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I've got a group of 5 players that have split broadly into 2 camps. Either, they're actively engaging with the game (LE Warlock and CG Ranger have formed a frenimies pairing and actively engage in character with each other) or they're incredibly passive about their engagement.

There's three players who spend a lot of time disinterested unless there's combat, entirely ignoring the roleplaying aspect of D&D. I have previously put this down to them being new to the game, but it's something I want to actively help them get over.

The first is a brooding rogue type character who doesn't want to engage for character reasons, which I understand but can be really disruptive when they refuse to actively do anything with the others, or are really passive and just follow the group.

The second is a bard who almost exclusively uses their character to force memes into the game. It can be great fun, but they don't have a developed character outside of "I play despacito" or other common meme references.

The third is the one that annoys me the most. The player is experienced, and his character is a dimwitted barbarian archetype. He refuses to get off of his phone, often having to be called several times before he realises it's his turn (even when in combat!) and it slows the pace of the game a lot. I'm not sure how to approach this without talking about it outside of the game and mentioning how annoying/distracting it is for me.

I'd prefer some ways to approach this in-game and allow them to develop their characters and relationships, but I'm also happy to approach it away from the table if that's a better idea.

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You have two issues that are related but different.

Let's discuss them in turn.

Remember: You only have control over your DM style. You cannot control the behavior of other players, only change the circumstances they are interacting with.

The hard truth is this: Any solution will require you to change how you run your games.

The New Players

It isn't a surprise that you have some players that are in to a roleplaying aspect of DND, and others that are engaged by combat.

I recommend you review the section of the DMG that discusses player archetypes. Try mapping your players to these archetypes, and consider what in the game does (and does not) engage them. If you need more guidance than the DMG offers, Robin Laws offers a great breakdown of player archetypes in Robin's Laws of Good Gamemastering).

These exercises will help you shape your sessions to be engaging for your players.

You might find that more "gamey" out of combat challenges will engage your combat-oriented players more than a pure roleplaying experience.

For these players, you should meet them where they are and provide them challenges they will enjoy. Character-drama roleplaying is not natural or even exciting for many players, especially new ones. There are many ways to engage with DND.

Over time, as their comfort level increases, they will begin to veer towards roleplaying. This is a natural arc and development for many players.

This goes for both meme-bard and edgelord-rogue. These new players have gravitated toward easy-to-play characters. This is natural for their stage in the hobby.

Phone-Barbarian

The barbarian is a more challenging case. This more experienced player should be setting a positive example for the new players.

The advice above (DMG and Robin's Laws) applies, but experienced players have a greater responsibility to discuss with the DM if something isn't working.

I prefer subtle and at-the-table solutions. Unfortunately, it sounds as if this player is causing a negative effect on the whole group. When there are multiple new players, the responsibility on experienced players to carry the group grows.

In this case, a conversational aside with the player is, in my opinion, the most productive way forward. This is best couched in your DM style. Remember, your DM style is the only thing you can personally control.

"Hey, I've noticed that you're on your phone a lot. Is there something I can do to make you more engaged with the game?"

If the player is making a good-faith effort, then you can try to meet halfway.

If no resolution can be found, this might be a situation where he isn't a good fit for the game.

There are more subtle solutions, such as telling everyone to set their phones into a communal phone-box before the game begins.

Another indirect option is a general (non-accusatory) email to the group about phone usage at the table.

I haven't tried the email option in a DND group, but I've seen a DM use this technique and have used this technique in group management for non DND-related issues. It is a bit passive-aggressive, but it also explicitly sets expectations. Then no one can claim ignorance.

Summary

It is very natural for your new players to prefer combat and play one-dimensional characters. People play the game in different ways. As a DM, you can facilitate the game, but you cannot impose your vision.

What you want to do is provide a game that is fun for them. If you and your group have totally different ideas of fun, that is a problem you will need to resolve...

If you are open to providing a game they will enjoy, even if it means adjusting your expectations, then leap in with both feet. Include scenarios that allow (even require) creative roleplaying for them to solve problems. Your group will grow over time.

The phone issue is a separate problem, that can best be resolved with an adult conversation away from the table.

Sources

  • Robin's Laws of Good Gamemastering

  • 5E DMG

  • My own experience running and playing games in DND, COC, GURPS, and other systems for nearly 20 years

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Based on my experience (DMing since circa 2000), I believe you'll have to approach this "away from the table", as you say.

Communicate with your players outside the game. Specifically:

  1. Make sure they know that their behavior is making it harder for you to enjoy the game. Make sure they know what behavior is doing this. Do this nicely, of course.

  2. Talk to them about what they want to get out of playing D&D in general. Is it the same thing that you want? It's very possible that it is not, and if the group wants different experiences out of playing, they probably should each find groups that are more in line with what they want. Some people want to play D&D as a tactical combat game with minis, and don't care for roleplay so much. Some people hate combat in D&D and only want to roleplay. Some people want to be in character all the time and use the RPG format to explore corners of their own psyches that they don't get to explore in real life, and some people are totally uncomfortable with that and want to eat junk food and have some laughs around a table with friends. Etc. If the goals don't line up, some players will be left feeling unsatisfied by the experience.

  3. Ask the players what, if anything, you could do to get them to change their behavior and be more involved in the game. The answer might be that there's nothing you can do. They might not know the answer and might have to go away and think about it. Or, they might be able to just tell you "well, if it was more like X then I'd be able to get into it more".

And finally, I want to re-emphasize that not all groups are meant to be. For D&D to work, the players have to tacitly agree/recognize that if they don't cooperate or if they ignore what the DM is laying down, there's no game. This is another thing that it wouldn't hurt to remind the players. Yes, in an RPG the player has compete control over their character, but there are certain actions and behaviors that basically end the game. The party needs to work together (unless everyone at the table is there for the kind of game where they don't). The DM and the party need to find a story course that the players are willing to play and the DM is willing to run.

TL;DR: Everyone needs to be there to play the same game. If they aren't, a conversation needs to be had to find out if there's a game that they all want to play. If there isn't, the group will not work.

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So you want the players to develop deep and complex characters that they draw on to engage in complex roleplaying and interactions.

I get that that's what 'floats your boat' - to me it's boring as hell, but I'm willing to put up with it so long as we get some juicy combat encounters so that I can engage in the part of the game that I enjoy. I expect you and the other players to extend me the same courtesy.

What I am trying to get at: is this a problem with them or with you?

Let's look at the particular players:

  • Brooding rogue: maybe he is withdrawn due to character reasons, or maybe that's an excuse because he doesn't like the RP aspects. Either way, if it's not bothering him don't let it bother you.
  • Tropey bard: maybe he is happy with a one-dimensional character that is basically a walking set of cliches.
  • Dimwitted barbarian: here you have a real problem - not with the character, with the player. He's rude. When you agree to engage in a social situation with other human beings - you put your phone away. Tell him that.
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