Keeping your players interested at the table can be difficult as a new or experienced GM. But with a combination of player involvement and open communication players can be encouraged to stay more focused during the game.

I made a video about this and you can watch it below if you like:

Here are the main points I bring up in the video.

Group expectations

Before the campaign starts, establish a set of expectations.

  • How long will the sessions be?

  • How many sessions will there be?

Try to think of your game as a scheduled meeting. If you were at a meeting at work or a class in school and it was scheduled to last for only two hours, but it ended up going for six hours, what would you do? Players may not feel like they can keep their attention on any one task for longer than a certain period of time. It could be that a session that lasts longer than two hours is going to wear people out. People have a certain amount of capacity to pay attention, this is not a bad thing. Planning your time and doing your best to stick to your time will help players know in advance, consciously or unconsciously, to prepare a certain amount of energy.

Use character names

From the moment the session starts and you’re in GM mode I remind myself that the players at the table need to be addressed by their character names. I’ve found this to be very helpful to keep players focused on the game during the session. Even when it comes to asking players about their characters in game I won’t use the player’s name. If Bruce is playing a paladin named Ruffles I won’t say, “Bruce how are you feeling?" Or "How is Ruffles feeling Bruce?” Instead I’ll say “How is Ruffles feeling?”

Bruce inherently knows that he is playing Ruffles so there’s no need to include his player name. Unless Bruce is on fire or something else is happening that absolutely requires me to use his name, I am referring to him as Ruffles. I think this helps to drive home the idea that he is involved in the game and hearing a characters name helps people to jump into a stay in character.

Describe Describe Describe

Adding detail can be an important part of increasing the involvement of your players into the world but it can also help to keep them focused. Each action the players take is an opportunity for more description. Each attack, each piece of setting, each introduction to a new NPC. Adding even a small amount of description in any of those settings can help to bring life to your setting and help the players to stay engaged. Combat is a great time to practice this skill. If a player hits their target try not to blow past it. With a simple “you hit the ogre”. Try to add just a little flavor. “Ruffles chops his sword down onto the ogre's arm with a thump.” It's even great to do this when your players miss!

If you are constantly describing small pieces of the world you can periodically include something important. When you do eventually drop a description of something important your players your players may pick it up or they may miss it. (A distinctive eye patch that a character wears). Later, when that eye patch is found at a strange location your players may not remember it, but you can still give their characters a chance to remember. You can then explain, kindly, that you did mention the shape of the eye patch and utilize that kind of information as incentive to help your players pay a little more attention.

Do something my character would do

I've been running RPGs a for a few years and I have had more than a few players with ADHD. Here's something that one of the players told me about how they stay engaged when the focus isn't on them. It's brilliant and I've recommended it ever since. They said:

"I try to do something that my character would do."

The player with ADHD was playing a wizard, so they figured they should be doing something involving magical research. During each session whenever the action was on another player they would transcribe spells they could prepare into a notebook. They were able to stay engaged in the game, but they were also able to exercise their mind enough to not feel pent up. They may doodle in the margins and get fancy with the colors and just go wild.

I've since used this idea to great effects with other players with ADHD. If I have a bard I recommend that they could pluck away on a guitar they may own. Or, when we're playing in person I let the players know if they want to stand up and walk around the room it's totally fine. The thing about players with ADHD that I try to remember is that they express their energy in different ways.

Move around the space

Moving around the playing space is also one of my favorite things to do. Staying sitting at a table as a GM really feels restrictive to me. Standing up and moving around a table can provide added interaction with your players. Delivering speeches from a sitting position isn’t the only way to engage. When I’m running a game and I’m role playing some characters I will walk around the room, change my gait, my posture, my physical idiosyncrasies.

Sitting at a table only really allows you to engage from the waist up. And with so much of the way humans communicate being non verbal it makes sense that you could express lots of information to your players by alternating your position in the space. If your players have to turn around or even just adjust where they’re looking you can engage them more effectively

Intentional check in

If you are having doubts about your game or you notice that your players are not staying engaged and overall, not staying focused, talk to them. You can ask your players “What can we do to make the game more enjoyable?” Or maybe a simple “What’s going on?”

There are two parts of this conversation that need to be carefully considered.

  • The language you choose.

  • Who you address these questions to

The language you choose to ask these questions can be helpful if you approach your problem solving from a solution focused perspective. This means instead of focusing on the problem you choose to ask for solutions. It’s not “What am I doing wrong?” it’s “What can we change?”

There is a lot to the idea of solution focused questioning but try to keep this basic principle in mind. When you’re asking a player about their level of engagement are you asking about the problem that exists, or are you asking about how the situation could be improved? The other consideration to keep in mind is who do you talk to? Is it one player that’s disengaged or do you feel like the whole group would benefit from a conversation. You need to make that choice. Asking players for input may seem daunting but it can lead to some very valuable information. It can help you understand what your players may want to do differently.

Don’t take it personally.

Having a conversation with your players about what kind of game they are expecting is oftentimes an essential part of the puzzle. If players are checking out it may be because they have a different level of expectation about the game. Not taking it personally when a player checks out can be really hard to do. You may be trying your best but they still seem disinterested. If your players aren’t having a good time and you’re trying to improve your skills as a game master it’s important to listen to what your players have to say. But it’s also important to remember that if you’re making mistakes, you’re not a bad person. If you’re not being bigoted, sexist or abusive to your players and you really are trying to listen to what they have to say, just try to remember, improvement comes with practice. Nobody gets anything right on the first try. Yes there are exceptions to everything but for most of us learning how to do something as complicated as being a GM takes time and practice.