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I have a group of four players who meet in-person and are very intent on playing "Dungeons & Dragons" specifically, but suffer from astoundingly low agency. In discussion, the group very much wants to be playing Dungeons & Dragons in some form rather than another game.

As an example of their low agency: if placed in a room with nothing but a door, the players might spend fifteen minutes in idle discussion. Overall, they spend more time on speculation about past events and characters than engaging the present situation. This is not an issue of consensus building or analysis paralysis - the players simply don't readily engage the present situation if it does not demand an immediate response. Regular dungeon exploration is essentially out of the question.

Comparatively, they will readily engage with combat encounters (albeit they never use any character abilities or tactics, simply taking the Attack action every turn - nonetheless this seems to make them quite happy.)

I am leery about any solution that might feel like I am playing the game by myself. For example, I could assume the players open doors they come across rather than defaulting to assuming they do nothing, but at some point this becomes ridiculous - e.g. assuming they jump on a trampoline they encounter. Similarly I would be reticent to lead the players by the nose using an NPC.

One solution that comes to mind is setting the characters up to manage a specific location such as a town or base, where they can primarily be acted upon by outside forces (e.g. attacking bandits, visiting merchants, etc.) Assuming this were the best solution, I would be looking for resources that facilitate this style of play.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – Rubiksmoose Aug 22 at 17:41
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Blow the timeout whistle and talk to your players

It's time to take a step back from the game and reconvene everyone to discuss what everyone is looking to do when playing and what they want to get out of the game. This is for both you and all the players.

This is called a session zero and we've got some additional info for how to run it.

There may be some specific things you can do to resolve the direction the players provide in this, but until we know what they actually want to do and how they want to play, it's a lot of guesswork on our part.

Once you've had your session zero, you can always ask another question here as to how to implement what they want.

But trying to fix the symptoms you list without understanding the cause may be only a temporary fix at best. Digging deeper to find out why they're doing what they do will help resolve how to fix it.

Considerations

Outside of the general session zero guidance, you may want to also dig deeper into whether or not they want an adventure on rails or more sandbox freedom. Whether they like the complexity of their characters and the things they can do. How much time they're willing to take to learn about their character mechanics.

If they aren't interested in the above, it may be time to look for a game that does line up more with their expectations. But you can't do that or figure out what else to try without first understanding what everyone thinks is fun and what they want out of playing an RPG.

What if talking doesn't work?

Well, that's a bigger problem. If you can't communicate as a group together, you are highly unlikely to be able to do so in a game. If the players can't articulate what's wrong, your primary goal is to try and help them articulate it. That's really the a big part of a session zero.

But if the players are happy, and it's just you that isn't, that is also a problem. But you need to articulate to the players what is missing for you in having fun and figure out a solution with them that resolves their fun with yours.

No one can force fun on someone else. But it is up to the group to find something that everyone at the table, including you, finds fun.

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It sounds like you and the players are not on the same page as far as play style...

You have three options

Play to their weaknesses

From your description, it sounds like the players aren't engaged in anything. They aren't caring about the environment and they aren't playing their characters to their potential:

"albeit they never use any character abilities or tactics, simply taking the Attack action every turn"

Without removing agency, you can set up situations where each character has a need to better understand their unique skill set. Think of it like the tutorial level of a video game. Set up traps and locks so that rogues learn about disarming and lock picking. Places for clerics to heal, arcana casters need to use spell. You get the idea. They, presumably, chose their character archetype for a reason; give them a reason to explore the non-combat side of things.

Play to their strengths

If they really just like combat, then create combat-heavy campaigns. Skip of the political intrigue, the stealth missions, and what not. They are mercenaries for hire and go where the action is. Done.

If all else fails, play a different game

This may be your best option. Don't play "Dungeons and Dragons"; play a combat simulator game. You said your self that just taking the Attack action "seems to make them quite happy." So why not go forward with that?

