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Hot Button: Distractions

Posted By Walt Ciechanowski On October 23, 2008 @ 7:47 am In Hot Buttons | 25 Comments

What distractions do you tolerate at the gaming table?

When I was young and still playing in my parent’s basement (no, it was not last year! I was still a teenager, honest!), I had a GM that insisted he could run a game with the TV on in the background. Needless to say, every time we played like this, he’d get engrossed with what was on the screen and mentally check out in the middle of a game.

I’ve also been a party to games where players would be creating characters for other campaigns or flipping through books when the spotlight was not on them. The excuse is usually “it’s not my turn, and this keeps me from hearing what my character shouldn’t know about,” but it sometimes sends a different message to the GM and the rest of the group.

Recently, I’ve heard of groups that ban cell phones at the table. While this is a no-no for me as an adult gamer (I’m sorry, but my wife and child come before my hobby), I have actually seen people take a call and spend several minutes on the phone for the most frivolous of reasons.

Speaking of adult gaming, I’ve also been a party to games where young children are running all over the room or playing video games, watching TV, or playing with toys in the gaming area.

So today’s Hot Button is this: What distractions do you tolerate at the gaming table? Have distractions ever disrupted play enough that you quit, the group dissolved, or other major changes were made? Have tolerated distractions actually proven helpful in certain situations?

Walt Ciechanowski

About  Walt Ciechanowski

Walt’s been a game master ever since he accidentally picked up the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set in 1982. He became a freelance RPG writer in 2005 and is currently the Victoriana Line Developer for Cubicle 7. Walt lives in Springfield, PA with his wife Helena and their three children, Leianna, Stephen, and Zoe.




25 Comments (Open | Close)

25 Comments To "Hot Button: Distractions"

#1 Comment By Berin Kinsman On October 23, 2008 @ 8:12 am

The traditional distraction that nearly every group I’ve played with faces is cats. They want attention. They get on the table and find dice and minis fascinating to bat around. They climb into peoples’ laps. But they’re cats. It’s what they do. In one group we actually inducted my wife’s cat as an official member of the group. He’d lay down at one end of the table and watch us, but didn’t interfere. He was part Siamese, so he was chatty. If you looked right at him and said something, he’d answer. So we’d ask his opinion. “Should we kick in the door, Cinder?” “Mrrrooow!” “Okay, we’re gonna kick in the door!”

I will admit that I keep my cell phone with me at games, but it’s because my wife and I both have health issues and we check in on each other via text. I keep it on vibrate so it doesn’t become a distraction, and try to check it while my character is “off screen”. I try to be mindful of the gamemaster and the other players.

#2 Comment By zacharythefirst On October 23, 2008 @ 8:51 am

On the cell phones, we have a vibrate or silent rule. It means if someone’s wife or kid has an emergency, we can check it out and act accordingly, but can also screen our calls without someone’s Hollaback Girl ringtone spoiling the mood.

#3 Comment By nblade On October 23, 2008 @ 9:00 am

We try to not have any distractions at the table or in the house. We allow for the following distractions
– Cell phones (most players will only take a call form someone they think is important)
– Food Needs (Hell if people are hungry, they are not going to be wanting to game)

For my part I try to provide a distraction free environment. This is why my main game is only every other week. Those are the weeks my step-son is with his father. I have played in a group that the children distractions lead to the group leaving and forming a new group without that person.

I’m not sure I’ve had any case where a distraction has been a good thing.

#4 Comment By PatrickWR On October 23, 2008 @ 9:21 am

No rules per se, but I generally try to keep the TV off and the music appropriate — by that, I mean I’ll put on Viking metal for our fantasy game or have my friend Ben put on a spacey drum & bass riff for our sci-fi game.

Cell phones are allowed, the caveat being that we will razz you unceasingly if your wife/girlfriend/significant other calls up to ask when you’ll be home.

We go off on so many slap-happy tangents during our game anyway that it’s just not worth the effort to codify some of these marginal distractions. Live and let live…unless they’re orcs!

#5 Comment By deadlytoque On October 23, 2008 @ 9:22 am

Table talk is our worst distraction. I game with some people who are like magpies, and can be distracted by ANYTHING, so action is constantly being interrupted by stories about news items or things that were seen during the day, or whatever. It’s made worse by the fact that we often play on weekdays after work, so we don’t have a lot of hours to a game. I usually take it on myself to be the badguy and break up the chatter to restore focus.

