Ask Your Players How They Feel

You're at the table, things are going well, or maybe they're going bad again. Someone is building a dice tower, or checking their phone, or just not saying much and waiting for the combat to start. This may be one player, it may be all of them. Most groups will have a mix, characters that are constantly taking the spotlight and ones that never are. Your group may have a DM that drives everything along and drags the players through a module, or maybe the really talkative player has totally seized control.

At the table

You know what would be really nice? If everyone was engaged, their characters interacting and bantering. Everyone is helping drive the story forward, with little side-stories where one character is the focus and resolving something from their past that weave in and out of the grander narrative. Where upon reaching the BBEG (Big Bad Evil Guy) every character has had a struggle, a connection, and a reason for being there. How could we begin to accomplish this?

Ask those players how their character feels, right now, about both the situation and the people they're with. What does their character think about the situation? What kind of thoughts or plans are they having in response? What do they think about their fellow party members, how might this affect them? Do this regularly, as situations change and events advance. Make it a regular part of your sessions to get the players to monologue a bit about their thoughts and motivations. Especially your quieter players. You may have some that already do this in-character, so make sure to make time for those that aren't.

Explain your thoughts

A good story happens in acts, or beats, with each character going through their own arc and transformation. They can all be distilled down simply: you have a need, you go and search for it, find it, take it, and return having changed. Both the overall narrative and each individual character can and should go through this arc, including the players. You cannot go through this arc, however, if the audience doesn't understand that character's thoughts and reasoning. Books do this through narration and TV/movies through dialogue and cinematography. D&D exists somewhere in-between, since OOC you can directly receive narration of a character's thoughts, and IC through in-character dialogue and actions.

Asking a player out-of-character what their feelings are helps to start this process. Having them describe how they feel about others helps those at the table (in this case, the audience) understand that character's relationships. Asking about the situation helps frame their needs and motivations. As this continues, it will eventually graduate into narration and a complete character arc.

A bit of strife

At first, you may get short or incomplete answers, terse responses, not taking it seriously. That's normal. It's not so much about their answers, but putting them into a frame where they're explaining their character's reasoning in a way that others can understand and relate to. Even the most evil loner kleptomaniac rogue is operating on a logic that makes sense to them. Good stories are often about bad, flawed characters, but what's important is that you the reader understand their logic and believe it makes sense. Just in this case the reader is everyone else at the table.

In fact you want a little strife, a little refusal on their part. Change is a difficult process both in stories and reality because it's supposed to be, there has to be some big stakes involved to shake up the status-quo.

If your players start talking about what their character thinks, encourage it! Don't interrupt, even if there's something more pressing going on. Probe them to elaborate or explain certain things, either in character or out of character. They may want to talk in-character about their reasoning, and you should respond in kind to encourage them to continue. They may want to talk out of character to hash out their ideas, and you should present them with more info or prompts to work off of. The key is to get them thinking out loud about their thought process rather than internally.

Buddy cops

This is a part where you may have to “break meta” a bit and avoid shutting them down even if it's what your character would do or you think their idea is bad. This just teaches them to keep quiet in the future. Instead, engage them in-character in light hearted debate – you know, without coming to “deadly consequences.” The DM can also encourage them by slowing down the stakes a bit. If they're dealing with a trap or are in the middle of combat, relax the time tension slightly and let them banter without consequence. You can keep things exciting by having things keep happening to break up the chatter a bit or guide it in a new direction, but you shouldn't- for instance- make them lose turns because they're spending too much time talking. Again, even if it's a time-sensitive thing. Most movies and shows will “slow down” time in a scene to give the characters enough time to speak.

Think of some of your favorite scenes in a movie, or parts of a book. Most often the focus is on the characters. Either they're doing and saying something cool, or they're coming to a major realization about their situation and themselves. This is the big pay-off, when the stakes have reached their peak and the character's own motivations and problems are coming to a major clash. This is where you'll really start to see the benefit of this technique, is when you start to see the reaction of all the characters at the table, and the investment of the players behind them.

This is often the most unexpected part, where things can go really off the rails. Perhaps a character snaps and does something dangerous, with everyone else at the table realizing how everything has logically lead up to this moment, based on what they know about their thoughts and motivations. Don't be afraid to plunge into really chaotic waters. Granted, you're playing D&D so you're probably very used to this sort of thing by now. You also know these are the most memorable moments, where you'll talk about them for weeks to come. The difference between an infuriating moment and an amazing one is everyone else being on board, and to reach that point there needs to be communal understanding.


Upon applying all this and helping guide everyone at the table through it, you may also have the players start to impact the story more. Whole sessions can be about one character's trials or struggles without any sort of goblin king needing to come cause trouble. When you have these multiple concurrent story-lines happening as part of the DM's greater narrative, the nature of your campaign may end up changed, but it should be a change for the better. You may think engagement is a player problem, but really invested characters are also invested players.

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