One of the problems we run into as GMs is getting players invested. I think I’ve touched on this idea before, but after talking to some of the folks I game with, I think I’m going to devote an actual full post to some of my thoughts on this.
There are two sides to this. The first are the players that have a hard time getting invested, that have a hard time role-playing and a hard time taking the spotlight or growing to care for their character and the world around them. The other side are the players that are way super cool with role-playing and getting invested and talking. The ones that are too invested, too ready to care and jump into the spotlight and stay there monopolizing it. Both types of player present problems, but only in certain circumstances.
I’m going to take the second side of this first, because it’s the easiest one to solve. You’ve got a player that always takes the forefront of the situation. Whether that’s via planning, role-playing, whatever. They’re loud, they’re proud, and they’re always going to take the forefront, because it’s fun for them. In certain groups and while playing certain characters, that’s fine. If the other players have no problem with this player taking the limelight and doing all the talking and stuff, that’s fine. If the player is role-playing a talkative and energetic character that likes to be the center of attention, that’s fine too. But if we’re talking a player that constantly takes the forefront of the group, even in situations where they shouldn’t, like when an NPC is talking to a different character for a specific purpose, or when the player is playing a character whose background and stats don’t really reflect the type of character that would jump into the forefront, we have have a problem. If the other players in the group want to be in the limelight occasionally, if they want to make decisions and do the talking, if they’re the ones with the talkative center of attention type characters, then we have a problem.
There’s only one real solution, and it is not subtle. Ask them to stop taking over the party. The player may not even be aware of the problem, they could just be doing what comes naturally and might not see it as steamrolling over the other players and their characters. Give them the benefit of the doubt and take them aside and in private, say “Hey, you’re kind of making everything about you and you’re not giving the other players a chance to interact and make decisions and do things.” It’ll be awkward and awful and you won’t enjoy it, but it’s the only real practical solution. You can try the in game route of NPCs getting irritated with the particular character for their behavior, but that’s passive aggressive and the player will probably interpret it as the NPC disliking their behavior, rather than you the GM saying “Hey, listen, you’re great, I love having you in my game, but you’re steamrolling everyone in the group and making everything about you, can you like dial everything back like maybe ten or twenty percent? Give everyone else the chance to talk as their characters and make decisions as their characters.” Like I said, they might not even realize they’re doing it. They might think they’re taking on the star role because no one else wants to. Talk it out, it’s almost always the best solution.
Let’s change gears here.
Getting players invested and getting them to role-play, can be tricky, but it can be easy sometimes. I have two players, Jason and Eric. They both love to game and they love to take part in the story and take a chance at stepping outside of themselves into another role. They naturally want to know more about the world around them and interact with it. They’re curious and interested and easy to get going. Hell, I’ve set up RP emails where they just go back and forth for thousands of words at a time with no intervention at all from me. Those kinds of players can be taxing at times, but they’re a blessing and a good GM should always appreciate them. Their excitement and investment can often drag more reluctant role-players into the campaign world. It should go without saying, but you should never ignore those sort of self-motivated role-players. Just because they are comfortable role-playing and are already invested in the campaign and your game world doesn’t mean you don’t have to keep an eye on them and make sure they’re staying invested and having fun.
So what do you do when you aren’t blessed with self-motivated players like Jason and Eric?
The first thing you need to do is figure out if the player wants to be more invested. I’ve gamed on and off with a guy since around high school. He’s not part of what I think of as my core group, but he’s someone I’ve often invited to game with me. He doesn’t care to interact with NPCs beyond what is absolutely necessary, he doesn’t care about being invested in stories, and if his character dies, he’ll just roll a new one. He sees the story of the campaign and the particular adventure as important, but only as a framing device for the game. He wants to play the game, but the game and its mechanics are what is important to him. The best way I can describe it is that he acts like he’s playing an action RPG like Diablo. He’s there to play the game, but there are no real decisions he needs to, or wants to make outside of class, race, and what gear he wears. That’s his playstyle. He’s never going to be invested in a particular NPC or story or want to role-play. Any attempts made to make him more invested or to get him to step into the limelight of an adventure or situation would fall flat or just be awkward because it’s not his thing and he doesn’t want it to be his thing. It’s not my job as the GM to make it his thing either. If you have this type of player in your group, your job as the GM is to determine how butthurt you’ll be when he doesn’t marvel at the amazing narratives you craft. If you’re ok with a player like this being in your group and not really getting turgid while he listens to you ramble on telling your stories and plots and talking as NPCs, cool, if you’re not, don’t invite them into the group.
