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I like that my players have all become such good friends. But they're all louder than me. We end up just chatting and hanging out more than gaming because I can't get them to stop having out of character conversations.

I've tried giving them time before the game starts. I figured that that would let them get it out of their system. I think this has actually made things worse because it gives the conversation time to build momentum.

I've also tried to get them to socialize more outside of game. It's obvious that they're excited to see each other since we only get together every two weeks to play. But it's a lot harder to get 6 people together just to hang out than it is for a game.

Finally, I have considered that my game may be boring. If that's the case, fine. However I'm still interested in figuring out ways to control out of character conversations, so for the sake of this question, please assume that the game sessions are not at fault.

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One factor I forgot to mention at first is that one of the players smokes. This means that once an hour we take a break and other conversations start up while people are outside. Then I have to overcome the outside conversation again to get the game going. When possible I do roleplaying outside, so that the smoke breaks aren't an interruption, but the game session doesn't always cater to my friend's nicotine cravings. Would it be rude to continue the game while he's outside instead of letting it get derailed each time he needs a smoke?

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Different players? Really: some people's major take-away pleasure from roleplaying is the socialising, and that's what they're there for. If that's your group, there's no advice that will change them. –  SevenSidedDie Jun 2 '12 at 19:38
    
Merged How can a GM calm down the group when they're chatty? over here as the poster agrees it's a duplicate. –  mxyzplk Jun 3 '12 at 14:09

14 Answers 14

up vote 45 down vote accepted

First, the generic advice:

  1. Plan for it. [You do this.] Set aside the first 30-60 minutes for chat.
  2. Hold your players' interest with an exciting game. [You are doing this.] If they're chatting, frankly, then they'd rather be chatting than playing. Make them more interested in playing than chatting by making your game more interesting. Is there a lot of downtime between "spotlight" time for any given player? Include more in-game activities that engage every player at the same time.
  3. Create a ritual for starting play. Do something distinctive every game when it's time to start playing: ring a bell, roll some dice, stand up, say "And thus it begins..."
  4. Ask players questions. Telling players to stop doesn't engage them. Asking them questions gets their attention and demands a response.

You've done some of these things (planning for it, not having a boring game). Have you asked them why they're more interested in chatting than gaming? Are you the only one who really wants to game?

Consider this: Stop GMing for them. Just join their chat. After a while -- maybe an hour or two -- they'll either ask you to run the game (and you can do so with the caveat that as soon as the chat picks up, you'll stop) or you'll realize that they're there to socialize, not to play games. If it's the latter, maybe you should play poker or something else that is more amenable to idle talk.

Smoking: It's not rude to continue to game while your friend smokes. It's rude if your friend expects everyone to stop what they're doing 4-5 times while you're gaming -- even if he MUST smoke every hour. Offer a scheduled five-minute break for everyone at regular intervals. Outside those breaks, continue playing as well as you can without absent players. Hey, people have to use the bathroom and get drinks and stuff, but these don't have to be game-stopping interruptions; neither does a smoke break.

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+1 for It's not rude to continue to game while your friend smokes. At one point I had to take a phone call, and when I got back to the table I was told that a year had passed and several other things happened. It ended up being completely fine. –  Daenyth Jun 5 '12 at 20:24

One of my all-time favorite solutions for this was a DM who would have NPCs react to OOC conversation as if it had been directed to them. Generally at very inopportune times. Or the party would miss an opportunity because game time would continue to pass while the chatter went on. He impressed upon us the concept that the OOC chatter had a cost, and we were welcome to continue, provided we were willing to accept the consequences.

Eventually I realized that my DM is not a DVR, and it's rude to expect them to just pause on my whim.

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+1 for "DM is not a DVR". I lolled –  Pulsehead Nov 30 '10 at 18:15
    
That has an unfortunate side effect for those players who aren't chatty. It bothers my when my fellow players are distracting; it would be even worse if my character suffered as well! –  EnvisionAndDevelop May 14 at 17:57

Here is something a little different to try. Give the 3 most vocal players each a task.

