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We have a weekly game in the evenings; however, we often don't start playing for a few hours after we get together, if at all. This has been exacerbated recently by other events with the same people being scheduled for the few hours prior to the game; last week we barely managed to struggle through a five-minute scene over the course of 8 hours we'd scheduled for gaming! Since we rather enjoy our "social hour" just before the game, what can we do to signal a definite switch to "Game time is now!"

(It's a World of Darkness game, if that helps; not settling down to play seriously takes away from the horror aspect significantly)

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@dpatchery That one seems to be more "how do I stifle interruptions" rather than "how do I signal that it's time to focus" – Yamikuronue Aug 6 '12 at 17:36
Somewhat Related: Dealing with people who turn up late for sessions – SevenSidedDie Aug 6 '12 at 18:35

11 Answers 11

up vote 22 down vote accepted

Much like with kids and animals, routine helps.

Accept that a certain amount of socializing will always happen at the beginning of the game, and allow it to happen.

before you start the session

  • A half hour before you (as the GM) would like to start playing, put the food away and take out the books, dice, miniatures and other paraphernalia that you use.
  • At the same time, ask your players to finish up any food (not snacks) that they are munching on.
  • 15 minutes before you want to start ask your players to look over their character sheets and make sure that they are up-to-date.
  • 10 minutes before you start, ask the smokers (if you have any) to go out for their smoke break so that they can get into character before going out for another.
  • 5 minutes before you start, ask the players to think over what happened last session and get a brief summary of what happened, from the viewpoint of their PC.

start of the session

  • Turn down the lights.
  • Pick a player at random to summarize the last session for you. The choosing could be having the players roll a dice and highest/lowest roll does the summary. The recap does not need to be an intensive 5 minute treatise. Summarize it from the viewpoint of the overall story that has gone so far. Here, the recap does not need to be lengthy Shakespearean prose. Short and sweet will get the point across. (1)
  • Start playing.

More abrupt techniques

  • Simply pull out your stuff, and announce that it is time to play. Ask the player closest to the lights to turn them down, and away you go. Ignore people who are not participating in the game and reward those that do. Perhaps in-game rewards (XP, loot) or out-of-game rewards (get to choose munchies for the next session.)

Other useful techniques

  • Ban use of tablets, smartphones and laptops from the table.
  • Turn off wi-fi access or change the password while you are playing.
  • Create a phone-zone where people can put their phones while playing, and they are only allowed to check them during pauses. (Note that as a husband and father, this may be more difficult to enforce.)

If you do this regularly, as well as making it clear to the players what you are doing, your players should start to accept that once the lights go down, chat time is over and play time has started. However, make sure, during the game, you allow for brief (10 minutes every 2 or 3 hours) breaks for people to unwind and loosen up. Turn the lights up at those points, and remember to turn them down when it is time to start up again.

(1) It could be as simple as "So, when we last saw our heroes, they just finished a grueling fight with Tucker's Kobolds. Gundar is bleeding from multiple wounds and is fatigued from raging, Gandalf is out of spells, and Friar Tuck is stuck in a web. What do you do" (stolen from the comment by Pulsehead, below.)

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Aww, we use the phones to send around secret notes! Now we'll have to go back to pen and paper! – drxzcl Aug 7 '12 at 11:35

The best thing about my gaming group is that we are friends and have played together for almost 15 years. The worst thing about my gaming group is that we are friends and have played together for almost 15 years. It appears you may have a very social group. There is nothing wrong with that.

Some recurring causes I've noticed when a group would rather gab than game:

  • Type mismatch. The GM came to RPGs from Warhammer, the players came to RPGs from Drama class. The players want narrative/talky scenes, the DM wants to move minis around a battlefield and get into the tactics of how the pieces move. The players tend to avoid combat since it will eat the session, meanwhile the GM is trying to force combat to occur (even to having a band of orcs ambush the tavern the players are currently drinking in). Solution? Maybe none, but more game variety and perhaps breaking/reforming the group as appropriate. Sometimes it is one player that only wants to explore the map while the others are into the story that can kill a campaign, George is a friend, so you don't want to boot him, but he's bored out of his skull in the talky scenes, and the rest of the party is bored out of their skull in the exploring parts.
  • Story fatigue. You are on a desperate mission to save the world from the evil forces. You've been playing this plot line nonstop for way too long, and while it was interesting 5 player levels ago, you just want to find your characters drafted into a bikini-judging contest (or similarly frivolous activity). Solution? Push the quest to a good stopping point and do a one-off goofy adventure, or make the next plot point ludicrous (but still part of the bigger plot) although it will break immersion unless done very carefully/well. As a break, I'd suggest instead of yet another round of tense negotiations to get more troops from the neighboring country, have the king tell the players they need to participate in the tourney going on in a week (and design events to each player's strength). If they "win" the tourney, he'll help them, otherwise they get nothing.
  • Meh. The PCs WANT world-in-the-balance stories, and you want to run "The Quest For The Dagger Of Flatulence". Solution? Compromise. Make your story a little shorter than originally planned, and they should be willing to play it to throw a bone in your direction.
  • D&D again. You've been playing various plot-lines in a D&D campaign for years. The players are sick of playing D&D. Solution? wrap up the plot to a "chapter end", then play something different. I've played a Vampire Chronicle that has run for over 10 years, but we tend to play it a month, then play a long campaign in some other system.
  • RPGs again. You have a handful of casual players who have tried the RPG thing for a while. They are tiring of the whole role playing thing. Solution? Play board/card games for a few weeks until people want to game again. The potential disaster here is that your group would rather play Munchkin than D&D.
  • This pretentious character says/does stupid stuff. You have a joker playing the Paladin who feels the need to point out all the stupid things the paladin does with an out of character comment. Solution? If it's a 1-liner, let it slide and encourage the other players to chuckle but not respond to it, but if it devolves into a rant/conversation encourage the player to play a more light-hearted character.
  • Finally, @Mudbunny covers the whole "is it playing time yet?" problem beautifully.

