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I'm a new GM with new players and we are having some friction in our game that I would like some ideas for reducing. We have finished Lost Mines of Phandelver, tried a side quest that didn't go well, and are on to Shattered Obelisk next. I would summarize the problem as the characters are not adventurous, they are very skeptical of anyone that crosses their path, and the players consistently assume that I am undermining them or trying to trick them. Oh, and the characters insult a large majority of the NPCs they come across. I think the best way to describe what is happening is a few examples.

Failing Narrative Hooks

At the beginning of the side quest, a local busy-body sidles up to them at a bar to gossip and they declare that this person is some kind of trickster. No insight checks or perception or anything, just the simple fact that this person is trying to talk to them is enough information to know this is a trap. After an unproductive few minutes of them obviously wanting him to go away, he does. After giving them a chance to decide what to do (they want to stay in the comfortable bar), I move on with further hooks and bring in the local law enforcement who has a job for them. They start the conversation by hurling insults, are skeptical of this person's motives, and send her away.

At this point, I trigger the event/confrontation outside the bar because they don't want to leave and they don't have any information about what is going on, having refused all conversation on the subject and showing no interest in their surroundings. The players are confused: why is this happening? Who are all these people? They want me to fill in all the information they refused from the characters. They complain to me that the characters they insulted are not super keen on helping them during the confrontation.

Everything is a trap

After a set-piece fight with some captors, they have to decide what to do with a large group of townsfolk chained together into groups. They are convinced that this is a trap without any evidence. That the townsfolk will transform into zombies (yes, literally) and they will all be killed. So, instead of talking to the local noble (one of the captives) about what is going on, they pump nobodies for information they clearly would not have. Eventually, the decide to release the prisoners, certain of the trap they are about to spring, and are disappointed/relieved to find that the group of prisoners is exactly what it looks like.

Working the GM

Later in the quest, they end up leading a bunch of townsfolk to safety after trying to bribe someone else into doing it. The climax of this chapter is a fight with some bad guys in front of a bunch of scared townsfolk. The fight is hard, but by no means impossible (there were no unconscious players) and the players spend the whole fight complaining, sometimes bitterly, that these townsfolk should be joining the fray with them. They do not make any effort to convince the townsfolk, certain that the task is impossible and a waste of an action. All they do is try to get me to intercede on their behalf.

Just to be clear about our game history: no character has ever tried to trick them, but of course there have been some traps and some nefarious characters. This post is long enough now (and rambling?), so I want to close by asking: How do I convince the players to be more adventurous and less insulting with their characters?

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3 Answers 3

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Talk to your players and listen what they have to say

Seeing traps everywhere: Treachery and surprises are part and parcel of many RPG scenarios, but you say these are all new players, and that "no character has ever tried to trick them". Lost Mine is also not an adventure where there are a lot of treacherous allies, so it is very hard to see where their distrust and their fear that everything you present is a trap is coming from. You yourself seem to be at a loss about that. I suggest you ask them, out of game. Be polite, and explain your difficulty, as you do to us, and then listen what they have to say. It may be that from their perspective, things look a little different than what you expect.

Insulting NPCs, and asking for being handed information: maybe your players are thinking of a different kind of game than you are. It sounds like you are looking for a game where they take the game world seriously, where NPCs have real motivations and behave like real people would, where the players have to take note to figure things out. From what you describe, it sounds like what they expect instead is some satisfying face bashing, and not worrying about the story detail too much. Are they maybe used to computer RPGs where you get a journal that tells you what to do next, quest pointers, and NPCs that just have a few lines of text and do not behave like real people? Talk with them about how you all want to play. See this Q&A about session zero, and how to all get on the same page.

Pandering or complaining to the DM in game sessions: my players sometimes try to appeal to me in the same way, when they feel a fight is too hard (and they had no signals it would be, and no choice but to fight it), and I am surely guilty of doing the same on occasion. In such cases, you can acknowledge their request, and remind them that you, the DM, are not present in the scene, and they'd better put themselves in the perspective of their characters. Then think about their complaints. Are they maybe right? They may not be, but you should at least consider it from their perspective. Listening to your players is probably the most important thing you can do as a DM - find out what they enjoy and what they do not.

I have a rule of thumb to avoid blind spots and being unfair: if all the players passionately complain about something, the problem is probably in the DM chair. In my experience, if you are not unfair, there is normally a player who can see that and will not complain, or will even make the case to the other players. That does not mean you immediately need to give in to every demand. Delayed gratification can be all the more satisfying when you finally get it. It's whole point of the level system: there is always a next, better thing to strive for.

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I had a similar experience when I started a decade+ ago and it was partly due to the lack of several things:

  • No real Session 0 other than Character Creation
  • Open world (in my case) which led to players goofing around. This made prep-work difficult and led to a lot of mediocre gameplay
  • Players were basically evil

Consequences

The thing is, players (of games) react to consequences. Insulting someone could turn into some kind of scuffle if it's the wrong person, which then involves the guards, and either the players suicide-by-cop, get kicked out, or similar. Heck, unless it's modern democracy and they have autonomy, you might just get arrested for being insolent to the wrong people.

