How to Engage Players Outside of a Session
I'm a player in a Monsterhearts campaign, and we just had our second session a few nights ago. The morning after, I realized that I had had dreams about my character, Aiden. Aiden's an Infernal - for those of you who don't know about Monsterhearts, it's a game about supernatural teens having supernatural teen problems, very much like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or a good version of Twilight, and the Infernal skin assumes that the character has made a deal with the devil in exchange for certain powers. In the session, Aiden had used one of these powers to find out that one of the other characters, a witch nicknamed Circe, had used her powers to hex her best friend. He decided to use that knowledge to blackmail Circe into teaching him how to deal with his demonic sponsor better - at this point, he still assumed that magic basically all came from demons, and she seemed to be handling her shit much better than he generally does. It all came to a head in a very dramatic way, which I will leave for another post. For now, I want to talk about what happened to me: I was so engage by the story of my character that I kept thinking about the campaign long after the session was over, even after I fell asleep. Why did that happen? More importantly, what are some ways that you can keep your players thinking about your campaign outside of sessions? First of all, why would you even want that? Well, it's fun! One of the great things about roleplaying games is that you can keep having fun related to the media even when you're not experiencing the media. I've spent my fair share of time talking and thinking about movies and TV shows and novels, but that doesn't compare. I think the difference is that, in roleplaying games, the player has a real say in the direction of the story. I keep thinking about the story outside of creating it with my friends because my choices have an effect on which direction the story goes in, so I had better make good choices. In a way, RPGs don't compare at all to traditional media - asking why players keep thinking about RPGs outside of sessions is like asking why novelists keep thinking about their novels when they're not writing them.
What we discover from this is that players enjoy being engaged by the story even when they're not actively creating it. Obviously, this means that you must try to engage them when they ARE creating it. Engaging players is kind of the whole goal of DMing a game, so I'm mostly going to focus on ways to engage players that can extend outside of a session. That said, if your players are having fun during the session, you've already done a good job.
A well-worn trick to engage players outside of a session is to end the session on a cliffhanger. Personally, I feel like this method is a little cheap, especially if done repetitively. All it really does is introduce tension, which sometimes manifests as fun ("Oh man, how are we gonna get out of this one??") but can often manifest as anxiety instead ("This character I'm really invested in might DIE, ugh, this sucks.") It can also keep your players from engaging with the campaign - why keep thinking about Grumthar, your Half-Orc Wizard, if he might die at the beginning of the next session from the poison of the Spider Queen? If cliffhangers happen, they happen, and as long as the players are engaged in other ways, they can be a good way to raise the stakes. Just don't rely on them.
Instead of cliffhangers, try revelations. If the players discover something new about the world, or something happens that makes them recontextualize something they already knew about, they will keep thinking about this after the session. They'll find themselves working through all the implications and how they relate to every other aspect of the world. They might even go over the campaign up to this point in their heads, looking for foreshadowing (which the clever DM will have already supplied). This will, in turn, lead to better roleplaying from them, as they've had time to think about how their character will react to this new thing. For an example, at the end of the last session of a long-running campaign called Alluvia, DMed by the co-creator of this blog, M Grant, we found out that a villain from the backstory of the campaign world was not in fact dead as we had assumed, but very much alive, terrifyingly strong in her magic, and intent on killing us personally. Naturally, we were left a lot to contemplate.
Here's another trick: never give your players the whole story, ever. This includes the backstory, and every character relationship, and every group background. Leave many, many secrets for your players to discover, obviously, but also just leave the story unsaid. Their mind will inevitably become interested in working through and figuring out the details. This is also the only way to give your players one of the best moments in any RPG - a revelation. Revelations cannot be revealed to them if nothing is hidden. This is, in many ways, the opposite of the revelation. Another example from Alluvia comes to mind: pretty early on in the campaign, we discovered a library of about a dozen magic books that were written by three generations of magicians (various magic-users, the world doesn't strongly distinguish them). We had to figure out what happened to them, what their relationships were, and where they all were, largely from the contents of these books, which made no reference to any of that. There were some other clues and hints, but the rest was up to us.
Another way to engage your players outside the story is to force them to be active participants in the story - this fits in really well with the above point, because a good way to keep them active is to give them a problem with no obvious solution. This might be scary, but as long as the problem is continually bothering them, and you give them enough hooks to grab onto in general, they will discover ways to solve it. When they feel confident that something should work, unless there's a good reason for it not to, let it work. This keeps them engaged outside of sessions because they're wondering how to get that monkey off their back.
Finally, a really good way to keep your characters engaged is to create interesting character relationships. Between player characters, this largely has to happen organically, but the rest of the characters are played by you: throw weird, difficult relationships at them, or relationships they can rely on, or people that they love to hate. Give your players a good reason to have an opinion about every major NPC.
There's a few solid tricks to keep your players engaged with the story outside of sessions. Keep in mind, the best way to keep your players engaged with the story is for them to have fun during the session, so focus on that first. But if you want your players to have dreams about their characters, you could do worse than these ideas.