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Keeping The Focus

Jokes. Movie quotes. What happened in Fringe last week. Talk about the new supplement that is coming out. Dinner plans. Discussion about why the new WOW update is the reason to join/leave. These things swirl about the game table every session. When left unchecked they can break down the 4th wall of the game, cause players to miss key information, and grind a session to a halt. It is frustrating to the GM and to the players, even when both are guilty parties.

Keeping focus at the table is by no means a new issue, nor is it one without many suggestions, recipes, old GM’s tales, etc. Over the years I have had a number of attempts on how to keep focus, and recently found one that works well with my group, and I wanted to credit it’s designer, and then share a modification I made to it with you.  But first…

Some Past Attempts

Before I get into my latest attempt to keep focus at the table, I have tried a few different things, each with some success. A few of my solutions included:

The Story Candle

Last year I got a copy of Houses of the Blooded [1] by John Wick [2], and later the sister game, Blood & Honor. In the GMing chapter for both games, there is a reference to something John uses, the Story Candle. It works like this:  when John lights the candle, the game begins; no jokes, no movie quotes, just the game. Then at the end of the game, John extinguishes the candle, the game ends, and everyone can quote Monte Python until the next game.

I really dug the concept of the candle, but I was not planning on playing by candlelight. So I looked for some alternatives. I was at the time running Blood & Honor, a Samurai game, so after digging through some storage boxes, I found a sake set that I got for a wedding present. I then re-purposed the sake bottle to be my story candle. When the sake bottle was placed on the game table, the game began.

Something More Generic

Eventually my Blood & Honor game ran its course, and my group settled on another Corporation [3] campaign. Now I was stuck, because the sake bottle is not really appropriate for a 26th century sci-fi game. I started down the route of looking for something that would fit the setting: a toy ship, an airsoft pistol, a replica grenade, etc. Then I decided to go more generic. I know that I am going to be playing all sorts of games in the future, and I did not want as part of my campaign prep to find another “story candle”.

After some thought, and aimless Internet wandering, I settled on my new story candle.

This is the 75mm Blue/White marble d6 by Kaplow Games [4] (purchased online at Nobel Knight Games [5]). With the exception of a few games, a die will always look right on my gaming table.

This past Friday, I was able to give the Big d6 a test drive. After talking to the players about my intentions (several of which had played in my B&H game), I took the Big d6 out from its die pouch. I asked everyone if they had anything else they needed to say, and when everyone was quiet, I placed the Big d6 down on the table and the game was started; focus was excellent.  After a few hours of play, I removed the Big d6 for a break and everyone switched gears, chatting and joking. When the break was done the Big d6 went back down on the table, until the end of the night. The end result was great. Everyone remained focused and we covered a lot of in-game material.

It’s Not a Magical d6

The Big d6 did not hold control over anyone at the table, but it did create a symbol that everyone understood and respected. Everyone in the group wanted to be focused, but in the past we would become distracted or forget. The same thing happened at that session, but the difference was that when there was a break in focus, someone at the table patted the Big d6 and focus returned. The symbol reinforced what we all wanted.

Focus Now

Keeping focus at the table is key to a rich game. Focus allows players to remain in character, and connect in the shared world you are all creating. Focus allows a GM to move through their session notes, allowing the plot (and characters) to progress. When focus is disrupted valuable gaming time can be lost, not only in the material lost, but the time it takes to return to that immersion in the game.

Having a technique for keeping focus at the table is an important GM tool. How do you keep focus at your table? Do you employ any items or rituals?

25 Comments (Open | Close)

25 Comments To "Keeping The Focus"

#1 Comment By Gamerprinter On January 20, 2011 @ 1:52 am

This is a problem some tables have…really?

At our table, all small talk, jokes, industry news, personal things are spent at the start or following the actual game session – never during the game. And not because of some enforcement on mine or another DM’s part. I’ve never experienced this problem you describe – I guess I’m lucky in playing with reasonable people.

I can’t even come up with a list of helpful techniques as you do, as this problem is simply alien to me. I certainly don’t envy those other tables that have this problem…

#2 Comment By Clawfoot On January 20, 2011 @ 5:18 am

Table-talk does sometimes happen in my games, especially if something really funny just happened and we spin off into a round of horrible puns or something. I tend to let it happen within reason, (and to be honest, sometimes I’ve been grateful for the opportunity to call a bathroom break or to go refresh my drink). It’s always a judgment call. Sometimes I let it go for a few minutes, sometimes only for a few seconds.

My players, however, are well-trained. When I decide it’s time to get back to the game, all I have to do is raise my hand and say, “And three… two… one…” and the table responds immediately. They know what that means, and by the time my hand comes down again, we’re all back in the game.

If I find I have to do that more than twice within a short time frame, then I just let the table-talk happen and we can continue game another time. No sense in forcing people to play when they’re not in the mood.

