I had a problem.
My players were unfocused, distracted, and prone to side conversations. Getting through a round of combat was like wrestling a rose bush. The bush kept growing however the hell it felt like and all I managed to do was get torn up over it. Also, the bush never seemed to learn anything, regardless of what I said from week to week.
With so much resistance to actually playing the game which they weekly came to my house to play, I figured everyone was just bored and looking for a new game. But they’d be damned if they’d admit it. “No, no. We like this game. We want to keep playing” they’d say. They apparently just happened to enjoy talking about games on Steam more.
Maybe they were just being polite, but I doubt it. I tend to run with a fairly frank, if prone to self-delusional, crowd.
Give them more to do.
This may seem counter-intuitive given that we’re talking about a crew that couldn’t maintain focus for more than 45 seconds at a time, but it helped break the cycle of constant distraction from distraction. A good part of the problem was that distractions are a self-reinforcing cycle. Player A takes twice as long to decide on a course of action so player B gets bored and starts a side-conversation with player C, which I then have to interrupt to get them to take their turn. It takes them a few seconds to re-familiarize themselves with the map, plus snap at me for interrupting them so… their turns each take 50% longer. Then it’s the bad guys’ turn and as much as I try to speed things up it still takes a while given that there’s 5 bad guys. Player D, having had to wait through the equivalent of 7-8 player’s turns is up getting a soda-pop when their turn comes. And by the time a new turn comes around Player A has started checking something on their phone.
And so on.
And so on.
I was sick of constantly being the bad guy, constantly having to remind everyone that it’s their turn. So I made the players do it. Not only did it free me from a unpleasant task but it made the players more aware of how disruptive they had all become.
Here’s how it works:
I use roll20.net for maps. It also has a bunch of neat-o features like built-in character sheets, automated dice rolling, an initiative tracker, and programmable macros (for stuff that’s not already built into the character sheet). Nobody uses the built-in character sheets so I had to set one up for each character, but I only filled in the sections related to initiative. This let me roll initiative by selecting a character on the map and then clicking the INIT macro button I’d also set up. Clickity clickity click click click and with a mere 2 clicks per character, I’d have a whole turn’s worth of initiative determined. I thought there might be some blow-back from the players over not rolling their own dice but they were so checked out I don’t think they even noticed.
Once the turn order is established, I hand over responsibility to one of the players. It then becomes their job to determine who goes next — and to call on them to declare their action. Instant improvement.
This didn’t completely solve the problem, although it did double the number of people paying attention (myself plus whomever got tapped to be the initiative-keeper) so I found it necessary to switch up who the initiative keeper was from round to round. At first, I just rolled a die to decide whom it would be, but it seems to work better just going clockwise around the table. (This also has the unexpected benefit of last turn’s keeper being able to prompt the new keeper of their duties — one less task for the game master.)
But what if you don’t have access to roll20.net? Use a dry erase board. Or movable magnets. Or just jot names down on a piece of paper really quickly. Heck, you don’t even really have to come up with a system. Just tell each player it’s their problem now; figure something out. The worst case scenario is that it takes forever and the players know what it’s like to be the GM for a while.