In the end, you all need to be on the same page, playing the same game.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I've had some success giving the characters very specific, personal goals related to their characters (e.g. the Rogue was given a mission to steal from a specific town NPC.) Moving the characters to a big city where they can easily receive a regular supply of specific, personalized goals might be just what the doctor ordered. \$\endgroup\$ – SnailHerder Aug 17 at 17:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ "Don't play "Dungeons and Dragons"; play a combat simulator game" -- D&D can also be that. It's a bit soulless, but it has been done before, and to some success too as proven by the fact that most people today have at least heard of "Icewind Dale" or "Temple of Elemental Evil" (the video games, not the settings). \$\endgroup\$ – Blindy Aug 19 at 16:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SnailHerder On the lines of "play a combat simulator game", if you're willing to switch to a character-based boardgame instead of straight RPG, you might want to look at the options on this list. For example, from what I remember from years ago, Descent has a very similar feel to D&D combat. \$\endgroup\$ – Bobson Aug 20 at 15:37
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Who Has The Problem Here?

This is pushback, but only mild pushback. It's worth considering whether you and your group really have a problem here. It doesn't sound like your players have a problem-- they readily engage with some aspects of the game more than others, but you're not painting a picture of unhappy players, per se.

However, I don't want to discount your own happiness and satisfaction. You're not the player of a PC, but as the GM you are a player and ought to be deriving satisfaction and pleasure from the game. So if this style of play makes the game not fun for you, then that settles the issue. I raise it mainly as food for thought-- you may be assuming that this style of play is just wrong and must be fixed... but if no one is unhappy, then why fix it?

Having raised that possibility, I'll continue on the assumption that, yes, someone is really unhappy about this, and it does need to be fixed.

Short Term Gambits

Even the best players get trapped in a cycle like this occasionally, and most GMs have a personalized set of tricks to remind the players to stop talking and start playing. Mine are pretty in-your-face:

"Okay, guys, you've been in this room with a door for fifteen minutes and nothing has happened. What are you doing, now?"

GMs of my acquaintance remind the players of their agency with a spiel that runs something like: "Okay, you're at a crossroads with a scarecrow-- you can take the left branch, the right branch, dance a musical number with the scarecrow or yell 'The King is a fink!'" It always starts from something grounded into the scene proceeds through the weird, and ends with yelling the King is a Fink. Once they break out King Fink, we know we're being told to move it along, already.

You can also sprinkle your scenes liberally with time pressure, and reference that as a way to get moving again. But this starts to get old really fast if every single room has a count down to destruction.

The point is, don't be afraid to nudge your players. Or shove your players. Or sit them down and explain totally out of character that you need their actions and input to work with. Don't be afraid to teach through editorializing, at least at first.

Structural Solutions

But those are stop gap or occasional remedies. In the longer run, if you want constant player actions to drive your game, you need something structural.

And by structural, I mean three specific things:

  1. Mandate that your players design characters that care about something. Ideally, the things they care about will intersect. One might care about the village they grew up in, another might care about their sibling in that village, a third might care about the temple in that village they were educated at... whatever. Do not be afraid to make this a requirement of the game. It's difficult, but not impossible, to retroactively add this sort of thing after the fact, but it's best if done early. (more on this later.)

  2. Design a certain amount of dynamism into your game world. If the PCs do nothing, forces and factions act without them, and the world changes. Then...

  3. Threaten everything the PCs know, love, or care about. Threaten to burn it all right to the ground if the players don't act. It's not personal, it's just the natural trajectory of the game world. The orcs aren't attacking the village because the PC's sister lives there-- but she does live there, and will die without PC action. The mind flayers don't give a flying fig about the sacred temple in the dwarven tunnels-- but this other PC does.

Now you can editorialize to your players with a little more dramatic force: "Remember guys, you only have four days to lead a relief force to the village or everyone dies. So, what are you doing?"

This is all, in my opinion, best set up early in the game. Before the game begins, during character creation, in fact. But there are ways to finesse it after the fact. It just takes time.

