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Together with my best friend Jon, I'm in a group of people who enjoy RPGs. I've been GMing for several years in this larger group. Other friends of that group also GM. I'm the most story-oriented GM, the other GMs are mostly one-shots and Door-Monster-Treasure oriented.

Recently, we started a new campaign. I'm GMing and there are 5 other players, including Jon, for the first time in a group with me. The campaign, I said from the start, even when only pitching it, would be very story-oriented and there would not be many combats. So every player made their character focusing on that. Jon doesn't read much English so we built his character together. His pitch for the character was that he likes to hit and we made a very fight-oriented character. That's OK, even though I reminded him that there wouldn't be much combat.

Now in session 1 and 2, there were combat moments, so Jon was happy. But session 3 came and it was mostly a downtime session. Jon was disappointed that there wasn't much combat and made his character look for illegal fights to make some bucks. Fine, so we did that, and it was great as I surprised the players with some tricks.

Now, I saw Jon during that session 3 and basically he didn't speak much. He let the story flow and was following the story, actively, reacted to it outside-the-game, but did nothing much in-game except following other characters. Other players weren't really aware that Jon's character was mostly passive except for the illegal fight as they were having real fun and they didn't see the time fly.

I've spoken with Jon and he told me that he was a bit sad there wasn't more combat, but he really enjoyed the story unfolding before him, and he excitedly looks forward to the next session, even though I told him it'd be like this session 3 where I plan no combat.

Separately, Jon really wanted me to introduce his GF to D&D, so last week I GM'd a one-shot for Jon, his GF and his GF's sister (who incidentally also loves D&D, but is not in my usual groups). For that one-shot, I used Candlekeep Mysteries' level 1 story but removed a few monsters because there were too many for only 3 players. And, again, Jon was there to follow the story, genuinely enjoying it outside-the-game, but the two in-game drivers were his GF (very good player for a first-time player) and her sister. Jon's character did nothing but the fighting bits or providing help when needed.

I know that the important thing is that everybody has fun in the games, but I want to make sure that these sessions appeal to everyone, including Jon.

I will definitely speak with Jon more about this topic, but I'm wondering if I should completely change my view on my campaign, making it more combat-oriented than I intended despite the initial expectation that it'd be a story-based campaign? If so, how should I handle this? Also, will Jon be a problem-player? If yes, how should I handle that part?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Is Jon having a net positive amount of fun? Is Jon being detrimental to the other players’ fun? \$\endgroup\$ – BSteinhurst Apr 6 at 11:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ @BSteinhurst he seems to really enjoy it, being the most vocal out-of-the-game commenter. And no, he's not detrimental to other players' fun. For instance in that session 3 earlier, his will to go to illegal fights lead to a lot of fun for the other players making bets go crazy, which the other players really enjoyed. \$\endgroup\$ – Olivier Grégoire Apr 6 at 11:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ Then what's the problem? As long as everyone is having fun, I wouldn't say there's anything wrong. Some players are just like that...and it's fine. I mean, sure, check in with him to make sure he's having fun and make sure he doesn't want his character more engaged with the story--but again, the point is to have fun. And he seems to be. \$\endgroup\$ – guildsbounty Apr 6 at 11:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ @guildsbounty there are currently no problems. The question is to know if this can/will lead to a problem, and how to handle/defuse it early. \$\endgroup\$ – Olivier Grégoire Apr 6 at 12:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ "Jon doesn't read much English so we built his character together". Consider that Jon's lack of involvement is a language issue. After moving to Germany we started an English-speaking group, one of the players spoke less good English than the rest, and started out pretty quiet, but as she got more comfortable and used to speaking in English she joined in much more and became more active. \$\endgroup\$ – Jack Aidley Apr 7 at 7:35
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At present, it sounds like everyone (including your 'non-RP' player) is having fun. So, as of now, there isn't a problem here. But, you've said in the comments that you mostly want to know if this may become a problem, and how to handle it early...

Maintain Communication

Just keep checking in, make sure he's having fun. I have DM'd for players like this in the past and had zero problems with them--but it's important to talk to your players and make sure they are still enjoying themselves. And, just to be clear here...I would advise against asking questions that encourage a reflexive yes.

