How to Transform Passive Players Into Ones Who Seize the Day


RPT GM D echoes a sentiment I’ve heard from many GMs lately in my workshops and inbox: players are not seizing the plot and initiating gameplay.

Instead, the GMs are doing the heavy lifting. Yet, despite carpet bombing plot hooks and poking the party with sharp irons — creating extra work and stress behind the screen in the process — players remain passive.

Now, nothing beats a direct conversation out-of-character about any frustrations you’re having with your group. Approach the subject respectfully, without finger-pointing, and listen intently. I’d make this your first approach. Clear communication solves many problems.

In addition, here are some thoughts about additional things you can try if you’re in this tough situation as well.

First, let’s chat quickly about reasons why your players might not be taking the lead:

Problems

Fear of Consequences. Players worry the “wrong” decision could make everyone else mad at them.

Overwhelm. Analysis paralysis from too many choices. Check out Study #1 here — the famous Jam Experiment,

Incomplete Information. When the player Fog of War is too tight, it’s impossible to make an informed decision or educated guess.

Group Consensus is Hard. When there’s no party leader or natural leader in a group, no one steps up to drive things forward or even express opinions sometimes to avoid conflict.

Don’t Know the Rules. Players cannot imagine how to execute because they don’t grasp the means to do so. Alternatively, too much rules fudging erodes their ability to assess mechanical solutions.

Bored. It takes a lot of energy to re-engage and participate when you’re not excited and already interacting.

Foiling the GM. Conscientious players and people-pleasers will worry too much about derailing our plans.

Contrarians. Some people have well-muscled critical thinking but choose to express things as limitations and negative framing, causing the group to doubt themselves or debate too much on edge cases.

Social Anxiety. People fear public speaking more than death. Before Toastmasters, I was petrified when speaking up in a meeting full of strangers or authorities.

Video Game Mindset. New TTRPG players might be expecting to be led down a path.

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Approaches

In identifying the major reasons players remain passive, I bet you’ve already started getting ideas on solutions.

Again, the best first step is to chat with your players. In addition, you might also consider these approaches:

Fear of Consequences. Let players know that there are no wrong choices per se, and all choices will lead to interesting outcomes. While foolish choices could have negative consequences, sometimes they are necessary as learning experiences. Go easy on the party at first until they have learned some great lessons.

Overwhelm. Adopt the lesson of limited choices from the Jam Experiment. Present a maximum of three choices, or help the party boil their options down to two or three. I often do this via NPCs, but out-of-character works too.

Incomplete Information. Yes, provide more clues and hints, each getting stronger as the party continues to dither. However, also drop out of character and ask, “If you could cast wish right now for any piece of information to help you reach a quick decision, what would it be?”

Answers will help you learn what stumps your players (such as lateral thinking or determining urgencies), helping you create more robust clues and hints in the future.

Group Consensus is Hard. Ask players to choose a decision-making methodology. For example, voting after a 5-minute discussion, rolling a die for it, or designating a party leader.

Don’t Know the Rules. Be consistent with rulings and how you make them. Offer suggestions about what rules are relevant. Create player cheat sheets. Coach on troublesome rules between sessions.

Bored. Create urgency. Offer great descriptions. If on VTT, use these tips to increase engagement. And try these techniques for maintaining player interest.

Foiling the GM. If players really can foil your plans and ruin your fun, give them guard rails. I’ve done this in the past by advising them directly where dead ends are, or what direction the high intelligence and high wisdom characters think is best. Otherwise, let them know your world and campaign will respond to whatever decisions they make and to not worry about foiling you.

Contrarians. Respectfully call out edge cases as non-issues. “You bring up a great point, Sandy. In this situation, your characters feel that won’t happen. So you can probably close off this area of concern in your planning.” Also, use NPCs to reframe negatives into constructive positives.

Social Anxiety. Put on your facilitator hat and use table initiative to poll every player frequently for quick thoughts and check-ins. Do not force first-person roleplay, but do encourage third-person or descriptive approaches. Sometimes written notes build verbal confidence over time.

Video Game Mindset. In Session 0 or later, describe your GMing style and your expectations on player agency and involvement. Clearly signal interactive moments, perhaps by outlining the best choices. “Gang, it’s over to you now to decide your route. You can take the pass and maybe get hit by bandits. Or you can fly over the mountains but the roc might reappear. And sailing is a good option, but remember the pirates. Overall, riding through the pass seems least risky but will take the longest. You must choose now.”

I hope these tips help, D.

Our hobby is amazing because it’s so open-ended and collaborative. With a human behind the screen, it adds a dynamic that might confuse or intimidate players.

So, practice good communication and don’t be afraid to have direct discussions out-of-character. Those will become less necessary as everyone gets to know each other, your GMing style, and the rewarding opportunities for interaction that your campaign has to offer.

Tabletop RPG is the best game in the world!

Cheers,
Johnn
roleplayingtips.com
https://discord.gg/6MxTRAqQ76
Have more fun at every game!

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