Thursday, September 12, 2013

Player Investment: Play on Target Podcast Ep. 17

After a short Gen Con inspired break, the Play on Target podcast returns this week with a pretty practical topic: how to better engage players. While we begin with some general discussions about what engagement looks like, we slide into specific suggestions and techniques. I'm happy with how this one turned out- with a number of ideas that I'll be stealing for my games. As always I have a few additional thoughts about the topic I've put together here. I run a lot and I'm a confident GM, but even so I often find myself falling into cycles worrying about how hooked the players are to the game I'm presenting. 

Play on Target Episode Roundup

We skirt an important dimension in our discussion: that different people have different kinds of investments in games. Some players really enjoy being active at the table, demonstrating excitement, and working on play details between sessions. Some players don’t. The two may be equally enjoying themselves, but to the GM one appears to be passive and unengaged. I see this question pop up fairly regularly on forums: what do I do with a player who comes, doesn’t rock the boat, but doesn’t seem to do much unless prodded? I’m not sure I have a great answer for that- especially if it is truly a case of that player enjoying themselves. And where the players “passive” play doesn’t negatively impact the rest of the group.

Ideally, we’d like to have a table of fully active and engaged players- so that passivity feels like a problem to the GM. I don’t think it necessarily is one. It does mean the GM has to take a few extra steps. First, recognize and accept that the player’s having a good time- check with them, ask if there’s something they want. Second, make sure that you don’t overcompensate with the player. I’ve seen GMs throw themselves into contortions, trying to hook and entertain quieter players. That can lead to ignoring more self-motivated gamers at the table. Putting crucial or key plots in the hands of those players creates more problems than it solves. They’ll let those drop and the rest of the table can become frustrated. Third, don’t ignore these players. Prepare for them. They will react to things, but they often won’t be proactive. Craft some set-pieces and oddball incidents to throw at them when it is their turn in the spotlight. Give them something they can work through- like having their pocket picked, spotting an unusual character, or the like. If you have a list ready, you can throw that at them when they shrug their shoulders. Perhaps something may stick and you might find a detail that does hook them- and you get to make something bigger out of a throwaway.

I’ve only run two campaigns online so far (a total of about 50 sessions), so I still consider myself a novice on that score. I think the online environment offers new challenges to engagement. There’s a huge difference in the mental space of going to someone’s house or having people over to play and sitting down at the computer. I suspect it’s easier to bail out and skip a session with the latter. That may be a better thing- it might be easier to quit a bad game or bump a bad player. But I suspect it can be harder on GMs who’d like to have the same kind of engagement and emotional feedback they get in a f2f game. I suspect much of what we said in the podcast applies to online- but I wonder if there might be some online-specific best practices? Explicit social contracts? Shorter campaign arcs? Games aimed for player drop in and outs? That’s a topic worth doing more research on.

I wonder if we might also consider GM investment. I’ve seen some discussion of this around the blogosphere recently. One GM lamented that an unequal exchange existed between the players and the GM. The latter put in tons of effort, but the players rarely if ever even began to match the GM’s effort or work. Myself, I can be disappointed with that, but I think it is the nature of the beast. I’m not sure exactly what we could expect demand from our players: more backstory or session write-ups. I think more likely we’re talking about wanting them to exhibit some system mastery, learn the rules, and keep their characters up to date. I’ve had a few players over the years who’ve never grasped the mechanics, despite many hours of play. That can be frustrating, but I’ve grown used to it. I can’t imagine being angry because players aren’t writing or doing as much as I am at the table. That feels like wasted energy. I mean, I’d like for them to do more, but that’s a matter of hope. I think the closest I come to this being an issue is the jealousy I feel when I see players heavily invested or involved in another GM’s game.

