Engaging Your Players – Put Down the Sword

Every time I prep for our games I’m struck with a familiar question – do I keep doing what I’m doing or do I give my murder hobos more chances to flex their muscles and do what most tabletop parties do best?

More often than not we end up going an entire session with no combat. Sometimes we’ll go a couple of sessions. Thankfully, I’ve heard no complaints from my players. Part of that has to be that everyone comes to the table with different reasons to play – refining the ability to find the perfect pun for any given situation, viewing our game as an elaborate comedy improv session, or even being married to the DM and being required to chronicle everything.

I can get away with ‘no combat sessions’ with my current group, but my previous group didn’t have quite the attention span. You need to know your players, but this isn’t a post about that tricky topic. It’s about how to engage your players.

Telling a good story

The narrative aspect of tabletop gaming is the first thing that comes to mind. I love writing, but I have little experience writing actual fiction. Most of my experience comes from writing a story for my games. This, to me, is an outlet for that creative energy. I get to spend time with people discussing their characters (and seeing how their own lives influence those characters) while creating my own characters and complex, moving, breathing world. I get to tell stories, and take the expectations of my players and flip them upside down. I get to watch their jaws drop when they find out what they believed was true had been a lie or a misunderstanding.

Sure, I write the characters and the world, but when we play, those fictional characters come alive. They develop personalities, stretched beyond what I initially created. They find their voices and become important. They don’t do so because of me, they do so because of my players – and it’s a joy to experience.

As a result of that joy, my players remain engaged. They are learning things about the world, about the other characters, about each other, and most importantly about themselves. I’m not just telling my story, I’m helping them tell theirs. The world exists outside of them, but they are important little knots in my weave, and they are central to how I want to tell my stories.

Morality… in D&D?

The second aspect of our game that I believe keeps them engaged (and is NOT for every group) is the moral discussions that seem to pop up. I’m a massive fan of a good villain and believe every villain should have solid, understandable motivation for doing what they do. The inevitable result of me loving relatable villains? My players questioning before they kill someone.

I get the sense from my players that they don’t fully know what is right or wrong (which makes me so incredibly happy). Clearly, things are happening in the world that they don’t completely understand, but we’ve had discussions recently, in character, about justifications for killing – when is it permitted? Whether or not sacrificing a few for the greater good of all is acceptable, and how to determine the right course of action when no path seems right.

I’m giddy just thinking about it. We’re discussing deep, philosophical and moral questions – in a game of make-believe in my living room! And we’re all adults over 25! My players aren’t just your stereotypical murder hobos – they’re nuanced and complex, with histories and internal struggles. There is nothing greater to witness as a DM than that. Nothing.

Sometimes I facilitate these conversations, but other times they take it on themselves. One time things went sideways and a fight went quite differently than I’d written it. It ended in an almost three-hour conversation about whether or not to kill the prisoner, especially as more and more information came out.

That prisoner is still alive and traveling with the party now as a matter of fact. That night I got to sit back as my players constantly told me ‘Barabara, earmuffs!’ while debating the merits of killing this person based on what she’d revealed, or whether or not she was simply doing what she believed was right. Looking back, I see that debate as a kind of stage setting for our game – they weren’t murder hobos and this wasn’t a ‘murder everything’ kind of tabletop game.

Keeping it personal

Finally, and I’ve alluded to this already, but our game is deeply personal. One of our party members lost their mother since we’ve started playing. We spent some time working out what his character’s in-game mother is like and he stated the experience has been cathartic. I get the honor of honoring his mother in our silly little game and giving him a place to process some of what he’s going through. I even have some surprises in store for him here in a few months.

I get to be a part of that. That’s special. Our game is important, even if just to us.

Can you tell I love what I get to do? Don’t ever let someone tell you tabletop gaming is for children, and if you’ve never gotten to experience something like this? I hope you find a group one day.

So there we go, just a few reasons why I can get away with minimal combat in our campaign. Now that my players have figured out how to ask themselves the tough questions, I think it’s time to shake things up and change the status quo. The calm before the storm is coming to an end very, very soon.

~ Brandt

Photo by Ian Gonzalez on Unsplash

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