I try my damndest to be focused on a game, but depending on who’s running, I will fade in and out. We have one guy who occasionally runs games who lets things drag out and get so boring that I can be caught playing Tetris on my cellphone because it’s more interactive than his game. He’s the kind of shit GM who will narrate your characters’ responses without even asking you how you react to things.

#6 Comment By ToddBradley On October 23, 2008 @ 10:01 am

I was in a gaming group for years with a group of adults. Two of them eventually reproduced, and tiny new gamers emerged. Unfortunately, these tiny new gamers were a huge distraction to the game. Supposedly, the game would start each Tuesday night at 7:00 PM. But the kids would want to be involved until about 7:30 when they lost interest. And then at 8:30 one or both of the parents would have to go put the kids to bed. Then, around 9:30, we’d all hear that the kids weren’t in bed but were still playing, so the game would stop again for one or both parents to go deal with that. Then we had to finish by 10:00 PM sharp, even if we were in the middle of a thrilling combat sequence.

I eventually realized that the kids and associated parental duties were bringing our gaming time down from about 3 hours to about 1.5 hours per session, and decided it just wasn’t worth it. Too much signal to noise. So I left and started a new gaming group.

#7 Comment By Cole On October 23, 2008 @ 10:05 am

Most of the time, the only two options a group may have is learn how to put up with an individual’s need or ask them to leave. For example:

There are people that for the life of them can’t sit still. For them it’s okay to distract themselves in some way when it’s not their turn. As a GM, the best you can do is find something for them to do that will not cause a distraction to others.

Other individuals are absolutely addicted to their cell phones. They check it every 2 minutes and someone is usually calling/texting them every 10. If they are not allowed to use their cells, they will most likely quit, since they can’t live without it.

If an individual’s need conflicts with the group interests, I think the only two options are either learn how to put up with it, or ask the person to leave the group.

#8 Comment By NeonElf On October 23, 2008 @ 10:17 am

as a parent and the host of our game, My 3 yr old will come down and play in the same room for the first hour or two of our game before he has to be put to bed. We table talk and we have people who take cell calls. We just had a new guy join who smokes so that’s a distraction.

Ultimately we’re all adults, pretending that D&D is more important than any other recreation activity is ridiculous. For people to ban Cell phones is just plain silly. Getting annoyed at your host’s kids, obviously shows that you’re not a parent. If they’re being nice enough to host I think you owe them some leway. It’s also probably the only way they can game, I know it is for me.

If you can’t tolerate distractions to your hobby I wonder how you watch TV (which is interrupted every minute or two by a string of 30 second second ads) , or read websites with those embedded ads, much less drive with the radio on, or anyone else in the car talking to you.

I’m just glad my group of friends is tolerant of the distractions I bring to the game, especially considering I’m tolerant to the distractions they bring.

#9 Comment By LesInk On October 23, 2008 @ 10:22 am

I hate distractions! The players are mine! But back to reality …

Really, I see this more of a question of etiquette and what to do when those distractions occur. The goal is to try to make the environment low on distractions, and if they occur, what to do about it.

For example,

If you have a cell phone with you (and most people do), put the phone on buzz. If the call is more than a short call, please excuse yourself and step outside so the game has a chance to continue without crosstalk. In short, treat the game as you would a business meeting.

If you have kids, make sure they have something to do and train them to ask questions quietly and politely.

If you there is a need for a TV in the background (such as entertainment for the children), keep the volume on low and not facing the players (they will get entranced).

If you have pets, put them in another room/outside or at least ask if the players mind the animals around. If the pet becomes a nuisance, remove them from the room.

Playing other parallel games is rude to the GM master (regardless of his capabilities as a good GM). Doing so can create a self feeding situation (GM sees you are ignoring him, so he starts making choices for you).

And, if too many interrupts are occurring, politely cancel the game for yourself or for the whole group and try again (or not) another time. The moons are out of phase and you are not playing at a good time.

#10 Comment By Scott Martin On October 23, 2008 @ 10:28 am

Other than discussion and random tangents, cell phones are our main distraction. Most calls are dealt with briefly or via texting, which is less distracting to others. While they are distracting, they aren’t terrible.

We game in a room without TV and don’t play music, so we’ve been pretty successful in screening out distractions.

#11 Comment By robustyoungsoul On October 23, 2008 @ 10:34 am

No cell phones.

