[RPG] Having trouble getting the friends to get invested in the game


I have been playing D&D 5e for the better part of three years now, and normally I have had a blast: everyone is engaged in the game and wanting to play.

In November I started DMing for the first time and I started up LMOP for a group of my close friends. We played through Phandelver, but I would usually have to pull them back from side chatter quite a bit or go find them as they wandered off to go smoke a cigarette or something. Now we have finished and I'm starting to go through Princes of the Apocalypse.

My Difficulties

We are three sessions into the game and the party have:

  • Had one player waste 2 hours going to three shops to buy a dress, sexually harass the staff, then say he never wanted to buy the dress in the first place.
  • Gone to a tavern and decided they wanted to get drunk and go to sleep (with a brief threatening of homicide on a random tavern patron) rather than follow any of the numerous plot hooks I threw at them.
  • Go to a carnival (made my own plot hook to get them interested rather than the shoddy Mirabar delegation) that gets attacked by cultists and instead of talking to their savior (feathergale knight killed some earth cultists) decide to rob the carnival staff and then question what they are supposed to do next.

    All of this has taken approximately 13 hours because they are constantly having side conversations, not paying attention, being disruptive, or walking off to take solo breaks for 10 minutes in the middle of a block of story.

I've never dealt with a group that is like this. It just seems like they don't even want to play the game, however, when I ask them, they insist they wanna keep playing.

How can I get my players to:

  1. Be more engaged in the game and stop messing around OOC
  2. Focus on the game rather than treating it like a poor tabletop life simulator
  3. (less important, but still a thing) roleplay more rather than feeling like they are using a joystick to play a roleplaying video game?

    Or should I just take the one guy who seems to enjoy being involved in the game to find another group and just scrap the whole thing?

Best Answer

Your players are invested in a different game.

The first group that I played with played the way you describe: mucking around town, not caring much about objectives, messing with every NPC they meet. It took us entire sessions to get through even the most basic of quest-giver scenes, and we delighted in spiking plot hooks and keeping the DM on his toes. I still play with that group, and it's still a lot of fun!

It is likely that your players have a very different view of the gaming experience--maybe socializing or being "off-task" is just a form of relaxation. While you may want to push through the prewritten campaign, maybe they want to just blow off steam and mess around in a fantasy world, doing things they'd never do in real life. Both viewpoints are perfectly valid ways of approaching a TTRPG.

On the other hand, the group I DM for is very plot-oriented---they will eat up quest hooks, and they will efficiently pursue their goals. When I first DMed for them, I was surprised that they completed a quest in the time it took my other group to stroll through town.

Adapt or pass the baton

Trying to force those players into "focusing" on the game will likely just swap your roles: you might be satisfied, but your players might chafe against your "railroading". The first DM of my first group tried to do this, and it caused a lot of friction in the group. Eventually, that DM became a player, and we had a different DM. This DM, instead of trying to run a coherent plot, simply had an omnipotent, insane NPC wizard teleport us around and told us to cause chaos. As you might imagine, this went over a lot better.

Additionally, instead of making deep dungeons or storylines, he focused on making more interesting NPCs and environments instead. This NPC focus meant that he was prepared to create interesting scenarios when we were messing around in town, and he didn't waste time on dungeons we would never enter. For example, in your tavern, you can have a champion or something challenge the PCs to a 1:1 fight, or give the shopkeep a interesting prank magic item (horn of baubles, maybe?). If your players like wandering off or doing individual things, plan more individual encounters or ones that don't require the whole party to be present. I realize you're trying to run a published adventure, but maybe that's not suitable for this group. You will probably get more mileage out of the adventure by using its encounters and NPCs as inspirations for your own modified campaign, rather than running it straight.

Basically, the three questions you ask at the end are basically, "how can I force my players to play how I want?" Instead, you should be asking, "how can I adapt my campaign for these players?" If the answer to that latter question makes you not want to be a DM anymore, then you should pass DMing responsibilities to someone else.