The least vocal of the 3 should be the keeper of time. It is their job to know how much time has passed 'in game time'. i.e. "That combat and the short rest that followed took our party 40 minutes of character time". They should keep a written record of this. They can also look up rules for you in a pinch.

The next person should be the recorder of deeds. It is their job to make 1-2 sentence notes about what has just happened. Not War and Peace and not up for discussion. The only person who looks at this is you and you do it on demand. Review them 2-5 times during the game session and say nothing and hand them back. If asked tell them you are looking for plot hooks and ideas. Also this is a great way to remember what has happened between sessions and provide a recap. Keep them after each session.

Finally the most vocal is your keeper of the sequence. Who, or what, goes next. In writing. They must announce who is up and the next 3 combatants that will act. May be even have something that everyone can see and follow. They could display a list of current effects and damages.

This does a few things for you: First they are busy, more work, less talk. They are going to naturally have less time for gabbing and by necessity be more focused on the game and what is going on. Second you have off-loaded some of the work of GM'ing and have more time to control the table. this is never a bad thing. Third you need good notes anyway and what better way than to have the players augment what you already are doing.

Give this try - I did about 2 years ago and it changed the way my tables run, for the better.

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Oooh, I like this idea. I'm a big fan of outsourcing GM work under the guise of player responsibility. I've done similar things by appointing a designated rules lawyer to handle easy, non subjective questions. –  valadil Nov 30 '10 at 2:43
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I currently have a rules lawyer, A map and status marker manager and 2 note takers. They don't know that I refer to them this way. The players also keep their own session logs see - rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/4640/…. The table runs smoother and everyone contributes to the story line. –  Acedrummer_CLB Nov 30 '10 at 15:28

One thing we did was lead off each session with dinner. Currently we meet at a local restaurant and we take about an hour before going to our host's house to play the game. This serves to get a lot of the OOC chat out of our system.

Previously, we've gotten pizza or other food delivered. It was clearly understood that while we were eating, there wasn't going to be any serious gaming, but once the table was cleared then we got serious (well...more serious anyways!).

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We've expanded that idea a little: making it a day rather than just an evening, so that the game starts at, say, 7, but dinner is at 5 and people are welcome at 3 to hang out or play other games or whatever. We get most of our socializing done before gameplay starts ... the only trick is making sure we get started on time (or else we're back to "how do we cut back on OOC chatter?"). Of course, not every group has the time to add a few extra hours for each session ... –  Dave DuPlantis May 12 '11 at 16:40

1) Ask them to stop. They might not be aware that you think it's a problem. For some folks (I'm one), the social aspect of the game is often the best part. Others could just be coasting on habits from other games. Make your expectations clear - you're the GM, after all.

2) Give the adventures more/less social content. Your GMing style probably leans toward one end of the character-interaction spectrum; we all have our preferences. Try changing yours and see if that causes the players to focus more on what's happening in the game. If you usually run all-hack-no-interact dungeon crawls, put in more NPCs to talk to, so the players can blow off some steam. Or if you run conversation-heavy-intrigue-laden political games, have goons show up. Lots of goons. If the PCs are running away, they won't have time to run their mouths.

3) Run shorter adventures. If you plan for 6 hours, but your players spend 3 of those hours talking, see what happens if you shave a couple hours off your expectations.

4) Listen to Raymond Chandler and Greg Costikyan. When things bog down, when the story meanders, have some thugs with guns try to kill the PCs. That gets their attention, gives them something to do, and sometimes launches you into a neat direction you hadn't considered.