One final thought I've touched on a couple of times is that people have different ideas as to exactly what "role playing" is. If you plan for a good variety of scenes/scenarios/plot points then people won't get bored as easily.

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Wow, comprehensive! Our group is new; this is our first game in this system (ever, for two of us, and only with a very short aborted game for the other two) and the first time the four of us have played together (three of us were at a previous table in a different system), so it's probably not fatigue. I think it's mostly the opposite: the newness of each other leads us to socialize more because we don't know each other quite so well and we're constantly pleased at how well our senses of humor mesh. – Yamikuronue Aug 6 '12 at 18:44
When I started with my current group (over 10 years at this point), we took a year of playing-time to get through a month of game-time to travel between 2 cities. It really helped us bond well. Since your group is new and getting to know each other still, maybe plan to play board/card games once a month or so until you feel the side-chatter is dying down in your game. – Pulsehead Aug 6 '12 at 19:15
Maybe our other activity (the one that abutts the gaming session) will help. Our first week doing both we barely gamed at all, but maybe over time we'll be more productive. – Yamikuronue Aug 6 '12 at 20:03

While I love the idea of building routine, in practice I find it difficult, given that my group has an irregular schedule. So I take a more direct approach.

When I'm GMing I figure one of my roles is that of Chief Cat Herder. So when the game materials are out but nobody seems to be moving into gaming mode, and it appears that the socializing is starting to eat into the start time for the game, I look at the closest player and ask, "So, you ready to play?"

Broadly speaking I find that getting an individual's attention is far easier than getting the whole group's attention. But once you have one person's attention, they'll help you get everyone else focused on the game, and you can begin.

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Personally, I have an opening and closing score for each game I run. After a few sessions, the players recognise it and drop into character. It works really well as it gets players into a routine.

I generally think that the first hour of each session is lost to social interactions, coffee, and various recaps so I let it happen. It is harder to deal with when out of character conversation start during game play but as long as it does not last too long, I care not -- and do enjoy it!

Note that sometimes, it is worth saying "Let's not play tonight but have a social instead" and open a bottle of nice wine.

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I like that you added the "Let's not play tonight but have a social instead" bit, because it illuminates the point that everyone wanting to hang out and socialize isn't necessarily a bad thing. – Erik Schmidt Aug 7 '12 at 16:21

In my group, we are usually pressed for time, so I always sit down with my players, put on my cheesiest radio show narrator voice and start with, "when we last left our heroes..." and do a quick 15 to 30 second recap of what happened last week followed by either the results of the last action they had done, such as them sending a thief to steal a magical glove from a battlemage they were tasked with capturing, or by asking them what they are doing. My players love it, your mileage may vary.

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If the problem is starting the session, it might help immersion to do a narrated intro to each session.

It doesn't even have to be something that relates to the particular events at hand. Simply a "set the scene" sort of narration that gets the players in the mind set that they are now entering this fictional world. Don't make this absolutely necessary for the players to listen to carefully (they shouldn't have to take notes) but make it an interesting, prepared little spiel. Eventually the players should get in the mood to start and the session can begin proper.

Better yet, make the intro only tangentiality related to the current plot as a way to introduce a overreaching back story. As this is a World of Darkness game, perhaps something like newspaper clippings and headlines of the previous day's events.

For example, the PCs might, in their latest attempt to solve a series of vampire related murders have just finished investigating old man Marty's little church of horrors on St. Street. and perhaps a local reporter just finished up an interview with a new strip-mall owner setting up shop on the corner of Main and St. Street. Something nearby, but not related to what's going on.

Just an idea, take it for what it's worth.

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Putting on game-specific music and using candles for "mood lighting" have been suggested by one of the players involved. Maybe in the dimmer lighting, since we'll have to focus more to see things, our brains will naturally focus more on the task at hand, plus that could kill spontaneous laughter at people's facial expressions.

