When Players Are Black Holes

A game master in my GM coaching group expressed some deep frustrations recently in the private Discord. With their permission, I’ll share them with you now:

I’ve been thinking about the “pain points” in my game and the “What do I want out of the game?”

  • I want to run a game where we explore the games my players’ interests are in.
  • I have players that are unwilling to provide feedback to direct questions or express any interest in what to do more than show up.
  • We play over Discord and one player will not play with video, so I only have word choice and tone of voice to read what they’re enjoying and not.
  • I want to spend time with my friends roleplaying and I want to be invested in a game that is incrementally improving in its “fun.”

A knee-jerk response would be to find a new group. But let’s take that off the table, no pun intended, and explore some options for our GM.

I’m going to share a few of my thoughts, but then I would love to hear back from you if you’ve been in this type of situation and fixed it. What worked for you?

1. Play to Win

When I GM, I run to win. But it’s not what you think.

My definition of personal GMing victory includes things like:

  • Did I have fun (and not at my players’ expense)?
  • Did my prep play out in strong fashion?
  • Did I give each player chances to Rule of Cool?
  • Did I progress the overall plot and each character’s arc?
  • Did my encounters achieve my GM design goals?
  • Was I a masterful game master?

And so on. These are all intrinsic motivations, and ones I can control. I cannot control if my players have fun. That’s up to them.

With my Referee Hat on, I don’t care if my players have fun. That’s not what that role’s about. But with my Leadership, Design, and Friend Hats on, I do care. I care a lot. Yet, I can only build, prep, and run to give players a chance to participate and lean into the game. The rest is up to them.

Therefore, I do not hinge my victory conditions on my players. I focus only on the levers and dials I control.

So my first bit of advice for our GM is to build, prep, and run what you find incredibly fun. Your enthusiasm, great designs, and GMing spirit will become infectious.

However, there’s another layer to this. Returning to the last question above, do you know what mastery is?

  • Do you know when you’ve built a masterful world, campaign, adventure, or encounter?
  • Do you know when you’ve prepared masterful NPCs, locations, and treasure?
  • Do you know when you’ve done a masterful job behind the screen at a session?

A master craftsman knows when THEY have done an awesome job, regardless of what the customer says. They know they haven’t done a perfect job, because nothing is perfect. But they do know what quality entails.

Therefore, I’ll end by saying that as each of us pursues our own GMing mastery goals and definitions of victory. We should embrace and relish the adventurous road we’re taking to achieve them.

Worry less about outcomes except as teaching moments, and instead lean into your exciting and challenging GMing journey. Your players are blessed to be along for the ride.

2. Set Up Your Diabolical Laboratory

To me, every encounter I build or improvise is a hypothesis.

With my Game Designer Hat on, I combine my setting, game system, and plot to serve up interesting situations for my group to play out. Then I see what happens. Then I learn from that and make a new hypothesis.

My process is simple:

  1. Define the problem statement
  2. Create a hypothesis around the solution
  3. Design a test that will teach me if my solution was effective

I cover this in my Master of the Master of the 5 Room Dungeon Workshop in the following way:

  1. Wield my Treasure Table, and Player and Character Dossiers, to Plot my 5 Room Dungeon.
  2. Formulate a Dramatic Question for every encounter in my 5 Room Dungeon, plus the 5RD itself, then Build each encounter out.
  3. Polish each “room” or encounter until it’s the best test I can drop into play.

Thus, I call this technique that I teach, Plot, Build, and Polish.

(By the way, I’ll be running another Master of the 5 Room Dungeon workshop this year. If you sign up here to get on the waiting list, you’ll get first chance at booking a seat. Only 30 seats will be available.)

The approach itself gives us our big win here.

Serve up encounters to properly test different kinds of gameplay and situations your players might enjoy. Then observe participation levels, enthusiasm, and character actions to learn what your players enjoy.

For example, do your players enjoy a scenario that slowly builds tension? Set up an adventure to test that and take notes as it plays out. If you get a positive response, try it again.

Over time, in your diabolical laboratory, you’ll get enough tests performed to learn what your players enjoy, even if they do not like answering your direct questions about that.

Participation trumps words.

3. Play From Your Players’ Perspective

The GM screen automatically sets us apart from our players. The players run their characters and we run everything else. We’re really playing a different game.

This often causes screen blindness. We think we’re serving up great gameplay, but it’s landing with players in a much different and unintended way.

So to better understand how our players are enjoying our sessions, we should join them on their side of the screen.

What I mean by this is to roleplay with them. How do we do this?

First, we can add NPCs to the party. Guides, spies, and companions. This lets us play in-character with our friends and see the game better from their perspective.

