Managing My Expectations? (+)

Yora

Legend
The topic of player engagement is the topic of player expectations and player agency. And it's the topic that I think the vast majority of players and GMs for the last four decades have gotten completely wrong.

The thing is, RPGs are not a medium to tell stories. RPGs suck for telling stories. RPGs are not books, TV shows, movies, or narrative focused videogames. All these storytelling mediums are mediums of passively consuming fiction that has already been produced. Playing an RPG is nothing like that.

Unfortunately, the common mainstream assumption of what an RPG is and how a great campaign is being played is that the GM is telling a wonderful story, and at certain point the players have to figure out what the "protagonists" of the story are supposed to do next before the GM will continue telling the story.
If the GM is able to write and perform a great story, this can produce some degree of entertainment.

When we are talking about player engagement, we usually mean players thinking ahead and making proactive choices to steer the story in the directions they want. But to do that, the players must be able to to be proactive and chose the direction of the events in the campaign. And it must be communicated to the players that they have this ability. This is where most discussion about gamemastering and most published RPG material fails spectacularly.

How do people expect players to be engaged and excert their agency when there is nothing to engage with and no agency to exert?

A campaign that players can engage with does not have a story that is already written before the players even make their characters. It doesn't tell the players what they are supposed to do. A good campaign sets up an interesting world that has content that can be interacted with, and establishes boundaries for the kinds of personalities of characters in the party so that they have similar motivations and reasons to work together.

"There are treasures in this land and you play a group of people who wants to find treasures."
"There are many deady dangers in this land and you play a group of people who join forces to survive."
"This city is full of crime and you play a group of people who join forces to claw their way to the top of the pile."
"This land is plagues by bandits/monsters/invaders and you play as a group of people who have decided to no longer stand by idle and go out to do something about it."

Start the players in a small semi-confined corner of the world with just one or two groups of antagonists to oppose them and a couple of colorful NPCs, and let the players observe one of the antagonist cause some trouble. Light a small fire under their asses that will be a problem if they don't do anything about it, but not become a serious threat for the time being. Then let the players loose and let them do what they want. They will be the ones who decide who the big villains will be that they mostly fight against. They will be the ones who decide which locations they want to spend more time with, and who they might want to make alliances with.
Player engagement comes from players fighting against opponents that they have decided their characters despise, and fighting to gain control of places they have decided they want to take over, and help people they have decided they like. It doesn't come from telling the players they will have to fight these guys because the script says they have to, to attack the castles that the script says they have to, and to help NPCs that the script says are their friends, because otherwise there will be no game for them to play.
 

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billd91

Not your screen monkey (he/him) 🇺🇦🇵🇸🏳️‍⚧️
I spend a lot of time on the hobby: participating in forums, reading reviews, preparing adventures, learning new game systems or optional rules, setting up VTT games, painting miniatures, etc. While I can get by not doing all of these things (or by limiting the time I spend on each component), this is part of the fun for me. But that's the point - it's only part of the fun.

So an ongoing struggle I've had over the past year or so is that my players don't seem invested. I have to push them to make decisions - even when I try to make it as clear as possible. I have to do every session recap because no one takes notes or remembers any details. Between games I try to keep everyone updated via email - usually to no response. Last night at our Session Zero, a player fell asleep during character creation.

I don't want to turn this into a complaining on my players thread - that's not the point. I realize this hobby isn't the main thing in their lives, and I don't want it to be. In fact, I think it's probably been a little to the point of being an unhealthy obsession for me. Especially during COVID, I really leaned into running multiple games and prepping them a lot. But I'm at the point now where I'm not getting as much out of gaming and it's not as satisfying as it should be.

So what should I do? Limit what I put into the games? (And what should I cut out to save time?) Take a break from the hobby altogether (which I'm afraid would leave me with nothing to do)?
There are some aspects of your post that remind me of a performer who invests a lot of prep and effort, only to receive all the feedback of an oil painting. You're putting out energy, but not getting much feedback on it or energy coming back and it's sapping you.
Honestly, it's not easy to offer advice on how to fix this other than to accept that the level of engagement you feel you need to put in is never going to be matched - at least not from your group, as a group. So here are a few suggestions:

1) Put together a readable recap for the other players as part of your prep. Leave it out for them and accessible when the game isn't running. Then they can review it on their own time. Chances are they'll do so at least a little bit from time to time.