One thing that helps get people ready though is we have a catch phrase that signals “Game on” (the phrase is actually the GM saying “When last we left our heroes…” with all players responding “Yay”). It might sound ridiculous but some kind of signal let’s everybody know it is time to get their heads in the game.

Polaris actually has a very nice mechanism for this where you must state a particular phrase to signal the beginning and end of play. I think these things help.

#12 Comment By BryanB On October 23, 2008 @ 10:44 am

I’ve often been in groups that chit chat for the first 20-30 minutes about non-gaming matters so that those things are less likely to interupt the games. The TV is always left off and there is no radio station playing in the background either.

The most distracting thing at a gaming table (in my experiences) are small children, pets, and unexpected company gawking at “whatever the hell we are doing at the table.” Most of us do not have kids and those of us that do are able to leave them with their better half during the session. Pets haven’t been an issue with the current group. There have been a couple of times, with my current group, where people not playing the game were a bit of a distraction — But only one case where I wanted to bury someone in the backyard. :)

Public gaming is always going to have distractions to some degree or other — ALWAYS. Private gaming is not near as troublesome, especially when precautions are made to minimize any potential distractions. Cell phones haven’t been too much of an issue with us, although a call comes in now and then.

#13 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On October 23, 2008 @ 10:53 am

I hate cell phone rings. Set ‘em to vibrate please. Returning calls I understand … just get up from the table and make the call in the next room. I can work around a momentary absence at the table — no different than when nature calls.

That said when I game at home, guess who is more potentially a target for interruptions than anyone? That’s right, it’s me. My SO is mindful that multiple interruptions are bad — but who can stop a 3 year old from barging in? No one. ;)

#14 Comment By farfromunique On October 23, 2008 @ 12:09 pm

I play primarily at a school (we’re an officially sanctioned club!) and a lot of my players play WoW. So, Saturday rolls around, we all meet up, talk about the latest WoW Stuff, and play D&D.
I usually make sure that I have everything ready, including any last-minute prep I need, and then I start the game and re-state my base rules:
“Game is starting. No talk of other games is allowed. That means, WoW, Warhammer, CS, Sweet Dreams, Other D&D Games or anything else. Okay? Okay. When we stopped last time…”
It’s ritualistic, verbose and draconian, but it works wonders!

#15 Comment By Patrick Benson On October 23, 2008 @ 1:01 pm

With a five year old and a soon to be three year old the kids can be a tough distraction at times for my game that I GM. Luckily my wife doesn’t game and she usually keeps the kids from interrupting the game, but I don’t want to completely eliminate their interruptions because they are:

a) learning about social interaction
b) becoming interested in RPGs at an early age
c) are too young to really understand that they are providing a distraction

This is just part of being a parent and the GM. You have to learn how to handle it without causing the group or your child problems. I try my best to teach my children that the game is time for daddy and his friends to relax and that children can’t play the game, but I also run simpler games for them from time to time that are only for them.

If a player has a problem with my kids I try to address it, but if a player acts like an asshole in regards to my kids occasionally distracting me from the game that player is leaving my game. One guy said I had to “dope up” my kids because they were singing in another part of the house and that was ruining the mood. I and the other players all just looked at him and noted that none of use had even noticed until he pointed it out. He had other complaints like this and didn’t seem to like kids in general. That guy was asked to leave.

Seriously, my kids over D&D or whatever we are playing? Sorry D&D, you lose.

Cell phones – I’m on call 24 hours a day/7 days a week. I make sure to limit my calls on game night and work related emails as well. You can have your cell phone at my game, but if I can limit my work requirement for having it you sure as hell can limit your personal desire to have it during game night.

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[...] Hot Button: Distractions – Gnome Stew, the Game Mastering Blog What distractions do you tolerate at the gaming table? Have distractions ever disrupted play enough that you quit, the group dissolved, or other major changes were made? Have tolerated distractions actually proven helpful in certain situations? [...]

#17 Comment By Karizma On October 23, 2008 @ 3:52 pm

My old group had a flexible ritual of beginning the game with catching up and random chatter. During this time the GM might prepare or we’ll even share music. When we finally start playing, we have little real distraction, but eventually something happens: The GM’s wife has made delicious food. No one can resist the fine culinary prowess of the hosts!

Our GM and another player are both parents, and a few of us players were kids living with our parents, so we all realized that family came first.

Smoking wasn’t a problem, since the GM smoked in the house, and players could too. But when we’d play at another player’s house, we would take breaks to smoke or munch.

