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I run a D&D 5e game for my SO and her family. They are all first time players and agreed to try it on my behalf.
The group consists of:

  • Me (25M) DM
  • My SO (25F)
  • Her father (54M)
  • Her mother (49F)
  • Her sister (16F)
  • Her sister (14 non binary)

We started off playing LMoP with a custom side quest starting with the burning of Phandalin.
We are 5 sessions in (2 years) and the last session went horribly.

I know there are many posts out there trying to figure out how to engage players but I feel the problem I encounter is a mixture of the following:

The players seem to want to be entertained by me and my characters / descriptions and do not participate in telling the story.

I can't quite put my finger on it (which may be the reason why I didn't find any helpful threads) but this leads to a game with only situations like this one:

DM: You see far off the distance the towering shadow of Mount Keep. As you glance along the shape of the mountain you see smoke coming out from behind the trees

Group: ... I guess we go there ...

DM: all right.. on your way travelling the narrow path that leads up the hill an arrow cuts through the air and group of 4 goblins emerge from the shadows. Everybody roll Initiative.

Group: I hit the goblin... I hit the goblin ... I hit the goblin .. We go on the road.

DM: you arrive at a small clearance where the remainder of a still smoking fireplace catches your eye.

Group: we want to roll Perception to see what we find.

This leads to a game that stretches like chewing gum

So players lose focus, get distracted, need to be addressed and then the need to search until they find whatever to roll or add.
This lengthens the game and it goes on and on.

Every time I described the death of an enemy in a cool way or a NPC has a funny voice or character everybody seems to be enjoying it. But a game where I have to go from one NPC to another and act like a puppet is incredibly exhausting.

Has anybody dealt with a group like this before? Do you have any other advice for me?

I feel this happens because they never played TTRPGs before and simply do not know better. I thought I might have another "session 0" to explain the ideas of a game like this. But what should I say or point out?

I feel kinda lost now but I'm sure there's someone out there who has a better insight modifier then I have ;)

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    \$\begingroup\$ Hi mathi1651 and welcome to RPG Stack Exchange. I suggest you starting with our tour to earn a nice badge and see how this community works. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 2 at 15:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ Is this group playing because they enjoy DND, or because they enjoy time with you and think you are enjoying having them there? \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Jan 2 at 16:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ Did you ask the group? What parts of the game they are interested in? \$\endgroup\$
    – enkryptor
    Jan 2 at 19:24
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thank you for having me! @seriosbri They had fun moments in the first Session because being entertained and being silly and creating dump funny moments. They then kept hitting me up when to play the next time. enkryptor Not yet, I guess making silly decisions and to kill enemies:D \$\endgroup\$ Jan 2 at 23:54

6 Answers 6

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Maybe D&D isn't the right game?

You're 5 sessions (2 years) into this, with first time players who agreed to try it on your behalf.

Maybe it just isn't going to work.

You've got some challenges:

Frequency

My observation, D&D doesn't work very well played very infrequently. Sure, it could work well, played infrequently, but it usually doesn't. It's easy to forget what was going on when it's been a couple of weeks, much less months, between sessions. And that makes it hard for players to really identify with their characters, when they don't think about them much for long stretches of time.

Genre

Are they all fantasy nerds? I'm guessing probably not. If not, D&D is a huge, huge lift. From inside the hobby, it's hard to understand, but the truth is, there're are lots and lots of people who just aren't interested in wizards, and magic, and dragons, and epic battles.

Age Range

You got yourself a challenge there, trying to find something that's going to entertain that wide of an age range. Sure, it's possible, lots of people play in groups with wide age ranges, and it works fine. But it's a challenge. What's going to interest and engage a 14 or 16-year-old may not be of much interest to a fifty-something. My experience, even just finding a movie that whole group will be interested in can be really tough.

Family

Families can be complicated. You're dealing with people who've known each other for a long, long time. That can add significant complexities.