Your solution about giving the PCs a fixed point to manage, interact with, and defend is one good way. But I would urge you, as GM, to use an opportunity like that to get the characters to care about individual pieces of that setting as they defend it. (I think of this as the Deep Space 9 set-up. Ben Sisko didn't want to be there, initially, but eventually found a purpose in the setting and the other characters.)

Another good way is to set the characters up as part of an organization which can just given them orders in the short term, to provide impetus for some initial short term adventures. But along the way, again, you should be doing everything in your power to make your characters care about other characters in that organization or setting. Then you can transition from just giving them orders to threatening the organization and giving the players responsibility for it.

These are not exhaustive. These are only examples. But they all exploit the same basic pattern: 1) Make the players care, 2) Establish forces in play, and 3) Use those forces to threaten what the characters love.

Threaten a character, and they can run away. Threaten what they love, and you force them to stay and fight.

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You've written that your players don't tend to explore on their own:

if placed in a room with nothing but a door, the players might spend fifteen minutes in idle discussion

Some DMs try to place their group in a very unstructured "sandbox" style adventure, where all plot is player-initiated. Some groups do well with this, but other groups will need the DM to provide more goals.

I frequently run for new players, and the thing I've found that works is to be very goal-focused. At the start of the session, the first thing I tell them is what they need to do, and why they need to do it.

"...We were all very excited, last night, when we saw the storm cloud coming down the mountain pass into Cedar Valley. The Orb of Storms was here, and the drought would finally end! But this morning we woke up and the storm cloud is hovering over the human town of Freehaven. Our artifact, the Orb of Storms, is somewhere in that town, and you have to get it back before the Dragon Empress finds out it was stolen."

In other words: don't place your players in an empty room with nothing but a door. Place them in a situation they have to get out of!

Most of the existing D&D modules will provide this sort of plot hook. If you find yourself not having a good way to attach a plot hook to your existing characters, it might be necessary to do a timeskip or a reboot in order to get them in a place where you can give them a plot hook like that.

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The Ticking Clock

In TV and film writing, there's a concept called the ticking clock. It can be incredibly literal, e.g. there's a bomb with a clock that's counting down, or something a little more abstract, e.g. someone has a disease and needs medicine and will die soon unless we get it, although we don't know exactly when. In either case, the ticking clock is an external method for ratcheting up the tension. If a show or movie is dragging in the long second act, a common writing solution for this is to add a ticking clock of some kind. This forces the characters to begin taking actions and following through on outcomes at a faster and faster pace.

Create Time Pressure

Add several ticking clocks:

  1. A high level, world altering event that the players are aware of and they must prevent from occurring in a set amount of time.
  2. Give each quest a clock of some kind. E.g., they must rescue a prisoner before the caravan leaves town at the end of the market festival in three days.
  3. Add small ticking clocks to encounters. E.g. you hear hear soldiers approaching from the distance, etc.

All three of these things should spur the players to greater action. Especially in the case of 2 and 3, it will allow you to introduce consequences when they engage in extended dithering. Give them plenty of warning, of course, but at a certain point, they soldiers show up or the caravan leaves town. and they must deal with the consequences of that.

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First, as always:

Discuss it with your players.

What do they want out of the game? Which parts do they enjoy? Why are they not engaging with the situation their characters are in?

Every group is different, every player is different. People have different expectations. Some may have very low expectations. Maybe they don't know what the options are, or maybe this is truly how they prefer to play the game.

Maybe the next step is that they need to take more agency, maybe the next step is that present the situation in a way that's more engaging for them. Maybe you need to accept that this is the style of play that they really prefer.

But it's entirely possible this preference comes from not being aware of the alternatives. Challenge them to try something new. Try a couple of different styles to see which clicks the most with them.

Also: be honest about what you want out of the game. You're playing this game too. Maybe what you want is too much at odds with what they want, but maybe you can find a middle ground that works for everybody.