If the consequence of insulting everyone they meet and then murder-hoboing randoms is that the game continues as normal then they aren't being pushed not to do that. People react to incentives.

If they insult the NPC they need information from, maybe he just isn't forthcoming. That prep-work or on-the-fly thinking is on you GM! Requiring the players communicate nicely with NPCs in order to get the plot hook is boring. At that point just give them the information in a "cut-scene" rather than having a boring conversation.

Railroading vs prep

You have an encounter you want to run; your players are not interested. If you really want to run it, you might have to change how it occurs, where it takes place, and why it takes place. Not simply telling them with an NPC they already rejected, but forcing the players to go do stuff by changing what's going on.

What you have is an encounter that you can only imagine happening one way. In another first-session I wasn't sure if the plot hook would stick, so I had a backup that if it didn't that the war on the streets and getting stuck with a prince trying to escape would come to them.

Frankly, if they don't get out of there they'd be dealing with insurmountable odds vs knights and whatnot so they'll get gibbed or they'll escape the city. At that point, they actually need the prince as much as the prince needs them (he knows a secret way out.)

Badda boom -> doesn't matter if the players bought in initially. Their choices did have impact (why they're helping this character, why they're leaving the city, how much danger their in, how they met this character, to what extent they'll help the kid) but the prep work, backstory of what's going on, etc all fall into place nicely.

Player Investment

In that set of sessions where my players murder-hobo'd someone and took over their bar, it was a Paladin when I generated him. In order to get them to stop with "Bar"-P (as in, instead of RP) I took inspiration from the generated character and decided he was a member of some kind of religious order that didn't take kindly to its members getting murdered.

I had the bar burnt down a session or two later with clues as to why (the guy they murdered) and who did it. Now the players had investment into a new story because NPCs actually messed with something they cared about. They wanted revenge and no longer had their home base (and their bartender NPC friend was killed as well.) It may not have been the plot I was trying to have them buy into, but I finally had buy-in. The players complained a bit because they lost something, but all of the sudden we had a mysterious order to investigate, places to travel to, etc.

Addressing your issues

  • Consequences for their actions and/or a Session 0 where they stop being assholes to everyone they meet and killing indiscriminately

  • Reasons for encounters to exist. A random spider doesn't actually care about killing randos, or if it does, it's because it needs food or is protecting its nest. Having a reason for an encounter gives players non-combat ways to solve it. Similarly, when trying to get your players to go to an encounter, you need to give them incentive; especially if merely telling them it exists isn't enough.

  • For the townspeople issue - it's simple - your average townsperson won't lift a finger to help anyone, modern day or not. Murder on the street right next to you? You and your friends are not likely to step in and get stabbed. If that person is armored and wielding a 2ft sword and shield instead of a small knife, even that much more less likely to get yourself killed. And if it's a monster, the heck they're going anywhere near it.

  • Couterintuitively - You need to trap them, give them an obvious nemesis or something, and fulfill that expectation. They suspect everything is a trap because nothing has been. Again, that sounds counterintuitive, but they're expecting tricks and traps so the longer it goes the more buildup there is of that expectation. Fire the trap and it's like a jump-scare - you release that tension and allow it to build for awhile.

  • Burn down the bar. With them in it. I'm not even kidding. They'll leave the bar.. that's for sure haha. Of course, if you do this, have a plot ready to go and a realistic reason it would be happening (unpaid debts, bartender is in a gang that is being targeted by another, etc)

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I struggled with this with my players, but as I've played as a player more, I've started to see things from their perspective, and made some changes to the way I DM which seem to have helped.

As a DM, my main concern was for the overarching story, but as I player I just wanted to be able to make decisions. Choosing what breakfast to order or which clothes to buy was as much fun as interrogating an NPC or having a big combat. I realised I'd been choking out these decisions when I DMd because they messed with my plan. Trying to remember that the players have the most fun when they get to make decisions has really helped ease some of these tensions. Here's some of the things I'm now trying to do more.

The players find the information, not the DM

At the beginning of the side quest, a local busy-body sidles up to them at a bar to gossip and they declare that this person is some kind of trickster.

I had this happen a lot. One player was sure a carriage driver was leading them into an ambush, and an innkeeper wanted to sacrifice them in a ritual. It took several out-of-game conversations for me to realise that they were actually right. Those NPC did have an ulterior motive. The motive was that I wanted to explain the backstory, but it was still there. What's more, because I was role-playing a conversation, I'd implied this was a decision-making opportunity. Except they were really cut-scenes, and the only choice was to keep pressing X until I was done. The players were suspicious, but didn't have any meaningful choices, so it's not surprising they just said "no".