2) Instead of contacting the group, contact an individual. Nobody responds to group emails or messages if they can avoid it. They're going to leave it to the other members of the group. My kids are like this and there are only two of them. If I ask them to do something by sending a message to them both, nobody will do it. If I ask either of them individually, I get better results. If you want feedback or to talk about the game, do it one-on-one. Try them all to see who is worth talking to, then focus just one the one(s) who give you good conversation.

3) Probably the Hardest Find an alternative, more like-minded group or person to divert some of your energy to who will reflect more of it back. That will help bolster you for the energy-sucking group you've got.
 

Asking them what excites them in a game is definitely a good idea. I'd also look at them at the table (or on the screen, depending) and see what gets them motivated. When are they leaning forward, smiling, asking questions?

I would ask the players what would they find engaging, or what is it about the game they're playing that they don't seem to have much interested in.

I've had players fall asleep during gaming, very rarely. One guy had health issues, one guy was just a bad player, and one guy was just tired from his job at the end of the day (these days I never run sessions that go late at night; if I'm playing on a weeknight, it's only going to be for two hours).

Falling asleep during session zero seems strange. I would assume there were extenuating circumstances?

If you're enjoying a specific part of DMing, it's okay to do stuff just for you. If you like coming up with weird NPCs and the party only interacts with 1-2 of them in a session, but you had a blast designing the grizzled retired warrior with robot legs and an obsessive love of hummus, that's fine. Sometimes a DM's own joy and enthusiasm alone counts for a lot in a successful campaign.

The key, which is easier said than done, is to find things that you enjoy about the game that don't depend on other people. If you're writing a hugely detailed and complex campaign because you want your players to marvel at your genius, you're going to be disappointed. But if you're writing a hugely detailed and complex campaign because you enjoy it, then have at it!

So... which parts of the game do you enjoy for their own sake? Creating adventures? Monsters? Building a world?

Basically, imagine you didn't have any players at all, such that all these things never saw the light of day. Now, what would you still do, because you like it?

Focus on that.
 

TwoSix

"Diegetics", by L. Ron Gygax
You mentioned a couple of months ago that you're also primarily running games online.


I have to say, online gaming is HARD. I've found you kind of have to limit the timeframe to be much shorter. 2-2.5 hour sessions versus 4, 5, or 6 hour sessions. They have to be TIGHT, they have to be FOCUSED, and the material has to be pretty well pre-defined. It's really, really hard to "wing it" online with a "trad" system.

My current group tried online gaming over the pandemic, and it was just never really satisfying, UNTIL we tried Ironsworn. Abandoning the need for battle maps, and highly tactical combat play, and using a system that let us do much more freeform narrative --- THAT made it feel much more like we were connecting on a creative level, and engagement was high. Ironsworn was the only system we've played online where the players said afterwards, "Man, that was almost as good as gaming in person."
This, a lot. Online play combined with traditional story arc/ battle mat play is really hard. I'm a pretty enthused, proactive player and DM, and I generally crash after about 2 hours into an online session.

The best sessions I've had online, by far, have been the ones with little combat and few die rolls, and everyone just discusses stuff in character.
 

Retreater

Legend
This, a lot. Online play combined with traditional story arc/ battle mat play is really hard. I'm a pretty enthused, proactive player and DM, and I generally crash after about 2 hours into an online session.

The best sessions I've had online, by far, have been the ones with little combat and few die rolls, and everyone just discusses stuff in character.
Right. My upper limit online is 3 hours. Usually this group does about 2:15 (and that's including about 20 minutes of breaks and settling in). And under those circumstances, it's difficult to run traditional games with a complete campaign arc, etc. But these guys tell me they want to do it, so I'm doing the best I can.
It might come to the point where I need to scale back my online games just to give myself a chance to get something in-person going on. Or if not that, there are other commitments I could be making: community theater or just playing video games - which I haven't done for about 18 months because I'm so drained from VTT RPG play. But it's hard to put aside time.
 

