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:
- Respect– The foundation to any kind of focus is mutual respect. Everyone at the table has given up time from other things in their lives to take part in the game. Giving respect to that, by not interrupting the game is essential. No matter how well intended, this is not the solution, but it is crucial for anything else to work.
- Reserve Time– Before I start a session and after I end one, I plan in time for the group to get together and chat and catch up with each other. While this did not quell all sidebars at the table, it has helped, by unloading all the major discussion before the game started.
- Bouncer– I have in previous groups and campaigns made one of the players the Bouncer for the table; breaking up side conversations and reminding the group to stay focused. The Bouncer typically gets a little in-game bonus for their extra work. This tactic works, unless the Bouncer becomes part of the discussion (which happens), but it also makes the Bouncer the “bad guy” at the table.
- Punishment– At times, mostly when I was much younger, I would punish players not paying attention. I might skip their turn in the combat, because they were not paying attention, or not remind them of a key clue because they were talking during a reveal. This tactic almost never works and typically just pisses people off.
- What you Say…Your Character Says– Once the game starts, everything you say, your character says, so if your player likes to make wise cracks, and makes one about the chastity of the Queen, so does his character. Next thing you know your character is being drawn and quartered in the town square. I have never been able to pull this one off with any kind of success.
The Story Candle
Last year I got a copy of Houses of the Blooded  by John Wick , 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  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 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.
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?