In asking this question I realized something that I never have before: my players aren't interested in each other's characters. How can I, as DM but also game session organizer and facilitator, help my players be interested in other players' characters?
There have been times when discussing character mechanics one player might say to another "Man, your character is awesome!" but this always refers to a mechanical strength. Conversations like this happen while showing off a new character or leveling up a current character. During a game session, though, when any one character has the spotlight, the other players quickly lose interest and begin idly playing on their electronics or (worse) talking to each other.
My players and I are all really good friends (in school together, and mostly living together) and we generally have a lot of fun around the game table but I usually feel like my players have more fun socializing together than actually taking interest in and playing the game. Like I mentioned, we live and go to school together so it is not like we never have any time to socialize otherwise.
Some things we've tried to get players to take interest in other player's characters:
- I've had players create characters (with backgrounds) completely secretly from each other with the hopes of allowing the character interaction to be heavily role-played at the table. Didn't work because of very incompatible characters.
- I've had players write in-character "journal entries" as a recap of each session to develop personalities and deeper backgrounds. My players enjoyed writing their own and reading each other's significantly more than I expected, but it made no difference at the game table.
Additionally, here are some reasons on why I think it's important that my players care about each other's characters:
- I feel like it will give the group better cohesion. We (the players) are friends in real life, and I intend for my characters to be friends as well (some of our players don't handle intraparty conflict well). As friends, we are interested in each other's lives, I'd like my players to feel the same for each other's characters.
- It will allow me to spotlight characters for brief periods of time every now and again without the rest of the players becoming bored and detached from the game.
- Character backgrounds will be played out at the table more because everyone will be aware of them. Currently, we tell each other about our characters at the start of each campaign and then everyone forgets about everyone else's background.
We were taught RPGs at about the same time around 2 years ago in a combat-heavy, minimal-story campaign which—I feel—is largely the root of the problem. I just don't know how to fix it. A couple of us have matured past that mentality but the majority of the group has not. I have talked to the players about this before and while everyone agrees that it would be cool and fun and make the game better to take interest in each other's characters it never seems to happen at the game table. It's like everyone forgets or doesn't know how to do it or actually doesn't want to even though they say they do.
Note: this question is heavily related but from a player and that player is interested in other characters and wants to help them be fleshed out, so it's not quite what I'm looking for. I have tried some of the things mentioned in the answers like asking the players to describe (make something up) to answer a "Remember that one time?"-esque prompt.
I asked this question in a general, system agnostic way to try to be the most helpful to everyone, present and future. Answering the question with "Use a system that emphasizes the features you're after." is valid. However, to provide context on my specific group, we all really enjoy fantasy themes and as such play D&D 5E, Pathfinder, and 13th Age, so to help me personally out please consider this in your answers.