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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.

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I do several things to keep the player characters interested and invested in each other.

  1. At the start of the game, I insist that players coordinate backgrounds (subject to my approval) such that each character know at least one, and preferably two or more, of the other characters. In general, I prefer these connections be positive; the most negative I will usually tolerate is on the order of a friendly rivalry. In general, I also prefer that if you start from any one character, you can get to any other character by following these pre-arranged links. (In graph theory language, the players are all connected, although indirect connections are fine; the alternative would be two more more sub-groups connected internally but not to each other.) And finally, I try to ensure that each connection is more than trivial, but not necessarily life-binding.

So for instance, "We met in a bar twenty years ago and never saw each other again," is trivial. "We are cousins who are best friends and we are rarely separated," is life-binding and more than I look for (although it's fine if that's what they want.) Things like the following are what I look for, and/or what I've seen in the past:

  • Our characters served in the same unit years ago, and knew each other, but haven't kept in contact...
  • I served as a mercenary escort once, while he was travelling with his master from here to there; along the way, this happened....
  • We weathered the siege/plague/earthquake of wherever together some time back....

Now, some players are genuinely not wired that way-- if you ask them for backstory, they freeze; if you given the one, they can't connect to it. When I run into a player like that, I have to respect that, but I try very hard to get everyone to adhere to the guidelines.

That does not directly solve the problem. (It actually solves the problem of getting the characters all on the same page at the start of the game.) But it does often give me enough to work with to do the following:

  1. With enough insight into character backgrounds, and with overlapping backgrounds, I try to give every character an mid-term to long-term goal or plot arc, and then I try to modulate that by giving at least one other character a minor to moderate interest in how the first character's arc plays out.

It's important (to me, for the games I want to run) that these arcs not be strictly opposing: If one character has sworn blood-vengeance on an NPC, I won't give another character the goal of keeping that NPC alive. But I might give another character the goal of getting something from that NPC before his death, or getting the NPC to do something, etc.

  1. And I also try to modulate this in another direction by giving other characters-- ideally, not the same one-- influence over the plot lines. So continuing that thought:

    • Player A has sworn to kill Sir Odious, his parents' killer
    • Sir Odious has information that will help Player B in her quest to do something else
    • Player C knows someone who can be bribed into giving up information about where Sir Odious will be

In that way, for each of the various player sub-quests going on, at least one or two others will be involved somehow, even if only at the periphery. Ideally, Player B has some motivation for something to happen, and Player C has something he needs-- something at least moderately costly or risky. They are invested.

One thing I would not do-- at least not again-- is what you tried:

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 never done that, specifically, but I've inadvertently done similar things and it never worked well. It seems like it should work, especially if you pattern it similar to what I've outlined above, but there's a structural weakness to it: If the players, starting out with the relative blindness of only knowing their little part of the background, they just might not see those connections you built in for them, and won't give themselves the incentive to start sharing information. And if your players were the sort that would do that naturally, you wouldn't have to go through these acrobatics in the first place.

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    \$\begingroup\$ One of the best GMs I ever played under invoked the rule of "you all have to know one other character in a solid connection". It worked so well in group dynamics and roleplaying, I've done it ever since. When I'm in a campaign and the GM doesn't suggest it, I still ask the other players on my own initiative. Some are confused and hesitant, but one always takes "a chance". And it's never been a dud experience. \$\endgroup\$ – Blaze Nov 18 '18 at 19:34
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Make Sure Your Players Want To Be Interested

Check with your players - are they really all that concerned about being invested in each others' characters? It could well be that your players want to play a pure hack 'n slash game, where characters aren't much more than a collection of stats. If so, then let them do it! If you personally want a more character-driven game, you can look for another group to game with to get your character-driven fix. Otherwise, if your players do want to be more interested in each other's characters...

Force Characters to Make Difficult Choices

What makes characters interesting in just about any medium - RPGs, video games, movies, books, whatever - are the choices they make. There's a huge difference between hearing that Sylvia the Stealthy once snuck into the king's own treasury and stole enough gold to free her friend from slavery, and watching in real time as Sylvia learns that her friend has been enslaved, and has to decide whether saving her friend is worth braving the danger of stealing from the king's vault.

