I ran across this thread over on the /r/RPG board and it reignited some thoughts I’d been having on D&D when DMs ask how to engage their players at the table. Or more troubling when they have players who just don’t seem to care about the game itself, the story or their involvement. Like the thread I linked I’m sure this would mostly be considered an edge case that won’t apply to most RPG gaming groups. The part of the discussion that I want to address is I think the more important but less talked about portion: Player responsibility.
Anyone who has played D&D for any length of time can tell you that the list of responsibilities the Dungeon Masters have sometimes borders on the absurd. It can run the gamut of being a writer, amateur game designer, artist, sculptor, actor, referee, rules dictionary, god(s), judge, jury and everyone’s favorite, executioner. I’m sure there are more hats I’m forgetting but I think you probably get the idea. I know how this sounds coming from someone who is a DM but it does take a certain special kind of mentality to willingly take all of that on for no other reward than entertainment for you and a few friends. I’m also not writing this to bitch about how much work it is to be a DM, like I said it’s purely voluntary so the only person you have to blame for the work is yourself. The people who take up the mantle of DM or GM do it because they love it and no other reason is needed. What I think gets overlooked in all of this when it comes to discussions about why or how games can fall apart either because of bad DMs or bad players is the largely unspoken social contract between everyone at the table.
If you glanced through that thread up top I think you’ll immediately pick out a common theme regarding that DMs frustration, his players just don’t seem to care. About anything beyond as he said, “Checking the quest board for something to do.” He opines on several occasions that he just wants his players to get involved, to have goals and motivations to go out and do something in the world he has built. I think any DM can probably sympathize with that sentiment based on players they’ve had who don’t seem to really be invested in what is going on at the table, they just seem to be… there. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing either, passive players are definitely an archetype. They want to be there and participate in their own minimalist way, they’re happy to be swept along wherever the group or story takes them contributing where and when they feel up to it. I may never wish for a table full of those types but I certainly don’t mind having them join a game. Ultimately they are a neutral force at the table and occasionally a positive one but rarely are they a detriment or an outright obstacle to the other players or their DM.
The problem for our frustrated DM is in part I think an unwillingness by some of his players to live up to their end of the contract by being co-operative storytellers in a game like D&D. I’d liken it closely to reading a choose your own adventure book in so much as when you sit down and open up to that first page you have, for that moment, resolved to read it through till the end. For better or worse as a metaphor we DMs are that book, when you sit down at our table with your character you have resolved to see our story and your part in it through to whatever conclusion it comes to. If you don’t care to keep turning pages and instead just stay where you are then the experience grinds to a halt for everyone including your DM. You have choices to make along the way certainly, you can affect what path you take to get there, your chances at success and consequences for your failures but ultimately you are there to participate. If you don’t enjoy the book or its main plot points you can certainly choose to put it down and never pick it up again. If players at your table aren’t having fun then its in their and the rest of the groups best interest that they speak with their DM or just politely quit. Not every group, setting or character will be a good match and letting it fester will just ensure problems down the road. If you do stay then you share in the responsibility of finding avenues to invest yourself in the story and help it move forward. In the same vein DMs are also responsible for providing players those same opportunities to engage with a good story tying it together. Players can disagree about how they proceed but ultimately they must proceed, think of it like the improv comedy concept of, “Yes and…” or maybe more appropriately, “Yes, but…” if you wish to propose an alternative. If enough people at the table aren’t willing to play along then realistically the game will just end.
I will take just a moment here to acknowledge that I think the DM in that thread did make a few of his own mistakes when putting the group together by not catching these red flags to begin with but for now I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt. No one is perfect, in the end this whole debacle will be a learning experience for him and his players.
A lot of these issues can be ironed out prior to actually starting a game by having a discussion with your players about the kind of game they are hoping to participate in. The players described in the post do not seem to be purposefully malicious in their disinterest merely that they have decided individually or as a group to play without regard for the overall narrative. West Marches style games operate this way and maybe have been more their style, where it is essentially built upon the act of checking a bounty board and choosing a quest or just setting out into the wilderness to see what you find for an evening. There is very little or no narrative at all tying the separate sessions together, it’s just a way to hack ‘n slash your way through the dark places of the world for loot and experience. The responsibility of ironing out what kind of game the group is looking for does fall pretty squarely in the lap of the DM but once the players agree to sit at the table they shouldn’t need to be forced to take part in the game.
There is an old adage I think that fits well here, “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.”
Unless explicitly stated otherwise by players it’s pretty universally agreed that forcing your party to do the things you want them to do is bad form for a DM and will usually implode your game. In my view it is equally bad form as a player to sit at a table and then refuse to engage or even attempt to investigate any plot hooks that your DM lays out for you unless that was the agreement prior to starting. There are bad DMs out there just like players. This puts everyone in an awkward position as the DM may feel that they have no other choice but to railroad their players into the main plot or trick them by changing an unrelated side quest to intersect with their BBEG. Naturally if the players didn’t engage with the plot prior to this then there is little to no chance they’re going to be willing to do it now. In the end no one in this scenario is happy or having any fun.
Bottom line is that most if not all of these problems can be fixed by keeping open communication lines between players and DM. That reality however shouldn’t overshadow the fact that if you as player take a seat at the table you should make an effort to engage with the world that your DM has created for you.