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People who have thought about public speaking or presentations usually know that silence is one of the most powerful tools in conversation, speaking and negotiation. Think about any memorable speech. The power comes from pauses. Look at any accomplished comedian. They use timing. What is timing if it isn't the use of silence? Music is punctuated by silence. Storytellers will often use their pauses in very real ways, the best using it in a way that borders on hypnotism.

Yet roleplaying is a medium that, to my experience, abhors silence. Think about it, we have a group of players and usually a GM. 3 and up people. That usually means that there are one or more conversations going on at the table. Thinking back to most gaming sessions there is usually one of the following types of conversations:

  • GM to all players
  • GM to one player
  • All players
  • Player to Player
  • Any breakdown above.

But I think at any gaming table I’ve ever been there hasn’t be silence. Well except for the odd moment of very uncomfortable silence and that’s usually broken very quickly.

So how do I effectively create and utilize silence in a game?

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2  
The best silences I've seen have been when everyone is just captivated by what's happening to another PC. How to pull that off though… –  SevenSidedDie Nov 15 '10 at 17:20
    
Our group is larger than most. If everyone's there, that's 6 PCs and a DM. It's a constant struggle for me. Silence is a very rare thing at our table. –  BBlake Nov 16 '10 at 0:35
    
Irony, thy name is anon186. –  mxyzplk Nov 16 '10 at 3:09

4 Answers 4

I can get my players to be silent by facing them and holding my arms up at the elbows, palms out, hands slightly forward. This works nicely as a "hold on, let's take a moment" gesture.

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I often use silence to balance tension in my game sessions.

You've asked two questions (create and use), so I'll break my answer apart:

To create the opportunity to use silence, I do the normal DM things to demand attention, including one or more of:

  • make a shushing gesture or sound (throat clearing), including body-language as suggested by @Jadasc
  • loudly demand a roll from everyone or someone currently distracting the group with side-chatter.
  • start speaking to the party through the voice of an NPC, dropping proper nouns that trigger the player brain's pattern recognition.
  • leave the table and come back.

Once I have their attention, I use silence for one of several ends:

  • When speaking through NPCs, silence is good to represent confusion, timidity, wavering-loyalty, fear, malice, calculation, and thoughtfulness. These are all invitations for roleplay by the party. They can dig deeper using dialog (or rolls) to find out more about the situation.

  • When speaking as the DM, I use silence to:

    • reset the mood of the room to a more somber/serious level - to chill distracting side-conversations.
    • to dramatize "read aloud"/flavor text - it isn't just about NPC dialog.
    • and, rarely, to emphasize rule decisions and clarifications. Slowing it down helps remove emotion from any contentious issues.
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+1 as I think it is very important to include the notions of why the silence is being created, and to what purpose it will be used once available. –  Runeslinger Apr 6 '11 at 6:34

Silence, when used at it's best, should be more than merely empty silence. It should be pregnant with meaning, either by implying that something isn't being said or by the use of non-verbal signals. The group's play style has a lot to say about whether or not this will work since the players will need to be paying enough attention to catch it. They also have to be willing to let it happen and be patient to see the result. The GM (as the NPC) to player (as the PC) interaction has to be father "in character" than simply using voices or recounting what is said. They need to understand that you are portraying the entire persona of the NPC and that the silent pauses are in character, not simply the GM looking up a stat or rule. Maintaining eye contact is a good tool to use to let the players know you still have your character hat on.

I believe it works best as part of a longer PC/NPC interaction where you, as the GM, spend a decent amount of time in character as a single NPC. Once you have the players understanding that everything you do (including not talking) is done as the NPC character, they should be able to figure it out. As you use it more in game over time, they will (hopefully) come to understand and recognize that it is a tool in your toolkit.

Try it out with an NPC who doesn't talk much (I guess I'm thinking of a duke who is a mob boss type) where when the PCs say something stupid, all they get is an eyebrow raise or a withering look.

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+1 for the implied emphasis on non-verbal communication during silence. Body language rules! –  F. Randall Farmer Nov 15 '10 at 22:03

Think of the alternatives

Before answering directly, here's an indirect answer. Think of all the ways you could communicate quietly and intensely, without using silence. Try:

  • Speaking as quietly as you can, but urgently. (Don't whisper)
  • Speaking as slowly as you can, but as though communicating something important. (Lengthen the vowels).

These are tools in their own right. More importantly, though, they help you use silence itself. When you speak quietly, you must have the attention of the whole table, which is what you need to use silence. When you speak slowly, you can create a silence just by pausing.

Think when you'd use silence in critical situations

When, in everyday life, would you be silent at a critical moment? Here are some suggestions:

  • When you're angry with someone and you're staring at them, as if you might start a fight.
  • When you're staring at a lover, imploring them not to leave.
  • When someone has died and any words seem banal.

To use silence effectively, generate situations like those.

Also, think how silence gets used in those situations. For example, in the first example, you stare directly at the person, watching their every move. Do that when you use silence in your game.

Hold the table

For the silence to work, you need the attention of the whole table. Getting this is difficult, but here are some pointers:

  • Before the silence, speak so that everyone can hear you. Articulate properly. Speak at full volume.
  • Focus intensely on the person you're speaking to. Listen to them intensely, too.
  • Use your body. Occupy as much space as you can. Gesture.

Here are some more abstract ideas, which may help:

  • Imagine your words are like bullets, which you're firing at the other person.
  • Imagine everyone wants to go and get a drink and you must stop them.
  • Imagine you are saying something very, very important.

Once you've got everyone's attention, then you can leave your silence and they won't interrupt.

Earn it

You've really got to earn a silence. Use it rarely.

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