It’s the most common gaming story I hear. A group flies off the rails. The session, and maybe even the campaign, descends into chaos. Often it’s hilarious, or tragic. Regardless, the Game Master is probably frustrated (even if they don’t show it at the table). To help, here is my guide to help Keep Things Focused.
Deny Your Ego
How your session goes has no bearing on your value as a gamer or a person. Role Playing Games are too fragile for that. The only stakes are that this collection of people have fun. If you do, the game is successful. Anything you create that the players don’t encounter is just something you can use in another session.
Think of a time you were playing a video game and you could not figure out how to move on to the next thing. Frustrating! Game Stop is full of games I got annoyed with and sold back to them. This is what players feel all the time. Part of the GM’s job is to help the players know what to do, and almost everyone struggles with it.
Do not hesitate to hit your players over the head with what they are supposed to accomplish. Stop at regular intervals in the session and recap what the characters are doing and where they are heading. Repeat yourself. Be brazen with where you want them to go. Your players will appreciate it.
One of the best ways to do this is by making the planned choices “shiney”. A well designed video game will make points of interest stand out with good design. They make the interesting things literally shine. You can do this in your RPG scenes by highlighting things that you want the characters to interact with.
Does this feel like railroading? OK, make two or three things in the scene shiney, and let the player choose what they want to interact with in what order. Voila! Agency and choice!
When running a session, you need to leave as few gaps in player’s attention as possible. Don’t leave “dead air” at the table while you dither about, or look things up. It’s far better to just guess at what you might have intended as the next thing than to take thirty seconds to look up the “right” answer. Stay flexible. Pauses in the game make players minds wander, and they start looking for ways to spice things up. Pauses are an invitation for mischief.
Don’t worry too much about it making sense. Your players will come up with all kinds of conspiracy theories to make stuff make sense. Just use one of those!
Keep your eye on the players faces and body language. If they look bored, make something happen! Always be moving.
Control the Camera
You know those moments when you ask the players, “So what do you do?” and you get crickets? Stop asking that question. Instead, describe the situation, then call on one player, asking, “What is your character going to do?”. Focus on that character only until something interesting happens (and make sure whatever they choose, that something interesting happens). Then move on to the next player, going around the table until everyone has had a chance to do something. State outright that this is what you are doing. This will have the pleasant effect of keeping everyone’s attention on what is happening, because they are guaranteed something interesting will happen!
What you need to do as a GM is make sure you are moving that spotlight quickly and regularly. Giving everyone a chance to shine before they get restless and start making their own fun.
I think of this as controlling the camera. As a GM, we get to determine where attention is focused and for how long. By overtly stating that you are moving the camera around, you help keep attention, just like TV or Movies.
And Some Important Don’ts
Do not use a magical compulsion or other sort of mind control to force the characters to take a path. No matter how good your intentions, this is robbing the players of their agency, and breaks trust. You would be better served to just break character for a second, say “I’m going to move us on to the next scene,” and move on.
Don’t make fun of the characters or players for their choices. I’ve had some GMs that use snide remarks when my characters are going in a direction they intended. This behavior makes a player feel dumb at best, and at worst, builds resentment.
Avoid the temptation to make the wrong direction boring. Many times as a GM, when we see a character wheeling away from what we’ve prepared, we counter by just making nothing interesting in that direction, hoping they’ll turn back. This usually makes the player more apt to act out to try to force something to happen. Remember, the player probably chose that direction because you didn’t make the direction you wanted shiney enough.
Don’t make NPCs resistant to giving players information. Don’t make the players work hard to get the clue to the next scene. If the players choose to work hard to get more information, reward them!
What about those times when a player is just being obstinate, and keeps pushing things in directions you don’t intend? You need to make a judgement call. There are three reasons for this. 1) The player doesn’t get it (maybe due to a social or maturity issue), 2) The player wants a different game than you, or 3) The player is an asshole.
The first two are solved by a quick bit of feedback, telling the player directly and kindly that they’re behavior is disruptive and unpleasant. If that feedback doesn’t work, then they are likely the final option, and should not be invited back to the table.
I have far more to say on this topic. I consider controlling player attention to be an intermediate to advanced GM skill, and it takes time, practice, and a bit of courage to develop.