Passive Players: Do only the boring get bored?

Some players seem to be of the opinion that they are doing the DM a favor by being at the gaming table. This is not necessarily surprising. We live in a service culture that is constantly trying to sell us something. We sit in judgment with arms crossed, waiting to be impressed. When whatever offering does not live up to our high expectations, we move on to the next without a second thought. We have seen better. Not impressed.

However, there are not an abundance of good gamemasters in the world. It’s hard to be the Dungeon Master. Rewarding and fun but difficult. Most people don’t want to do it. Many openly acknowledge that they cannot do it. In any group of players, there is usually one person “willing” to DM and the rest don’t even consider the possibility.

So, why then is the prevailing attitude that the gamemaster is there to entertain the players? In many gaming groups, it is a performer-audience relationship between the gamemaster and players. As a frequent gamemaster, I find this idea ridiculous. My role as gamemaster is to make the game possible, not to be some kind of dancing monkey. I play as much to be entertained as to entertain.

I believe this idea of gamemaster as entertainer arose as a reaction to some terrible gamemasters. There is no question that a really bad gamemaster can ruin the game for everyone. Many articles were written about how to not be a bad gamemaster. Among ideas presented was the thought that players should be “entertained.” This is fine advice for the would-be gamemaster. My concern is the negative effect this advice has had on many players who took to heart the idea that they are participating in order to be entertained.

Roleplaying is a collaborative effort. You are not a passive audience member. You are part of the action. Ideally, the players are driving the action but more often than not I find that they are reacting to situations in order to get them moving.

I believe this attitude may be more of a cultural rather than individual trait. In the United States, we are so used to someone trying to sell us on something almost 24 hours per day that it is natural to assume the role of the judge.

I think many players are afraid to act because of the consequences. This can be the result of bad gamemastering. If you punish your players every time they take the initiative, it is safe to assume they will discontinue this course of action. Players want to roleplay but they also want to keep their characters alive and well.

One tidbit of advice I will offer if you are gamemaster who experiences apathetic players frequently is to make sure you are giving your players meaningful choices. If you are railroading your players, they are bound to become more audience than participant. I believe it was Sid Meier who said that a game is a series of interesting choices. A simple way to bring life back into players who have become passive is to give them clear choices. Sometimes players forget that they influence the game. They slip into the role of viewer and just wait for the story to unfold. However, when you give them a choice of two doors, save the princess or stop the escaping villain, the red pill or the blue pill, it may trigger them back to the game at hand.

It is everyone’s responsibility to contribute to the fun of the game. Maybe you contribute by providing the venue for the game or the food and drink, drawing illustrations of the characters, roleplaying conversations with other PCs, or by being an excellent DJ. Even with the poorest gamemaster, there are numerous ways an individual player can contribute to the game despite him. The players are the stars of the story. I don’t think it is unreasonable to ask that they act like it.

What do you think? Is it solely the gamemaster’s job to entertain? Do the players have any obligation to entertain the gamemaster?

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John Miewald is Editor-in-Chief (and some time cartoonist) at Roleplaying News. He has worked for Sony Computer Entertainment of America and Konami of America.