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Focus at the table

Game sessions can go for hours at a time. Which is great! That’s time enough to really dive into a character and a story. RPGs can fill a whole morning, afternoon, or evening with adventure… But it can also become difficult to focus for that long.

Distracted players are a Storyteller’s bane. They spend hours or days preparing game, and understandably want us to pay attention! And we want to hang on every word, but brains eventually get tired, or issues like ADHD can interfere. Everyone deserves to feel safe, comfortable and welcome at a gaming table, so how can players deal with their own distractions while still being present and attentive during a game session?

Image: A robot fleeing down a flaming street in ruins, pursued by a flying drone firing two chain guns at their back. Run, robot!

For players

First, I don’t recommend cell phone games. I’ve been both Storyteller and player at tables where someone is playing Candy Crush — or another RPG online — and it can be really hard to get their attention. Those days made me feel more like a Storyeller as I fought desperately for their eyes and ears. If there’s no other real option for your particular brain, then I suggest talking to everyone about how to do it without hurting the table. Hopefully, you can all reach a reasonable and equitable compromise.

We’ve had players who constantly roll dice in order to keep their hands busy, but that can be pretty loud and distracting in its own right. Fidget spinners or cubes (ones that don’t make audible clicking noises) are quieter ways to keep fingers occupied. Also successful has been knitting or crocheting, and coloring or sketching.

But it works far better at our table to direct our distraction time into the game itself! When you find yourself unable to focus on the scene at hand, that’s a great time to review your character sheet and brush up on some of those underutilized abilities or spells. Character sheets can get long and complicated, so it’s even helpful to utilize your distraction that way.

If you’ve already got your character’s abilities memorized, grab a player manual or some supplement of the game. Read up on the world in which you’re playing and keep yourself immersed in the game that way.

Or if you don’t want to read world lore, review some rules! Most Storytellers and players don’t have all the mechanics of an RPG memorized, so it’s always helpful to have someone else at the table learning them, too. And you might find a trick in there that you hadn’t thought of before!

Some players can get lost in books or character sheets, though. They are their own form of absorption. If falling down even a game-related rabbit hole is a problem for you, consider sitting next to a friend who might have a longer attention span and asking them to tap your arm to quietly let you know when something important is happening, or your turn is coming up in combat.

For Storytellers

While Storytellers have enough to juggle and it is their job to tell an engaging and interesting story, they shouldn’t really be responsible for their player distractions. But they can make it a little easier.

Breaks for food or just to talk a little bit with one another outside of game, catching up on what people have been watching or reading, can help players get it out of their system and be ready to focus up when they return to the table.

Within the limits of ever-challenging scheduling, setting a game session for days or evenings either at the end of everyone’s work week or the beginning can help. Either they are fresh off a weekend/days off and have hopefully had the chance to restore some energy, or they’re done with their job for now and can put it behind them to enjoy some role-playing. In the middle of the work or school week can add to distractions as players think about homework or paperwork that they need to deal with the next day.

We’ve also used sound cues to bring people back to the present moment. In one game, we used a menacing musical score whenever the city’s vicious enforcer was on screen. When everyone got distracted, we put on that track and everyone looked up, worrying that it was their turn. You don’t have to scare your players, but a reliable sound or piece of music when scenes change or something particularly important is going on can refocus your table.

And, as always and for everyone, communication is key. RPGs are all games of communication, both in and out of character. If you or one of your players just cannot seem to focus on the session at hand, talk to the table. Lay out your needs and work together to create a solution. After all, some teamwork is exactly what you’ll need to get past that gelatinous cube in the dungeon next game session!



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Erica Lindquist

Erica Lindquist

Writer, editor, and occasional knot of anxiety for Loose Leaf Stories and The RPGuide.