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Pack Tactics Advice: My players are checked out!

Pack Tactics Advice: My players are checked out!

It’s time again for the Kobold Press advice column, Pack Tactics!

Our roundtable experts this month are Ben Eastman, Basheer Ghouse, Phillip Larwood, Ben McFarland, Sebastian Rombach, Brian Suskind, and Mike Welham.

You might recognize some of these names from Kobold Press products such as the updated Tome of Beasts 1 and Campaign Builder: Cities and Towns. And as contributors to this very blog!

Whatever questions you have about running a game, handling tricky metagame traps, and ruling edge cases, they’ve got an answer. Sometimes several!

Anonymous GM asks . . .

My players tell me they’re having a good time, but sometimes I see them fidgeting or looking at their phones when the spotlight isn’t on them.

How do you keep the players engaged when it’s not their turn?

Brian. Keeping engagement up is tricky. I prefer to appeal to their adulthood. “X watched your turn, so watch Y’s turn.” But everyone has side conversations (hopefully in character) from time to time.

Dramatic descriptions help , especially if the acting player doesn’t do so themselves. When the player makes their turn without description, I’ll take the reins and fill in details to make it more exciting. Sometimes it’s hard to remember to do that enough, but dramatic storytelling can help engage the other players.

Basheer. It’s never a problem for me if players aren’t engaged outside their turn unless something tactically important is happening. When I need to, I’ll narrate a large-scale change to the battle, keeping it fresh and evolving to pull everyone back in.

Fundamentally, it isn’t an issue for me if players don’t pay attention to monster turns. Zombies 2 through 6 are doing little of note, until someone gets pulled down and assimilated into the horde.

Ben Mc. I like to prompt the players by asking them to contribute in describing the battlefield, their own actions, or the combatants. How and when players disengage from the scenario is important, because it tells you what they value in the session. If they habitually disengage, just ask what they prefer, to treat the root cause of disinterest rather than the symptoms.

Phillip. The big question a GM asks thmeself in this situation, “Is it something I did?” I like to consider how I practice time management while GMing. Players become disengaged when the GM takes too long to run encounters or describe situations, particularly if the party is split and characters are doing different things.

Getting players to prepare their actions between turns can go a long way to mitigating the issue. Also, setting a time limit for players to decide on tactics can speed up play and keep players on their toes until their turn comes around.

Mike. I sympathize . . . I’m just as guilty! A recap of the previous action sounds nice, but it might be too much work for the GM. At any rate, I just hope fellow players and GMs can be patient with me if I ask a question that might seem to have an obvious answer. Yes, I realize the responsibility for keeping up with the game is on me, but I’m not going to be 100% vested all the time.

Planned breaks, especially in longer games, help hold my attention. I know they can’t be scheduled because combats take however long they have to take but having the grace to take a breather keeps the experience from being overtaxing.

Sebastian. As a player, I’m in Mike’s boat. It’s a lot harder for a player to be engaged all the time compared to the GM. And all attention spans are not equal.

As a GM though, when I find the players are not as engaged as I need them to be, I step out from behind the GM screen and sit next to them as I run the encounter. That never fails to get attention. When you put away the books and roll dice in front of everyone, it commands attention real quick.

I’ll use a notepad with tallies for initiative order, monster health, and relevant statistics to keep the rote memorization to a minimum and really just try to connect with everyone on an imaginative level. This is hard to pull off virtually, but it really changes the tone during in-person games and is one of my favorite storytelling/GMing tactics.

Ben. A roleplaying game is a shared imagination activity. As such, it’s incumbent on me to involve the players in the story. While exploring, I ask players about what they see and then make their answers relevant within the game.

In combat, I sometimes ask the players to roll dice for me, especially for recharge traits or some other limited feature. Other times, I’ll have the last player roll the monster’s saving throw against a spell effect, especially if that player’s character didn’t get to do much or succeed on their own turn.

Finally, if I notice that combat is starting to drag and the players are glued to their phones, I wrap up the battle. After all, no one really knows how many hit points the monsters have, and if no one is paying attention, let’s just move on to something that might grab them more.

What Do You Think?

How would you handle this situation? Let us know in the comments!

Do you have a question for the pack? Let our pros weigh in on your tough questions. Then check back first Friday of each month for more Pack Tactics!

about Sebastian Rombach

We can neither confirm nor deny that Sebastian is actually three raccoons in a trenchcoat. His freelance contributions can be found in Tome of Beasts 2, Tome of Heroes, and more. You can roll dice with him at https://startplaying.games/gm/dontbreakthedm or follow him on Twitter and Instagram @dontbreakthedm.

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