10 Tips for How to Engage Passive Players in D&D 5e

One of the major selling points for playing Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition is that it is an immersive experience. It is, after all, a roleplaying game, and the point is to slip into the role of the character you’re exploring.

This can make having a passive player incredibly frustrating for both the other party members and the DM. Here are ten tips on how to get your players to fully engage in your games.

  • Know Your World
  • Use Visual Aids
  • Use Audio Aids
  • Utilize “Session Zero”
  • Create stories around characters
  • Play to classes
  • Allow decisions to make an impact in your world
  • Get to know and trust each other
  • Be a safe space
  • Play just to Play

Know Your World and Show Your World

As the DM, it’s your job to know everything about the world your players are exploring. This means knowing the map, the culture, the economy, the legends and rumors, the NPCs and how they interact with not only the group but each other. 

When you know your world inside and out, you can put down breadcrumbs. You can offer throwaway descriptions for players and characters to grab on to, leading them into the main plot, without shoehorning, or into fun side quests that they actually want to engage in. 

Drop-in these descriptions when your characters enter new spaces like taverns in a new town or a new road through the woods, or when they’re talking to one of your NPCs. Just be sure you have at least an idea of where these breadcrumbs lead.

Have a hard time thinking of side quests that include interesting rewards and NPCs you can use over and over? Check out my post Complete Side Quests for Levels 1-4! Or see my YouTube playlist filled with fun ideas for side quests!

Use Visual Aids

While playing a campaign in the “theater of the mind” (without a physical component) can be fun for some, players can often struggle to follow complicated battles and dungeon setups if they don’t have any references. 

If you’re meeting in person, try incorporating tilemaps, miniatures, and spell effects into the gameplay, encouraging your players to keep a set of minis related to their character to use on the board. You might even consider giving them their own figures or stand-in pieces as gifts once you’re further into the campaign. 

If you’re playing online, you can use sites like DnDBeyond and Roll20, which include digital, customizable maps and characters. Both sites offer character sheets or journals to record your progress, digital dice rollers (some of which with 3D animations) to hold players and DMs accountable, and private rooms for your group to play in.

If you are lacking in the visual aids department, you can pick up some amazing minis at a great price from our partners, Noble Knight Games. A pack like the one below is a great place to start if you are just starting to build your miniature collection.

Noble Knight has everything you need to create engaging experiences for all your players!

Use Audio Aids

One thing you can incorporate no matter how you play is background music! Create a playlist for your campaign’s setting on YouTube or Spotify, or, if you’re not sure what songs to add, use one that was made by other people.

You can also talk to your players about what kinds of music might represent their characters and encourage them to make playlists as well. This can help them get to know their characters and make roleplaying easier and more natural, getting players in the right headspace for the game.

Another great option is to use the app DMDJ. It is an incredible music mixer that allows you to create the perfect environment every moment of your game. See my full review of the app and a walk through in the video below!

Hold a “Session Zero”

A “session zero” is a personal session to introduce your player’s character into the game and have the party’s introduction to each other be more organic and make more sense story-wise. They can be done in bigger groups or one-on-one, depending on the length of the sessions and whether or not certain elements of characters’ backstories are supposed to be secrets in the game.

Session zeroes can be done retroactively if your player feels like they don’t have enough context to roleplay well. They are an excellent way to make players feel that their characters are important and feel they are playing an important role in the campaign. 

Make Your Characters Part of The Story

A player might become passive if they feel like they can’t connect to the story you’re telling. To combat this, you can try incorporating elements of that player’s character’s story into the story of your campaign. 

Are they a disgraced noble with a family back home? Maybe they get a letter saying their family is in danger and are given a chance to redeem themselves. Are they a wanted criminal? Maybe they run into bandits with a warrant for their arrest, looking for a reward. 

If you incorporate a personal element into the story, they’ll be far more likely to engage, interact, and have a good time.

Play to Your Classes

Use the classes of your PCs to your advantage! Give your clerics a rival god’s follower to interact with, give your rogues an expensive treasure to hunt for, give your fighters…fights! Adding in class-specific fights can be fun for the whole party even as they’re letting your passive player take the spotlight.

Let your players show off their characters. Sometimes players can become passive if they don’t feel like their able to use their character builds to their full advantage. Individualized encounters can also give them confidence boosts when they don’t feel as confident with the character they’ve created.

Let Your Party Make an Impact

Your NPCs are not blind, nor are they stupid. Allow your characters to discover that there is gossip about them. Let a hush fall when they enter a room, or have a nervous child ask them to sign something. Everyone loves a good piece of gossip and teasing that can bring players more into the world.

Alternatively, it might be worth pointing out that your party hasn’t made an impact at all. This can encourage your players to figure out why that is and become interested in solving that mystery.

Let Your Party Get to Know Each Other

Your players are more likely to engage if they care deeply about their characters, and a good way to promote that is allowing your party enough downtime to get to know each other. Encourage them to sit down for a campfire chat while on watch or go out for drinks and get smashed after a job well done.

This can also provide your players with a mental break from the action without breaking a schedule you’re all comfortable with. Sometimes players just need a mental break from the heavier plot points of a campaign, so it’s okay if your session doesn’t progress the main story if it means that your players will have more fun later on. Let them wander!

Make Your Story a Group Effort

Sometimes your players will have ideas for scenes that they’d love to act on, but they may not want to step on any toes. They might also wonder why certain interactions went the way they did or be a little lost as to where they’re supposed to go next.

Sit down with them outside of sessions and bounce ideas back and forth. Ask for their input on where they want the story to go. You can also talk about where you want the story to go and give them suggestions for what direction to take in the next session so that they feel more confident.

Be A Safe DM

In the end, Dungeons and Dragons is very much just a game. It’s important to let your players know that they can trust you in and out of sessions. If introducing new elements to the story doesn’t help, then you should take your player aside and talk to them.

Players should feel safe and supported in your group. Ask them if they have any issues with the other players, or if they have any problems with the way you’re running the game. Let them know that they can talk to you about any problems they’re having and that it won’t negatively affect how they’re treated at the table.

Play for The Sake of Playing

Your players want to have fun as much as you do. Explore different options to engage them and talk about it. Find whatever combination works for your group and the adventure you’re exploring. You have an entire world to explore, it should be a fun experience for all involved.

Until next time my friends,

May your game have advantage!

-Halfling Hannah

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