#3 Comment By DNAphil On January 20, 2011 @ 6:31 am

@Gamerprinter– the problem does exist. In my group, it happens often because we do not see each other during the week, like we did when we were younger. Also, there are a lot of shared jokes, quotes and such, that come up during the course of a game, which can derail things.

@Clawfood– for my group, we can usually turn it around, after someone notices we are off track and wandering. What I like about the Big d6 is that with it on the table, most people think of not saying something, and saving it for a break, rather that disrupting the game first. What I found is that rather than having a bunch of little breaks during the session, that people now save up their comments for the break, when the Big d6 comes up off the table.

#4 Comment By shadowacid On January 20, 2011 @ 9:02 am

For my group a use two things to keep focus. I have everyone arrive an hour to an hour and a half ahead of time. This is when we talk, eat, trade stories, and let my 3 year-old son flirt with one of our players. At 8pm the boy goes to bed, everyone gathers at the table and play begins.

To start the game I use a version of the “game candle” that a GM of mine used in high school to good effect. Every session starts with a loud, Mr. Miyagi style, clap of the hands. The sound and visual helps draw the players to me and that’s when I start my opening description. To end the game I clap again and we know the game is off.

#5 Comment By Gamerprinter On January 20, 2011 @ 9:12 am

We actually usually play a game of cards waiting for all the players to arrive, and get our small talk out of the way during that time. Anything especially to talk about is brought out when the first arrive.

Then we get technical questions about mechanics to help us understand something that seemed amiss in the last session. Finally we get into character and the rest of the world fades away – until the sessions over.

This is what I experience – as stated never break aways in game, that never happens. I don’t mean to insinuate that the problem doesn’t exist at all, just not at my table.

#6 Comment By evil On January 20, 2011 @ 9:28 am

Since I tend to run fairly light games, I allow some table talk. If it gets too bad, I’ll immediately call a break (I tend to schedule one or two per game). At that point everyone must get up from the table and move somewhere else (to the bathroom, to the snack sidebar, to the tv to check game scores, etc). After a couple of minutes, I’ll call everyone back and tell them to get their game face on. This works for me every single time, but I could see how it wouldn’t work for some groups.

#7 Comment By Shaun Welch On January 20, 2011 @ 10:28 am

“Long ago, the people were dying at the end of the world…”

The game candle idea is a pretty good one I’ve seen in more and more games lately. I need to use one of my own.

I think the amount of table talk and joking I’m willing to deal with is based on the kind of game I’m running, and with what players. I tend to take my games pretty seriously, but right now I’m DMing for a new group of D&D players at my store. They’re on the cusp of entering college, and a few of them have silly names and there is a lot of joking. It grated on me at first but I’ve gone with it because, well, it’s their game and they’re all new.

When I ran D&D for my old college group, on the other hand, we did some joking but everyone was largely on task. During my World of Darkness chronicle, I asked that people not joke about things while we were in the middle of the game, and everyone did admirably. It set the tone really well for a horror game. (Also, psychologically disturbing props.)

I dislike the Bouncer idea, mostly because I don’t like giving people in-game rewards for out-of-game actions. (You want me to give you XP for this eight-page monstrosity you call a backstory? Pfah!) I also agree that punishment and “what you say, your character says” are pretty useless. I have, in fact, quit games myself for just such reasons. It’s basically mild social abuse, and one of the things I’m rather glad RPGs have gotten away from. If you don’t like the way someone plays, ask them to leave. Then don’t invite them to future campaigns.

Also, Phil and I appear to have the same sake bottle!

#8 Comment By DNAphil On January 20, 2011 @ 10:30 am

Seems like a lot of people use the Reserve Time tactic. I am a big fan of this and cannot remember a time now where I did not have that in place.

@Shadowacid– The putting of the Big d6 on the table is much like your big clap. I do make an exaggerated arc where the die goes from my side table onto the table.

@Gamerprinter– I also have a section of my pre-game where I cover any business, like handing out points, mechanics, etc.

@evil– I typically have 2 breaks in my game, but I never schedule them. I should consider actually scheduling them in my notes.

Great comments everyone.

#9 Comment By BishopOfBattle On January 20, 2011 @ 10:49 am

You mean saying, “Hey… Hey! Shut it you jerks!” is not the best way to handle cross chatter? ^_~

This last year I moved a few hours away from my group, so we’ve ended up running a lot of games with my GMing (and occassionally playing) by Webcam with all the players on the other end in a room at a table with a laptop setup. It works pretty well, but the biggest problem is cross chatter. Its more difficult to tune out individual voices when they’re all coming from the same speakers which makes it hard to communicate with whichever player I’m focused on at the time.