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I've tried #1. They are aware it's a problem. We run in to the problem of finishing up one last topic. There's always someone who has to get the final word in and then we can game. #2 also seems likely. I prefer a chatty game, but the players took a combat heavy path recently. They're at the end of that though, so we'll see if returning to a more social game helps. –  valadil Nov 29 '10 at 17:40

At my table, we developed a catchphrase. During a game of L5R we were having a training scene in a dojo, and when anyone (even myself) got sidetracked and it was realized, I would say "Back to the dojo." It was both hilarious and effective.

Nowadays, I still say "[Back to the] Dojo" if any table is being particularly noisy/tangential/sidetracked, and it's fairly effective. It may seem like an kids thing but if you are consistent with what catchphrase you use, they respond. Sometimes players at the table will call Dojo which is how I know it's effective.

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Lots of great answers to the main question, so I won't elaborate on that. However, I am the lone smoker in my group, so I thought it might be useful to hear some advice from that perspective.

First, as one person commented above, be proactive about the smoker's breaks. If a situation is coming up that will require everyone's, or just my, attention for a longer period of time, my DM sends me out to smoke beforehand. This could be right after my turn in combat or right before combat begins. What I like about this is that it sends the message: "When you get back, no more breaks until the next big thing is over." And it doesn't just send that message to me if it's before combat. Others will take the opportunity to fill their glass, use the restroom, etc.

Second, be stern with your smoker. Flat out tell him that he needs to start role-playing his smoke breaks. Is the group interrogating someone or meeting an important NPC? Well, if your smoker wants to smoke, they need to come up with something that is keeping their character away as well. They could become distracted by a stray dog trying to hump their leg (I use this a lot. Naturally attracting horny dogs has become a very odd and awkward trait of my character), an old lady asks them to help her load/unload her cart, they need to use the head, whatever. I find it fun to come up with things that distract my PC, so don't worry about this being a pain for your smoker.

You must, and this is important, tell the smoker that any knowledge or turn they missed, is missed. The rest of the group is not going to recap everything for them or wait for them (at least not in combat. The group will wait if they're going to leave a town, for example.).

This is actually a good thing. The smoker has to decide if it's worth missing something to go smoke, which, for me at least, has resulted in fewer smoke breaks. Also, one PC not knowing stuff is kind of fun for role-playing. Not understanding why I'm following the group and/or helping them do something can lead to my PC making some assumptions and, of course, subsequent mistakes.

And (sorry, this is turning into a rant) my DM will sometimes say, upon my return from a smoke break, that my PC has seen or overheard something helpful while doing whatever was distracting him. My DM told me he does this as an opportunity to fill the group in on some detail that they did not think to ask about or pursue. I'm suspicious, though, that he does it so the rest of the group doesn't turn on my character for disappearing periodically. Either way, everybody wins.

Hope this helps.

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Another option, talk to your smoker and see if (s)he'd be willing to cut back to just one or two smoke breaks instead of 5. If the disruption in the game caused by the smoke break is leading to the excessive chatter, reducing the number of breaks could help.

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Another option if they are a serious nicfiend, find a time during combat where they won't be affected for a bit and suggest they take their break then. I have several smokers in one of my campaigns, and rather than let things grind to a halt, I'll often suggest to ONE of the smokers, right after their turn, when they're unlikely to get attacked for a round that they take their break then. Rarely is a whole round run through in the 5-7 minutes it takes to smoke a cigarette. –  aslum Nov 30 '10 at 4:46

What I did in one campaign (which admittedly might be a bit of a specialized answer) was spawn Kobolds. This particular part of this particular campaign had the players sneaking/running through a forest infested with Kobolds; their goal was to get out quickly and quietly. Every time the game bogged down (either because of OOC chatter or IC disagreements over strategy/tactics) I spawned another Kobold encounter. The party was high enough above the Kobolds that they were not huge challenges, but the encounters added up pretty quickly, and had a wonderfully focusing effect on the party's activity (especially once they figured out the 'trigger' for Kobold spawning was a full minute without in character activity).

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For me, I'd ask myself the question ... are people enjoying the game ?

