Ask The GM: Ambiance Boosters

By John Serpico on


Dylan asks – I sometimes feel like I’m losing the players’ concentration. What can I do to make sure players stay interested in the game even when they’re not the center of attention?

Dylan, keeping the interest of your players is crucially important for a GM. And while you’re not a babysitter, you are a project manager and the “work” of the game can only get done if all hands are on deck. So don’t feel bad about wanting them to invest more in the session than they currently are. Thankfully have plenty of options before you have to resort to jingling keys in front of your players’ faces to snap them back to attention.

A good first step, if you haven’t already, is to tell your players to put their phones away during gaming. The lure of the phone is quite high for players, especially when the party is separated and some folks have downtime. But it is important that your players think of the game as a movie, and for themselves as both actors and an attentive audience. They need to be invested in the story regardless of where the camera is pointed.

Another best practice is to make sure things like ordering food and updating character sheets are done before the game starts. Logistics like those are a surefire way to break the flow of the game and knock the interest out of fidgety players. So be sure to have the chicken wings en route and the experience points spent prior to rolling the dice.

After you incorporate those things, start thinking about the game itself. Your question suggests that the players disconnect when they’re not the “center of attention.” So what is it that you can do to split the game’s focus between all the players? Is the party split up? How long do you focus on each group? If your party is divided up in two or three sub-groups, maybe you want to switch between them a little quicker. Think about this season of Game of Thrones. There are easily over half a dozen storylines and the show spends only a bit of each episode on each. The camera focuses on each storyline for enough time to advance it, but not so much time that you forget about everyone else. Borrow that pacing philosophy and see if it works.

One last tip I have is to see about working music into the game. Providing a fun soundtrack is a great way to make individual scenes or encounters more theatrical. Even when the players are just watching, a soundtrack appropriate to the melee or tense diplomatic negotiations or the quiet sneaking through back alleys will hopefully let them suspend disbelief and enjoy the scene as spectators… instead of just gamers waiting their turn.

Use logistics, pacing and music and hopefully your attention-deficient players can rethink what it means to be in a campaign and stay engaged throughout.

Happy GMing!

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