Then one session I had some thieves steal something right in front of them. Suddenly, one player was super engaged and kept talking to the thieves and get more information out of them, even though it was just supposed to be a simple fight. I'd (accidentally) presented it as an encounter, not a cut-scene, and they lapped it up. Likewise, my players avoided a big dragon fight (that I'd spent ages planning) to instead spend an hour discussing a piece of lore I thought I'd made obvious. I came away really upset with how boring the session had been, but I was told only this week that it was one player's favourite session. They got to spend the entire time debating with the rest of the party, and making decisions about how they would handle things, rather than just listening to me tell them where to go next.

It seems your players did the same thing: they didn't want to information when just talking to an NPC, but when an actual encounter showed up they suddenly wanted the information. Rater than being frustrated, I've tried to learn from this.

Now I try to use the "encounter" approach in all my scenes. Rather than have someone come up to them, try making two guy sit in the corner looking suspicious. They mutter something about "treasure", but look away as soon as you see them. If the players want to be suspicious of everything, give them something to be suspicious about! It also lets them actually make decisions - the fun bit of the game. Do they want to stealthily eavesdrop? Buy them a drink and make friends? Start a tavern brawl?

Of course, sometimes you really do need the players to just learn some information. In which case, I tend to find not dressing it up as a role-playing situation is most effective. Hand them a physical IRL letter from the town guard asking for their help. Tell the players "as a the barman pours you a drink, he tells you that about some kind of underground tomb nearby". Give them the information they need, and then move as quickly to the next point where they can make decisions - even if that's just what drinks they order.

The players decide what to do, not the DM

So, instead of talking to the local noble (one of the captives) about what is going on, they pump nobodies for information they clearly would not have.

Being a player, I realised that even when I wrote encounters, I still wasn't giving the players decisions. I'd already decided which actions were "good", and the players would only get the information if they did those actions.

So now when I'm writing encounters, I'm trying hard not pre-decide the solutions. If the players want to talk to the nobodies, there's no reason that one of them couldn't have worked in the palace kitchens, or overheard the nobles talking in the camp. I'm not saying I'd let every action work, but I haven't decided in advance what the one sensible action is going to be.

This was proven recently when I DMd a one-on-one session that was completely spur of the moment. I pulled a half-written one-shot out and we just dove straight in. I had no idea what the "good" actions were, because I hadn't had time to think about what they might do. It was, without question, the best session I've ever DMd, because when I asked "what do you do?", I actually meant it.

After giving them a chance to decide what to do (they want to stay in the comfortable bar)

I'm also learning to relish this sort of thing. The players have expressly told you what they're going to enjoy. Spend the next ten minutes asking them what they order at the bar. Let them roll some Consitution checks to see if they can outdrink each other. Let them insult a tipsy orc, who decides to insult them back, and they have a friendly banter match. Sure, it doesn't progress the story, but it gives the players a series of silly decisions to make, and that's the thing they find fun. And then when they're all laughing with the drunk orc, have him mention the secret tomb...

The DM asks for dice rolls, not the players

No insight checks or perception or anything, just the simple fact that this person is trying to talk to them is enough information to know this is a trap.

Players don't ask for checks, they describe what they do. The DM decides when that requires a dice roll.

This took me a long time to get my head around in my games, but your players did call for an insight check. Here's how the PHB describes Insight:

Insight. Your Wisdom (Insight) check decides whether you can determine the true intentions of a creature, such as when searching out a lie or predicting someone’s next move. Doing so involves gleaning clues from body language, speech habits, and changes in mannerisms.

Your players took "clues from body language" ("the simple fact this person is trying to talk to them") and used them to "determine the true intentions of a creature" ("this is a trap"). They didn't use the words "insight check", but they shouldn't have to. The players describe their actions, and then DM decides whether to ask for a dice roll. Realising this changed the way I handle dice rolls, and it makes my players much more engaged with the world. They can focus on what their characters are doing, and as soon as they start to jump to the wrong conclusions, I can use a check (or just a passive) to get them on the right lines again.

They are convinced that this is a trap without any evidence. That the townsfolk will transform into zombies (yes, literally) and they will all be killed.

You can use the same trick here. As soon as the players start saying this, you can either call for an arcana check, or just tell them they (passively) don't sense any magic.

Usually DM advice is to make the answers a bit vague, especially for low rolls ("He doesn't seem to be lying", "you don't notice any magic"), but I've found that isn't helpful for naturally suspicious new players. Being very clear ("Even with a roll of 6, you are certain he's not lying, but you can't tell his actual motivations") has tended to produce better results for me, because the players are much clearer about what's going on. The same may be true when the players tried to convince the townsfolk to join. Clearly saying "succeed a DC15 persuasion check, you'll have advantage on your attacks as the crowd help" is going to make it a lot easier for the players to decide whether it's worth spending an action on.

Those are some of the things that I've tried to change, and it seems like my sessions are running better now. Hopefully some of these help you to! For what it's worth, I've learned some of this advice from The Angry GM's True Game Mastery series, which I've found very helpful if you're willing to put up with the "angry" persona.

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