Managing My Expectations? (+)

TheSword

Legend
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)?
I’m certainly finding a lack of satisfying encounters in the last three years of WOC products, and a growing boredom with the lack of jeopardy in 5e combat. It isn’t that the PCs can’t interact, it’s that quite often I see scenarios that don’t really require it. I actually find myself looking more and more to either older D&d products that can be repurposed, or particularly good quality third party products because they’re simple more engaging.

I think the strategic element of the game is very much reduced to the point where good plots, characters and stories have to be more engaging to make up the weight. Combat can no longer carry the bulk of the interest.

I have also found that simple is better when it comes to these stories. Recurring characters both villain and ally are better than brilliant but domino-like characters that are killed then forgotten.

I have found Odyssey of the Dragonlords a lot of fun to DM and easy to get the PCs engaged because the villains are clear and ubiquitous, the NPcs crop up over and over, and the goals of the party while pre-determined are grand and sweeping.

Don’t be disheartened about the not emailing in between sessions. I play with two brilliant groups of role players that heavily invest in characters but both I and @GuyBoy are lucky if we can get so much as a picture and back story out of some people before the first session starts (even though they are very engaged during the session). For some people they see the game time as a distinct slot and don’t bleed that into their other free time.

One final thought is that for me, good well written mysteries are the hardest adventures to write but also are the most engaging. I’m interested as to whether you got engagement from PCs in Shadows over Bogenhafen? I know you got part way through the Enemy Within but not sure how far. It’s sounds like from what you said in your recent post that you didn’t. That module to me, is the touchstone of good adventure design and writing. If you can’t get these players to engage with SOB you definitely need to get some new players! Or have a very honest conversation about them not wasting your time by being obtuse.
 
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aramis erak

Legend
I'll note that many of the players wanting to do collab world building through play have moved on to systems where that's mechanically encouraged... Fate, various PBTA, Wick's Houses of the Blooded; to a lesser extent, also any system where you buy opponents... either as disads or as advantages...

If you can gently coerce collab about the bad guys, pay it off by making those encounters more interesting... not of need harder, but also highlighting the player contributions.

Any narrative bits on the sheet? write them down and use in prep...
 

Retreater

Legend
I’m certainly finding a lack of satisfying encounters in the last three years of WOC products, and a growing boredom with the lack of jeopardy in 5e combat. It isn’t that the PCs can’t interact, it’s that quite often I see scenarios that don’t really require it. I actually find myself looking more and more to either older D&d products that can be repurposed, or particularly good quality third party products because they’re simple more engaging.

I think the strategic element of the game is very much reduced to the point where good plots, characters and stories have to be more engaging to make up the weight. Combat can no longer carry the bulk of the interest.
Yeah. Speaking at least for myself, I have been getting a little tired of 5e, so we went first to WFRP and then to PF2.
I have found Odyssey of the Dragonlords a lot of fun to DM and easy to get the PCs engaged because the villains are clear and ubiquitous, the NPcs crop up over and over, and the goals of the party while pre-determined are grand and sweeping.
I did offer to run this one for the group, but it didn't appeal to them.
One final thought is that for me, good well written mysteries are the hardest adventures to write but also are the most engaging. I’m interested as to whether you got engagement from PCs in Shadows over Bogenhafen? I know you got part way through the Enemy Within but not sure how far. It’s sounds like from what you said in your recent post that you didn’t. That module to me, is the touchstone of good adventure design and writing. If you can’t get these players to engage with SOB you definitely need to get some new players! Or have a very honest conversation about them not wasting your time by being obtuse.
We ended up completing the first book in the series, ending the mystery in Bogenhafen. It was largely hand-held to get them to the final showdown, but at least that one was well planned. Essentially, they failed the mystery but their planning and clever takedown of the enemies saved the day.
So they wouldn't interview any of the council members. I even got it down to "probably one of these two guys." Flat out told them. And they couldn't be bothered to remember the names of the two suspects from session to session. Or do anything to try to stop them. Even after they were given a very strict time table "the f'ing end of the world is coming in two days" they spent their time shopping and bickering over prices to stable their horses. Finally I had an NPC flat-out tell them "it's this guy. this is when and where he is going to do it. For the love of Sigmar, go there or everyone in the town will die. And then they barely went, almost as an after thought.
 