Jack Daniel

dice-universe.blogspot.com
It may not work for everybody, but I can attest that managing my expectations worked wonders for me. Finally coming around to the notion that D&D campaigns don't need to be save-the-world fantasy epics and players don't need to be "always on" improv actors staved off a crisis for me and kept me from quitting the hobby.

I discovered that exploratory treasure-hunts are (at least for me) more fun to DM than fantasy epics. I discovered that (at least for most players I've ever played with) ditching the expectation that everyone ought to be improvising in-character dialog all the time made my games less burdensome and more accessible. And most importantly of all, I discovered that what players say they want out of a game does not always (or even usually) align with what will actually make the game enjoyable and engaging.
 
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Yora

Legend
Better run a game that you can run and do that well, than an ideal game you wish you could run but can't pull off.
Even if that ideal game is possible, GMs still need a lot of practice to pull it off. And to get advanced skills, you first must master the basics. Repeatedly doing a hard thing poorly doesn't teach nearly as much as learning to do an easier thing well.
 

Retreater

Legend
Better run a game that you can run and do that well, than an ideal game you wish you could run but can't pull off.
I learned that when trying to run The Enemy Within (which is a bucket list campaign for me). It was better to admit defeat and save it for later than to make bad memories of it.
 

TheSword

Legend
The topic of player engagement is the topic of player expectations and player agency. And it's the topic that I think the vast majority of players and GMs for the last four decades have gotten completely wrong.

The thing is, RPGs are not a medium to tell stories. RPGs suck for telling stories. RPGs are not books, TV shows, movies, or narrative focused videogames. All these storytelling mediums are mediums of passively consuming fiction that has already been produced. Playing an RPG is nothing like that.

Unfortunately, the common mainstream assumption of what an RPG is and how a great campaign is being played is that the GM is telling a wonderful story, and at certain point the players have to figure out what the "protagonists" of the story are supposed to do next before the GM will continue telling the story.
If the GM is able to write and perform a great story, this can produce some degree of entertainment.

When we are talking about player engagement, we usually mean players thinking ahead and making proactive choices to steer the story in the directions they want. But to do that, the players must be able to to be proactive and chose the direction of the events in the campaign. And it must be communicated to the players that they have this ability. This is where most discussion about gamemastering and most published RPG material fails spectacularly.

How do people expect players to be engaged and excert their agency when there is nothing to engage with and no agency to exert?

A campaign that players can engage with does not have a story that is already written before the players even make their characters. It doesn't tell the players what they are supposed to do. A good campaign sets up an interesting world that has content that can be interacted with, and establishes boundaries for the kinds of personalities of characters in the party so that they have similar motivations and reasons to work together.

"There are treasures in this land and you play a group of people who wants to find treasures."
"There are many deady dangers in this land and you play a group of people who join forces to survive."
"This city is full of crime and you play a group of people who join forces to claw their way to the top of the pile."
"This land is plagues by bandits/monsters/invaders and you play as a group of people who have decided to no longer stand by idle and go out to do something about it."
That’s one point of view but it’s not the only one. It is perfectly acceptable to play a TTRPG the same as a suitably complex CRPG, like the Baldurs Gate series for example.

Every written module put out by Paizo and WOC in the last 20 years contains a story to be told. It’s just that the good ones have sufficient gaps to allow the party to interact with it in a satisfying way.

Agency is not binary. It doesn’t have to be total or completely absent. There can be plenty of choice about who, what when, where and why without have a choice about If. The direction isn’t as important as how the PCs handle the events along that trajectory.
 

JiffyPopTart

Bree-Yark
I had very similar feelings to the OP in my real world game awhile ago. I NEEDED the player to get more proactively involved in the world and the story.

I tried to get my feeling across to them by explaining that my job shouldn't be to lay out a buffet they come and eat every week, but instead I'm bringing the main dish and they can all contribute something they want potluck style so we all can enjoy a meal we all helped create.

It helped in the short term, but as time marched on the table eventually returned to me laying out a buffet and at best a player bringing their own silverware.

I know this makes me sound old, but I lay the blame squarely on phones/tablets at the table. The number of times the flow of play is interrupted because someone starts doing something non game related (and also not important) on their phone is disheartening.

I can't imagine how hard it is to get people to focus from a different room where you can't avoid the computer front and center.
 

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