Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

GM Theater: Capturing Your Players’ Attention

Out of many, many hours of game mastering, there’s been a few times there when I noticed that the players were completely invested in the game. Nobody had their cell phones out. Nobody was making any Monty Python jokes. They actually cared about their characters, cared about the story that was developing… and (sometimes) the players actually seem to get frightened. After the game, I try to figure out what it was that made it work, but the secret formula for gaming awesomeness eludes me.

And I don’t consider myself to be a particularly good game master. I lean very heavily on the rules, the players, and a lot of standard forms. I mostly run convention games, too, so I have only a very short time to get the game done… and the players are liable to be total strangers half the time. I’m generally so harried that I don’t even notice that I really have the players’ attention. I mean, sure… I notice when I don’t. That’s part of why it’s so shocking when everything starts the really sing. If I notice it… it’s sort of like a kid riding a bike for the first time… and he’s used to having someone hold on to the back of the seat… but now he’s actually riding the bike himself now… but then… he suddenly becomes conscious of the fact that it’s just him balancing the bike now… and then his left-brain kicks in with, “you know… you don’t really know how to do this.” And then the crash happens. So when I realize that the game is actually working and I’m sitting there and I actually have enough spare brain-cylinders to actually contemplate that, I get pretty scared. I mean… how am I going to keep this thing going without derailing the fun…?

This is why game blogs are such a big deal. Finally… I can get some insight into this that I really don’t think existed before now. Not in any sort of written and accessible form. For a prime example of this, let me direct you now to this blog post from The Tao of D&D: Holding Off. The stuff he’s talking about there all go completely against my instincts as a game master. I’m generally thinking something like, “keep it moving; keep it moving; keep it moving; even if you do something wrong or not optimal… keep it moving!” And here’s” Tao” basically saying, if you have the players’ attention and you are making a critical roll that can totally decimate the entire game… slow down. The uncertainty of the dice is fundamental to this thing of creating focus, fear, and investment. Don’t just blow past it… and don’t be afraid to milk it! I especially love this bit here:

When you stand up at the table to watch someone throw a die, that sends a definite message that THIS is something really important.  It’s not that you should pretend to do so … is that when the die actually is, you should demonstrate a body language that suggests it.  Your gestures demonstrate a great deal.  If you’re relaxed, laid back, unconcerned … this will produce a particular result.  If you roll a die and make no reaction, because you don’t care, expect little empathy from the party.  But if you roll a die that sincerely bugs you, that sincerely does not fit with what you had hoped for (that you’ll get to roll all three dice rather than just one, for instance), then get mad.  Don’t explain why you are, of course … the less the party knows, the less comfortable they are going to be.

In the church of gaming greatness, there is a stained glass window of a game master and it’s not of some dude lurking behind his screen chuckling diabolically while pretending to roll dice. It’s this. That chair is literally screeching backwards and game master’s leaning over the miniatures and snacks to see that roll. What’s it all about? What’s really going on? How does this all really work? I have no idea. I just want to be where that game is getting played… and I want a seat at the table.

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2 responses to “GM Theater: Capturing Your Players’ Attention

  1. Robert Eaglestone July 5, 2013 at 7:04 am

    My players like a story. The last couple times I ran the game, they were hooked by the story alone. Since our game’s mechanics are simple, they didn’t get in the way. If I can weave a story that I am comfortable with, the game goes great.

    And that holds true even if the game is a bit of a railroad (let’s face it, many dungeon crawls, if drawn as a whole unit with a point, are rather linear).

    • jeffro July 5, 2013 at 1:37 pm

      Car Wars adventures are mostly linear. D&D 3.5 adventures in Dungeon magazine from the last decade of gaming are essentially linear… all pretty well a chain of planned encounters leading up to the “big boss.” But B2 and X1 are far from linear. Classic Traveller played as written would be similarly wide open.

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