The Alexandrian

Question: What do you do if you have players who refuse to engage the game? You’ve prepped a bunch of interesting content, but they aren’t biting at any of the scenario hooks.

I have occasionally run into individual players who do this. (Sometimes for legitimate reasons.) The most common variant is, “I set up a safe house and hole up.” The second most common variant is, “I want to be a special snowflake and go off by myself.”

The latter don’t tend to be a problem for me any more because (a) I actually enjoy running split parties, (b) I balance the spotlight time among players not groups, and (c) I don’t run “this is your path” scenarios. So the behavior isn’t disruptive and the “special snowflake” loner actually finds that they end up having LESS attention because they’re not getting penumbra spotlight from other players. So it either works out fine or they adjust their behavior.

The former is often perceived by the players as a legitimate recourse: “Oh, fuck. Let’s go hide.” Resolving that course of action simply requires the GM to practice good pacing habits. You need to move the action ahead to the next interesting action, which basically boils down to one of two things:

1. What do you want to do?
2. Something happens to you.

And this, ultimately, also goes back to the original problem: You’ve got something boring happening in the game world. That’s not really a problem. It just means you need to skip ahead to the next interesting bit. And, ultimately, that boils down to either:

1. Asking, “What’s the next interesting thing that you do?”
2. Looking ahead and seeing what the next interesting thing that is going to happen TO them is.

You should be able to look at your scenario notes and pretty quickly figure out which option applies. If you can’t, you’ve probably prepped your scenario wrong. Stop prepping plots.

If the PCs have simply failed to engage the scenario in the first place, that problem is ALSO solved by simply saying: “What do you want to do?”

The only way this should become an intractable problem is if they keep choosing to do things that you find boring. (This is the most likely version of the problem, since players generally pursue activities that they find entertaining.) If that’s the case, you need to have a frank meta-game conversation about what kind of game you can run that EVERYONE would enjoy.

Where the problem can be particularly frustrating is if they’re taking actions which they think should be resulting in entertaining activities, but because of how you’re interpreting those actions as the GM the results are boring for everybody. When this is happening it can be difficult to diagnose exactly what’s going wrong. But, again, the solution is the frank meta-game discussion.

Taking a further step back, you can also address this issue by encouraging the creation of characters who are (a) highly motivated to go out and do interesting things and (b) who have strong connections to the world around them (which can be used to motivate them).

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4 Responses to “Random GM Tip – Players Who Don’t Bite”

  1. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Thanks for posting this. My players as of late have got into the habit of splitting up. One is a ninja and so often wants to undertake late night stealthy missions.

    You are really great about deep linking to old articles you have written that are relevant to your posts. I actually somehow have never read your Art of Pacing series, so thank you for bringing it to my attention!

  2. bygrinstow says:

    I am just become aware that for some players, the question “What do you want to do?” isn’t taken as straight forwardly as it could be, and in their head it can sound like “Why haven’t you guessed yet what it is I want you to do?”.

    If they are used to very linear plots, and not used to having the freedom to pursue whatever they want to pursue, any slowing of the game seems down to either the GM not providing enough clues or their own not putting the clues together in the right way in order to know what’s obviously next.

    Sometimes it can be absolutely worthwhile to state what may otherwise seem obvious. “You can do whatever you like — that’s the adventure.”

  3. Justin Alexander says:

    Very good point, bygrinstow. This is something I also mentioned in the Railroading Manifesto: Players who get conditioned to being railroaded produce really weird behavior patterns.

    One of my worst experiences as a GM (described over here in detail) was the direct result of not recognizing that my new players had been essentially broken by the railroading of their previous GM. Now I’m more cognizant of that and, you’re right, the quickest corrective is to just explain it in the meta-game.

    @Jonathan: Thanks! You might find it rewarding to scan through the Gamemastery 101 page, which lists all of my major GMing advice posts here at the Alexandrian.

  4. Michael Pureka says:

    I agree with this article as far as it goes, but I think it misses one of the fundamental reasons players do the “I dig a hole and hide in it” thing. Namely, that the players aren’t thinking at all about doing what would be “fun for them” but are instead doing what they think is the “smartest” or “least likely to get them killed” or sometimes, but not all that often “What they think their character would do.”

    So they’re not choosing based on fun; They are, in fact, deliberately choosing something that sounds boring, because they don’t want to die. This is also what can fuel the “take an incredibly long amount of time to solve a problem in the safest, most boring way possible.” plan. And this behavior seems harder to deal with because just dangling something fun in front of them doesn’t really work, and if something happens to them, it can cause them to dig in deeper.

    Admittedly, the solution for this is the aforementioned “Have a discussion about it out of game” but it can help to understand where the players are coming from.

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