From plot inconsistencies to rule clarifications, there are a ton of pressure points that have popped up over the course of every campaign I’ve run, but for the most part any obstacle in a TTRPG can be addressed if given enough time. We can take a brief pause to look up a rule for more clarification or we can stop to discuss how a plot point is at odds with some previously established lore, but the one thing we can’t easily address is a player’s level of investment in what’s happening in the game, and that can be a problem.
For the uninitiated, I’ve been running my players through an Eberron campaign that started with their characters living normal lives in the big city, but has evolved into exploring the Mournlands, a zone of wild magic where incomprehensible horrors exist. I tried to make it a point to not just throw bigger and badder enemies at them in an attempt to emphasize how bad this place is, cause that’s not really interesting or apt to what the area is about. Instead, I’ve genuinely tried to put them in challenging positions where they have to really consider their actions and choices, attempting to make situations less binary than they’ve been in the past.
Despite my best efforts however, when I asked them how their characters were holding up in a mental capacity, I was a little disappointed when some of the answers I got boiled down to, “I’m good.” Really? You’re just fine? I’ve been hitting your characters harder than ever, both in terms of battles and narrative content, but you’re good? Sure that’s deflating to find that my story and world-building haven’t done the trick, but maybe your characters are genuinely taking this whole situation in stride. Fine.
But that investment isn’t just limited to a player engaging with the content of the story, it’s also a question of if their character has any additional motivations outside of just, “defeating the bad guy.” We rarely explore all of the little lifestyle stuff that TTRPGs have to offer, nor does anyone really engage in a vice or follow up on personal quests, but that may just be a result of us having limited time from session to session. I get the idea of not wanting to feel like you’re monopolizing the session with some stuff that isn’t intrinsic to the plot, but some of the most interesting and memorable stuff happens in those moments. My players are more or less tethered to one another and act as a hivemind rather than individuals, although to be fair to them, there isn’t a whole lot else to do aside from experience anguish and suffering inside of the Mournlands.
I don’t want to sound overly negative because I do love my group, they just happen play the game a little differently than I was expecting. I think that part of it is the aforementioned short amount of time we have to play, and the other factor is that I don’t like juggling clocks and timers. Because of that, it ultimately allows them to pocket a bunch of quests and tackle them later like in a video game without much consequence, but that’s something I’m working to fix.
I also think it’s an issue of playing too meta. They know that splitting the party is dangerous and tend not to do it, especially considering I’ve used it against them before. I try to pull them apart from time to time, not just to hurt them, but because I want them to have a chance to act like fully realized characters with their own motivations and goals. I also think it makes for a more satisfying experience when you have some sort of emotional attachment to your character, but maybe that’s just me.
But maybe they are attached to their characters and are experiencing all of these things in their own way. This could be a situation where I’m expecting one thing and getting frustrated because I’m not getting the response I want. Regardless of how they react in-game, they keep showing up and keep wanting to play and make progress, so something must be clicking for them.
This all comes form a place of being hyper-critical of myself and I 100% recognize that. I desperately want to make sure that everyone is having fun, and in my mind that equates to them being invested in the story, their characters, the world and everything else that I’m invested in as the GM. But that isn’t how it works and it’s unrealistic to expect them to care as much as I do about this game that I spend way more time thinking about than they do.
To circle all the way back around to the thesis of this article, how do we address player investment when running a campaign? Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s a clean answer to that. I think, like most elements of TTRPGs, it depends on the people you’re playing with. Simply asking upfront, “what kind of game are you looking to play” might garner some actionable information, but your players might not know what it is they actually want until you’re several sessions into a campaign.
A player might come into a campaign thinking they want tons of role-playing opportunities or that they want to play a character that excels outside of combat, but they might find out that they really just wanna roll some dice and do bigger ouchies to their enemies, which is fine if they communicate that to you.
Like most relationships, communication is so critical to making sure everyone’s needs in a campaign are met. But when they don’t make a distinction one way or another about what they prefer, you’re left in this nebulous zone where you’re just hurling spaghetti at the wall, not even hoping that something sticks, but hoping that they’ll be somewhat interested in one of the piles that’s formed on the ground. A flawless metaphor, for sure.
Ultimately what I’m saying is that I keep trying to decipher what it is my players like so I can do more of that, but I feel like I’m misinterpreting what it is that they want more of and just try any and everything I can think of. The truth probably is that they just like the whole of the experience and are just happy to be playing at all, which is a heartwarming sentiment if true. But if that’s the case, that means they enjoy the fact that I have a small crisis every single time we play, which results in me second guessing myself constantly.
So maybe they just enjoy my suffering.