Keeping Them Interested


Maybe I'm deranged, but I actually like disinterested players. I like them because they are telling me I'm not doing my job as a GM. Of course there are times when players aren't paying attention no matter what and there will always be players that talk amongst themselves, lose interest and do something out of character, or worse of all stop playing out of boredom. The question is: what do you do about these types of players? Take away experience points or something equally evil? This article is going to give a few ways to deal with the unruly using less extreme methods.

Maybe I'm deranged, but I actually like disinterested players. I like them because they are telling me I'm not doing my job as a GM. Of course there are times when players aren't paying attention no matter what and there will always be players that talk amongst themselves, lose interest and do something out of character, or worse of all stop playing out of boredom. The question is: what do you do about these types of players? Take away experience points or something equally evil? This article is going to give a few ways to deal with the unruly using less extreme methods.

Before we can discuss what to do with disinterested players we need to think of what creates them. More often than we'd like to admit it the cause is ourselves, the GM's, but that's actually good news because we can fix that. Most players start a session excited and interested, but as the game continues, excitement wanes and attention wanders. This leads to players talking about things outside the game, or trying to "liven" things up by doing things their characters wouldn't normally do. If you find your players attention turning away from the game, call a break, and during that break think about where your game is and what you can do to spice it up, and more importantly, bring all the players into participation. If you find your gaming session is focusing on one or two players and ignoring everyone else then you need to change that. Talk to the newer players during the break and see what they think, if you are hearing the game is ok, or they don't seem too excited about the game you aren't doing your job. Try to nudge your players into a situation where a new player saves the day, and you will have a player for life. New players need confidence building before they will participate more, so give it to them.

When you notice two players talking among themselves and ignoring the game it can be maddening, but there are a couple of things you can do to force them to pay attention without having to resort to taking something away from them. I prefer the timed response method. For instance: A group of characters are walking down a long tunnel, and two of them are chatting quietly to themselves and not paying attention. Suddenly the ground begins to shake and chunks of rock fall from the ceiling! Starting with the players that weren't paying attention ask them what they are doing while starting a stop watch. If the player gives you that blank look or says 'what's going on?', move on to the next player, and continue until everyone has answered. Mark down the time each player responds. Then compare response times and use that as the order in which the characters react. The players that aren't paying attention will be at the bottom of the list, and in situations like this that's never good. The best part about it is the look on the players faces while they watch other players run to safety while they stand there trying to figure out what's going on. It forces players to pay attention, but there are a few rules to follow. First never kill a player this way, hurt them yes, but don't kill them. We are trying to tell them to pay attention, not make them want to stop playing.

Second, when describing what's going on, do it in the same voice as you have been talking, if you talk excitedly it'll get everyone's attention. Third, don't use the same situation over and over again, because you will train your players to say run automatically. Of course you could always use it till the players say run automatically and then give them a situation where running is the worst thing you can do. The T-Rex only sees movement kinda thing.

Another method is to ask each player what they are doing only once. If they don't respond right away or respond with 'what's going on?' they are unable to perform any actions that turn. Do the same thing next turn and I guarantee everyone will know what they are doing and what's going on. If another player begins telling the ignoring player what's going on when you are asking each player what they are doing just look at that player and say, 'so for this turn you are explaining what's going on?' That will stop the explanation right there. It may seem cruel, but isn't it more cruel to ignore what is going on in a game you are supposed to be playing?

The final method is to surprise the players with the unexpected. Keep the players guessing at what is coming next and no one will zone out. Most playing groups get stuck in a rut, or more specifically, most GM's get stuck in a rut. If your gaming sessions become monotonous and your players are predicting things that haven't happened yet, learn from this and do the opposite of what they expect. If every dead end has a secret door to a treasure room, make the secret door the door to a prison cell for some hell spawned demon. If the players are always chasing after dragons that have kidnapped the princess then have the princess actually love the dragon and fight the players with her magic. If your players are always the heroic good guys, make them the bad guys.

Fudge dice rolls, ignore rules, and give a rules lawyer a heart attack, but do whatever it takes to make sure your players have a good time, especially new players. That's the number one, and maybe the only, job of a GM. Someone once asked me what the hardest part of being a GM was. I said it was trying to balance the fact that in the game I am everything and nothing. Yeah, I got the same blank look from them too. In the game we are everything because we control all aspects of our fantastical worlds, but we are nothing because we aren't the enemy (although we control them), and we aren't the heroes either. It's a hard balance to maintain, but when it is maintained you will know because that's when the best role playing happens, and it's when you don't have disinterested players.

