Rewarding Proactive Play

The_Gneech

Explorer
So, I have a group of passive players. Like, really passive players. Like it's reached the point where I said "Here are three jobs up on the board at the adventurer's guild. Pick one for next week please." And they all just stared at me. It's not unlike trying to run a game for Bartleby the Scrivener.

They've always been on the passive side, but it has reached the point of brokenness. Not just accepting it when I start a session with "You're in this situation and here's how you got here," they are effectively refusing to play any other way. I don't know how this has come to pass, if it's something I've done or some personality change as people have aged, or what. But I can't keep running games this way, and I don't particularly want to. If I'm going to be just narrating a "choose your own adventure" book to the table, what do I need the other players for? Game prep has taken over my life, setting up scenes and coming up with storylines to run the group through, to be rewarded with "Eh, that was pretty good" at the end.

So I'm trying to come up with ways to fix this. I don't expect to be able to just drop the group in the middle of a sandbox game and revitalize the table, but I am going to start working to wean the group off this unhealthy dependence to the rails, before I lose my interest in running the game entirely and it falls apart.

An important detail, this is a steady group that's been around a long time, so the go-to answers of "find another group" or "kill them and take their stuff" are not really applicable here. What I'm looking for are ways to encouraging the existing group into a more proactive mode of play. I know they won't all go for it– at least one of them is diffident nearly to the point of social anxiety, and so I don't expect him to grab the reins and go. But the rest of them have played in a more active mode before, and I'd like to find ways to reinforce and bring that about again.

Any suggestions? I've started by switching to a more location-based scenario design ("Here are the NPCs, here are the dungeons/wilderness locales, and what happens happens...") and putting a few obvious hooks out, but I fear this is going to lead to at least one session of them staring at me with decision paralysis. Having someone burst in with a machine gun, as Chandler would advocate, just puts me right back to being all aboard Plot Railroad, so it's something I'd rather avoid.

-The Gneech :cool:
 

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Wild Gazebo

Explorer
While I really don't think rewards for proactive play is really the solution in this instance, I've done several things to reward proactive play:

Gifts of land and resource
Bestowing titles or honorary positions
Named sections of the game world for the character
Allowed the player to help create sections of the game world
Given characters unsolicited followers or disciples
Straight experience bonuses
Awarded new skills, feats or skill bonuses
Allowed the gradual development of minor inherent magical abilities based on a character's characteristics
Developed incremental magic to an item used during a great deed of heroism
Have small or large populations treat the PCs as stars with the clout of real celebrity
...and gold, lots and lots of gold
 


Tequila Sunrise

Adventurer
Have you straight-up told them "Guys, it's getting really tiring to lead you around by the noses. If you don't start taking some initiative, one of you are going to have to DM, or we're going to have to find another game."?
 

The_Gneech

Explorer
Have you straight-up told them "Guys, it's getting really tiring to lead you around by the noses. If you don't start taking some initiative, one of you are going to have to DM, or we're going to have to find another game."?

Not in those precise words. ;) But I have attempted to express my frustration, yes. :) And I think some of them are making an effort, which is one reason I was looking for ways to reward it.

-The Gneech :cool:
 

Wild Gazebo

Explorer
This intrigues me; could you elaborate?

Sounds like they are bored.

I'd ask them if they want to do something else...doesn't even have to be a role-playing game. Perhaps, if they really do want to play, they are stuck in a rut: switch DMs with another group for a night...do a one-shot modern game...have them make silly characters for other members of the group for a one-shot game...have them play monsters attacking a village while you play the heroes...just mix it up a little (doesn't have to be permanent).
 


Rune

Once A Fool
First of all, I think you might find this thread helpful.

Second, I think you might try a two pronged approach.

To begin, throw lots of hooks at your players, big and small. Write them down and store them somewhere.

Prong 1: The Carrot. Whenever the players bite on a hook, grant them a single reroll that can be used by any of them at any time to reroll any die roll (even one of yours). This reroll is not used up if they choose not to take the rerolled result. The only catch: the reroll is only available while in pursuit of goals suggested by the hook.

Prong 2: The Stick. Whenever the party fails to bite on a hook, don't throw it away; make a note about that and save it. Later, pull it out again and detail the in-game consequences of the party's inaction. If they still don't bite, rinse and repeat.
 

Tequila Sunrise

Adventurer
Sounds like they are bored.
Yeah, this sounds like a distinct possibility. I know that one of my reactions to boredom with a game is to become listless and unengaged, but to keep playing if I think that a friend is into the game.

...The first day I get bored, at least. I don't show up to boring games week after week, but some people feel a very strong sense of obligation about these things.