For example: "Are you having fun in this campaign?" is a question that encourages a reflexive yes. Some players will agree to questions like this even if they aren't really having as much fun as they wish they were--and they'll do it for any number of reasons ranging from a non-confrontational nature, to not wanting to make you feel bad, to not wanting to upset their SO who is enjoying the game, to any number of other reasons.

A better sort of question would be: "Is there anything about the campaign you wish was different?" or "I was wondering if I could get some feedback from you on how you think the game is going." Keep your questions open-ended.

Oh, and don't just ask him...make sure he doesn't feel singled out in this way. Honestly, checking in with all of your players like this is a pretty good idea in my experience.

Actual Warning Signs

Disengaged players are a potential problem...so here are some red flags to watch out for.

  • No longer paying any attention outside of combat--such as playing on their phone, wandering off, or otherwise being completely disengaged
  • Disrupting play because they weren't paying attention and everyone keeps having to catch them up on what's happening
  • Randomly starting trouble and disrupting the adventure because 'they were bored and wanted some action.'

Dealing with these

Again, communication is key. It's important to make sure that you're all happy with playing the same game. The Same Page Tool is a pretty commonly recommended questionnaire used by DMs to make sure that everyone is on board with the sort of game you're playing.

Another possibility here is to conduct a Session Zero--which is simply a time when you get the group together and talk about what sort of game everyone is looking to play, and set everyone's expectations. And no, Session Zero doesn't have to be the first session you have--you can always have one later if you find you need it. (Personally, I have usually handled 'Session Zero' topics via email, google-doc surveys, and text-chat)

After all, if 4 players show up expecting to play Skyrim and one player shows up expecting to play Dark Souls...somebody isn't going to be playing the game they expected, and that can cause problems.

So, as in most cases where interpersonal issues can potentially disrupt gaming...you just have to communicate with each other. Be clear about what everyone wants out of the game, see if you can settle on something everyone is happy with (or conclude that this isn't the game for someone--which is fine too).

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Tables are full of different people

And that's okay! You've noticed that some players like certain aspects of a game and others like different aspects. As long as everyone is getting along, enjoying the game, and the whole table (including you) is having fun, then everything is going well.

I've been at tables both as DM and player where we've all had different things we like. The only thing you really need to look out for is when what someone likes overshadows another player and creates Not Fun.

At that point, tap the brakes and maybe do a session zero to get everyone back on the same Fun page.

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I agree with @guildsbounty that it sounds like everyone is having fun. Party members participate differently - not everyone plays DnD for the role playing and that's okay. For example, in our group of five players, we have two members who love the role playing part, two of us participate in the role playing but enjoy the combat more, and the fifth person is really only in it for the combat / action sequences. The 5th person plays a very passive role during the RP sections of the campaign, but they still enjoy themselves while letting the others take the lead for those parts of the campaign.

It's also possible that Jon is getting comfortable with the group and the way role playing is working for your group. It took me some time before I would actively step into the role playing side of the story. For example, I'm the type of player that is more comfortable with saying things like "I ask the guard for information about the bandits" instead of acting out the scene, but I'm getting more comfortable with that as time goes on.

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To me, it sounds like Jon wants to RP, but does not know how to play his character, in the acting sense of the work 'play'. If the only thing a character wants to do is fight, how do they act when there is nothing to fight? Talk to Jon and give him some ideas on what he can do during the RP sections. If Jon is playing a mercenary-type, have them constantly asking how much they are getting paid and how are the going to split the loot*. When other people are talking, a military veteran may spend the time looking around the room (gathering clues to be used later) while a tribal warrior says the most awkward things (functioning as comic relief).

The absolutely most important thing is to keep communication constant. For about 15 minutes at the end of every session, I ask my players what they thought best and worst part of this session was. This is a very easy way to understand what the players want out of the game, what you can do to improve as a GM, and know what direction you should take the story in. If Jon consistently says his favorite part was a mechanics driven encounter (e.g. combat) or the least favorite part is the game being too easy, you should talk to him.

*Some may interpret this as Jon being a munchkin. Therefor, he should make it clear he is asking because his character is interested in getting top tier equipment and items, not himself. A really nice character arch can be conveyed just by how over time the character asks quest-givers about money less and safety more.

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