To a lot of us, the best thing about gaming is the chance to hang out and do something fun with our friends. Unfortunately, that lovely quality can also work against us at times and turn fun into frustration. It’s time to talk about distractions at the gaming table.
Distractions come in all shapes and sizes, but there are some common threads among gamers: ambient dice-rolling, pop culture diversions, screens both large (laptops, tablets) and small (phones, gameboys), etc. It can be tempting to ask your players to cut them out altogether, but there’s a good chance that will do a lot more harm than good for both them and the game.
The first key as a GM when distractions start to crop up is to never take it personally. It’s easy to see diversions as a sign of boredom, but oftentimes it can be a sign of a group that’s energized, or even of a scene that’s proving intense enough that players may need a distraction to temper things so that they don’t get overwhelmed.
Distractions can also help avert boredom for players not currently engaged in the specific scene (like when your scout is off alone doing surveillance or the Face is talking with the mark). Don’t begrudge your players keeping themselves busy while you’re focused on a scene that doesn’t involve them – provided their distractions don’t interfere with the scene at play.
In fact, that’s the best measuring stick all around where distractions are concerned – if it isn’t a significant hindrance or disruption to the game, let it be.
Audible disruptions (like reading a joke they just spotted on Twitter or launching into a chain of movie quotes) have a good chance of impacting the entire table whether those players are involved or not. Two or three of these an hour is often enough for players to get it out of their system – more than that, and you’re losing a noticeable chunk of session time to diversions, which your other players likely won’t appreciate. Don’t slam the door at the very first meme, but keep a count and be ready to get firmer with them if your players start to go overboard.
Silent diversions (like handheld games or dorking around on social media) seem like they might have less impact, and when those players aren’t actively involved in the scene, that’s absolutely the case. The problem typically arises with how quickly the player can switch modes when it’s time for them to be part of the action again. If you find yourself regularly having to try more than once to get the player’s attention, or are constantly recapping the previous scene to catch them up, it may be worth asking them to look for a different distraction – one they aren’t so easily absorbed by.
Be especially watchful for these types of distraction in online games – many players don’t even realize how much they rely on just passively listening to the action in scenes they aren’t involved in to get a sense of what’s really going on. If you have trouble getting a player’s attention or focus back when switching scenes, it may be worth highlighting what they’re missing to help make the case for an alternative diversion.
Other distractions may not take as grand a form – ambient dice-rolling, for instance, may happen on and off, possibly even without the player registering just how much their doing it, or what effect it’s having on the other players at the table. It’s very tempting to ask plaeyrs not to roll dice unless it’s called for, but it’s a simple and easy way for many of them to keep their hands busy while listening to exposition or other players’ scenes.
Instead, look for ways to help them roll quietly, like rolling a single die on a soft dice bag instead of a small handful on a hard table top. If the “dice” for your particular game take the form of cards instead, asking your players to side shuffle rather than bridge shuffle can make a huge difference in terms of noise that might detract from other scenes going on.
One key in all this is remembering again that distractions don’t always mean boredom – they might well act as the glue to keep your players awake and engaged when it’s time to switch back to them, or keep the energy in the room up during long or tense stretches of RP with no active combat or dice rolling.
They may also be actively helping abate anxiety among your players. We’re geeks, it’s not at all uncommon for us to be nervous in social situations, to say nothing of the prevalence of invisible disabilities among gamers. All the more reason not to take what seems like a diversion as any kind of personal sleight to your GMing ability, and to avoid the (admittedly tempting) zero-tolerance approach to distractions at the table.
Allow your players their diversions, but set expectations early so that they can guide themselves to the least disruptive distractions possible.