Prong 1: The Carrot. Whenever the players bite on a hook, grant them a single reroll that can be used by any of them at any time to reroll any die roll (even one of yours). This reroll is not used up if they choose not to take the rerolled result. The only catch: the reroll is only available while in pursuit of goals suggested by the hook.

Prong 2: The Stick. Whenever the party fails to bite on a hook, don't throw it away; make a note about that and save it. Later, pull it out again and detail the in-game consequences of the party's inaction. If they still don't bite, rinse and repeat.
I like these ideas! Like, if the PCs are in a village, they hear weird cries coming from the northwest forest. If they don't go investigate the creepy sounds within a day, the village is attacked by an orc shaman, his underlings, and the demon he summoned and then cut a deal. (Hence the weird cries from the forest.)

Sometime during the raid, the PCs hear one of the orcs gloating to a villager. "It's a good thing you pinkskins are so cowardly; if you had found our camp yesterday, you could have easily interrupted the summoning ritual, killed most of us, and taken our gold to boot!" And then he murders the helpless villager.

If the PCs intervene and think to question the gloating orc, he lets on where his camp (and ill-gotten booty) is located, providing a very tangible reward for (finally) taking some initiative.
 
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GMMichael

Guide of Modos
Drop in another group of heroes, who are really obnoxious, and who flaunt the rewards of their assertiveness in front of your passive PCs.

Or take a break and play some Munchkin.
 

The_Gneech

Explorer
I have looked into various "Lazy DM" and sandbox-style threads, including the one suggested, and I'm eager to adopt that style, or at least what parts of it I can. It certainly seems like a way to reduce the possibility of burnout!

The good news is, with switching to the 5E Starter Set and beginning a new game, combined with the discussions I've had with the players, is having a positive effect. They're still following one obvious plot-hook monomanically and ignoring the rest (i.e., rescuing Gundren Rockseeker), but it is at least a plot they're following of their own accord rather than having me assign it to them, and I'll take that for a start. :)

-The Gneech :cool:
 

Piratecat

Sesquipedalian
I rely heavily on positive conditioning, especially when gaming. Basically, you're clicker-training (see Karen Pryor's "Don't Shoot the Dog") your players. Have you considered this approach? For instance, we use hero points in our superhero games to reward the kind of behavior we want to see more of, and the result is a glorious 4 hours of hilarity and Golden Age heroism.
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
I rely heavily on positive conditioning, especially when gaming. Basically, you're clicker-training (see Karen Pryor's "Don't Shoot the Dog") your players. Have you considered this approach? For instance, we use hero points in our superhero games to reward the kind of behavior we want to see more of, and the result is a glorious 4 hours of hilarity and Golden Age heroism.

So what you're saying is that you should treat your players like puppies?
 


Janx

Hero
Bluntly, sure! Feed regularly, reward great behavior, ignore bad behavior, set them up to win.

I assume, it is still possible to snatch failure from the Jaws of Success? Presumably by playing really dumb/badly?

Though it's a bit of negative conditioning, I'd be inclined to think that if there are 3 plot hooks and the player chooses to do absolutely nothing (as in ignores all 3 AND doesn't pursue their own thing) that one of those plot hooks should fail because no NPC adventurer took them up.

I would posit, that in the 3 hook situation, if the players take up one of them, NPC parties take care of the other two. So you never penalize the party for making a choice in these cases. Do penalize the party for failing to take any kind of action.

I'd be inclined to wipe out half a city (where the player's house is) if they truly sit in the bar all day for a gaming session.
 

Piratecat

Sesquipedalian
Janx, I'd do the same. Choices have consequences, but you don't want to encourage analysis paralysis. You DO want to discourage non-action. I like the idea of consequences in that case.

Stupid question, Gneech. Have you guys had a group meeting where you say, for the love of all that is holy, this is driving me nuts?
 

The_Gneech

Explorer
Stupid question, Gneech. Have you guys had a group meeting where you say, for the love of all that is holy, this is driving me nuts?

It wasn't as formal as that, but I did have one-on-one discussions with the players who I thought likely to be influenced by such a thing, and I think it's helped. Here's the context:

  • Player One: Loves gaming more than life itself. Likes to bounce around like a pinball breaking things and get a lot of attention. Would be a good party leader, except totally fixated on self. Dream character is "rogue who could get away with anything including murder because he's gosh darn likeable" (except freezes up when asked "So what do you say to the NPC?"), but failing that will take whatever enable him to do huge piles of damage. Proactive, yes, but not a team player.
  • Player Two: Super-shy, flinchy, fearful of everything. Absolutely hates being in the spotlight or being forced to do things like talk to NPCs. When asked what's his character's background, replies, "I don't know, coming up with that is your job." The opposite of proactive, but does still support the group when the chips are down.
  • Player Three: Always wants to play outlier support characters or wacky sidekicks (a gnoll cleric, a kitsune alchemist, a human monk in a tuxedo and bowler hat who's the paladin's butler), but is generally good about making things happen. Very aware of tropes and latches on to them immediately, even if they're not really there. Is willing to lead if required, but prefers to be the right-hand man.
  • Player Four: Is there for the social gathering. Used to enjoy playing rogues because they got to do interesting not-fighty things, but is largely tired of them now, too. Takes whichever is free of rogue or cleric in the party but has no real feelings about it either way. Has also been the leader occasionally (in a SF game was the ship captain), but would also prefer to be support. Or to play Ticket to Ride instead.