The next thing is figuring out why the players play. This actually goes hand in hand with finding out if the player wants to be more invested. So figure out these two things together. Some people play only because their friends play. Others because they love combat. Others because they constantly fucking seek to derail the campaign completely by making pacts with every fucking incomprehensible supernatural entity beyond the realm of time and space that they can get to return their calls. Some look at DnD like it’s a choose your own adventure book and they couldn’t get enough of those things when they were growing up. They want to be part of a story and interact with that story and determine its course. Others just want to experience the fun of acting and to pretend to be someone else. Others just like combat or doing cool things with characters and stuff. There’s a wide range of player types that I’m not going to define here. Google it. Someone almost certainly has compiled a list of player archetypes.
Now, some reasons players have for being at the table may limit your ability to get them to give a shit. Some may make it impossible, like my player from the previous paragraph. The easiest next step is to find out why they aren’t invested. Do they not like the story? Do they not like the things you make them do? Do they feel like a particular player hogs the limelight? Are they inexperienced with DnD so they feel like they’re out of their depth or are missing all the references when you talk about illithid and cranium rats and dual scimitar wielding drow and the Hand and Eye of Vecna? The simplest way to do this is to ask them what they want out of the game and if something you’re doing is keeping them from really getting into things.
I had a player, Cary, that ragequit during a session. It was a hostage situation and Cary was using his psion Donovan to dialogue some of the fanatics/terrorists into releasing their hostages. Cary’s psion was almost purely a telepath, but he also had extensive skill points put into Bluff and Diplomacy. He was trying to use those skills to resolve a situation, and I stonewalled him. As I had many times during the scenarios of the campaign. I didn’t know it at the time, but Cary felt very frustrated by my DMing because it seemed like all I would let him do was fling energy bolts and blasts at foes when he had designed a character around talking to people to get them to do things. Cary was a role-player, he knew the rules, he was tolerant of my extensive house rules, but I was running a game that punished his character choices because I didn’t understand what kind of character he was playing. When he played a telepath, I assumed that he wanted to blast things with psionics and control minds with psionics. He wanted to actually talk people into doing things. My being unaware of what he wanted out of the game, and not taking the time to ask him what he wanted, and designing scenarios that he felt punished his character choices detracted from his enjoyment of the game and his ability to really get into it.
Part of getting players invested is understanding what they want to do with their characters. After Cary and I had a heart to heart and I apologized for my shit GMing, I started to include instances where Cary could use dialogue to do things in scenarios, just like I would include things for other characters to do with their skills like Stealth and Perception and Disable Device. I don’t think we ever reach a perfect balance, because Cary and I had different views on what you can achieve with dialogue skills (they’re not magic, so all of their effects are weaker than the weakest enchantment/charm spells), but I think we reached an understanding that I was making an effort and he and Donovan became a big component of doing things later in the campaign.
I have another player, Jeremy, one of my oldest friends. Jeremy has gamed with me in almost every campaign, but Jeremy is a gamer that games because his friends are gaming. He has never had an encyclopedic knowledge of the game, which is fine, because that’s the GMs job. He has never really devoted a lot of time to backgrounds or interacting with NPCs. He’s happy to play and laugh and joke around and be there with us, and we want him there and like having him there with us. He’s a good guy.
The Rebellion Arc is the only campaign I’ve ever really gotten Jeremy invested in. It took work and it was worth it. It involved a heist, a friendship, and the American cinema classic Road House starring Patrick Swayze. The campaign started out with the characters in prison. There’s a prison break and the characters managed to escape as well. The players end up heading to a city known as Hell where Jeremy’s character D’alton Braun had originally lived. He had been in the process of pulling of a bank heist when he was caught and sent to the prison they were all in. The group discusses it and figures they can go to Hell and finish out D’alton’s heist and hang out in his rowe’dhaus (::wink::), which is a word that means secret basement in wretchtongue. The players pull off the bank heist successfully and make off with a ridiculous sum of money for first level characters, like 20,000+ gold pieces in value, and the rest of the campaign goes from there.
I forget how it exactly goes, but Jeremy and I were hanging out or talking one day and we came up with the idea for a heist in DnD. We were probably talking about the film Heat or maybe Dane Cook’s jokes about doing a heist and “Where’s the van? Where is the fucking van?” or something of that nature. From that simple bit of joking around we get the second session of The Rebellion Arc, which kicks off the entirety of the rest of the campaign. We establish from that that Jeremy’s character is from Hell, it’s his ancestral home. So Jeremy spends all this time coming up with maps of the Braun family mansion and stuff. Many NPCs we run into over the course of the campaign while bumming around Hell are known to D’alton, people he knows from his childhood and time in the youth gangs running the streets. Like the Van Bur’yen Boys. Which is a Seinfeld reference, which is another thing Jeremy and I enjoy. I think. Jeremy likes Seinfeld, right?