Maybe have a chat

With the group

It's pretty reasonable to have a chat and ask: "Hey, gang, we've been at this awhile. What do you think, has it been fun? Would you like to keep going? Maybe there's another game we can all play? Maybe we should watch movies instead?"

Or even better, with your SO

"Hey, light of my life. We've been at this awhile. I'm not sure it's going all that great. I really appreciate that your family is willing to spend this time playing this game I love so much. Can you and I talk about how it's going?"

She might really appreciate a chance to brainstorm with you some other activities that would be really fun for you, her, and her whole family. Some activity where everyone is super-engaged, not looking at the phone or the clock.

To stimulate the discussion, you might try some internet searches for family game night, and engage your GF in what sounds like fun. There are LOTS of games that can be played in a few hours, aren't hard to learn, and can be played by varying numbers of people. If you can get your GF as your co-conspirator, you'll score points with her, and have a leg up on something to do with her family that everyone will think is fun.

In the end, you might find it more satisfying to see everyone engaged and enjoying family game night, and knowing you helped it happen, than trying to drag people who really aren't interested, however much they're willing to try, in a super-complex game that takes a huge commitment and a huge amount of time.

You don't have to give up on D&D

Maybe try playing with just your SO, with an outside group, if she's really interested.

Or maybe try running some adventures with just your SO and one other family member or two, if they genuinely want to. A smaller group can be much easier to manage.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I like this line of thinking, and I wish it had some suggestions for what might be good alternatives. "If it's the weight of rules that are problematic, perhaps Dungeon World... if it'll always be this infrequent, perhaps Great Ork Gods... if roleplay isn't really their bag, perhaps "Call to Adventure" or "Gloomhaven"... &c. \$\endgroup\$
    – nitsua60
    Jan 2 at 16:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ @nitsua60 I added a para suggesting the OP brainstorm with his SO. I think your suggestions are great, but there are sooo sooo many games out there, and it might be he's most likely to hit upon a winner if he involves the people playing, and it is her family. \$\endgroup\$
    – Jack
    Jan 2 at 21:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ "My observation, D&D doesn't work very well played very infrequently." – It might be worth specifying: D&D can work fine (as well as D&D works in general) for infrequent play if the players are already familiar with the game and if the games are basically one-shots (i.e. don't require the players to remember much between sessions). However, for a long-term campaign, it's unlikely to work as well (as you point out) because players are likely to forget what's happened in past sessions; if they're new, this will likely extend to their understanding/memory of the rules as well. \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    Jan 7 at 18:49
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There are a few things I have tried that have worked for non-roleplayers.

Put enemies in that emotionally engage them.

A common issue I see for new players is that people put in encounters where the opposition are just bundles of HP and damage. Random goblins. This means they often engage them simply as bundles of HP And damage. Instead, make sure the enemies emotionally engage them.

There's a few ways to do this. You could have them demand outrageous tribute at a toll road, you could have them be racist and attack members of your party emotionally, you could present them sympathetically in a conflict with other races. There's lots of ways.

Then, reward them substantially if they engage enemies. If they insult them, have the NPCs back off, or reveal treasure locations, or beg for mercy. If they find some creative solution, make it work.

It often helps if you talk directly at them. If you say, "The goblin looks at you and speaks: 'Hahaha, a dire halfling in our land? You're so tall! And ugly! Look at those fleshy flaps on your face. How do you even walk knowing you're so repulsive?'", you can often get a reaction, like them angrily trying to murder or cuddle the goblin, which leads to roleplay more than if you just have them attack. I've used this, and gotten strong engagement.

Have a board they can interact with.

It's a lot easier for people to make plans with a physical representation of what's happening. Having a few maps or boards for characters to move around on and plan movements makes it a lot more interactive and simple to play.

I've personally seen even very quiet players light up when they have a chance to physically move the pieces and actually describe things. It can be hard to have a game in the theater of the mind when you're a new player.

