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Currently, one of my players brings his 3DS to the table. He picked up a new game, and insists that he's "just grinding," and that he's paying attention (and to his credit, for the most part he is), but he then complains that his character doesn't have enough screen time. To his credit, his character has only been given scrap plot points up until the most recent session, during which I was figuring out how something important in his backstory would tie into the plot. My current hopes are that one of the following occurs in regards to the distraction.

  1. He finishes the particular game and no longer brings it to the gaming table.
  2. I've provided enough plot threads for his character (who, comparatively, is removed from the other characters) after the recent session that he might be engaged and willing to dig into the same overarching story with the other players, which is now connected to their goals.

However, I don't think that this will change anytime soon. I may be wrong, but I would like to be prepared as to handle this. This isn't the first time this has happened, but it is the first time it has been intrusive. The other players aren't happy with this, acknowledging the issues stated. The primary issue we have is that it keeps him from listening to and engaging other players' important character moments, something they do diligently for his character. How can I bring him back to immersion and away from his distraction?

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+1 I have a player who's started to do this too, with Sims on the iPad, so I'm interested... I will remind answerers about Good Subjective, Bad Subjective and not to answer with random stuff they're making up but instead things that they have actually tried or seen tried on this issue. –  mxyzplk Feb 15 at 19:06
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Sounds like he's “just grinding” your game, too. Ask him not to bring the 3DS. –  okeefe Feb 15 at 19:19
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Let me clarify. He's really engaged when he's in the spotlight, but doesn't give other players the same justice. I know if it doesn't stop, it will impact him in later RP sessions where the "I didn't know that"'s come up. –  Nameless Nick Feb 15 at 19:27
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I have a player who does exactly this. It's annoying as all get out, so I'm hoping to see some good answers. –  Kyle Willey Feb 15 at 19:33
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Players doing other things while the game is going on is my biggest pet peeve in tabletop RPGs, whether I'm a player or GM. If they're discreet enough and able to jump back and forth between both activities without missing a beat that I can't easily tell, I don't generally get frustrated with them, but I think ignoring the GM and other players to participate in some other activity is one of the most rude things a player can do. I look forward to the answers on this one. –  Brian S Feb 17 at 19:46
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5 Answers

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I think, the best way to deal with such a situation, is to openly discuss it with the group and construct rules on how to handle certain devices and activities (doing homework or finishing a chapter). And if only one member of the group is against allowing something, it is forbidden.

Once the rules are set, everyone has the right to demand their enforcement.

Usually, such social contracts have to be maintained and adjusted once in a while, but the longer a group stays together, the more important they get, IMHO.


I once tried to play a simple turn based puzzle game (which I found boring, because it was too easy) during an RPG session. Just to find out whether I could still follow the game.

Even when restricting the game to moments when my character was away from the group and the action, it ruined my game. I was able to basically follow the game, but had not the capacity to analyze the situations, which meant that, whenever I reentered, I had no idea about the mental state of the other characters, leading me to act differently as I would have otherwise. In situations that “only” needed skill-checks, it took me some time to grasp the situation and when relying on the information I could remember, I often did something stupid or inconsistent regarding my character.

It might just be that I am particularly unable to follow the RPG while doing something else, but no-one can control oneself so well as to give the RPG exactly the attention it needs and no less — how would you know how much attention it needs at every moment, when attention is what you use to judge that?

When I want something to do while my character is inactive, I tend to sketch the current scenes. This keeps me emerged and I don't feel bored.


As a GM, I am very sensitive concerning mobiles and such… usually it distracts me more than the player twiddling with it.

When a player has such a device at hand, I tell him that he will be ignored, as he seems too busy to play with us. The character then just went home, stayed behind because he felt sick, etc. This is very harsh, but that sort of thing has ruined too many sessions for me.

If it distracts the other players, they usually tell him themselves. If I notice that they hesitate to tell him or he does not react, he gets a warning and if it continues I usually ask him to leave. If a player refuses to leave but keeps on annoying the group, I tend to have some fun with his character… My players know that I will usually go out of my way to save them, but if I get annoyed, I will use the rules mercilessly.

Mobiles will be turned off.

If a player has to be reachable, than the phone will be kept out of sight.

Once, a player had to be reachable and his girlfriend kept on sending him meaningless messages. When he turned of the signal for text messages, she started calling because he did not answer. By the third call, he asked her to only call if it was urgent and explained that she was about to ruin the evening for all of us. Two calls later, he explained to us that they wanted to go to the cinema later that night and apparently she was unable to decide what she should wear, how to get to the cinema, and so on… 5 minutes later I answered the phone… we were never allowed to play at his flat, because she was afraid of me.


The only reason for which I will ever allow tablets or such like at the game table is to look up some facts when playing in a real-world setting.

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Honestly, clingy girlfriends and kids can be dealbreakers at times. It can potentially work. One member of my old group would occasionally have to babysit his 3-year-old, who was happy to "help roll dice" for most of the campaign, but sometimes it became obstructive to the point where the GM was about to just tell him to plan to be absent on those days. Another player got kicked out of the group because his wife insisted on being involved in the game but had no actual interest in playing (it wasn't really a control ploy... she had anxiety issues). –  Sean Duggan Feb 20 at 16:39
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I don't really know how much help I can give with this one, but I do hope that at least it will start those engines rolling.

Anyway, before I'm gonna get to the answer itself, I want to divide the question into 2 smaller ones. 1) How can I bring him out of the distraction, and 2) How can I bring him back to immersion. I believe that these questions are very different from each other and as such deserve separate answers.