Even better is when you can force multiple characters to make a choice at once. One of the best scenes in my previous campaign was when the players were trying to slay the Chaos Dragon. They found the dragon's lair, where a group of evil creatures who also wanted the dragon dead were preparing a ritual to weaken it enough to slay it. The ritual involved a human sacrifice, and the evil creatures had a group of prisoners they planned to use. They'd tortured the prisoners nearly to catatonia, and when the PCs slew the evil creatures and found the prisoners, the prisoners begged to be sacrificed in the ritual so that their pain would end.

My players spent a good hour or so of real time agonizing over whether to sacrifice the prisoners to perform the ritual. They desperately needed the advantage over the dragon, but quickly realized that none of them was willing to commit murder to do it. Instead, one of them offered to be the sacrifice himself, and two others joined him in volunteering. It was an incredibly intense scene, and roleplaying it gave a really wonderful view of each character and their motives.

What makes a choice difficult depends on your players and the theme of your game. For example, if your characters are mostly good-aligned or neutral, and your game deals a lot with helping people (saving kidnapped villagers, defending a castle from a dread necromancer, etc), a difficult choice might be whether to take the extra time to save the blacksmith's captured son, or let him die in order to get to the lich before it can complete a ritual to destroy the village. Alternatively, if you're running an evil campaign, a difficult choice might be whether to let Sir Galahad the Gallant go free, knowing he'll come after the PCs later; or kill him and suffer the wrath of Pelor.

Whatever the choices end up being, the point is to make them difficult. There should not be one clear right answer. The players should feel that there are good reasons to pick every option, and equally good reasons not to - but they can only pick one. This is how choices make the characters interesting. What your character is willing to give up, what they're willing to sacrifice to achieve their goal, says far more about them than any ten-page backstory or detailed journal entry ever could.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "What your character is willing to give up, what they're willing to sacrifice to achieve their goal, says far more about them than any ten-page backstory or detailed journal entry ever could." That's really true; a great point. \$\endgroup\$ – Kymvaris Jul 17 '15 at 23:52
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Exploring the past, literally

One thing I like to do, and that work in all systems (but not in all settings) is to have the group be stuck in a "mystic/magic/virtual" space where they have to explore each other background.

For example, in my current MHR game, the characters got stuck in the Psychic plane, and had to explore each other's mind. Each scene was a traumatic event from one of the character's past, with the other players being stuck in the role of other characters present at that time. For example, one of the characters' background was that he had been killed during Vietnam war and revived as a cyborg. So we replayed his death scene during the war, with that player playing his own pre-cyborg character, and the other characters playing his squadmates (who all happened to have similar abilities, what a coincidence!).

Pros

  • All players became aware of each other's background.
  • For characters whose background was a bit "light", it allowed us to expand a bit and add more details.
  • Those backgrounds became a shared experience rather than individual things.
  • Players were able to bounce off ideas regarding each other's backgrounds in later scenarios.
  • Each scene brought a lot of NPCs / locations with strong emotional impact for use in later scenarios. For example, one of the cyborgs' squadmates survived and came back as a mindwashed enemy. Instant drama.

Cons

  • It takes time. It means dedicating a significant part of your campaign's arc, or even a whole arc, just to explore each other's background.
  • It has to be done early to maximize impact.
  • It requires characters to already have some background.
  • It requires strong RP skills and flexibility from the players, and strong flexibility and improvisation from the GM.
  • It can be repetitive. If you often play with the same players, they might get tired of "Are we doing the spiritual trip thing again?!
  • It doesn't work in all settings. I have done it with MHR (stuck in the Psychic plane), Planescape (crazy mage tower, Astral plane, etc), L5R (Yume-do/Yomi-do), Exalted (exploring abandoned Manses of previous incarnations), and Shadowrun (stuck in the node of a sociopath stalker Technomancer), but for settings with no magic/high-tech, this kind be quite a challenge.
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Since this is a system-agnostic question I will pretend you're not tied to whatever game system you're playing now. Of course, some of the things I will talk about can be ingrained in other games as well, but be aware that I'm talking aout mechanics that interact with other parts of these gaming systems, as opposed to psychological tricks that can be used in any game.
Play a game whose mechanics naturally lead to that kind of mindset.