The campaign is about Jeremy/D’alton, even if it isn’t directly so. He’s not the chosen one, but he’s constantly involved in the things that are going on. The players are hiding out in his secret fort, later living in his family mansion. Later they fix an election that gets his childhood sweetheart elected. All these little things are tying the campaign to Jeremy/D’alton, but he’s not being made to be the leader or take on a role he doesn’t want to. He’s invested because there are all these references he enjoys and because all these things are tied to him and his character, but the spotlight isn’t beating down on him and making him sweat, because that’s not something he’d enjoy.
I reinforced this investment by creating a vulnerable character that Jeremy could befriend and help and defend, and later be defended by. Spineplate/Kethranmeer. By creating Spineplate/Kethranmeer and having D’alton help him get hands, I translated the friendship Jeremy and I have into the game. It wasn’t that he and I were friends and were hanging out, it was that we were hanging out in the game. The two characters had each other’s back and that sort of thing. It just kind of reinforced the fact that Jeremy was involved as a player. Even if a scenario wasn’t directly about something related to D’alton or something that interested Jeremy, Kethranmeer was there to speak to D’alton and draw Jeremy more into the role of D’alton.
I was able to get Jeremy invested by giving the group scenarios Jeremy helped me come up with the idea for, by adding a bunch of references he would get and enjoy, by making things tie into his character and forcing him to create additional background material for that character to help flesh out the character and his ties to the world. That’s a good tactic you can use to get players invested, by crafting whole scenarios and campaign arcs based around what they want to do. You have to be careful about it, because it can backfire and you have to make sure you’re not forcing the limelight on someone who doesn’t want it and that you’re not focusing the entirety of the campaign on one player and ignoring the rest.
In the Orcunraytrel Arc Lance expressed a desire to do a few things in the world and since his character Eran was a Sereth I planned on involving a few Sereth specific quests in the campaign due to some plots I had hanging around Orcunraytrel related to the Sereth race. I think Lance and I had different expectations about how these things would be resolved. I assumed he would be more proactive and pursue them and bring them to the party’s attention, and I think he assumed I would handle them in a more traditional way of giving the group quests and directing them to resolve them by making scenarios for them. So when Lance and his character Eran never really pursued those quests and plot hooks, and then he and the group were basically punished for not doing so by events progressing while they weren’t paying attention to them, I think Lance ended up feeling a little alienated and put off, which certainly didn’t help him remain invested in the campaign, his character, and the game world. So putting character/player specific things into play can backfire on you.
Again, make sure your player and you have the same expectations about how things are going to go. You don’t have to sit down with them and say, “I plan to do these specific things to draw you into my campaign world and to get you more invested in the campaign.” That kind of spoils things. Just be subtle about it and speak in generalities. One of the things I do to prepare myself for involving elements of character’s background in a campaign is to create a questionnaire document that I have players answer. Just a bunch of seemingly random, and sometimes actually random, questions about them and their characters and what they want out of the campaign and that sort of thing. If you find that you have players that want to be more involved and invested and occupy the limelight, these sorts of broad questions about characters and their backgrounds can give you some good ideas about how to do that in the story. It also makes the players think about their characters a little bit more than just choosing race and class. Any time a player is thinking about their character, they’re getting a little bit more comfortable with stepping into and thinking like the character and a little bit closer to it, which is going to make them just a little bit more invested in it.
This isn’t really a comprehensive guide to getting players more invested in the campaign and their character and getting them to role-play. I can only speak in generalities and from personal experience, and my experiences are going to be different from those of others and what has worked for me in the past might never work for a different group. I only have one real rule about getting players invested and getting them to role-play, and that is to talk to your players.
If you talk to your players directly and actually communicate, you’re going to be able to figure something out. Some people are never going to get invested or role-play. Some people want to, but they’re just not comfortable with it, so you need to help them by easing them into it and showing them the table is a judgement free zone and no one is going to nut tap them for role-playing the “wrong” way. If your players get along with each other and trust each other not to mock them and they’re genuinely there to enjoy and participate in the story and you’re taking them on adventures they enjoy, the investment in the campaign and the role-playing are going to happen. Eventually. Probably. No guarantees. Sorry. If you’re having them do things they don’t enjoy, if people are uncomfortable, or they’re only there to win the scenario, it’s never going to happen.
So, talk to your players. Find out why they come to the table. Find out if they are invested in the campaign, find out if they want to role-play. If they do, why aren’t they/don’t they now? Is it your fault? Is it there’s? How can you help? Would they be comfortable if they were forced into the limelight?
I could keep going I think, but I think you get the gist. Just talk to your players.