Without players at the table, any GM sitting there roleplaying themselves would be interesting to observe — easily mistaken for a self-talking novelist or just extremely eccentric. In the end, we need players in order to run a game and so we need to provide quality entertainment for everyone involved.
When seventy percent of your game session involves you talking and working with one player while another plays on their cell phone, the alarms should start to sound.
Gauging player interest is a tool every GM needs and not every player will be so vocal with their disinterest. Frequently, players show up to their game store tables out of habit, the desire to socialize, or to clock in their Adventurer’s League experience. We can do better than tick some hours on an experience meter, so here are ways to maintain player interest that I picked up from watching very shy players.
Theme Songs and Character Art
If a player sits down at your table and has six pages of character art, backgrounds, and an entire soundtrack picked out—you don’t need to gauge their interest. If they aren’t so prepared, however, you may want to ask them to pick out character guides more than which mini represents them. It’s a good guide to gauge who has some dedicated interest into their place in the mutual-world sandbox. If you notice they wait to the last minute, or just can’t be bothered, it’s a good first flag that they feel disconnected. I suggest this because asking a player outright if they are interested, will often yield an answer that is defensive in nature.
Flipping things around, helping a player find a theme song or awesome artwork for their character can re-spark player interest that has waned. Going over character art and scouring the internet for the perfect Tiefling picture with them often sparks conversations about what their characters goals are, or their pasts which a storyteller can hook later. If you discover a theme song together, then the next time they score critical hits, pull that music up and give them their moment to shine in the game. Having character art on hand, can grant inspiration in a moment of boredom, breaking the monotony of a session and reminding everyone why that character is awesome.
Small Clues Matter
No storyteller wants to sound like someone’s parents, telling everyone to put away their cell phones, or cease the side-banter at the gaming table. Repeated sessions of players barely paying a passing interest can be disheartening to a storyteller and in most cases, the game will fold. Before the game apocalypse happens though, listening to your players and paying attention to small clues can help prevent the end. These verbal cues should be red flags; having to repeat yourself after every action, players constantly (and I mean near every session) never understanding their own sheet, and the good old-fashioned forgetting that it’s their turn.
Learn How To Say “Yes!”
Let’s say your player wants to play a half-dragon monk that’s chaotic evil and has shadow brands. To most storytellers, the answer is a hard no, and they move along citing their valid reasons. We can’t say yes to every player request and players who demand such things for their investment might not be right for your table. In no way, am I suggesting you say yes to absurd player combos, power gaming tactics, or even blatant villainous actions at the table.
Instead, take your players requests and quietly file them in your campaign folder. Over the course of the campaign, slowly give your players the chance to earn their absurd requests through quests one little drop at a time. Here’s how it might play out: First, the human monk gets kicked out of the temple and perhaps finds a teacher that shows him a chaotic martial art style. Let him fall to the dark side after a few more adventures and naturally with the group and finally after a long campaign let him eat the heart of a dragon to become a half-dragon. In this manner, you say yes… but in your own way and hook your players with exactly what they want.
Spend three sessions and carefully listen and observe the small reactions of your players. If you notice some repeated things, make changes on your end before even approaching them. Try using paper folded over the GM screen for initiative tracking, or spending an entire session rebuilding character sheets after an adventure will refocus everyone. I’ve seen some GM’s award bonus experience for the player who goes the longest without peeking at their cell phone. Nothing beats an honest and respectful conversation with your players, but trying these subtle methods first go a long way to making a better game for everyone.
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