#18 Comment By Swordgleam On October 23, 2008 @ 3:53 pm

I get annoyed when my friends constantly check their cellphones and take/make non-time-critical calls when they’re hanging out with me normally, so that’s definitely a no at my game. Answer it long enough to let them know that you’ll call them back, and move on.

One big distraction our group has is food preparations. Two of the guys love to cook, and we usually game up until dinner time, so they’ll be getting up and putting things in the oven during the game. They both do their best to make it fast, so it’s not a big deal.

People dropping by who aren’t in the game is a big irritation. I don’t mind if someone wants to come, hang out, and make badass drawings of the party members – we have a guy who does just that, and it’s great. But when that guy comes, hangs out, and works on another art project that takes up table space while he does nothing but distract people, then it gets very annoying. All we need is a little peace and quiet in one small room – I don’t think it’s too much to ask, especially from people who don’t even live in the house. One particular housemate who doesn’t game is a problem. He likes to lurk in the room while deliberately looking judgemental, which makes roleplaying immersion rather difficult.

No TVs or anything like that – none of us want that kind of distraction. We’re not exactly a hardcore group, but we do see gaming as a time apart, an activity that should be separated from everything else going on in our lives.

#19 Comment By draugen On October 23, 2008 @ 4:25 pm

The greatest distraction in my gaming sessions is my 15 month old son. He’s also a real papa’s boy, and simply won’t allow his mother to entertain him. My players are OK with this though – so long as beverages and charsheets are out of reach, thinks work reasonably well.

The second largest distraction is player laptops. I’m not really considering banning them, but have been known to request focus be on the game rather than WoW.

#20 Comment By Elora On October 23, 2008 @ 4:59 pm

I am one of those gamers with a young’un (not quite old enough to be running around). To keep the baby distraction to a minimum, I host the game at my house and we start playing after her bedtime (she is always asleep by 7:30). I also provide a homecooked dinner to make up for the drive out to my place.

There’s no TV at my house and no cell reception, so we don’t have to worry about those distractions! ;-) Really, the only distraction besides table talk is the use of laptops by players to keep notes/journal info or to look up information from scanned books. Since there’s no internet access, the laptops haven’t become a problem.

#21 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On October 23, 2008 @ 11:37 pm

It’s really not the distraction that the problem; it’s the distractee. Not paying attention to the game shows that you respect whatever you’re doing more than you respect the game. In some cases, this is fine; if my character is off talking to the barkeep, and the GM is running another scene, then there’s nothing wrong with my checking email, text messaging, etc. But if I read email during a big combat, then I’m being rude.

And yes, I readily admit to being as bad as anyone else at this. Sorry to all my GMs over the years…

#22 Comment By Lilith On October 24, 2008 @ 12:08 pm

Yeah, we have a “cel phone on vibrate” policy, and most of our non-gaming friends and family know not to call on game night. Dinner is usually handled before game, and dessert at a convenient break. Players usually get a smoke break when the action gets heavy and they need a breather to think things over. :)

#23 Comment By lady2beetle On October 24, 2008 @ 2:28 pm

I agree with Kurt. In my main group, we have a lot of natural distractions (kids, pets, food), and for the most part we all recognize that it’s a game and we’re here for the socializing. But when one or two people are disrupting it for everyone else, it gets annoying.

That said, the biggest annoyance for me is volume. I understand that conversations come up. We’re friends and a few of us will get off on tangents. But when a tangent between two people gets so loud that no one else can hear what the DM is saying, then I get pissed. So, I guess it’s not really an annoyance, it’s an outright pet peeve. Please, be respectful of everyone else who is trying to LISTEN to what the GM is saying, kthxbye.

#24 Comment By DocRyder On October 25, 2008 @ 10:50 pm

We’ve had little trouble with cell phones in our group. Those calls that do come in are all spouses or work.

Our hosts are parents of small children, and we wait until their bedtime, which is about 8PM. The TV goes off just before that.

Our biggest distraction is our laptops and wireless Internet. I’m especially vulnerable to that myself. Right now, however, I’m reffing, so it’s not a game killer. I’m not happy with my own bad habit, but I know how to fix it: Turn off my AirPort!

#25 Comment By Creature On August 18, 2009 @ 1:28 pm

My rules as far as this are :
No music
No TV
No unnecessary phone usage
Basically pay attention to the Vecna damned game! My players have always agreed whole-heartedly because they had all seen games without such rules.


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