I recall hearing many people having this kind of experience with Apocalypse World. The shared worldbuilding and the fact that you start the game by creating characters togheter is a good start but what really does it is that your relationship count in every roll you do for helping another character or stopping him on his tracks.
Any game where a player character is defined through his/her relationships to other player characters (Fiasco! comes to mind) is good.

Games where you need to be wary of what other players do, because there's some antagonism, also work.
In Blood Red Sands you score points by winning conflicts, and you can win conflicts easily only if you manage to get other players as allies, by helping their faction or hero get an advantage. The narration mechanics make it so you can narrate (and introduce favourable elements for your characters) only if your narration keeps being satisfying and realistic for at least half the table, which means that to gain narration you have to pay attention to who the other characters are and what they're doing.

Games where you're allowed/encouraged to suggest courses of action for other player (especially out of combat) like Trollbabe also work, as do masterless games (which are usually games with a rotating master like the aforementioned Blood Red Sands, but Montsegur 1244 or Polaris also work).

To summarize and expand:

  • Games where who the characters are is more important to what they can do.
  • Games where the characters don't need to work together "because it's always been so" or the game breaks, and intra-party conflicts can be solved by understanding why the other characters are behaving in some specific way;
  • Games where each player has to pay attention (quickly rotating GM);
  • Games where players are encouraged to discuss about the scenes from an author's point of view.
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  • \$\begingroup\$ I'd add games with shared responsibility for running scenes for each character (e.g. Polaris) to the list. Also bold the first line. \$\endgroup\$ – the dark wanderer Jul 17 '15 at 20:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ You touch on it with Apocalypse World, but having a bonds style mechanic where your relationship with the other characters is a vector for experience gain is another good way of focusing on character relationships. \$\endgroup\$ – glenatron Nov 6 '18 at 21:44
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Incorporate elements of a characters backstory into the backstory of other characters.

This is a good way to get the characters interested in the overall backstory of characters other than their own. When you have a person create a character, normally you'd ask them to write a paragraph or two including a few NPCs which they've met or that have influenced them either positively or negatively to insure that you have a hook for any potential future roleplay.

By validating that these non-player characters exist within the setting you can also use those characters to create links to other characters in other backstories at your table.

Lets say for example that You have a rogue character and when writing his character it states that he was born in a rather populated city and learned from a young age as an orphan to steal from people by one of the Thieves guild pickpockets to eventually earn a place in the lower tiers of the guild. From there he met and befriended a Doyen by the name of Jack.

The Fighter in your party is a pretty stand up guy and has been friends with the Constable in the town for quite a long time, even going so far as to serve beside him in Military Service. One day Jack is arrested because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and has a crime pinned on him and gets thrown in prison.

By introducing both of these characters into the campaign you can influence people to take interest in the backstories of other characters by having them have a hand in the actions you orchestrate in the game world.

Lets say your fighter and rogue are great friends, having traveled together for a long time when the rogue finds out from one of the Pickpockets that Jimmy the Hat planted evidence at a heist to get Jack arrested so he would be promoted to Doyen. When they go together to visit Jack in prison he shares information about what he was doing during the time of the robbery, proving that he had an alibi, though the constable intends to arrest him regardless, even though he can't actually prove that Jack was the robber.

From here your fighter can choose to intervene on the Rogues behalf, speak to the constable, and serve as a character witness at Jack's Trial or even go as far as to consider the constable to release Jack, stating that there's no lawful reason to hold someone that had an alibi at the time of the robbery.

This accomplishes many things:

  1. It gets the characters involved in the backstory of other players sitting at the table by adding characters which have relationships via worldbuilding.
  2. By giving the characters a link to both one another and to the world it incorporates them into a world that they feel is alive, and consists of characters other than themselves.
  3. It gives the characters a contact with which they can create communications and future roleplaying opportunities with, which could lead to campaign starters.
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  • \$\begingroup\$ +1, I've had this work before. One of my players indicated that their character was friends with an NPC in the campaign guide. Later, another player indicated that his character was a monk-assassin, but needed a reason to be in town with everybody else. I gave him a list of assassination targets. First on the list: the NPC. This caused months worth of dramatic tension, and we're still working through the aftermath of the successful assassination (while impersonating the other character, no less). \$\endgroup\$ – DCShannon Jul 21 '15 at 0:48
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I tend to allow the players to make whatever characters they want. I then try to find ties (with the players help) within the group to make them somehow know each other or make their backgrounds intertwined. I must admit the system I play makes this fairly easy (edge of the empire).

