Oct 292012

If you’re playing a game and the characters are acting up, then the leader of the party should be the one to bring them back into line, or if they’re ring-leading the horse play, then a game event or NPC could get them back in check without too much problem. Quite often around a gaming table though, it’s not the characters that need corralling but the players themselves. This thankless task falls to someone who already has plenty to do: the GM.

This will be the first post in a series about the various jobs you should be prepared to shoulder should you choose to become a GM. Instead of letting all these responsibilities put you off though, I’m going to be offering a few tips on how best to cope with them so they don’t become problems.

First then, what do I mean by crowd control? Well for me it’s all about keeping your player’s attention focused on the game. They did after all turn up to your table to role play, and although there is always going to be an out of game social element to your sessions, you will need to keep it under control if you want everyone to have fun and enjoy the story you’re weaving for them. At the start of the session, you have an opportunity to give your players a chance to get a lot of this out of the way.

Say you want your game to kick off at half seven, then you need to get your players around the table by seven at the latest. As you’re handing out character sheets, instigate a bit of social banter; check how people have been doing since the last game, if they’ve seen any cool movies, or anything else you can think of. Let everyone get involved and don’t interrupt them to begin your pre-game talk for a good 15-20 minutes, depending on how well the group know each other and would like to spend catching up.  This gets a lot of random table talk out of the way before you remind people where they left it the session before. As an additional tip, asking your players what they remember about where the game was left is a great way of getting them focused quickly and making them put their ‘player’ hats on.

This is a good start, but if your group know each other well and shares the same interests away from the table – and the same sense of humour – then there will almost certainly be a few more breaks as they get reminded of fun stuff that they’ve come across between games, and decide to share it. If this happens when your dealing with a group split, then just ask them to keep the noise down. In an ideal world, they would stay in character throughout, but there are times when that’s just not possible. The fact that they’re taking this opportunity to chat OOC is a good thing – as long it doesn’t get too rowdy – so don’t step on it too hard.

I can almost guarantee you that there will still be times when random chat interrupts game play. Just remember, you don’t always need to pull your players up on this. Often it will happen without breaking the narrative flow and if you’re lucky, could even add a little something. What you need to do is keep a check on how long these digressions last. A minutes interruption and then straight back into the action isn’t too bad, but make sure that your players know that you’d rather it didn’t happen too often. A simple, ‘…and back to the game’ will usually suffice in keeping your players focused. If they keep drifting away, even for only a minute or two at a time, offer a short break so they can get some stuff out of their system.

We role play in the back room of a pub, and there will be times when it’s convenient to take a break so people can grab fresh drinks or head outside for a smoke. Time these when people are starting to get a bit distracted, and you can let your players chat without getting in the way of you setting a scene, and once they return to the table, a quick catch up should bring them back into the mood to game. If you’re not lucky enough to have a bar where your game, an excuse to stretch your legs should suffice.

Then there are the times when you just can’t shut them up. In my experience, this comes down to a couple of causes, and both are better dealt with outside of the actual game session. First though, try to keep everyone focused until the end of the session. Letting them know that there’s something awesome just around the corner can help with this, but I  have found that in extreme cases, a little bit of passive aggression can occasionally work. This isn’t fun, so keep it for dire circumstances: Just stop talking. Don’t get involved in the banter, and hold off with GMing until everyone goes quite. I can’t stress enough how much it sucks to do this, as you will effectively be ignoring some players until the chatty ones realise what’s happening. Do this once, and only once. I stress again, it sucks.

If you make it to the end of a session, preferably without resorting to the above tactic, then it’s time to deal with the root cause of the distractions. The two most common are player fatigue/boredom or one disruptive player. If you have one chap – or chapette – who keeps taking people on tangential conversations, have a quite word after a game and check if they’re having fun. If they are, ask them politely if they can keep themselves a wee bit more focused when you’re running the game. Feel free to pander to their ego a little here and say that they’re influencing a lot of people around the table, and if they focused their energies on driving the plot forward, then everyone else should follow. If they’re having trouble concentrating, find out why. If it’s an out of game issue, I trust you all to deal with those as you see fit; this is an RPG blog after all. If the problem comes from the game try and work out a solution to keep everyone happy and focused on the role playing, and for that, see below on how to to deal with a problem that could concern everyone.

If the whole group is losing interest, find out why as everyone is packing up for the evening. Just ask them where they’d like to see the game go, and what about it that they’re enjoying. You don’t even need to mention that you’ve noticed the problems of their attentions shifting, just make it a lighthearted chat about the game. Then decide what you can/will change to help engage your players a bit more, and see how it goes next week. If none of these help, then you may need to just sit your players down and talk to them about what’s going on. It could be something as simple as your players having fun with chatting about stuff, and not realising that it’s a distraction to your smooth running of the game, and once they know what’s happening, will reign it in. If it’s a bigger problem, and they’re just not enjoying the pacing/style of the game they’re in, listen to what they have to say, and do not feel offended. People get into role playing for different reasons, and if you can all come to a solution that suits everyone, then put the effort in to make it work.

I hope some of this helps out GMs who may have problems with their players attention drifting, and feel free to share your own tips or problems below.

  2 Responses to “The GM’s Role, Part I: Crowd control.”

  1. Great post! There’s some really solid advice in there about some of the things we often don’t think a lot about – but which can make a big difference to the game experience. I particularly like your sugggestions about seeking feedback on the game and getting things back on track. I guess, reading though this post, my mind conjured the image of a GM that is really attentive, and always focussed on the game, (that’s just like me right?)… but then, when I really remember the games I run I realise that’s not always the case.

    For example, I want to start the game, and have the players pay attention, when I, as GM, think it’s important – but to what extent have I been implicit or explicit with the players that those are my expectations? indeed, it’s quite possible that some random question or comment from the players have sent me diving into the scenario to find an answer to a question, remind my self of a fact, or check a detail. While I’ve been doing that the players are getting a fairly strong signal that the game is ‘on pause’. But to me (as GM) it feels like I’ve been working hard, multi-tasking and trying to get it right, and the players suddenly started screwing around – whoops.

    The same is true in games where there are lots of rules, especially in games where the players take an active part in knowing their own rules, or checking various books, sheets,PDF’s or the like. Then every person in the game might suddenly check out for a few minutes while they look something up.

    So, I guess, as far as tips go, proper preperation is key. it’s often an early casualty of a busy schedule. Many GM’s I know, including me, have the best of intentions but the time simply runs out to prepare all the things I think are likely to be covered dusing the next session of the game (rules, descriptions, locations, NPCs, action etc.). Others are prepared for almost everything, except exactly what their players actually choose to do.

    So, as a question: how do you prepare for running a game? How much time do you spend on average, and what do you cover?

  2. […] away without really needing me. For a start, this will be game related chatter, as too much out of character banter can easily derail a game. What they are often doing is planning for something, or arguing amongst […]

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