When you're a new player in a new world you don't really know how to interact with the world, or that their imagination matches up with the DM. For example, you may know that if you describe orcs as bunched up, they can hit them all with a fireball, but that may be less obvious to a new player. If they're clustered on a map though, it's more obvious.

Have plots that they care about.

Murdering random people is often not a plot point that I find appeals to new players. It helps to make a plot that engages the people in terms of what they value. Think of the plot of some common fantasy TV shows – in Game of Thrones, people seek to gain the Iron Throne, master young dragons, and solve murders.

In True Blood, they have plots about fantasy racism towards vampires and solving murder mysteries.

In Evil, they have a mixed group of people of different religious backgrounds attempting to unravel the plots of demons and evil people.

Look at what they care about and try to craft a plot that connects to that, like becoming a powerful lord, raising a mighty army, solving a murder, dealing with fantasy racism, solving crimes of evil people.

I personally have found this can break silent players to talk more. A murder mystery with an evil vampire or werewolf or vampire hunter can get them to debate the details of gruesome murders far more than random encounters.

You can certainly discuss it more with them, but it's important to also engage them with physical objects, emotionally engaging enemies, and problems similar to ones they care about from TV.

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    \$\begingroup\$ as a proud goblin player i am deeply insulted \$\endgroup\$
    – clockw0rk
    Jan 4 at 15:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ You are deeply insulted, which sounds like emotional engagement. \$\endgroup\$
    – Nepene Nep
    Jan 4 at 18:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ "It can be hard to have a game in the theater of the mind when you're a new player." – It may be worth adding a sentence or two here explaining why this can be hard. I think it basically boils down to this: When you're new to the game, you may not fully conceive of the ways in which you can interact with the world (especially since your perception of what's even in the world is entirely based on what the DM tells you about it). Having a physical representation of that game world helps you make sure that what you're imagining matches what the DM's visualizing. \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    Jan 7 at 18:54
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I had similar experiences over the years when teaching new players. A full table of unresponsive players, even though they are liking it, is something I had to deal with last week.

A co-worker asked me to teach him and his sons how to play RPG and I accepted it. We spent a couple hours on character making and proceed for our first session. I asked them when creating their characters to give some thought about their characters' goals so they have a direction to pursue by themselves, independent from me.

After a narrative of their current objective and description of the scenario around them I threw the ball into their court. I didn't ask what they would do, I put them outside a walled city and left them there after describing everything. When they decided to enter, I made the guard talk to them. When they tried to talk what they wanted to answer the guard by telling me, I told them "speak to the guard yourself".

I was constantly describing their surrounds and reminding them of their current objective (defeat a small bandit group). When they tried to discuss a course of action among themselves, I told them "then speak with each other, in character".

The first 3 hours were quite slow and clunky but in the last hour they started to interact by themselves more and 2 of them (co-worker and eldest son) started to describe their characters actions more, in and outside of combat (the younger son is 10 so I took it lightly with him).

Give them more opportunities (forcibly if necessary) for them to describe their actions like asking how. Here a transcript of a past experience of mine as the DM with a new player:

Player: I had a 17 and I hit the orc again.

DM (me): How?

Player: Uh... With my Greatsword?

DM (me): And how do you hit him with it? You just killed it, tell me how you did it.

Player: I caused 12 damage...

DM (me): * crying inside * I mean, with a diagonal slash through the torso? Bisecting him in some way? Loping off his head?

Player: Ah... Can I cut half of his head off at his eyes' level so his brain halves are exposed?

DM (me): * surprised but satisfied * Sure. Do you want to describe it?