So part of the problem is that there's no natural leader (other than me– when the pinball is the DM, I am pretty much always the player who takes initiative). Pinball doesn't like to lead because he wants to be subverting authority, not be the authority. Flinchy will walk away from the table if put into any kind of a leadership position. Oddball can and does lead, but keeps trying to escape from it. Social will lead if put into that position as part of the game's premise, but is a manager IRL and doesn't care for it there, so I don't want to inflict it on her in the context of a game she's only lukewarm on playing to begin with.

In re: the proactivity problem, I spoke to Oddball and Social, who were sympathetic and who really were the ones I was most bothered by their blank stares when I received them before. Pinball's character for the new game is an arrogant "the rest of the party is my staff" type, which actually could work out well. Flinchy is never going to be a mover and shaker, it's just not in his nature, but he's taken the role of party scout in this game, which has the unexpected side-effect of giving him the spotlight fairly often– but only in the role of gathering and reporting intelligence, which doesn't require him to make any decisions and therefore suits him surprisingly well.

The previous game was set in Eberron, particularly Sharn, and I think some of the problem may have been that it was all just too big for them. Pinball's brute rogue wanted to go hang out with the thieves' guild and bust heads, Flinchy's summoner wanted to hide in the undercity and contemplate the multiverse, Oddball's alchemist wanted to pursue her alchemy and craft things, and Social's House Medani perception-specialist scout wanted to do whatever YOU want to do. After a few sessions of trying to get the characters to work together organically (giving them a shared past during the Last War, etc.), I finally gave up and moved to the "Here are the jobs at the Adventurer's Guild, pick one" model, and even that left them unable to make a decision.

In the last session of that game, I had decided "Okay, I'm running Tears at Bitter Manor, they start the adventure talking to the retired adventuring party." And they happily hopped onto the plot railroad and followed it, but I was not enjoying it. Even though I had adventure prep for at least one more session ready to go, when it came to game night, I just didn't want to do it and bowed out two weeks in a row.

Over those two weeks I spoke about it to Social, who said, "It sounds to me like you just really don't want to play that game any more," which was certainly true, but I had no idea what else to try (and I didn't want to just "not game"). So I started looking into the 5E Starter Set and reading up on sandbox gaming models, both successful and not so. Liking what I saw, I started running that, just for something to do.

When the first session of that was done, Oddball was like "Yeah, this was fun, but I have stuff I wanted my Eberron character to do." (My initial reaction to that was "Well why didn't you say that three weeks ago???" but I restrained the outburst. ;) ) I spoke to him privately later to find out what sort of things those had been, but also about the whole being burned out and bummed out by needing to be conductor of the plot train all the time. Although there was no explicit conclusion to that discussion, I think he was making an effort to provide more input in the following session of the Starter Set game. :)

Phew! More than I actually had in mind to post, but it was cathartic to write it down, anyway. ;)

In re: the whole clicker-training thing, I'm going to look into awarding inspiration for such things. Although so far Flinchy has a point of inspiration and hasn't spent it yet...

-The Gneech :cool:
 

Rune

Once A Fool
Speaking of which, I've had tremendous success rewarding players with Paizo's Plot Twist Cards.

Just tell them to use the mechanical effects as inspiration and jump in with something related to the card's theme whenever they want. When in doubt, let them go big; it should be game-changing, after all.
 

Wild Gazebo

Explorer
I've had success a couple of times getting the party to create an organization...or 'group' during character creation instead of individual characters. This eliminated lone wolf and gonzo types unless they truly brought something to the group. The one time that springs to mind was actually for an Eberron game wherein they were a adventuring group for hire with their own home base, budget, stockpile of equipment, investors, and clients. They started at 5th lvl and had a list of magical items they could spend their budget on during character creation for the group (not individuals) and they elected a leader to make binding decisions during conflict. It worked really well. Thought I should mention it.
 

steenan

Adventurer
What I do is gathering players' ideas and building the situation in game around them.

So instead of designing a situation and wondering how to make players interested in it, I take players' input (their characters' goals, motivations, relations, weaknesses) and focus the game on them. Players get what they are interested in, what they put in their characters.

It's much easier to be proactive when one faces a situation they care about.
 

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