Generally I try to ensure that there is at least a short bit of talk time before the session gets going, but I’ll have to see if some of the above ideas can be adapted for use in a game where I’m not in the room with the players.

#10 Comment By Patrick Benson On January 20, 2011 @ 11:00 am

I am going to get me a story “candle” immediately now. Excellent tactic Phil! I am going to read Houses of the Blooded now too.

For me the tactic is to stand up. When I am standing I am GMing. If you start talking about the latest gizmo or you want to start telling a funny story not related to the game I move towards you and start GMing there. Not to intimidate, but to remind you that a game is going on.

Is that a good tactic? Depends on the group. It brings attention to the distraction, and it brings competition for attention to the distraction creator. So if you have a person who insists on continuing to talk about non-game stuff it can turn ugly. But most players stop talking when they see me approaching, and realize that they are interrupting the game.

That is what strikes me odd about most distractions – the players do not intend to distract others from the game. It just sort of happens as a tension breaker. That is why regular breaks help quite a bit too with keeping distractions to a minimum.

#11 Comment By beldar1215 On January 20, 2011 @ 12:19 pm

I have this problem in all three groups I run/play in. I run into issues with people on their phones/texting,having side conversations, etc. The phone thing bothers me the most!! I think if I tried any of these ideas all three groups would look at me like I was crazy. I always get the “we are all here to have fun, blah,blah,blah.” I think I just take the game more seriously than any of the others in my groups. I wish I could do something like this, but just don’t think it would fly.


#12 Comment By BryanB On January 20, 2011 @ 1:06 pm

I really like the idea of the “story candle.”

My regular group typically meets only twice a month and it is natural to chit chat about what is going on in each others lives. We generally have the first 15-20 minutes be about catching up and enjoying the social aspects of the game. While we do stray from time to time and occasionally lose our focus, we are pretty good about keeping on track during most sessions.

The “story candle” concept, however, seems like a good way to visualize what we already do in practice.

#13 Comment By black campbell On January 20, 2011 @ 1:33 pm

We have plenty of table chatter, but most nights it enhances the play. Occasionally, it’ll pull us off track (we had an in-character argument that had to get broken up by another player, but it was in-character…all good!) Besides, we’re not on stage or getting paid for this; it’s a chance to get together with friends and enjoy ourselves by telling a collective story.

Some nights, it’s obvious that gaming is not what we’re in the mood to do, and if that’s the case, the books get closed, the moths get opened, and we still enjoy ourselves. Some nights, it gets too rowdy and the GM has to pull it back on track, but that’s to be expected from time to time.

#14 Comment By Roxysteve On January 20, 2011 @ 1:47 pm

You forgot one tactic: Don’t sweat it, the game will restart soon.

If you as the GM are being excluded from some out-of-game jibberjabber then maybe it’s a half full glass of water – a chance to quickly review the game so far and figure out why the players would rather be repeating endless heard-em-all-before Python jokes than playing the gripping scenario you sweated blood for three days to pull together.

Or you could use the time taken for that recap of yesterday’s TV show to make tea, or go buy a soda from the FLGS store owner or chop up some more Clementines (a great and refreshing RPG snack food when quartered and served over ice way more healthy than a big bag o’ chips).

I have friends that go on about this as though it was a real problem, but I like face-to-face gaming because of the social aspect as well as the game aspect.

My Friday night Dresden Files RPG sessions could be an hour longer if the players would sit down and pay attention, but it’s their game too and if they want to spend their time in such a way that they only get two hours of play that is as much a consensus decision as are the answers to “what do you expect to do in the campaign”.


#15 Pingback By Table Talk: Is It Really That Much of a Problem? « The Black Campbell On January 20, 2011 @ 2:12 pm

[…] a pretty bloody cool idea…)  DNAPhil over at Gnome Stew has a short post on “Keeping the Focus” that might be handy for people that play like this: “Jokes. Movie quotes. What […]

#16 Comment By Chando42 On January 20, 2011 @ 3:09 pm

My group has this problem, and it’s actually really started to bother me.
I think our problem is that no one is really quite comfortable roleplaying yet. Our most recent session, which was the culmination of a four-session intro campaign, was really fun and well played. However, at any point, two of my three attending players were doodling on a whiteboard or (for pity’s sake) listening to an Ipod. She convinced me that she was listening, but I honestly think that when we start our next session, I’m placing a blanket ban on handheld electronics.
I love the idea of a story candle, and I intend to find one suitable for our DnD game. Excellent article.

#17 Comment By black campbell On January 20, 2011 @ 9:52 pm


Just so, RoxySteve.

Chando — for us it’s a no cell, no iPod game table for the distraction factor. We all agreed early on that unless it’s the spouse/parents/emergency, the phones don’t get answered. I don’t mind if someone is doing a quick look up of something for me (usually not necessary, since I GM off of an iPad.)