Once the game starts the best thing you can do to tie everyone together is to put them in a situation where they have to start out working together. (Aka in medias res). Start the game in progress don't let them not join the party because the initial meeting didn't go so well. Usually this is done by they are being chased by someone or they are walking into a social encounter of some kind a. ie: The players are meeting with a shady smuggler trying to lower the price he is going to pay them for a job they are about to do.

If you watch a lot of series TV you will indefinitely notice this happens a lot. Watch some episodes of Star Wars: Rebels. Usually the best of these shows start out with the action already going on. Start off the episode they are being chased by tie fighters or they are in the middle of a job stealing crates from a imperial depot.

You just need to let them know what is going on at the start and boom they are there.

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Isolation breeds isolation

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.

That's a big part of your problem right there. You gave them tunnel-vision on their character. If your players aren't motivated by interpersonal curiosity (nosiness), then they will not enjoy delving into each others' backstories. It likely won't even occur to them. You'll need to do the opposite of this if you want to engage them.

You need a session 0. What I've found helpful is to get everyone together before the game and go over the world, discuss the setting, get a vibe on what they want out of the game. When you have them make characters, get each one to to connect to two others in their history. Make two positive past interactions and one (not too severe) negative interaction. Ensure that they have goals in common and that they agree to err on the side of cooperating with each other and with the plot, and not inflict 'my guy' syndrome on the whole table.

The character creation from the Dresden Files RPG, a FATE based game, is amazing at this. Also worth a look is character creation from the game Fading Suns, with its multi-tiered life phases approach.

You might also consider tying the game to an NPC who does take such an interest in all of them, and model the behavior you want from them. I"m not suggesting a GMPC (though if it's not one that takes the spotlight, it could work) You might also consider premising the game on a family, where everyone is related and has a common interest. It might be the paradigmatic goosing they'd need to 'get it' about taking an interest in each other.

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End each session with a metagame quiz

One of my favorite GMs always ended each session with a short quiz, highlighting details from the evening's session- things like "What was Tom's character's full name?" or "what was the name of the drink for sale in the tavern?". The reward was just an experience point per correct answer, never enough to make much of a difference- yet every player took notes throughout the session, every time.

Use the quiz to focus your players' attention where you want.

Doing this really focuses the group, and allows you to highlight whatever you want. Did someone do something amazing during the adventure? Add it to the quiz! Someone had a great component to their backstory? Add it to the quiz! Use the quiz to reinforce what you want the players to retain from the night's gaming- be it a plot point, an NPC or, in your case, their fellow characters' backstories.

Make it an open-book quiz

Encourage them to take notes, and allow them to refer to their notes during the quiz- even the simple act of writing something down will make it stick in someone's memory.

It's easy, it's fun and it works

It's very simple, doesn't change the adventure plot at all, and is a nice way to wrap up a session- plus, after you do it once or twice your players will hang on every word. Once they start paying attention to each others' backstories, they'll almost always start incorporating it into their roleplaying.

Oh, and it rewards good roleplaying, too

From experience, I'll attest that it feels great when something you did, or some detail about your character, makes it into the evening's quiz. It's a simple way to motivate memorable character design

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is a pretty good idea but it could be extended by borrowing the Mouseguard concept of having the players choose some celebrities for each session, who then get an XP reward. That is a great opportunity to have the "I loved that thing you did when..." type conversations at the end of the session that makes everyone feel good about the character they are playing. It's pretty much the same idea, but more player lead. \$\endgroup\$ – glenatron Nov 6 '18 at 21:46
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Give the characters different information on the situation (perhaps on individual briefing sheets or pre-prepared secret notes) gained from their own experience. Perhaps give them reasons they don't want to share it? Then put them in a situation where if they don't talks and share something bad happens and they know it.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ If you down vote something it is polite to say why. \$\endgroup\$ – Protonflux Oct 8 '15 at 11:24
  • \$\begingroup\$ It doesn't seem to have anything to do with the question. Maybe explain how giving the PCs bits of information will make the players pay more attention when the spotlight is off them? It's not obvious how this advice helps the problem. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Oct 8 '15 at 15:02

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