They are playing the game, but they aren't engaged with it.
|And then Yog Sothoth arises! Guys... ugh, guys?|
Tip #1: Make Every NPC A Full Character
This is one that I use in my games, and it's something my players constantly comment on when I ask for feedback after a session. Because the world is populated by NPCs, but if you only give the important ones names, flaws, and stories of their own, then the bulk of the characters PCs interact with aren't going to be particularly engaging.
|Like Drake. He's in every bar the party goes to... but what happens if they talk to him?|
What I'm not suggesting you do is sit down and make a character sheet for every, single NPC the party comes across. However, try to make every NPC your players interact with interesting, and unique. It helps to keep a list of names and traits nearby, in case you need to make someone up on the fly. Because even if they're not important to your story, you can use them to draw the players into the world. Because no, it might not matter to your overarching plot that Simzi the tavern owner is on the verge of poverty, or that Drakkal the smith has a son who's away in the army, but those things make those characters more real. And they provide a hook that can draw players in. Especially if Simzi's plight speaks to the bard, who offers to perform for a few nights to draw in a crowd, or if Drakkal bonds with the fighter over having to leave family behind because your sword is needed elsewhere.
Most importantly, if players form relationships with NPCs, don't just forget about them! Keep them in the story, and use them to tie the PC organically to the world.
Tip #2: Incorporate The PCs' Stories Into The Plot
If your players have given you a character with a history and a backstory, they're not just bogging you down with additional stuff to read for your campaign; they're giving you a blueprint for how to engage their character in this campaign.
|Let's see here... missing father... well, we'll put you in the overlord's dungeon! There we go, motivation achieved!|
No matter how intriguing you find the overarching plot of your campaign, it will never hook your players as hard as if their goals are receiving personal attention. So kill two birds with one stone, and carve out niches in the game for the PCs' personal stories to get advanced.
For example, say one of your PCs is a fighter who's in deep to some loan sharks. As such, he stays on the move, and always has that debt lurking over his shoulder. Now, maybe that doesn't have anything to do with a plot about how an evil cult is stealing children... but you could fit it in there. Maybe the gang boss he owes a favor to had his daughter kidnapped, and he offers to wipe out the debt if the fighter brings back his little girl. So, in a single swoop, you've offered additional character motivation for taking on this arc, and you've incorporated the player's story into yours, giving them a personal stake in the matter.
You can even use this in the event that you need a DM PC (though I tend to recommend not using those on principle). For example, if your group's paladin is overwhelmed with healing duties, dispatch a member of his faith or order (assuming your paladin has a deity and/or an organization he belongs to). If no one has any trapfinding abilities in your party, maybe the sorcereress's older brother is a burglar in high standing in a thieves' guild, and he'd be willing to do a favor for his baby sister and her friends. Especially if he gets a cut of the loot.
You will always get more engagement when you make things personal to the PC. Which is why you should always get a backstory, and look for the hooks in it.
Tip #3: Show How The Player's Actions Are Affecting The World
I talked about this a little bit in Character Reputation In RPGs: The Small Legend, but this turns the question of reputation around and comes at it from the other end. Rather than asking what your PCs' reps are at the beginning of the game, ask what those reputations become as they advance through the plot, perform their deeds, and grow in power.
|The Cimmerian? Aye, I've heard of ya.|
As an example, say that during an orc raid on a town, your sorcerer cut loose with her most powerful spells. Not only did she seem to stop the raiders in their tracks, but she immolated their most powerful champion, due to a lucky crit. The question you should ask while that's going on is who saw her do that? And once you know who saw it, ask what they'll say about it to others.
This can take all kinds of twists and turns. Is a PC considered fearsome because of a particularly brutal fighting style, leading the common people to regard them with trepidation and nervousness? And what does the PC do to reinforce or change the narrative surrounding them? After all, it's hard to look like a hero when you wear black robes with silver skulls, and your spells take the form of shrieking wraiths the unique shade of green common to Disney villains... so does the necromancer try to change that impression, or does he just say the hell with it and embrace the title of the Taker of Souls?
Tip #4: Reward Them
Everyone loves rewards, and RPGs tend to be packed with them. However, as I said in All That Glitters Is Not Gold: Non-Monetary Rewards For Your RPG Party, just getting more money tends to lose its flavor in a big hurry. So, instead, take what I said earlier about making things personal, and apply it to the rewards you give your PCs.
|What's in the box?|
Now, in this instance, rewards aren't necessarily stuff, although that is an option. For example, say that a player goes to the effort of playing a faithful PC, even if they don't get divine magic from a patron. They're just a fighter, or a rogue, or a barbarian. Reward them for that attempt to engage with the world by giving them something in return. Maybe it's a sign from their goddess in a time of uncertainty, warning them of an upcoming ambush. Or maybe they find a weapon marked with their order's symbol whose magic comes alive in their hand, but not in someone else's.
Whatever the players are doing to interact positively with the world, give them a reward for it. If the rogue actually goes through the bartering process with a merchant, for example, offer to show them some special merchandise that might not be available in a town of that size under normal circumstances. If the barbarian carouses with a gang of toughs, arm-wrestling and drinking with them, then have them come to the party's aid if they're ambushed. Sometimes it's a short-term thing, sometimes it's a long-term one, but make it feel like their actions have real repercussions. That tends to keep people's head in the game.
Tip #5: Ask For Player Feedback
Something I do at my table that I learned from a friend and fellow DM is to have a wrap-up where you ask players a handful of questions. Typically they're, "What did you like?" "What did you learn?" and "What do you want to see more of?"
|As trifectas go, it isn't that bad.|
No matter how brilliant or well-intentioned your attempts to engage your players are, it's a fool's errand to try to do it in a vacuum. So ask them what they like, what they don't like, and figure out what they want to see from you in the future. Get some ideas from them, and then work together to make engagement happen. Trust me, it's a lot easier to do it if you have an open communication channel.
Well, that's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday installment. Hopefully it helped some frustrated DMs out there, and it got your gears turning. For more from yours truly, check out my Vocal archive, or stop by the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio where I help out from time to time. If you want to stay on top of all my latest releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, it's the support of readers like you that helps me do what I do here. So consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or dropping some change in The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. Every little bit helps!