Apr 182012

For a game master, there are few sights more dismaying than a table full of distracted players. They forget the names of your prominent NPCs; they quote from The Office ad nauseam when it’s not their turn in combat; they surf the web on their iPhones while you’re trying to feed them the clue they need to figure out who’s been killing innocent villagers. While none of these are uncommon occurrences at anyone’s table, no matter how skilled a storyteller she may be, there are a few techniques that a GM can use to grab their attention and hold it.

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1.) Give Everyone At Least Some Face Time: Okay, so you’ve got five or six players at your table, a fifteen-page printout of your notes, and only two hours to play before everyone has to leave so that they can get up the next morning for school / work / whatever. No matter how much material you have to go through, no matter how many players you have, try to give everyone at least one scene where their character can shine. This may mean you’ll have to hold off on revealing the intricacies of your master plan until next session, but your players will reward you for your patience by participating in your game. Be warned, though: some players won’t bite at the chance to involve themselves even if you dangle the most powerful magickal artifact you can think of right in front of them. They may need a bit of extra coaxing, or at the very least, a scene partner to help them along.

2.) Shift Focus When The Party Splits: This is especially true when you’ve got a large group. Nothing peeves me more as a player than having to sit around for two hours listening to my friends have an epic battle with neo-Nazi killbots when I’m stuck with the B-Team, watching the car. (And yes, that happened once.) Keep one eye on the clock in this situation. Don’t linger on some players at the expense of the others, and for God’s sake, come up with something for everyone to do, even if you have to fudge it. Finally, if at all possible, when you’re transitioning from one group to another, give the first bunch something to think about while the second does its scene, even if it’s just who they’re going to shoot next. Leave them in suspense.

An oblivious man with a cell phone.

"Okay, Bill, it's your turn. The Nephandus is going to hit you with a blast of his black fire this round. Bill? Bill!" (Photo by markhillary of Flickr.)

3.) Bring Character Motivations into the Story: This sort of ties back into Point No. 1, but it’s possible to give players a role in the story without playing up their motives, so I decided to make this its own separate item. During character creation, I like to help my players develop a reason for participating in the story, even if it’s only tangentially related to the main action. Do they want to become great adventurers and achieve renown? Do they want to depose an evil king or bring down a corrupt corporation? Whatever the motivations are, they provide me with plot hooks that I can use to draw players into the action. Sometimes, these will emerge naturally through play. Look for them, and keep track of them. Ask yourself, what progress has my player made toward achieving his goal? What stands in his way? What other factors might come into play?

4.) Don’t Be Afraid to Cheat: If things start to stagnate, fall back on the old cliches of genre fiction: someone turns up dead, someone pulls a gun, a bomb goes off, etc. When players stall and refuse to move forward, toss them something to get them going again, even if it comes completely out of left field. This works far more often than it should.

5.) Be A Collaborator, Not An Antagonist: Some game masters take an adversarial stance toward their players, acting as though their games are contests which one party or the other has a chance of winning. This isn’t my style. When I get behind the screen, I like to think of it as my responsibility that everyone has fun. If anyone leaves the table unsatisfied or frustrated, I feel that I have failed as a storyteller. To keep this from happening, be fair and direct with your players. Think of them as your fellow participants, rather than your opponents. Always do what’s best for the story.

6.) Ask for Feedback: After a session ends, ask your players whether or not they had fun. Don’t just fish for compliments; accept constructive criticism and keep a mental note of how you can improve in the future. When you’re planning your next session, use this feedback to try to correct the problems that your friends point out.

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