Yora

Legend
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..
Passive-agressively stop talking and say you'll wait for them to finish before you continue if they ask.
 

BookTenTiger

He / Him
Passive-agressively stop talking and say you'll wait for them to finish before you continue if they ask.
Alternately, proactively come up with a table agreement before the game about screens. "Hey all, I notice folks getting pretty distracted by phones during the game. What do we think about a 'no screens during D&D' table rule?"
 

MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
What is more important, the game or the group?

If you have a passion for running a certain type of game that requires a certain style of play or high level of engagement, you may have to find another group. If you have a strong group of friends who have been getting together for years and you cherish that, you may have to ditch the game. If you don't have time to run multiple campaigns, it may be an either/or scenario.

In my case, it started with the former but has come to be the later.

When I got back in to TTRPGs with 5e, after a long period of not gaming, I went all in. I spend time and money putting together my own world. I put out some posts seeking players who were interested, clearly stating the kind of campaign I wanted to run and what the setting was like.

After playing for about seven years, and on our third campaign (in a non-WOTC setting, the homebrew was getting to require too much time) the group is more important to me. I would happily scrap my current campaign if the group wasn't feeling it. I would run just about any campaign setting. About the only thing that I require is that is be D&D 5e, because I just don't have the time to invest in another system as DM.

So much of the magic of a good group evolves over time and it is difficult to give general advice. But I've also run one shots and my FLGS and for other friends and family who can't commit to long campaigns. In these situations, I found it best to be prepared to calibrate on the fly. Players may say they want a certain play style or setting but find they don't actually enjoy it or their willingness to commit to it may differ from your expectations based on your understanding what they asked for.

Mysteries and puzzles are a prime example. When people say they like these in their games, I find their expectations vary widely. Some really want a challenge and like trying to spend the time to work these things out. Other like the flavor but would rather resolve much of it with a dice roll and appreciate some hand holding, and get frustrated or bored if things get too challenging.

I try to find ways in my prep and in my improv to scale things. Reward those who really get into not taking and sussing things out, but be prepared to go into easy story mode for those who want more of story approach.
 

Retreater

Legend
Alternately, proactively come up with a table agreement before the game about screens. "Hey all, I notice folks getting pretty distracted by phones during the game. What do we think about a 'no screens during D&D' table rule?"
That's hard to do when you play D&D on a screen (on a VTT). haha.
In general, I know people who can multitask and handle things fine. I know people who need to look up rules information on tablets. I know people who need to check on work/family/etc. on their devices. The problem isn't the screen - it's the engagement. You could have someone not engaged who is equally distracted by daydreaming, doodling on their character sheet, sleeping at the table, obsessively worried about snacks, obsessively stacking or rolling dice for no reason, or breaking everyone's engagement with ill-timed jokes and movie quotes.
Bad habits have always been with us. Devices are just a tool.
 

Lot of good advice here, and I've had a somewhat similar experience to the OP, albeit longer ago and less severe, and what I worked out was:

1) Complicated and finickity rules really do not work well for some groups, but the individual players might not realize this or might even think they like those rules.

A good example for my main group is 3.XE/PF1. If, at the time, you'd asked the players if they "liked D&D" or "liked Pathfinder", they'd have said yes. It would have been a useless question. If you'd said "But is it too complicated?" they'd probably have denied it, albeit hemming and hawing slightly. It only became obvious when we switched to more straightforward RPGs, and suddenly people were more engaged at the table. Less time was spent looking stuff up or adjudicating things.

2) You can also have a rules/playstyle mismatch on another level, that of players who want an experience very different to what the game, as designed, offers, but again who might not be entirely conscious of this.

3.XE/PF1 works as an example here too. My group really likes flashy shenanigans, over the top stuff swashbuckling idiocy, and plans so crazy they just might work (which honestly, has succeeded before and not because of DM fiat, sometimes they blindside even me who is expecting to be blind-sided). 3.XE/PF1 does not like that kind of play. It is very detailed, very precise, and if you try to do something silly, RAW you're going to end up having to make a bunch of rolls just to get a similar result to what doing something with one or two safe rolls would have had. This cuts both ways of course - if you have groups who want earnest, precise, grounded stuff, maybe you don't want to run, say, Exalted?