Bringing him out of the distraction

In my 9 years of GMing I've encountered a few ways to deal with this issue. The first one I encountered in a convention game and it's actually quiet blatant and straightforward, though it did miracles to the game. Before the GM even started the game, and as we all gathered around the table, he said: "Before we start, I want each and every one of you to turn off his cell phone". When we gather to play, it's a unique kind of group activity, and is often started with an almost ceremonial set of actions aimed to get us all in the mood. Adding one little ceremony to the mixture rarely carries any problems and most of us can survive 4 hours without the cellphone, not to mention an IPad or a 3DS.

Another way that I've encountered, and often used, is not that different from the first one: Asking the players to bring those devices to me. I allocated an area for those devices, and during the session breaks they would have gone to them to do whatever they intended with them. Making these 15 min break in the middle of the session to accommodate that did most of the work.

Another way that I use to deal with such a problem is to talk to the player. Taking him to the side for a minute or 2 of talking before the session can solve most of the problems. At least with one of my players, this 1 minute chat was enough and it never happened again.

The last way that I used, albeit for a very short amount of time, was a kind of a punishment: The player won't be able to play while he's on the 3DS. Furthermore, when he was on a device of some sort, doing something that is not related and/or connected to the game, No scene would have revolved around him, whether him being solo or with the entire group.

Bringing him back to immersion

For me, this was always the trickier part. Whatever way we used to take the distraction off, the player won't be too great about it. As such, I often turned to other things in order to draw him in, trying to somewhat imitate the immersive elements of the game he's onto. Be it soundtrack or making funny voices, It's now the RPG and the group against the game on the 3DS, in one way or another.

All this means that the story we're telling together should utilize those elements of the RPG medium that are not there in the game of his. More group activity, more place for players' choices and the like.

But the problem might be a different thing altogether. Maybe the problem is that the player is not interested in what the other players are doing. If this is the case, my only suggestion is to make a group conversation to see where "we're" standing as a group: Are everyone enjoying the game? What problems are there? Although it may feel awkward, sometimes making this conversation with the entire group presence and saying what on their hearts might change the continuation of the campaign for the better or at the very least shed some light about the real problem behind all of it.

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Our game is run over Roll20, he's generally next to one of my other players (they share an apartment at the moment), so maybe that will help with any distractions if he sees his friend turn his off. I also noticed that he does like the other characters, so he's engaged, but he removes himself from immersion when he's not in the spotlight. Though, I will definitely talk to him about his interest in the other players' stories. –  Nameless Nick Feb 15 at 20:49
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+1 for putting devices in time-out but not turning them off. (I can't shut off my device... I'm on-call.) –  Carl Cravens Feb 15 at 23:51
    
I tried to say to my players to please not use the phone if not important, and I even told them it was disrespectful, but the answers were generally "don't be a pain"... –  FraNe91 Feb 20 at 8:56
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Maybe you should make him know how disrespectful to you and to each player at the table it is. You spent time preparing the game. This attitude is just lacking the most simple courtesy. I think you should require that he turns off his device during the game, or at least put it away and not playing with it. If one of my players doesn't turn off his/her video game during an RPG session, well he/she can go home immediately.

(Sorry for my uneasy, non-native english.)

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Personally? When in doubt and the player has given minimal backstory, put them in the foreground.

How? You create a few seeds and let them fill in the blanks and get more intrigued with what/who they are.

Example: Ran a quick arc and the rogue in our group decided to essentially be as nondescript as possible. In order to get her and the other players involved a few of the random merchants (well perhaps not so random to me GMing) had heard about them in previous (read: before the group formed) adventures. She was a well known rogue who managed to pull off a heist in a well known bankin the games fiction according to the NPC. The NPC then proceeded to question her as to why she was travelling in a group now. In exchange for the tale and a demonstration of skills, she was awarded a custom Wonderous item that was specifically tailored to her, which she later used at great effect later for a chase scene with a band of gypsy kids.

As a GM its all about setting up scenarios for your players to determine what type of people they are. They dont all have to be combat and they all dont have to be planned. I once created an NPC on the spot from misreading of a module. "Prints of boots" became the Prince of Boots who acted as a means to allow the characters to use a subtle bit of exposition of who they are (One character was hiding the fact he was actually a centaur in human form, by putting him on the spot as to what boots he wanted it allowed a bit of ingame info/suspicion and he managed to earn the enmity of a NPC that was made up on the fly and who is now set to be a random encounter I can pull from).

Know the rules, know why certain ones exist, and what can be bent or broken in an effort to make a more enjoyable story for the whole table. Sometimes it takes an item, sometimes a situation, sometimes a social engagement solo. Play upon your players strengths as players, work with them on their weaknesses as players and you all will have a lot more fun.

Also, a big no no to random electronics not related to the game at hand at the table. You're all there to have a good time, not phone it in.

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Normally as a GM I do not allow a 3ds or labtop or even alcohol, a few beers is ok. If the player is constantly distracted he or she can not assist or benefit the party. If someone picks it up after a few hours maybe call a break. Sometimes sessions can be stressful or hard to handle emotionally. If the player has it on all the time then set a rule about it. Role playing takes a lot of thinking unlike many video games. In D&D if you die you die. Try and give the player a more important role in the game and explain to them that it is important for them to pay attention.

Worst case sit down talk to them alone and tell them what you expect as a GM. If necessary replace them.

Good Luck

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