But of course, you must always try to be aware if your players start to be fed up with you urging them to role-play. In that case, give them a rest about less important things like a random encounter or normal daily activities and keep it to more significant moments for your campaign.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Situations like this have me thinking that it's easy for new players to get bogged down in numbers and mechanics because that's all the paper they've been handed has. It might actually be easier for players to start with personality basics and roleplaying before being given their charactersheet and rollplaying. This goes doubles for those who have only played computer games. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 3 at 17:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ "forcibly if necessary", I would be very careful with this... It's an easy way to alienate a player who only plays because the DM asked them to (which is the case in this question). \$\endgroup\$ Jan 4 at 10:40
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I am addressing this from a player perspective. I got back to TTRPGs about a decade ago, and I was a passive and non-descriptive player for the first few years of weekly sessions (and my GMing wasn't much better really). Steadily improving my role playing, but it still took time and so many weekly session. You are playing a few times per year, and after 5 games I think I can confidently predict, that unless they pick up "role playing skills" from elsewhere, don't count on them changing the way they play.

I feel this happens because they never played TTRPGs before and simply do not know better. I thought I might have another "session 0" to explain the ideas of a game like this. But what should I say or point out?

They don't know otherwise. I suggest you don't say and don't even think "better", because there are different ways to play, and you can't really say your way is better than what you currently have. There is no single "the idea" of how to play D&D.

Your way would be better for you, but it might not be better for some of your players. In fact role-playing can be an exhausting exercise of improvisational acting, and that's just not enjoyable to many people. I do it precisely because I'm motivated to get out of my comfort zone and be uncomfortable to improve my social skills, but this is unlikely to apply to your players, this is not the reason they play.

What I mean here is, do not have a 2nd session zero and tell them they are doing it wrong. I don't think you should have a 2nd session zero at all, it would be off-putting to some or all your players, because your message would still be "I want to make you play my way", no matter how delicate you try to be about it. If you do have a 2nd session zero, make it about them, not about you. Avoid telling them what you expect, listen to what they have to say. Also, don't be disappointed if it turns out they don't really want to say anything much, because that's often how people are.

They are all first time players and agreed to try it on my behalf.

And they did, and from your description they seem to be on the edge of either liking it or not liking it. You have to choose: Do you want to give them what they want, and accept your role is to tell the story and guide them through the experience, a few times per year? Or do you want to push for your way, and if it fails, then give up and only play in groups which are more role-play oriented?

From your description, it sounds like they want a "Choose your own adventure" type of adventure. They want a story, and they want to make clear choices which affect the story, and they want to roll dice in the battle. Their "We want to roll perception" means "We want to turn the page to know what happens!".

If I were in your shoes, I would definitely want to give them what they want, and be the story-teller. I know I'd enjoy it as a DM, even it wasn't the same kind of role-playing experience I was originally looking for. I'd try to give them subtle opportunities to role-play, but I'd avoid making it awkward if they don't take them.

You have to decide for yourself, of course.


As a final advice, just because it hasn't been mentioned in current answers: start giving out Inspiration when players do something, even a little. Try to give at least one Inspiration every game, to the player who supports your story telling the most, and to anyone who tried to role-play in the way you enjoy. If the group rises up to a good performance on some scene, don't be afraid to give Inspiration to everybody (even if some didn't quite join the role-play). They are there to enjoy themselves, and being rewarded is always fun.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for having another session zero and making it about them :) \$\endgroup\$
    – Senmurv
    Jan 7 at 20:34
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What Does It Look Like?

By no means will this solve everything — and it certainly seems like D&D may not be a good fit for this group — but a DM technique that I have found works well with reticent players is to regularly ask a simple question: "What does it look like"

If someone casts a spell, ask them what it looks like when their character does it.

If someone kills a goblin, ask them what it looks like and how they do it.

If someone fails an athletics test to climb a tree, ask them what it looks like when they fall down.

Etcetera.

The point is to engage their imagination in easy, discrete moments that they are personally invested in. Then they'll slowly start to paint the whole world in brighter colors.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Good points :) ...and sometimes it takes time. We once had a insect-lover player who found her niche when she adapted all her spells to have an insect-flavour to them, e.g. Fireball is a sudden explosion of swarming fire-beetles. Our DM kindly allowed us to re-name our spells, too. The mechanics of the spells remained the same. \$\endgroup\$
    – Senmurv
    Jan 7 at 20:37
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I have seen this problem so many times before! I think this comes from two main things, firstly is lack of challenge, secondly is lack of drive.

