Game Master Tip – Keeping their attention.

Taking a break from the Player series to give the crew more time to test some of the software.  Let’s look at an important topic – keeping the player’s attention!

At its core, being a Game Master is not that different than managing a business meeting.  Sure, the goal is driving away the Goblin King instead of driving up business profits, but the premise is the same – the manager is giving a presentation to a team.  Like any team meeting, a gaming session can devolve into a caffeine-fueled chaos if they don’t have a clear direction.

Various studies over the years have shown that, on average, the attention span of an adult is somewhere around 5 minutes. ᅠThis means that after 5 minutes of inactivity, the average adult will likely wander away (at least mentally) and check out of the discussion – which is easy to see in the comments section of most YouTube videos. ᅠBut what can we do to keep our players’ heads in the game and their attention away from the Magic Draw Tourney at the next table?

Here at Thirdwalling, we’re a bit less cynical than Lloyds TSB (those pessimistic British bankers, man.  Yeesh.) so we assume that players are a step above the average adult in the US – and give them about 7 minutes until their attention wanes.  What that means to game masters is that we must engage our players at least every 7 minutes to keep their attention!  So what can we do to keep them attentive?

1.) Keep rounds short – Generally 5-7 minutes.

Quite simply; the game master shouldn’t have more people at the table than can be managed in 7 minute rounds.  At the Thirdwalling table this means not more than 5 players + the game master.  This allows us to divide the round into seven “phases” which each last one minute.  Phase 1-6 is the players and the game master stating their (and the NPCs’) actions in initiative order – giving each player and the game master about 1 minute to cover their actions.  As long as there aren’t any rules disputes to work out, this is easily done in a minute each once things are established.  Each player makes their required rolls or checks while the other players are stating their action – so there’s no waiting around while dice are rolled.  We generally roll our To Hit and Damage rolls at the same time – this speeds things up in the last phase.  Phase 7 is resolving rolls and the game master recapping what happened in the round theatrically!

Example:  Jerrede and Bran are attacking some Altoidians.  The Player Characters have initiative over the Altoidians (who are known for being slow, but curiously strong!) so this combat round is going to be 4 Phases.  Phase 1 – Jerrede chooses to attack the Altoidian nearest him.  After stating his action, the Game Master informs him to roll his To Hit and his Damage while they move on to the next phase.  Phase 2 – Bran states that he will defend with his shield.  The game master tells him to roll his defense while they move on to the next phase.  Phase 3 – The Altoidians attack Bran!  The game master rolls both the Hit and Damage for both Altoidian attacks.  Phase 4 – Now that all rolls have been completed, they compare them.  Then Drop Anchor – the game master – says “Jerrede and Bran got the drop on the short, muscular creatures!  Jerrede’s arrow pierces the Altoidian nearest to him, inflicting a grievous wound.  Bran’s defense holds strong and both Altoidians’ clumsy swings were deflected by his heavy shield!” 

By keeping the action fast-paced at the table, this method keeps the game moving quickly and keeps everyone’s attention.  By theatrically recapping each round at the end, everyone gets a quick reminder of what’s going on if they did space out – and you’re engaging them by stating their character’s name!  With this method, the whole table isn’t sitting and waiting while Jerrede and Bran count up dice – or checking their email on their tablets while the Game Master works out every attack for the NPCs.  By keeping the round under seven minutes, it keeps every player’s attention!

Caution: Avoid timers!  Seven minutes is a loose number – you shouldn’t be enforcing it with any kind of timekeeping – or even telling the players what you’re doing.  That will distract them and ruin immersion.  Just keep the pace on your own – but don’t discourage them from being descriptive!

2.) Keep the encounters managable – 5-7 rounds is just about right. 

When stating encounters, expect them to end within seven rounds unless there is a compelling reason not to.  Obviously for bigger encounters this won’t always be possible – boss battles can take a while, after all – but for every-day random encounters, don’t expect your players to be slugging it out with kobolds all afternoon.  If you’re keeping each round to 7 minutes, those seven rounds will easily eat up an hour of game play.  By keeping it to seven-round encounters, you keep the players engaged longer and give more time for the gameplay to advance each session.  In a typical 3-4 hour session, this allows time for story building – or for several combat encounters instead of one long one.

We’ll talk in a future tip about pacing encounters and spacing things out – but as you’re planning big modules (like the recent Ritual al’Nef encounter – which was two, 5 round encounters) you should plan on things lasting no longer than 7 rounds from start to finish.

3.) Make it personal! – Threaten their favorite NPC or their gear, steal from them or challenge their honor…

Whatever you do, make each encounter personal! A player with no emotional investment in the encounter isn’t likely to give even five minutes of attention.  Players will space out or get hyper-focused on just what their character is doing and ignore what is going on around them.  Make the encounter – even a random encounter – about the party, and the party will respond and engage.  A group of goblins on the road is just going to be a point-click fight with no real emotional attachment – but if those same goblins recognize the party and challenge them?  Or steal something from them?  Even easier than that, is making the NPCs themselves engaging – give them names, voices and personalities that keep the party focused on them instead of their grandma’s latest facebook update.

A classic example of this happened during the Ritual al’Nef.  It is difficult to engage The Ginger sometimes and despite including her favorite pet Dwarf Girl on the altar my dear wife had little emotional involvement to that encounter.  A few rounds in she became distracted with something on her laptop during game-play – turning her attention into tunnel vision focused on killing goblins during her turn.  She was ignoring every other player’s actions that round as she assumed it was just a kill-box scenario.  When Roxas went down with a self-inflicted Kukri wound to the thigh, Kaderin the Healer continued shooting at Goblins beside him – even moving past him (figuratively stepping over his prone body) to get a better shot – before we stopped the game mid-round to explain what was going on around her.

Had I done a better job of personally involving her in the fight, I might have kept her attention away from cat pictures on Facebook and the fight would have been far more memorable for everyone!

Thoughts?  Opinions?  Examples?  Take it to the comments!

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