Maybe we should succumb to our group's silliness factor and use "Roll a D6" as our cue: when the song ends, we game, one way or another ;)

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+1 for adding the musical cue. – user2102 Aug 7 '12 at 17:58

"What can we do to signal a definite switch to "Game time is now!"?" Yamikuronue.

So many of the other responders have pointed out excellent behavioral techniques to establish a routine that encourages a specific action. Visual cues and Aural cues are the big pair that establish the beginnings of routines. I can only suggest that you hand out rewards to establish the connection between a stimulus ( lights low ) and an action ( serious gaming! ) to create the desired behavior. XP or a sweet situational bonus is always nice.

Other stimuli that you can use to establish a cue for a shift in time could be to have the players recite a very specific oath which should require the players to say something their characters would say. For instance, saying Green Lantern's oath before playing a Lanterns game would be incredibly appropriate, almost like making your own opening theme song. This encourages thinking, and thinking is very useful for getting into character.

Another cue could be tactile, but should be unusual and have no other associations, like buying fake noses or other costume pieces. This is very similar to the "Golden speaking [Item]" rule, where normally only the person who holds it can speak this version would have a rule more like "While I am holding this, I can only roleplay my character - Until I give it back to the ST,". To encourage this rule, the item being held out of game should grant a bonus in game. Funny hats, costume jewlery rings, rolling your dice into a special tray or bowl would all be aids for this particular stimulus ( and also give you something to laugh about if you're imaginitive and sadistic about it). This is about as useful as a "reminder-ring" if you or any of your players use a similar device.

If you have time to set up, another valuable stimulus could be smell or taste if you're into candles or particular aromatic dishes. I recommend the former over the latter, as it may encourage eating over roleplaying; however, food is a very strong reward. (Can YOU imagine a situation where "Cookies for Roleplaying" would not work? I think not!)

Finally, you can always just reward players more for roleplaying longer. This may alter the experience curve you may or may not have intended for the characters, but this is the single reward that any ST can grant. It does not cost real-world resources, and only increases in value as the individual character's power and thusly advancement costs increase. This is a cue that is only delivered AFTER the behavior and may not be as strongly linked to the action you want. If you explain to the players that you will get more XP for roleplaying longer and STICK TO IT, it should work well.

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Does this exact group of individuals ever get together socially outside of game night? You indicated that it's a fairly fresh group and the campaign hasn't been going on that long, so I suspect that there's a need for the (non-campaign-related) socialization that you're seeing. I'm going to expand on that element of Sardathrion's answer and suggest that you need to specifically organize a fully social (i.e., no-play) gathering with the same group, to give everyone an opportunity to fulfill this need outside of game time.

It may help to set this event in a different environment - if you always play at Jack's house, have the social start at Denny's, then head over to Jim's place. This will help to cognitively separate it from game night, and allow your players to associate Jack's house with play time. They should start arriving to game night more focused, now that they see that they don't have to try and cram all aspects of their interrelationships into the one gathering.

As the first person is getting ready to leave the social event, you can incorporate something into your farewell like "Drive safely! See you on Tuesday for World of Darkness, 6:00 sharp!" to subtly reinforce 'Tuesday night is about putting day-to-day life on hold, and focusing on playing the game.'

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Sometimes it is hard for the game master to remind him or herself to start gaming. It's not just the players.

Personally, I use the clock. We are scheduled to play from 20:00 to 23:00. In my reminder email I tell people "anybody who wants to talk is welcome to come half an hour early!" When we talk and as people are coming in, I watch the clock. If it says 20:10 I exclaim, "wow, it's ten past eight, let's get started!" This is how I try to establish the eight o'clock dividing line.

Another option might be to set an alarm for 20:10 -- when it rings, same thing happens: I exclaim that we're done waiting, that we'll start without the missing players, etc.

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Ensure events in the game world will occur as RL time passes - do NOT put the game world on pause! It's game time, not social time, so if you sit around not doing things, events occur in the game world. As they are socialising, simply keep giving updates every couple of minutes on how things have changed.

Note: If you have a prescripted adventure, then you need to have some sort of alternate path that occurs if the players do nothing. You can't write an adventure where 'the hero's stop the cultists summoning a demon' if the players then proceed to sit around doing nothing but socialising, because either A: they aren't doing anything to stop the demon or B: Time passes in the game world cause they do nothing and that conflicts with the idea they stop the demon. If you have a prescripted adventure, it needs to have alternate endings - either a mitigated 'the cultists are delayed' or even a full on 'the cultists have indeed summoned a demon because nobody did anything about it'.

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-3? Or is it just an answer that goes against personal preferences? – Callan S. Aug 12 '12 at 2:49
This is basically straight-up punishment for socialising. Particularly when the difficulty lies in getting the game started, there's not much value in the GM sitting there saying "The town is burning down..." "There goes the clock tower...", "The mill just exploded..." and so on. If players are taking their time about a decision or a reaction, then you can use one of these, perhaps, but doing so repeatedly is just exacerbating a symptom, not doing anything about the underlying cause. – gothwalk Aug 13 '12 at 11:19

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