For example, when the players are noodling on what to do, you can join in on the conversation. But not with your Referee Hat on, but as a fellow party member who has a vested interest in things from the party’s perspective. Put on your Roleplayer Hat as an NPC invested in the outcome of the group’s decision.

Another way you can channel your players’ experience is solo play. Copy the characters’ sheets and play out a 5 Room Dungeon or encounter you’ve design. Use a GM Oracle, like Zorgon in Campaign Logger, to spur roleplay and secrets if desired.

Focus on peering through the lens of each character and player and how they’ll view the encounter. What are their choices? What are they interested in doing? What catches your attention while walking in their shoes?

Finally, evaluate your own GMing. Record a session (with player permission) then listen afterwards and consider things like:

  • Were your hooks clear and compelling?
  • Were your descriptions engaging and appealing?
  • For player questions, did you truly empathize and provide answers they sought, or were you pushing your GM agenda?
  • Did you play the hot potato game and give the mic back to your players a lot, or did you monologue?
  • What were your energy levels like? What were theirs?

While listening, also pay close attention to any player choices you offered or that came up organically. This might be the most important post-session evaluation step you can do. What choices did each player face at encounter start, in the middle, and in the final moments? How would you rate the quality or fun factor of those choices?

Without choices, there’s no game. Players become passive audiences. RPGs become just “role”. There’s no game, there’s no playing.

Before we burrow into what makes a choice high quality, let’s consider a few types of great choices players can make during a session so we’re on the same page here:

  • What should my character do?
  • How should my character perform their action?
  • What should my character say? (I feel this is often overlooked as a critical choice we can prompt.)
  • What does my character want from this situation?
  • Why does my character want this?

These are just a few examples, and they demonstrate levers and dials under our control for making gameplay incredibly interesting. By designing and improvising encounters that allow players to make such choices, we can make gameplay a ton of fun for everyone.

Ok, back to this: what is choice quality? A few questions you can answer while evaluating your session:

  • Did choices presented follow from previous player decisions and character actions, reinforcing a cause-and-effect dynamic in your game world?
  • How well did the choices connect to individual player interests, character motivations, and overarching campaign themes?
  • Were choices too straightforward, or did they warrant thoughtful consideration, strategy, and engagement?
  • Did players have enough information to understand the potential outcomes of their choices, or was their Fog of War too dense to navigate?
  • Were risks and rewards clearly communicated? As above, we want to peel back Fog of War enough so players can see interesting landscape ahead.
  • Did the choices make any difference to gameplay? Or did you just cast an illusion spell, making players realize their play didn’t really matter?

Most players show up to play a game. They want to roleplay a character, sure. But roleplay must come within the context of having interesting choices, else, as one GM put it recently, we’re just playing Barbie.

This concludes my three-tip series to help GMs who feel that they aren’t appreciated or getting enough feedback from players. When players are black holes, and we don’t know if they’re having fun, it can erode our confidence and desire to GM.

My advice is to:

  • Run what intrinsically motivates you. Your enthusiasm will infect everyone at the table, and you’ll stay excited regardless of any lack of feedback.
  • Test. Don’t go by what players say (or don’t say). Make every encounter a fun-factory hypothesis and sees how it plays out. Gameplay is the best feedback.
  • See their perspective. It’s hard to perform self-evaluation, but in the absence of direct player feedback, we can use our empathy to make course corrections to ensure everyone’s having more fun at every game.

Be a Fan of The Characters

I received some great responses, ideas, and tips to the series, When Players Are Black Holes:

Wizard of Adventure Gustavo:

I don’t play from their perspective. I learnt from PBTA games to be a fan of the characters. When you are a fan of the characters you want to see them succeed, but also you like to see them under pressure and overcoming it.

In other words, being a fan is sharing their triumphs, enjoying them playing, and making sure they have a challenge ahead.

Since I learnt that, I’m a lot more happy and enthusiastic while DMing, and you can feel it’s sometimes contagious.

Johnn: An excellent point. Being a fan of the characters means ensuring they live in interesting times. PBTA games also excel at failing forward — creating great gameplay when the dice roll against you, and we can take that approach in any campaign with any group of players. Thanks, Gustavo.

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RPT GM Jabmist:

Hello Johnn,

I have always found that having a GM-driven NPC in the party to be a problem.

My players get lazy. Any time they can’t all agree on a direction to go or an action to take, they turn to the NPC, and with a knowing nod ask, “But which way do YOU feel we should go?”

The only way I found out of this is if my party of wizards need a Tank, and “Gronk” shows up to be a meat shield. Gronk is not very intelligent, makes no decisions, and just wades in where he is told to go. (Not very GM driven.)

Any other NPCs, with intelligence and a hook into the GM’s head, becomes a crutch for the players.

Maybe my parties like to be railroaded, or maybe they make too many decisions out in the real world and are just looking for hack and slash escapism.