If there's no challenge you don't have to think. Creating challenge is easy. Fundamentally all you need to do is put stuff in the way of your party that could seriously go wrong. 4 goblins vs a group of 5 is not a challenge, it's a resource sink and that's all. It's hard to get excited or engage with something that only exists to drain your resources. Instead give them something that could prevent them from achieving their goals - a troll, a forest fire, a group of marauding bandits heading to the fire, a flooded river blocking the path, etc. Not time wasters, challenges with consequences.

The second part is drive. This lack of autonomy is what I see from players who have played too many modules. "There's smoke in the distances" "ok, I guess that's what we have to do, let's go do the smoke" "now there's goblins" "ok, I guess we have to kill them, let's go". The world is flat and 1d, players just keep going forward forward following the DM's directions because that's all they can do. You can't expect them to say "we walk into the woods off to the east ignoring the smoke" because there's nothing there. One of the most common ways I've seen this manifest is from encounters, the goblins only exist to be killed by the party, they will fight to the last. Now whenever the party see enemies they will fight and kill them because that's all they know and that's all the DM ever lets them do.

So how do you cultivate drive? Firstly, throw out the notion of D&D as "the DM telling a story to the party". Embrace the idea that D&D is about producing an emergent story by playing the game. The party doesn't fight the goblins because the script says so, they fight the goblins because they decide to - it could just as easily be a story about a party trading rations with goblins or stealthily sneaking around them. This shift in DM mindset won't by itself create drive, but it will allow your players to make choices.

Now that your players have some ability to make their own choices, you need an impetus for the campaign. Adventurers go out and risk their lives, but for what? There needs to be at least one looming threat forcing them to act. Forcing the players to do something. A dragon has given your home town 3 days to give 1000gp in tribute or they will burn the town to the ground. A necromancer is raising an undead army to wipe all life from the land. A giant sink hole swallowed up the town and dropped the residents deep into a subterranean hell. Players aren't waiting for the next beat, they need to act now or bad things will happen. Structure your game to be about escaping defeat rather than chasing victory. If they do not act, they lose.

I have found the most effective way to actually encourage drive is to give your players real, meaningful, choices. Choices that matter, choices that have consequences. Instead of seeing a wisp of smoke in the distance, they see a wisp of smoke to the east, to the north they see a trade caravan coming their way, and to the west the path fork down the hill and there's a village in the distance - all while the sun is creeping its way across the sky and the necromancer raising an army to cover the land in darkness is furthering their plans. Each choice has potential gains and costs, there's no "one obvious right way forward".

Ok, now one more tip that supports player choice. Follow the rules. The rules are not just there to stop you from doing weird stuff, it's a shared understanding of the laws of the D&D universe. The less your players have to ask "hey DM can I do this and if I do what will happen?" the more power they have and the more they are able to make plans and work to achieve them. We often talk about "rulings over rules", but it's important to remember that is a game design philosophy, not a philosophy for DMs. As a DM rulings are what you use to fill in the gaps between and outside of the rules, you should be extremely wary about overruling the rules with a ruling because that robs your players of their ability to understand the way the world works. Imagine how hard it is to make plans if you have to consult God to find out what the new law of gravity is each time!

I have also found that dropping back to a smaller scope (low levels, small world, human level threats) can help players understand what their options are and what they can do to achieve their goals.

So in summary; don't script your game, drive your game forward with a serious looming threat, fill your world with real challenges, give your players the information so they have to make choices, and as much as is possible follow the rules.

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    \$\begingroup\$ That's a good point about the rules. I don't think the DM necessarily has to follow every single rule in the book, but at the least, if they're adding house rules or making rules modifications, those changes should be clear to all players at the outset. (And if they are sticking to the book as much as possible, they should try to communicate that as well.) That way, the DM can ensure that all players understand how their world works (and thus are better able to understand how they can interact with that world). \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    Jan 7 at 19:05

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