Both of these are solved the same way - swapping to a rules-set that is going to work better for the players. This can be major in terms of engagement, and the wrong system - which is not necessarily a "bad" system in any way - can cause serious disengagement.

3) Give them what they want to engage with.

A lot of people have talked about asking them what they want, but again I'm saying not every player is good at articulating that, and a lot of players will say more like what they think RPGs are supposed to be about than what they, personally, want. And asking an entire group at once is doom as I think others have indicated. But assuming they did in fact engage with some parts of what you've run, you probably actually already know the answer to some degree. With my group, over the years, I came to realize that they really love to hate antagonistic NPCs. They need Heels to be up against their Faces, in wrestling parlance. Not necessarily outright adversaries, but "I hate that guy!".

Yet they also need some/most NPCs to not be "Heels". A lot of DMs, including some quite experienced ones, including ones who are published, and including some who have written extensively for videogames, get confused here*. They pick up that a lot of players like there to be "Heels", and perhaps unconsciously, or perhaps thinking there's "you can't have too much of a good thing!", they make basically every NPC into a heel. The blacksmith is a jerk. The shopkeepers are all trying to grift them. The town guard are out to get them. The mayor is a snob who sneers openly at them. The other patrons of the pub all scowl at them. And so on. If everyone is a Heel, no-one is a Heel, it's just a crapsack world, and that causes disengagement for a lot of players. Why care about anything if everyone treats you badly?

So what I've found is it's important to have Heel NPCs and plenty of genuinely friendly/helpful ones. You also have to keep the sudden-but-inevitable betrayals down to a limited pace, and try not to make too many come from non-Heel NPCs, because again, otherwise you're creating a "Why should I care?" situation.

And I know long dungeon crawls, which it's hard to integrate antagonistic NPCs into (i.e. ones who talk smack and cause problems for the PCs, rather than directly fighting them and then losing/dying) are thus not a good fit for this group. Much better investigations, small dungeons, heists, and so on.


* = Larian, who wrote DOS1/2, have this problem. People accepted it in DOS1/2 because they assumed it was intended to be a crapsack setting. But when they did BG3 and wrote it the same way, every NPC a jerk, even nominal allies, they were taken aback because the feedback was intense and negative. People knew the Forgotten Realms. They knew D&D. They didn't want every NPC to be a jerk, rude, unhelpful, dismissive, sneering (even supposed goodies). So they actually had to row back on that pretty hard, making NPCs, particularly companion ones be less jerk-ish (and yeah if you've played it some are still jerks, but this is tame compared to how it was), giving the player more options to interact positively or get positivity out of NPCs, and so on.
 

GMMichael

Guide of Modos
Alternately, proactively come up with a table agreement before the game about screens. "Hey all, I notice folks getting pretty distracted by phones during the game. What do we think about a 'no screens during D&D' table rule?"
Not bad, but if it's D&D, that's like saying, "hey all, try to look interested while Steve looks up all of his 3rd level spell options,  again, and your character stands around like a punching bag for ten minutes until your next turn starts."
. . . You could have someone not engaged who is equally distracted by daydreaming, doodling on their character sheet, sleeping at the table, obsessively worried about snacks, obsessively stacking or rolling dice for no reason, or breaking everyone's engagement with ill-timed jokes and movie quotes.
Bad habits have always been with us. Devices are just a tool.
Except many apps are intentionally designed to monopolize your attention. Devices are easily the worst offenders of all those examples.
 

Yora

Legend
Not bad, but if it's D&D, that's like saying, "hey all, try to look interested while Steve looks up all of his 3rd level spell options,  again, and your character stands around like a punching bag for ten minutes until your next turn starts."
Group initative!

Letting all players start their turn at the same time, and doing each players' actions in the order that they decide what they want to do can help a lot with that. Players who need more time to consider their options can do that while the other players are taking their turns.
And in addition, players have more reason to pay attention during the enemys' turn because the players' turn will come up right after that. No time to do other stuff because you know you won't be doing anything for the next 10 minutes anyway.
 

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