Lately, I've realized that most of the players in my D&D 5e custom story group that I am the DM of are not as engaged as they could be in the game. When I ask them how each really wants to play the game (LARPing, the usage of maps, NPC interaction, etc.), and what rules we should use (by the book, DM/player discussion), they answer "I don't know". They've been in this for two years, so I know it isn't true. They're just not putting a whole lot of thought into the matter. It's not their fault, either; I'm just not asking the right questions, and I'm not sure which ones should be asked.

So, the problem boils down to this: I don't know what's the best playstyle for them, and they don't either, so I need some more experienced players advice and suggestions. I ask you: What are the big questions I should ask them to help find out their preferred way to play?

  • Do your players seem interested in the game, in general? Is the engagement issue only occasional or is it something that's pretty much a constant with some players? – WrongOnTheInternet Oct 23 '15 at 20:06
up vote 5 down vote accepted

You could try using the "Same Page" tool. Go through the questions with your players as a whole and come to a consensus on what type of game you want to play. Keep in mind the tool is not a survey, but is meant to be gone through as a group and finding answers to each question in the tool is important to find the sweet spot for your particular group.

Ultimately, you need to have a candid discussion with your group about what they are looking to get out of the game. Sometimes people just want to come and hang out with their friends for a few hours and don't otherwise care. Some people are really into their characters and want to role-play everything, while others just like to watch their numbers get bigger as their characters increase in power. In my experience, disparate groups with wildly varying expectations (or very few or no expectations) tend to veer towards the dynamic that occurs between the GM and the most "powerful" player. In other words, people with big personality who tend to take control (even when they don't need to) tend to steer the group dynamic.

It can be difficult to deal with this, especially when you as GM may want a more RPG-heavy story while your "leader" player just wants to power game his way through every encounter (of course the same thing happens no matter what the difference is -- this just happens to be an example from my own experience). Other players will tend to follow the player leader in those cases, and you might find yourself running a different game than the one you thought you were running.

Don't forget that you, as GM, are also playing the game, and your enjoyment also matters. If you aren't having fun because your players don't want to play the same way you do, then you may need to mix it up. How you resolve this problem isn't always easy -- it might even involve dropping your group or players from your group. It could also mean simply adjusting your own expectations so that you aren't let down when the gameplay doesn't go the way you want it to. This has been the best way to deal with these types of situations in my own experience.

  • The problem the querent is having is that he's probably at NCAA division I or NFL level in this hobby and the players seem to be about high school or junior college in terms of depth into the hobby. Same page tool, while a decent tool all around, may have trouble overcoming the delta in engagement/depth. (PS, not my downvote). – KorvinStarmast Oct 23 '15 at 22:06
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    @KorvinStarmast Not necessarily. The most overlooked feature of the Same Page Tool is that it names a variety of concepts that “junior sports”-level players typically have no words for and aren't even aware exist as possible desires. – SevenSidedDie Oct 23 '15 at 22:32

The best way to found out the "best" style of play for your players is to try different styles and see how they respond. Sure, asking them can give you some ideas, but I've found that my players don't know what's best for them. The way I see it, they all agreed to play in your game, so have fun with it, especially if they're responding with "I don't know". So if you want to LARP, do it, and see how they respond. If there's a lot of pushback, either change your game, or change your players. I've been DMing for so long that I tend to lean on the last option there; if you don't want to play in my game, you can find a new game.

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    +1 for "just see how they react." OP should try putting a little bit of everything in the next one or two sessions, if at all possible, to see how each of the players respond. Alternatively, you could just take a survey at the end of your session for what everyone liked the most for a while until you figure it out through natural play. – Lucas Leblanc Oct 23 '15 at 20:31
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    Yeah, I've done something similar, not with LARPing though. That's not really something you spring on your players :) – DM John Oct 23 '15 at 20:32
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    I just had a horrible image of an excited but misguided DM saying "... and then the RED DRAGON APPEARED!" and spraying aerosol through a lighter. – Lucas Leblanc Oct 23 '15 at 21:21
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    @LucasLeblanc What's wrong with that? As long as he doesn't spray it at the players, that's kinda cool and one of the things we used to do with cans of Pledge(TM) and a lighter back in college days. – KorvinStarmast Oct 23 '15 at 22:04
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    @KorvinStarmast Well, it's hard to imagine a setting where that's not dangerous, especially with tons of character sheets lying around. – Lucas Leblanc Oct 24 '15 at 0:06

Play a variety of one-shots designed to experiment with a variety of systems and styles, then ask them which games they liked best and why. This will give you access to the information the abstraction we call 'playstyle' tries to quantify, without have to use that term or most of the jargon and positioning inherent in the quantification process.

Engaging people is rarely a function of 'style' of game in the larger sense, like 'maps vs descriptions' or 'larping vs tabletop'.

Generally it's a matter of creating npcs and situations that fire the imagination of the players, which isn't exactly easy, and cause them to play their characters in a more engaged manner due to that firing, which then chain reacts.

There's a lot of writing online about this. I personally prefer The Alexandrian's game related essays. The advice I would give would be to liberally steal the essence of interesting books, games, movies, and turn them into a reskinned part of your plot line. Similarly npcs. Steal.

There's reams of advice on the topic. Be high energy, do this, betray that, break tropes, play to tropes, etc, but it's a really large topic, too large to get into here. Every single GM skill feeds into engaging players. To creating narrative importance.

My advice would be, play with a lot of different people. Watch them and learn their roleplaying skills, then apply them. Learn to read your players' tells, and find what excites them in the short term (loot, victory, jokes) and in the long term (stories, recurring npcs, foreshadowing and outcomes of long term things). Read a lot, not just online GM advice, but books, psychology texts, even newspapers. And don't be afraid to make bad things happen to your players' characters. Adversity is always the key to engaging storytelling, in any medium.

  • +1 Borrowing and stealing plots and story ideas is how a lot of us started out with the D&D role playing thing as DM's back in the 70's. It still works. – KorvinStarmast Oct 28 '15 at 12:59

There are a number of good suggestions here for trying to determine what your players find fun, but it's a topic that's hard to get a handle on without the right words to frame it.

Luckily, there have been studies on fun and the different types thereof. Getting a picture in your mind of the different kinds of fun someone might enjoy will help you recognize which ones they actually do.

The wonderful Angry DM wrote an article on this topic: Gaming for Fun (Part 1): Eight Kinds of Fun.

I don't know if 5E has something along these lines, but the 4E Dungeon Master's guide covers similar material in "Player Motivations" on page 8.

Here's a quick list of the eight types for reference (copied from and formatted):

  • Sensation: Game as sense-pleasure
  • Fantasy: Game as make-believe
  • Narrative: Game as unfolding story
  • Challenge: Game as obstacle course
  • Fellowship: Game as social framework
  • Discovery: Game as uncharted territory
  • Expression: Game as soap box
  • Submission: Game as mindless pastime

I asked my players about these different types of fun, with examples from the 4E DMG, at the same time that I presented them with the Same Page tool, and it has helped inform my campaign.

If they come back for more and you are still playing after 2 years - then why change anything? Obviously they are satisfied with their current level of involvement.

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