One of the questions I get the most often, as far as running social skills groups is this: How do I get my players to talk to each other (and not me, the DM)?
It's a valid question. I've had a lot of students in social skills groups who really struggle to talk with peers, or are generally withdrawn in general and default to talking to the DM. That being said, there's no silver bullet. Every student is different and has unique challenges, and the way you shape the game to encourage peer communication is highly dependent on both the group dynamic and the player themselves.
So while I don't have one simple method, there's a number of encounters, scenarios, and gameplay mechanics I've utilized in the past to encourage students to talk with each other, and not me. So, please enjoy my list of 10 tried and true methods I've used to get the students talking to each other and not the DM.
Method 1: Making a student a translator. This is best done when the rest of the group is doing fairly well with communicating, but you have one kid who both likes to be in the spotlight, but is struggling to talk with their peers. With this tool, I give them an amulet or some type of item that lets them speak a specific language, then throw in a NPC that speaks that language only. That means that whatever the NPC says, the student will have to translate to the group, which often leads to a lot of shenanigans as they try to soften the blow of certain insults, for example.
Method 2: Framing the DM as a (benevolent) villain. I use this one a lot with groups that are just struggling to talk to each other as a whole. I utilize scenarios with a lot of puzzles and traps that the students need to strategize on, and if they talk to me, my responses are, "Don't ask me if that's a good idea, I might start getting interesting ideas of how to kill your character." This sort of banter requires a good relationship with the students (as well as the knowledge that I generally don't kill the PCs unless they're intentionally being lemmings), but also knowledge that I don't pull punches, and have some degree of danger to the campaign. Once it becomes clear that I'm the one controlling the danger, and they need to band together to defeat the puzzles and traps I'm laying out for them, they tend to communicate a lot better. This is also aided by handing out note cards with specific information to kids on what they find out with certain checks, so they get to describe it to their peers.
Method 3: Giving them a challenge, with a lot of detail up front, then stepping back. This is usually best done with groups that seem capable of doing a lot of talking amongst themselves, but need to build the rapport. This usually consists of some type of complex scenario that they will need to overcome, such as a bank heist, getting some contraband past the town guard, or some difficult travel event (i/e crossing a chasm when the bridge is damaged.)
Method 4: Having them perform interviews. This one is good when the group has some chemistry built up, but is still struggling to get to the next level. Examples might include interviewing witnesses to a crime while building up a legal defense, or hiring crew on a ship. While the students are talking to the DM, after the interviewees step away, the party has to discuss what they saw and how they thought the interview went. You can also really use this to your advantage if you have one student who is really struggling, by having one of the interviewees have something that is very much tied to their character.
Method 5: Force the spotlight on one of the students. This is best when you have one student who is quite capable of role playing and interacting with their peers, but still struggles to. By putting them in a situation where the rest of the party has to help them, or address something that's happening to them, they suddenly are fully engaged with the rest of the group. Examples of this include a character's patron appearing to them (while remaining invisible to the rest of the party) and doing things around them. Another example was having one of the students suddenly sucked into a deathtrap where the rest of the party had to figure out a puzzle before it activated.
Method 6: Character bonds. This is best done at session 0, where you determine how the players might know each other, but it can be done anytime when you feel like some shared history might help two students who are struggling to communicate to have a reason. One example of this was to reveal that a NPC had a significant history with two of the PCs, and having that awkward reveal forced some amazing role playing, that also served as a significant plot point later, and gave the student some well needed time in the spotlight.
Method 7: Complex combat. Having a sequence where the party needs to work together and strategize around a multi-faceted combat sequence can really help planning, and also be an absolute boon to the students who are more focused on the tactical element of gameplay. One of the best examples of this was when I had a bandit gang attack a caravan, with multiple waves of enemies, and each student having some distinct role that they could capitalize on during combat. Whether that role was as a sniper or setting up rock traps with Tensor's floating disk, the preparation and execution of that combat sequence was some of the best cooperation I ever saw.
Method 8: Worldbuilding. One fun tool I did was having the students do some worldbuilding, where I pulled out a basic world map, then let the students either add a location, or add a rumor about the location. Then, by going around, each student would play off things that the previous student had added, with weird locations like a bodybuilder cult camp, an island full of tiny dinosaurs, or a secret lab full of something that we called 'Meth Drakes.' This tool is helpful when the group is doing fairly well with communicating with each other, but you just want to step back and let that flow.
Method 9: Castle management. I did an entire quarter of this, and found that it worked very well for a group that already had good chemistry, but needed a bit more of a push to work together. Each day, the students would get to choose an activity, and I would role play with the student how that went (often with multiple students doing one activity), then at the end of the day they would meet up in the main hall and recieve the latest news, and have to come to a consensus on what to do. This worked wonderfully, as there was an assassin running loose in the castle, and every day brought more news of what had happened, forcing the group to discuss how to increase their security with limited budget and manpower. At times, there were debates that would last 30 minutes without me talking. And as an aside, I very highly recommend the castle management mechanic, as it was by far one of my favorite quarters, and while the students lamented they missed saving the world, they really enjoyed running their own castle, even if it meant a lot of resource management, bureaucracy, and dealing with petty drama from the staff.
Method 10: Online community. While I don't have much experience running online social skills groups, I have started doing that with my group, and while it's not without its own challenges, I've found that one of the cool benefits has been an online community. I'm using a Discord channel for the group, and there's a random channel where some of the more quiet students post rather frequently, and I'm finding that it's a really great tool as it allows students to post questions, thoughts, and plans in a way that they're more comfortable with. The downside is, as a DM, you need to monitor the text channel while running the game, and sometimes there are kids that are constantly posting memes. While I don't mind this, the notifications can be distracting, so I'm considering turning it off and checking it every minute or two.
Hope you can utilize some of these tools for your social skills groups, and if you have any great ideas, please shoot me a tweet at @rollforkindness! Happy gaming!