In this lab, we'll be talking about facilitating situational learning, increasing participation and immersion into the game and enabling free innovation to take place. Innovation is not something that can be created; but we can create a space that will foster innovation, so that when the players are actively playing, they are thinking always about how to better do something they already know.
Getting your players to start the game focused and ready for a session is challenging enough. Even once the game has begun, there's nothing unusual about having some of the players zone out. This is especially understandable if one or more players seizes much of the DM's attention or if the player has a motive for participating that is separate from the others. Surprising for some, there are players who don't see their attendance as an opportunity to game; they participate because their friends are participating, they have nowhere else to be or they enjoy the company and conversation that occurs between the game.
Pay close attention to player engagement throughout your sessions and identify yourself the reasons why each player has chosen to play. One key factor you can use to produce your evaluation is to determine how much "dead time" each player contributes to a given session. Dead time is time in which no actual gaming takes place. Dead time does not include players asking questions about their characters, the rules or the setting; it does not include planning, nor buying equipment; dead time refers only to those moments when the role-playing game does not figure in the conversation.
Players with little invested in the game will contribute a lot to dead time. They will disrupt games with personal stories, anachronistic jokes and movie references, chatting on the side with other players during the game, showing off physical tricks like spinning dice or discussing other games played with other people. All players do this to some extent, as do DMs; dead time is natural. It can support group camaraderie and be generally fun. Dead time should not be eliminated from the game experience! However, it is possible by observing who creates more dead time than their companions, and who does it most often at inopportune moments.
Reducing dead time during a campaign can be difficult. We don't want to crack down hard every time someone makes a disconnected comment. There are better methods to engage the players without policing ~ in fact, if a game does rely on policing, with anyone constantly chafing about how little time there is left before we stop or urging the players to "get focused," something has already gone terribly wrong. The reduction of dead time should happen because the players want to play, not because someone is barking orders for them to pay attention.
Start your games with 15-30 minutes of chat time, and participate yourself as a DM! Do not bury yourself in your game books, your planned adventure or behind your screen. The beginning of a session is an opportunity to break barriers, enabling spontaneous conversation and encouraging ties between player-and-player and between party-and-DM. Players will be open with their ideas if those ideas will get a fair shake ~ so as a DM, during the warm-up, do not dominate the conversation. Keep your comments short, be prepared to answer hard questions while asking softball questions of your own. Demonstrate good spirits. The players will have fun if you are having fun. You may feel this undermines your control, your authority or your dramatic influence, but chances are you cling to those ideas because you feel protected by them. By acting in a guarded manner, you make your players guarded; and being on the defense, few players will advance innovative ideas. In the long run, this will stultify your games and you'll be fighting constantly to amuse your players, when you could be helping them amuse themselves.
Encourage your players to discuss things before entering into long-term actions. You will find that some of your players, anxious to keep secrets from the DM (certain that a prepared DM will use the forewarning to quash their plan), will also keep secrets from the other players. Ask directly if this is their reason for playing their cards close and if they say yes, answer clearly, "I understand perfectly." Encourage players to get up from the table and move away if they need to keep their plans secret from you. Offer to leave yourself. The players must learn to trust each other, they must learn to work together, they must treat their player sheets as open access inside the party. Situated learning cannot take place if the players view their knowledge as property that should not be shared.
Many players will come from games where this was a necessity, as they learned property that was shared was often taken away from them, both by other players and by the DM. Situated learning demands trust; and trust requires openness. Protect the players' ideas, nurture them and disallow other players to exploit the knowledge of their fellows. Do not permit player-vs-player tactics of any kind. Situational learning cannot grow in competitive, miserly surroundings.
If the players begin to get frustrated about a plan they're devising, a combat that is going against them or due to some disagreement, call a break of at least 10-15 minutes. Tell people they should use the facilities, make some popcorn, encourage people to get up and stretch. Get them to separate themselves from the table, at least for a minute or so. Show something on your phone or computer that will get their minds off things. A problem is always easier to manage if approached once minds are allowed to freshen and tensions are allowed to relax. This is not "dead time." This is a refueling opportunity for everyone, so that when they return to the game they are more able to be focused and engaged.