If they are, then I'm tempted to go with the old adage ... if it ain't broke, don't fix it

Past that, maybe have a talk with people on what they want from the game, are they happy with the "non-game" time, etc.

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Pay especial attention when asking to the people who don't answer—they might not be enjoying the chatter, but don't want to speak up for some reason. –  SevenSidedDie Jun 2 '12 at 20:01
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@SevenSidedDie Excellent point ... it's always the quiet ones you have to be careful with –  SteveC Jun 2 '12 at 20:07

Some people are interested more in socializing than gaming or vice versa. First thing you need to do is discuss it with your players. "I feel like we're not enjoying the game as much as we could because we never get into the groove of it without disruption. What do you all think about trying to stay in character and not chat about other stuff when at the table? We'll take breaks for smoking, talking, etc." It may be that your players prefer the current format. If not, you get their active help in making a change.

This is how I ran a deep IC game for 5 years. We would play 50 minutes and take a 10 minute break. We agreed that while at the table we'd be in character, and indicate (game related) OOC statements. We'd take breaks for getting snacks, talking, smoking, whatever. And we'd do lunch beforehand to get the bulk of the random talk out of everyone's systems.

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Have them roll for initiative.

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Adam Dray had, as part of his answer, "Create a ritual for starting play". I would like to expand on this:

Create a ritual for starting play at an interesting moment.

In a Star Wars campaign, I started each session with playing the soundtrack Main Title, and reading a prepared text on top of that re-capping the storyline so far (in that yellow-scrolltext-on-starfield style). I usually took the storyline a bit further, just enough to get over the next boring intermezzo (like the travel to the next star system and the establishing of a base or somesuch), so that the group started right into a scene (like a search party being set up for a scout gone missing, being attacked on a patrol, or having the next mission briefing).

This way, the players were not at loose ends ("Where did we left of? What should we do? Gee, that football game last night..."), but were back in the setting and storyline right away. Ending the session with somewhat of a cliffhanger helps this approach, too. (Obviously.)

Fast forward.

If you feel things are slackening - like, the boring trip to the next town, let's chat a bit - take up the pace before the chat takes over. Skip time. Fast forward over the boring part. Important: Start your sentence with the assertion that time has passed. This usually gets the immediate attention of the players, because they can no longer be sure what the situation is:

"Two months after the mopup, all of you had the long-necessary visit to the healers, and some rest as well. You had the opportunity to do some casual shopping, which we will detail on at the end of the session if necessary. No, Dave, no powerful artifacts to be had at the bazaar, again. You are enjoying the hospitality of the townspeople and just started getting bored, when one day..."

Always keep control of the pace. Don't get bogged down in one character doing a shopping trip, another battling bureaucracy to get his warsteed registered with authorities (unless it's a story point), while the third is counting out how many days it will take him to heal. If there isn't a "reward moment" or "character moment" in it, fast forward. We never saw Conan R&R either.

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Get a bell. When you want to restart game, give it a good ring. It get's people's attention. Even now (years later) that bell has long died, but someone will hold their hand parallel to the table/ground and push their hand down while saying, "Ding." as a sign we use now. If someone starts talking right as you hit the bell, they get to finish, then on to game.

Or you could get a kitchen timer. When the smoker goes out, set it for like 15 minutes. During that time, if anyone needs nicotine, drink refills, bathroom break, side conversation, etc. Take care of it at that point. When the timer goes off, start gaming.

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Nothing personal but I really don't like this idea. (as I wrote under Adam's answer) I think it would feel either rude, awkward or funny, without actually solving the problem. I'm puzzled it worked for you. –  Lohoris Feb 4 '11 at 15:01
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We have the same rule, but instead of a bell, someone will just "call bullshit." When bullshit is called, play resumes. If only one guy is pathetically calling it all the time, the game is potentially doomed, and the best thing to do is to have a real conversation about it. (Obviously, this is not for every group.) –  rjbs May 4 '11 at 23:15

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