So my general feeling is: if the party is faced with too many decisions, or refuses to make a decision, I will slowly start limiting the options until we find a balance. Maybe my storyline should only have 2 options available at a time. Go left or go right.

Johnn: Thanks, Jabmist. I received several similar comments about GM NPCs taking over the party, players deferring to them too much, or the NPCs becoming too authoritative.

I like to make my NPCs imperfect, and their flaws lead the party to trouble. So players learn to factor in NPC advice or opinions, but still make their own calls.

That said, certain decisions are more fun or important than others. Hiring a local ranger to guide the party through the swamp is a smart party move. It gets them to the dungeon faster. And I can still toss in wandering encounters if I desire.

Another thought is that I use GM NPCs to provide hooks (why choice might be urgent, important, or rewarding) or remind the PCs about hook details they’ve forgotten or aren’t factoring into their discussion.

I hear you on decision fatigue. If signposting the best choices isn’t working, there’s no harm in reducing options and providing more guidance so the party hits your key encounters faster and more often..

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RPT GM Jeremy Brown:

(re: VTT players without cams.)

In all honesty, as someone who never has facial expressions and body language to work with, [voice] should be enough. If a person is excited, their breathing speeds up, they tend to be slightly louder, they often talk faster. All of those are non-expression cues to pay attention.

Further, if a player keeps trying to run a scene or keeps trying to take control of the scene, that tends to be a cue as well.

Johnn: Great tips, thanks Jeremy. I know you’re actively GMing these days. What do you do when one of your players goes quiet? You’ve mentioned your visual impairment in the past, so you must use voice to gauge things. Do you check in on quiet players every so often, not worry about it, chat after the session?

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RPT GM Nate:

As always, I learn from your responses and ideas. Ultimately, we can only control our own actions and decisions. As a GM, I create the most fascinating world I can for my players to explore. I create a natural area and consider how it might’ve been colonized. My world grows due to what I create and how my players interact with it. I use every tool I can including cool ideas that come from you and others like you.

However, I think you are missing an absolutely essential part of the situation. I believe that role-playing games are about relationships, and that the GM is not only the referee for the rules of the game, but also sets a tone and environment that should allow relationships to flourish among the characters and among the players.

As with the world itself, the players and GM all contribute to this, but also in parallel fashion. The GM has a lot of latitude for creating an environment of foster relationships.

The first thing I would do is share the reason that I am a GM. And it really doesn’t matter what reason that is as long as it’s authentically mine. In my case, like the person you are coaching, I GM to create fun and fascinating experiences for my players. I would make sure that all of my players understood that, and give them specific examples from the campaign.

I find that most players have similar goals to mine, and hearing this from me is helpful in moving forward. If their goals are drastically different than mine, someone else must change.

If I’m really honest, after decades of being a GM, I’m unlikely to shift away from wanting my players to have fun.

Knowing that my players are not responding to direct questions, I would ask more indirect questions. I would put out an anonymous survey with multiple-choice questions and opportunities to express more. At the very beginning of that survey would be my goals as a GM.

I think the comment you made about having fun, but not at my players’ expense, is a powerful one. This moves into the next thought I have on this situation, one of having a safe space.

As a GM, we have a significant amount of control over what the space of our game is like. Does it feel like we are battling the players? That sets a tone of battle amongst ourselves that is bound to fail.

Role-playing can be a very serious thing, but do we also allow ourselves to laugh? Maybe we break character because the situation is simply funny! When there is tension or direct animosity in a game, are we intentional and trying to create that safe space?

You’re right that we cannot control our players, actions, or feelings. We can’t make them respond to a survey. If they feel unsafe in their own skin, they probably will feel unsafe in our games.

I’m a teacher, and this is very much like the classroom. I can’t make anybody learn or feel safe. However, I can create an environment that fosters both of these things. I can laugh with my students and put beanbag chairs in the corners with nice lighting, and maybe a small table. I can take the time to get to know my students. I can make sure that they know that they are important to me and that I am there so they can learn and enjoy themselves in my classroom.

Of course, the GM deals with adults usually, not children, yet we do have similar opportunities to set the tone for our games and communicate with our players. I think this relational pie is absolutely essential to being a good GM. It’s also often neglected to the detriment of the joy of our games.

Johnn: Well said, Nate! Great thoughts there. I especially like sharing with players what you enjoy as a GM and championing yourself.

I did play from a beanbag chair once. Had bad dreams about being eaten by a gelatinous cube later that night. 🙂

Thanks again to everyone who wrote in for discussion. We can improve player enjoyment by:

  • Being a fan of the characters and cueing up challenges for them
  • Having NPCs help out by providing hooks or clarity
  • Observing player (inter)actions, and
  • Communicating our GMs goals and desires