There's one trick I once heard about to make players engage more. I haven't yet had the need or opportunity to use it, so I don't know how effective it is, but here it is:

Give them something they really care about. A home, a friendly barkeep who does them favours, a town that's their base of operations, a companion who accompanies them, whatever. Maybe it could even be a magic item, though that feels a bit too superficial to me. It shouldn't be something the characters merely care about in theory, on paper, but something the players enjoy as well, though it should also be something the characters care about.

And then take it away. Raiders attack the town and abduct the barkeep.

It's risky, because you take away the thing they engage with the most, but if there's the explicit option that they might get it back, they may suddenly have a goal that clicks with them on a much deeper, more personal level than yet another dungeon with some loot. And this is the hook you can use to draw them into a new adventure that hopefully they'll actually be motivated for.

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This is all a bit speculative because I don't know your players or your game personally. I'm still a little confused about how this manifests, though -- once the players get past their 15 minute chat and actually do open the door, do they then immediately return to talking about the past or does the rest of the session start to move along?

One thing that I'm sensing as I read your question is that you don't feel free to discuss this openly with the players. You mentioned assuming they open all doors automatically or having an NPC to lead them by the nose, but you never mentioned just sitting up as the DM and saying, "Hey guys, I love that you're invested in the story, but we only have a few hours of play-time here, and I'd like to keep things moving forward. Can I ask you to shelve the speculation for a while?"

While I understand the impulse to solve the problem in-game, it's a misplaced desire. The game is a game, and ultimately it's you and your friends sitting around a table. I feel that's the level you should address most problems at first. It may take a little care to explain yourself without hurting anyone's feelings, so you want to avoid phrasing it as an accusation. Remind the players that you're a player too, and you don't enjoy discussing the previous story as much as you enjoy moving the story forward.

It might help to set up a group chat (like in Discord or Skype) -- or a group email list or some other such thing -- where everyone can do some of that speculation and consideration outside table-time. I know from experience that this won't work for every group, but if your players like having time to go over events and try to suss out the connections, that's often a better place to do it than during game time.

Alternatively, just have an open discussion of when and where it's appropriate to have those kind of discussions. You might suggest that those kind of discussions are fine when they've camped for the night but not when they're actively adventuring.

There may be a bit of paranoia involved, though. If your players are afraid of making the wrong choice, they may have learned that avoiding decisions long enough will spur the DM to tell them the right answer (or at least not a terribly wrong answer), and thus allow them to avoid doing the wrong thing by choosing to do nothing. If that's the case, it may be beneficial to have a little "session zero" talk where you explain your position as DM is to make sure they have fun and that you aren't there to 'win the game' by defeating them all, so any action is 'right' in some kind of way because it keeps the story going, and that's the ultimate goal.

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I'm going to focus on one aspect.

they never use any character abilities or tactics, simply taking the Attack action every turn - nonetheless this seems to make them quite happy.

It seems your party enjoys combat more than other aspects of gameplay, however:

  • They might not understand the options available to them, so they're keeping it simple. If this is the case, you should provide them with learning opportunities that engage those abilities.
  • They might not feel the need to engage combat with more tactics and ability usage. If this is the case, you need to challenge them more. Give your monsters resistances to their basic attacks and have them deal more damage so they feel more threatening.
  • It's possible they just like rolling dice and playing the power fantasy of being able to One-Punch-Man monsters into oblivion. If this is the case, throw hordes of weak monsters at them.
  • Maybe the framework of D&D is merely a backdrop for them to get together and socialize. You might not be the right DM for them in this case.

I think you need to get an idea of what their goals in playing D&D are and play to their interests and strengths.

You might also consider giving your players ridiculous/silly homebrew items and abilities. This party you have sounds a bit like the 4e group I DM'd for in high school. They loved combat and often would rather use suboptimal but hilarious options than their abilities. I gave them a "Pun gun" at one point, which did a measly 1d4 damage, but compelled its target to spout off a bad pun when hit. They used it often.

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