This column provides advice for DMs whose campaigns are in trouble. Do your players constantly bicker or complain about issues both inside and outside of the main campaign action? Do your best ideas fall flat? Have you set up a situation that you now wish you hadn't? Worry no more, because Jason Nelson-Brown has the answers to save your game!
Problem: Too Much Table Talk
I am currently DM of a group that consists of a knight, a monk, a favored soul, a warmage, a rogue, and a warlock. They are all 3rd level. You'd think it would be a perfect group, since it has a warrior, a back-up warrior, a healer, a mage, an expert, and a back-up spell-caster -- everything a group needs and a bit more. The problem is that all the players are incredibly good friends, and they talk constantly. I can never get a word in edge-ways it seems. There are usually one or two people paying attention at a time: The rest are chatting and not paying any attention to what's going on.
For example, when I'm trying to explain what loot the party is getting from the orcs they just killed, only the knight is paying attention. So, I just sit back and wait. Eventually the one person who is paying attention gets the hint and tells the others to be quiet. Finally they shut up. So I get back up, and what happens? They all start talking again. It's maddening. After every meeting, my voice is hoarse.
Is this normal behavior for a group? Are my expectations too high? Am I just over-sensitive? My group and I are all middle-schoolers.
-- Noah, from AskWizards.com
The answer to all three of your questions is yes -- to an extent. The problems you describe are endemic to any gaming group, not just middle-schoolers, though they may be amped up a bit by the age and maturity level of your players.
I should point out, by the way, that the character classes your players chose has nothing to do with the problem you describe. In-game, any player can play or mis-play any kind of character (in my early days, sadistic paladins and demented monks were the typical offenders), and any player can be loud, obnoxious, and inattentive regardless of what their character is supposed to be.
Fundamentally, D&D is a social game, and part of the point of playing any social game is getting together with your friends. The game itself can almost be incidental. It's no different from getting together with your friends to play Wii or Playstation or Xbox -- you're not really interested in the storyline of the game or gunning for a super high score. It's more about trash-talking with your friends, talking about school and sports and anything else while you play. The game is just what you do while you're hanging out together.
While that is true, it is more of a problem when you transfer that 'hanging out' model to D&D, which requires a different level and kind of attention and focus than Halo or Madden Football. You can't follow the game just by keeping your eyes on the screen. The side conversations that make perfect sense at your console game or over a board game such as Sorry or Monopoly become very distracting during D&D and threaten to drown out actual play of the game.
We covered these same issues recently in the context of very large groups of players, but they can be equally true with small groups, especially when everyone really likes hanging out together. The question is what you should do about it.
I would say your approach has been too passive. You just sit back and hope the players notice that you're upset, or that the one player who is trying to play the game will notice and corral the others, and that the inattentive players, shamed into being more compliant, will suddenly around turn their behavior. By not confronting them directly, you are in your own way enabling them to continue dominating the game. You are wasting minutes of game time by letting things keep going and hoping they'll get better on their own. You're ignoring plenty of evidence which shows that isn't going to happen.
Much of being a DM is a management job. You need to show leadership here. It isn't about being a dictator or a tyrant, but it is about creating a climate of respect for one another and for the time and resources of the group as a whole. People can mention things not related to the game, share a joke, or anything else -- we aren't conversation Nazis. Those asides need to be kept short and sweet, and then everyone gets back to the game. Chatty players need to understand that, while they are enjoying their conversation about the movie they saw last night, the rest of the group has to stop and wait for them, and that's rude. Just sitting and hoping they'll notice that they are stealing the group's time is probably pointless. If they were able or willing to get that message, they would have done so already. It needs to be pointed out to them directly -- and by you.
Don't be afraid of being 'the bad guy'. You are the DM, and you are supposed to manage the game, so manage it. That's part of the job. Other players can help you and back you up (your knight player in the example), but you need to be the one taking charge. If you show your players that they can walk all over you, they will -- as it sounds like they have been.
That said, don't assume this is purely a player problem. As always, take a look in the mirror at your DMing style, the adventures you create, and talk to the players. It's possible they are talking so much because their interest in the adventure is waning, or the way you run it does not hold their attention, or their characters don't have much to do at the moment. Find out why they are unable or unwilling to focus on the game. Maybe your DMing style and their playing style are not compatible. Maybe it's time to hand the reins over to someone else to run the game for a while, both to give the players a chance to see someone else's approach and style (maybe they'll appreciate yours a little more once they experience the alternative) and to let one of your chatty players experience how player chattiness affects things from the other side of the screen.
You might also think about giving your players more to do during a game session. The rest of your question (which we will address next week) suggests that your DMing is very you-centered. You are trying to create and describe a richly detailed world, but if the D&D game is all about "look at me" and "listen to my story," then it's not surprising if players' minds wander. As a DM, you cannot be a diva with the focus all on you. You are the manager, but you are not there to be the center of attention. When players feel they are just observers, they won't feel real engagement in the game, and they'll get bored and start chatting to fill the time waiting for their chance to participate instead of just riding down the railroad you've carefully built for them.
Have a question for the Save My Game column? Head over to the message boards: What's a DM to Do or What's a Player to Do. Be sure to include "Save My Game" as part of your message's title. Or, send us a question directly, to Ask Wizards.
About the Author
Jason Nelson-Brown lives in Seattle with his wife Kelle, daughters Meshia and Indigo, and son Allen. He just finished his doctorate in education and is an active and committed born-again Christian who began playing D&D in 1981.