Run a tight ship. Maintain an order of play and make players wait for their turn to explain what their characters do in a situation. Use the same order for any given session throughout the night, helping players to estimate how much time they have before you'll ask them what to do on their turn. Skip anyone who takes excessive time to make up their minds, telling them they are lost in thought and that for that round, they do nothing. Players will get into a rhythm if they know what the rhythm is.
Do not let anyone roll dice without confirming it is the right time to do so. General chatter can be permitted at times, but anyone speaking to the DM should be allowed to do so in relative silence. Allow phone use or computer use in reason, but feel free to berate anyone who has obviously started a video game to fill up time. You'll find your unengaged players doing this a lot. Live with it or don't invite them back. Fighting it will only build resentment, a greater will to play on the side secretively and it is clear the player isn't really here to play. A better answer is to produce a better game experience that results in their wanting to put their phones down and be engaged. This will take time. I suggest turning a blind eye to player time-wasting practices unless it actively creates dead time, in which case address it directly with a threat that they're free to do something else somewhere else.
Some DMs don't have the power to do that, because of the players they have of the venue they've chosen. This is not a benefit to the group and will not produce a successful innovative culture.
There are many DMs who argue at present that everyone deserves their time in the spotlight. This is a simple-minded way of expressing that the DM should be fair towards every player and should not be taken literally. A better way of expressing it is to ensure that everyone has a chance to participate if they want to, to silence the group if one of the quieter members wants to speak up, to design obstacles that will require every player's skill set to overcome and to subvert players who want to do all the speaking and all the doing all of the time. A good metaphor is to let the right fielder field the ball, and to stop the center fielder from running in and fielding the ball instead ~ which happens all the time in baseball, and which good coaches stop from happening. Right fielders need practice to get better; quiet wizards in the party needs practice to know how and when to cast spells, without help. Do for people and they will learn to let others do for them. Teach them to help themselves and to feel encouraged when doing so, and they will do their part without being asked.
While creating obstacles that use the full skill set of the whole party, create series of obstacles that cannot be gotten past without consideration and planning. During this participation, get the players to account for themselves and their abilities. If a fighter asks, "Can the wizard cast such and such a spell from here?", tell the fighter to ask the wizard. If anyone asks a question for which there is no reasonable way for them to know the answer ~ "If we roll this stone down this hill, will it smash the front gate and break it open?" ~ tell them the size of the stone and the size of the gate, and that there is a chance the stone will miss the gate completely (how do you aim it?), but don't say if a plan will succeed. Never answer any question about the future. Never answer any question about something the players can't see or measure, and never tell them what someone else might be thinking or planning. Never give anyone's reason for building or placing anything, anywhere, unless it is written in a book or on a plaque the players are reading, or the maker tells the players personally. Players are only entitled to know what they have reasonably observed with their five senses.
Give them a complete detail of everything they can see or touch. When creating obstacles, don't create the way around the obstacle also. That is a sure-fire way to kill innovation, since the players won't learn to innovate, they'll learn to search the area for the solution you created. Far too many players have already learned this lesson from far too many DMs.
Research your material. A lot. This will give you ideas. If you speak about your research, this will enable the players to research your material also; if you are consistent to your game material, this consistently will transfer to the players also, so that the time they invest reading and expanding their knowledge won't be wasted when they come to apply it in your game.
Arrive early for your games, so that you can do any last minute preparations before warming the players up when they arrive. Plan for lots of interaction between the players and don't hurry them unless planning transforms into dead time (as it often will).
Set your expectations for what you want the players to accomplish this session, obviously without detail; "I'm hoping you get inside the tower tonight" or "I'd like to get the town portion of this adventure tidied up before we're done." This goal-setting encourages the players to believe there's an end to the present trial and that it is in reach. It also sets them up for believing something better is coming around the bend.
Finally, keep things moving. Players tend to overthink and it goes nowhere. Nip it in the bud, even if you have to break the fourth wall to do so.