Solid article.

I don't think so. I'd ask why are they bored before getting all wrathful with the metagame punishments.

The best way to keep players interested is to have compelling games, and to have scheduled breaks. I don't particularly appreciate treating a social occassion like a boot camp, and I especially do not like metagaming punishments being meted out on characters.

Players like to know what they should be doing or looking for. Are they just wandering around, looking for the point? This is a failing of the DM, not the player. Typically, this is a recipe for bored players. I start mine as close to the action as possible, with a pretty clear roadmap and stakes.

Second, is your game lethal enough? Are you fudging roles to save them from a fair challenge? Several players I know quit one group because, in their words "they couldn't die." The DM was going too easy on them, sensing their displeasure, and wanted to keep them alive because he thought they wouldn't roll new characters to continue playing. The players, on the other hand, were bored because they felt they really weren't playing a game if there was no external challenge they were being tested against. It escalated into a vicious circle, until they eventually quit anyway, and the rest of the players had been alienated by then too.

Back to metagaming punishments though - there is simply no better way to piss off your players, forcing them to not care about their characters. Effectively a DM metagaming removes control from the players, which makes them care less, not more.

I've quit campaigns before because I couldn't die. Good Point.

Also ask yourself whether the game is not only interesting, but interesting to the particular players in your group. I've seen (and been) a DM who was totally mystified why his players were getting bored, seeing as how he had carefully constructed a plotline which encouraged and allowed for intelligent police work and thoughtful play from the players, when the players really didn't want to solve puzzles, they wanted to wield power and sling spells.

Starhawk: Thanks, I'm glad you liked it.

Nephandus: Are you saying you've never had bored players? That all of your players were totally interested in your campaign from begining to end? That your games never have a moment where the action lulls and minds wander? If that's what you are saying I'd like to have you as a DM. If you have had the occasional bored player what do you do to get them interested again? As for bored players being the fault of the DM...I'm glad we agree on that point at least. As far as "metegaming" goes, that happy little catch phrase, it isn't for everyone. It was only one way to handle bored players, does it work? Yes. Is it the only solution? No. Are there better solutions out there? I'd imagine every DM out there could answer that one.

Duke of Zug: Many of us would quit a campaign because our characters were in no danger, but it doesn't say never kill your characters in the article. It says don't kill them as punishment for being bored.

Cadfan: This is probably where the heart of the matter lies. Most gaming groups I've been involved in have consisted of a mixture of player types. While some wanted nothing more than a hack and slash type game others wanted some puzzle solving too. If your group is one type of player then you have no problem giving them what they want, and I've been in groups like that also. It's trying to please everyone at once that leads to problems, or at least the occasional bored player.

“Are you saying you've never had bored players?”
The title is called “Keeping them Interested,” not “How to make them pay attention.” These are different things.
Through careful selection of players, coupled with a lot of attention to my DM style and story construction, and a lot of discussion and cooperation among the players – where it worked and where it didn’t, we’ve dramatically reduced boredom. We almost never have a problem with people drifting in our games these days.
We take breaks though – away from the table, and do post-mortems after – about what people liked and how they felt. It’s hardpulling the players away from the table for a break, but once it’s done they appreciated it, and as DM, I appreciate being able to take off the “moderator” mantle for a while to be a civilian. These are my friends after all. I’ve seen too many DMs (myself included) start to get wrathful in-game, getting delusions of grandeur and meting out punishments for OOG behaviour. It’s ugly to see, and it isn’t very fun.
The best way to handle drifting players is to first understand why they are drifting. Punishing characters for player behavior (as the article seems to suggest) is the essence of metagaming – cheating. It does nothing to solve the problems that lead to players disengaging. Moreover, the challenges you drop on the offending player as a result of his behaviour will also affect the other players as well, and they didn’t do anything. You may get immediate compliance and attention, but long term, it alienates them further – and it’s not nice. It’s not boot camp. These are your friends aren’t they? Screw drill seargent DMs – they ALWAYS suck.
That said, I’ll take Cadfan’s point even farther. Sometimes, it’s the player’s fault – not the DM’s or anyone else’s. I’ve seen players who continually and deliberately attempt to “go out of bounds” for lack of a better word – not for any reasonable story reason, but rather to make the DM work harder to keep them entertained. I’ve seen players do everything in their power to avoid the ‘dangerous road’, when, in fact the dangerous road is where the game is played. I’m not sure what kind of activities these players want to do, but it is most definitely not a game. Talk about it with them – and, as a group, boot them if they don’t want to play it. Otherwise, why are they there?
As a side point, the article does not say anything about games that are too non-lethal – but going by the title “Keeping them Interested,” I’d say that a chief reason for boredom is too much benign fudging to save the players. It happens all the time, and it takes a lot of backbone (coupled with faith in fair game mechanics) to kill characters.

