So what shall we focus on? Robin D. Laws, in Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering, says
The focus can be held by any of the following:Robin D. Laws, Robin’s Laws of Good Gamemastering, p26
● dialogue between PCs
● dialogue between NPCs and PCs
● resolution of events / die rolling
● your descriptions of people, places, and events
● dialogue between NPCs
● bookkeeping / character progression
● rules arguments
● debates over your decisions
● out-of-character, off-topic digressions
● dead air
In general, you want the first four on this list to take
focus whenever possible. A skillful GM mimimizes
the amount of time given to the rest of the list.
In other words, maximise the time when the players are interacting with the game, and minimise the time spent on GM solos (dialogue between NPCs is just the Gamesmaster talking to themself…) and digging into books.
Sounds pretty obvious put like that, but I can see I don’t always succeed. However, I think our sessions suffer most from a couple of other things:
- looking up skill/spell details
- GM shuffling through notes trying to find the appropriate information or inspiration to impart to the players or answer their questions
So how can I keep the focus on the players and avoid the less desirable options?
Dialogue between NPCs. I’m already aware of and wary of this. I think I manage okay here.
Bookkeeping/character progression. If anything I don’t do enough of this – I keep forgetting to let the players know how much experience their characters have earned, and we’re moving so slowly they don’t often get the chance to level up…
Rules arguments & debates over my decisions. I think this is okay, as long as we know what the rule is in the first place… We do have discussions sometimes, but I try to listen briefly, maybe refer to the original text, then say “okay, this is what we’re going to do today. I might come back to it later.” This allows people to feel heard while still allowing the game to progress.
Out of character/off-topic digressions. My groups haven’t been too bad at this. Maybe I’m just lucky, or maybe I manage to bring people back.
Looking up skill/spell details. This is one of the biggest slow-downs at our table. There are just so darned many obscure rules and details I can never hold them all in my head at once, and players keep bringing up others I wasn’t even aware of. Then I’ve found the players not reading skills or spells sufficiently closely and making them overpowered, so now I ask to see the documentation. But it takes time 🙁
But on the other hand, it’s a bit annoying when the player’s turn comes round and then they start looking up books to decide what they’re going to do. I’m trying to get better at insisting they should have been doing that while the other players were having their turns, and pushing for quick decisions like they would have to do in a real battle, but I’m possibly still making too many allowances for inexperienced players…
Dead Air. This probably also strongly relates to GM shuffling through notes trying to find the appropriate information or inspiration to impart to the players or answer their questions.
I keep trying different ways of organising my notes, but so far haven’t hit on a good approach. The piece of paper I want always seems to be at the bottom of the pile, or I seem to not have the information to hand. And when I try to do it on the computer the same happens electronically. If I’m trying to put out map tiles, it takes too long to find appropriate ones, so despite quite a selection of nice tiles, I most often end up sketching on perspex (plexiglass) sheets over my Chessex map roll.
I have put together spreadsheets of monster stats, but the info stretches across a couple of pages, and requires me to have added the monster in advance. I also use D&D Beyond, and it was great for a Necromancer recently because it linked directly to the spells, but it can take too long to look up the information I need, and I feel like I’m spending too long going back and forth trying to find the information in the first place.
I keep getting caught out when the group go into a pub and want to buy drinks or food, or when they meet someone and want a name, or when they go shopping. I keep meaning to put together a folder of A5 summaries which I could just pull up for those, but somehow it still hasn’t happened.
I have developed a session tracker, which is a single Excel page that has key character and NPC/monster stats, an initiative/hp tracker and time trackers, and I’ve found that works well for keeping on top of combat, but I need something which keeps better track of what the party have found/done/learned since they’re not very good at remembering…
So I think I can conclude most of the dead air and lack of focus at my table is due to insufficient preparation and organisation. I certainly find (as mentioned previously) that my sessions run best if I’ve properly prepared.
Tomorrow we have “Examine”.