I’ve played with GMs who’ve been desperate for outward and visible signs of player interest and approval. If they didn’t get enough they would often become moody and complain about the group not being interested. More often than not we’d be trying to make it clear to the GM we liked playing the game and had been having a good time. But if we weren’t sending emails and planning between sessions, they felt like we didn’t care. A few times we’d get into cycles where we had to be overly enthusiastic at the table just to make sure things kept running. It put us in a strangely co-dependent relationship, having to constantly reassure the GM for fear of him wrapping the game early. The irony to this would be that the worst offender GM finally got his wish with one amazing campaign. He had a crew of highly engaged people, all of whom sent him emails and played out sub-plots away from the table. They thought about the story and details, to the point that the GM started to feel insecure about the plot. The volume of email and interest wore burned him out and he stopped the campaign- destroying most of his credibility with the players. A couple of times he tried to restart it, but he’d already broken the group’s trust.

That’s more of a question of a depressive personality, but I’ve seen GM disengagement just as bad as some exhibited by players. We used to have a GM in our group who would come up with really great concepts for campaigns- and we’d get rolling on them. Then several sessions in, after we’d be hooked, he start to talk about another campaign he wanted to run or began to grumble about the present game not being exactly what he wanted. Then sessions would get cancelled or tweak would occur, leading to the game just kind of petering out. He rarely overtly ended a campaign, instead he’d just stop caring and let it die. An artist, with an artistic temperament, the next cool thing always caught his attention. It became a running joke for the group, but we still went back to play. A few times we tried to talk to him about the problem but he always acted as if this came as a complete surprise to him. Sometimes he’d say a game was just on “hiatus.” I can’t fault him too much- I recall starting and dropping campaigns in my early days, but I always felt hugely guilty for doing that.

Keep in mind, players can’t engage with a game unless they have something to engage with. If you want them to play around in your sandbox, put some toys in there. I remember a Cyberpunk campaign we played in with a really linear, mission-driven focus. Then, when the GM wasn’t prepped he’d go: what do you want to do? But we’d seen almost nothing of the world, had no other hooks, and he’d literally killed off or put in a coma every person we’d met. The blank slate offered nothing to engage with.

On the other side, remember that too many choices and details can overwhelm the players. You might think you’re giving the players a cornucopia of plots, hooks, and options- which you are- but you’re also burying them. They have to dig out from under that- trying to figure out what’s important to you, the GM. Even if you say everything’s fair game, the players instinctually try to suss out where you want them to go. Sometimes so they can go there, and sometimes so they can avoid it. Jim Jacobson, in Blood on the Snow, raises an interesting point, “Sheena Iyengar’s famous “jam study”—in which supermarket customers presented with twenty-four kinds of jam to taste were more enthusiastic, but ultimately chose to buy jam less frequently than those who were presented with only six kinds of jam—presents a situation very much like the choice of a (DramaSystem) series pitch.” I think the same can hold true for dense games- where the GM tries to go for engagement through info dump.

If you like RPG Gaming podcasts, I hope you'll check it out. We take a focused approach- tackling a single topic each episode. You can subscribe to the show on iTunes or follow the podcast's page at


  1. I dealt with an unengaged player in my group all through last year. Interestingly, it was largely protests by other players in the group that brought the matter to a head--they were all really engaged with the game, both at the table and between sessions, and he wasn't. It bugged the hell out of them.

    For me, the biggest problem wasn't his lack of engagement (I did check and make sure he was having a good time--he said he was), but rather his tendency to create characters who should have been proactive, central PCs in the group. An unengaged player playing a bruiser fighter or a slinking thief is workable; one who consistently plays face men and detective-types? Not so much. I even tried the bit of throwing little challenges his way, as you suggest, but he never knew what to do with them.

    Eventually his disengagement turned to boredom and then started manifesting disruptive behavior and I regretfully asked him to leave. C'est la vie. I have to admit that that level of disengagement is a pretty alien mindset to me.

    Excellent points on GM investment, BTW. That was a huge hurdle for me to get over during my adolescent gaming years. I still relish now the satisfaction of being able to commit to a campaign and see it through to the end.

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