I'd say that the chief reason for boredom is that many players don't actually want a campaign. For the first few sessions, they are happy and awed to play again (the honeymoon period). Then, they get used to the world, the DM's style of play and their PCs. Then they get "full". That is, they say, "I've spent an hour at the table, I've tried all the different dishes and now I'm full." They want to leave.

As somebody suggested, selecting players carefully may help. Or you can just live with the turnover. Or just reorient your sessions into being games rather than campaigns.

I haven't had too much trouble when it was time to leave. It is a bummer but, for me, all have left quietly. I just say, "Look, you don't seem very interested in the game. I'm not going to tell you to leave but, if you respect the other people, you'll leave if you just aren't interested. Don't stay, thinking that you are doing me a favor. If you cannot look into your heart and say, 'I really want to play', then, please, have respect for us and stop coming." All have left, so far, and, though they are not happy, they are not vengeful. Later, I've often continued to communicate with them, after a suitable "cooling off" period.

This is pedantic, but you do it so prominently that I have to point it out. "Disinterested" means impartial or neutral. not bored. This is such a common error that it's starting to become accepted usage, but you'd still be better off writing "uninterested".

I must admit to being one of those players Crossman describes. One GM got so tired of my inattention that he considered not having me as a player any more. I'm working on my attention by limiting distractions for myself, but I still find that sometimes I can't concentrate on the game. It isn't boredom, though, that causes me to lose focus. It's weariness, lack of free time, and the fact that around the gaming table is the only time I get to see most of my friends. I'd agree with the recommendation that you discuss it with the players before you start meteing out in-game solutions. The players may not be bored.

A less flashy solution for something like bluegirl said, it might be a good idea to take a break every once in a while. Maybe go to an arcade or theater one night you would normally game (mayhaps argue over stats in LotR ^.^). I know too much of anything gets old after a while, but some people only want so much diversity. I haven't had much GMing experience but I did find ways to bring challenges on every level to each situation. I remember my first time everyone of the PCs was a fighter, save the ninja guy (used te old-school Batman system @.@). The strongest of them knocked down the final iron door, the troll professor who was working on some random genetic crap turned and psychicly blasted everyone except the ninja who had used his stealth to stab him in the neck. Boom, 3 PCs dead and a major character to my storyline gone. Lesson learned: Extremes are bad. Balance can be boring. Find the line.

I must agree with what Crossman has said - it was a good article that left room open for discussion and didn't say 'do it this way'. Yes, you might think Cross's wrong, but don't bite his head, off or otherwise. I am also sympathetic to HCHK here, since I've seen a similar situation with druids and clerics. Meeting and just talking for about 30 minutes before the game might help what I'll now refer to as 'Bluegirl Syndrome' since she was the first one to mention it.

The players want to play. They also want to see each other, since they are all old friends. Solution? Let them do both, just not both inside the campaign or game. Create a hard line between living it out as a civilian and the mindset of being the dwarven paladin, the devil's agent, the elven archer. Give them a little nudge to enter, in their mind, their persona, before you play, and after they've had time to talk, yourself included. Once they are truly ready to play, you can cut the small talk and get on with the campaign. Ideally, and usually, in this way, if you describe things vividly and the players are good (the acting, artist, writer sort) they will at no point lose interest in the campaign.

Actually, to correct that, they won't as long as YOU don't. If you lose the willingness to DM for a campaign, lose the idea of describing the area, the very stump in front of them, they can't see the world around them, who their character really is. They will lose their sense of fantasty, and suddenly they will disinterested. You try to pull them back, pulling a fast one on the entire group, and the other players will lose what they were up to for a totally random occurence for which you must hastily find a reason to have explained afterwards.

Yeesh, I should learn to write less... anywho, food for thought.