've also built their character to survive a lot of dangerous stuff (namely portals), so going on a single-person quests to help NPCs happens often.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ @AbigaleMoore That's great detail. You should use the edit link at the bottom of the question to include that example in your original questions. Comments are considered ephemeral and occasionally get cleaned up; the question content isn't. \$\endgroup\$ – Joel Harmon Jun 26 '18 at 22:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ Abigale, I edited in your comment explaining the situation, as Joel suggested that you do. Welcome, and that's a good opening question. :) \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jun 26 '18 at 23:30
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Gating

One simple solution to your problem is sometimes called gating. You simply require something for an interaction, and your talker (below, assumed to be a Human Fighter) doesn't have it. Here are a few examples:

  • The inscription is written in Dwarvish, which the talker can't read. Pass a note to the party's dwarf.
  • The party needs to talk to the Archmage, but only members of the Arcanist's Guild can request an audience. Stare pointedly at your Wizard's membership card.
  • A nearby urchin might have witnessed your contact's murder, but is too intimidated by the bulky fighter to talk. The child is staring inquisitively at the party's halfling.
  • Your Paladin's background as a sailor lets him know that something isn't right about this dockside bar.

None of these are intended to permanently exclude anyone, but to push another character to do something other than follow the leader.

Another variant on this you can use is in the basic formula of D&D: you describe the world, the players describe what they do, and you describe the results. Simply transition from the first step to the second by saying "Rogue, you notice a skulking figure watching the ruckus with interest. What do you do?" At that point, it becomes incumbent on the Rogue to respond, not the Fighter.

Are you sure this is a problem?

Not to put too fine a point on it here, but is this really an issue? Most importantly, is everyone having fun? If you're offering opportunities to your players and they aren't taking them, it's not necessarily anything you did wrong or you can fix.

Spend some time reading DMG page 6, Know Your Players. Different people are looking for different things in a game, and get different things out of it. Maybe your wizard wants to let the fighter do all the talking so he can get back to combat sooner. Maybe the cleric is more interested in fully exploring every map you draw. A different source for similar information is the idea of "8 kinds of fun", which will have several hits in your favorite search engine.

Once you're familiar with those ideas, you can think about your players. Get a feel for what excites each person, and be sure to incorporate a bit of each in every session. If that doesn't seem to be working, you can always outright ask your players what they're interested in and how they feel about the game. Maybe there is brewing resentment, maybe everything is fine. The best way to know is to ask your players.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for second half. If they are taking all the hooks and making your life easier, don't just reward them, make a point of rewarding them. Maybe the other players will connect the dots, want the same rewards and start looking for the hooks themselves! \$\endgroup\$ – aslum Jun 26 '18 at 13:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ That was a really good answer. That's something that I've done without realizing that I'm doing it, but once you're aware, you can even wrap it into your planning. \$\endgroup\$ – keithcurtis Jun 26 '18 at 13:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for the second half too. My initial thought was that: This is exactly the kind of behavior you WANT to encourage... I don't think it's favoritism to encourage this. \$\endgroup\$ – Reginald Blue Jun 26 '18 at 13:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ As far as I understand, OP wants to "make sure everyone can have that full experience" in the first place, not just to restrain a particular player from being involved in some plot hooks. For instance, what should the OP do, when the party dwarf is not interested in this dwarvish inscription side quest, but the talkative one is? \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Jun 26 '18 at 14:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ @enkryptor If the other players aren't biting, the talkative PC can still find a way to pull on those plot hooks anyway. To take your example, if the dwarf PC doesn't care, he can at least read it out to the talkative PC, or if he refuses, then the talkative PC can go find some dwarven NPC, who at that point the DM would probably provide to reward the PC's interest in the plot hook, even if it was originally meant for the dwarf PC. I suppose this is why the second half of this answer is important; make sure the other players actually want it. \$\endgroup\$ – NathanS Jun 26 '18 at 15:27
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I recommend against using a "gating" mechanic, like a language that only one character speaks. These mechanics tell the rest of the group that their characters aren't relevant, so they shouldn't bother trying to participate. If you "pass the spotlight around" so that each character is active 25% of the time, that means that each character is bored and out of the scene for 75% of the time. (I've had experience with a game like this, and I spent most of the time on my phone because there was nothing for me to do.)

Instead of using a gating mechanic, try to make sure that everyone's character is always present. If you catch someone going solo, try to think of a reason why the rest of the group should get involved.

For example, maybe Character A strikes up a dialog with the merchant, and the merchant happens to mention the rats in his cellar. You might think there's no reason for the merchant to invite the whole group to deal with the rats, because the merchant is only having a conversation with Character A.

But the game will go better if you make up a reason anyway. Maybe the merchant happens to know that Character A has friends who can help with this, or maybe the merchant just thinks this is a four-person job and asks Character A to find some friends to help.

As another example, maybe the rogue sees a glint of light in the forest and decides to go investigate by himself. When I see this happening, I turn to the other players and I say: "hey, the rogue is wandering off toward the forest and it looks like he's found something interesting. Want to follow along behind?"

The tagalong characters might still choose not to act very much even when they're tagging along. But at least they have the option now -- they don't feel like they're not allowed to contribute because their characters aren't present.

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Target individual PC's

This is basically a player engagement problem, and my advice is the same.

Plot hooks that target the party as a whole will naturally attract the attention of the most engaged or experienced players. They can read the cues. They know what threads to pull on.

The alternative is to wrap plot/narrative elements in clues/NPC's that have a direct interest in specific party members. The PC's background characteristics will help here; even better if the player has written you a character-specific back-story.

An absence of player-driven material gives you carte-blanche to introduce old friends, family members, vengeful enemies, new NPC's, or items that have a specific interest in or relevance to a character, via their actions or reputation.

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The best way to deliver that full experience is to get the other players invested in your game. To do this you will need to find out what they want and the best way to do that is to talk to them. In particular, you should ask them about these 3 aspects of their tastes:

1) What modes of play do they enjoy?

D&D is a broad game that can satisfy a lot of different preferences. So talk to your players about what they enjoy doing the most. The three pillars of combat, social interaction and exploration are a good place to start. But these can even further be broken down into specifics. For example some people enjoy combat for complex tactical situations and others like it because they get to feel heroic doing big damage. Get to know what your players want to be doing during the session so you can plan and allocate time accordingly.

2) What types of fiction do they engage with?

Within D&D there are near infinite possibilities of stories to tell. Find out what types of stories your players enjoy and start incorporating those elements into the game. This can be a direct conversation about what they want to explore in the game or you can simply ask them about what types of media they consume and take those as inspiration. Character backstories are also a great place to look to get a sense of what that player wants to see in the game as players usually write backstories that they find interesting. You may already have a set of themes and tones you are using, but D&D is flexible and your campaign will not fall apart if you shift gears between different ideas between adventures. In fact variety can be a useful tool to keep the players from getting bored.

3) How do they like to play tabletop games?

There is no one true correct way to play D&D. Many groups enjoy doing things in different ways. Online vs in person. Battle mat vs theatre of the mind combat. Some DMs incorporate music and props in their presentation while others find these distracting. Talk to your players about their past RPG experiences (if any) and learn about what they liked and disliked about those games. You can incorporate some of these aspects into your own style to make them feel more at home.

In conclusion

You're going to have to talk to your players a lot. You probably won't get all of this in one sitting as that would be an information overload. But over time strike up conversations with your players about the game, their own interests, and their gaming preferences. Get them excited to implement the things you plan out together and then bring it all together at the table.

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