#18 Comment By black campbell On January 20, 2011 @ 9:52 pm

I had a sudden idea for using an “ON AIR” light…bloody cool it would be.

#19 Comment By Necrognomicon On January 21, 2011 @ 3:43 am

We tried this before using a conch shell. Sadly, its effectiveness waned, and we ended up dropping a rock on the fat kid then using his glasses to start a signal fire. Oh wait…

Personally I find this problem starts with the DM just as much as the players. As player, I’ve had GMs who disallowed _any_ table talk but would gladly stop play to make sure we “got” whatever cultural reference he inserted into the scenario. As a GM, I know I’ve been derailed by side conversations too. I also find these problems occur mostly with unwieldy systems where actions/turns take too long to resolve. (3rd edition, I’m looking at you.)

One method I’ve experienced (and employed myself) is to make anyone at the table who wishes to speak OOC place their hand on the top of their head. It’s not a ‘comfortable’ position so most people won’t maintain it indefinitely. Looking silly while doing it is just gravy.

#20 Comment By Roxysteve On January 21, 2011 @ 10:55 am

[7] – Built into the GM screen. YES!

#21 Comment By Roxysteve On January 21, 2011 @ 11:06 am

[8] – Oh Azathoth, not the Hand On Head idea again.

If you need to prove who’s the boss in this fashion you’re already on the slippery slope to a “Players Vs GM” situation in my opinion, and that’s a campaign killer.

You know, now I come to think about it, almost everyone I can think of who has claimed to use the HOH thing has reported gratuitous in-game behavior from their players.

Just this morning there was a chap, nice fellow, who posted on a site I use that he was having problems with players exhibiting over the top and out-of-character (yet in-game) behavior – shooting people without provocation, shooting the NPC who they know has the (verbal) clue vital to the game etc etc etc. I remember now that he also mentioned the HOH silliness some weeks ago. I wonder if this is a real correlation or a trick of my memory (untrustworthy, these days)? Worth a check.

I don’t think humiliating the players works to the GM’s advantage. Assuming a desire to continue gaming with the player in question of course. It seems to me a great way to disincentivize the game for a particular player provided everyone is “in” on the deal.

#22 Comment By Roxysteve On January 21, 2011 @ 11:10 am

[iPods] Absolutely. It’s not just rude to the GM, it’s rude to the other players too – an obvious statement that the offender would rather be zoning out than sharing heir company.

I caused sadness to a couple of people at a Con last year because I offered a player a deal: Either play the game or give up the seat and do your email somewhere else. The email won, as did the players, though her friend (who stayed) was mad at me for about an hour or so.

#23 Comment By Harald On January 21, 2011 @ 11:12 am

Hmm, yeah, I know this can be a problem, but as with most things, it has to do with the eye of the Beholder.

The way I see it, the group is basically a bunch of friends hanging out, doing what they like doing. Speaking from own experience, there will be small-talk and off-topic discussions, but since we’re all there to play, we play. If the banter goes on for too long, I’ll grap everyone’s attention, and re-establish the concensual illusion of the game again.

It may be a bit harsh, but I’d say that if there’s someone who’s more interested in talking about RL stuff than gaming, that person is not a gamer, or not into the current game. Should I encounter this, I think I’d talk to him/her about why they aren’t interested in the game. If we can’t work something out, I’d tell that person to stop coming to the game.

#24 Comment By Clawfoot On January 21, 2011 @ 11:38 am

@roxysteve: The hands-on-head thing for out-of-character comments and actions is actually from LARP, and is one of the established gestures (like crossing your arms over your chest to indicate that you are invisible and the like), and if your tabletop players are also LARPers, doing so is as natural as breathing. At the height of my LARPing days, I actually found myself in real-life conversations with people and had to fight the urge to put my hand on my head to make an aside to someone.

It is entirely possible that your group and groups you’ve heard about take very poorly to the HoH suggestion, but depending on the group, it can also work extremely well. I wouldn’t dismiss it out of hand. Er. So to speak. 😉

#25 Pingback By Ravenous Role Playing » Blog Archive » Friday Five: 2011-01-21 On January 22, 2011 @ 7:59 am

[…] Keeping The Focus […]

#26 Comment By Roxysteve On January 24, 2011 @ 12:28 pm

[9] – Even so.

#27 Comment By Katana_Geldar On January 25, 2011 @ 2:21 am

This is why when I have my game sessions, we gather at five and eat before the game with the understanding that dice will start rolling at six. We meet once a week, sometimes less and we need that table talk, but once 6pm rolls around the understanding is phones go off, laptops go away and the game begins.

And frequently, when I can see the group is lagging, I’ll declare breaks. Even as informal as “right, after I have my turn, we’ll have a ten minute break”.

A story candle seems not a bad idea, as I have noticed keeping the group on-task can seem a bit much.