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I GM a long-running Pathfinder campaign, and for some time now I've been noticing our group fall into a familiar pattern of lethargy, where only one player engages with me at a time and the rest seem to sit aorund waiting for "their turn".

For example, last session the party tried to enter a city in the midst of a natural disaster, only to be detained in a jail while the town guard figures out what to do with them. There are any number of ways a party could handle an encounter like this, so I don't think I set them up in a place where they are particularly constrained - I didn't even take away any items except obviously displayed weapons. What happens is:

  1. The barbarian takes the pillows they've been provided and starts punching them. After telling me this, that player goes back to playing a game on her computer. She occasionally checks back in to inform me that she's still tenderizing her pillows.
  2. The paladin writes a letter to some important person trying to talk his way out. When that doesn't work immediately, he builds a pillow fort and his player goes back to
  3. The bard decides to start singing loudly in Dwarvish in an attempt to annoy his way out of jail. His player and I have a long back and forth in which several NPCs react to his singing, and finally they get out.
  4. Now that they're all out, the bard's player goes back to playing Diplomacy online. The cleric takes over, leading the group to where she encountered someone wounded earlier. She chats with some NPCs for a while.
  5. The group ends up at the waterfront. Each player takes turns separately checking with me to see about buying items.

By the time they've done all this, three hours of real-world time have passed and 90% of the session has been the PCs taking turns engaging the world one-on-one. As a player in that situation, my default would have been "I'm in situation A, I'd like to be in situation B. Does the rest of the party want situation B? If so, then let's formulate a plan to get out of here. If not, let's roleplay some intraparty conflict". But it seems like their default algorithm is "I have a vague sense that my character would do X, so I'm going to do 'X'. If I can't do X, I'll wait until the GM can pay attention to me".

I figure the first answer is going to be "have them put the computers away", and I agree that fewer distractions would force them to try and engage with the game even when they aren't in the spotlight. But they all use online character sheets and have been somewhat resistant to going full pen-and-paper.

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The point of getting together to play a tabletop RPG is so that everyone has fun. This seems obvious, but sometimes groups can lose sight of the goal.

One of the obstacles to everyone having fun is the fact that not everyone thinks the same things are fun. In particular, not everyone wants to be fully immersed in a fantasy world for hours on end. Clearly, you do, and others' lack of investment is bothering you. The next step is to figure out who else it might be bothering. It sounds like you've talked to your group about it, and not everyone thinks it's a problem.

There's really no way to solve this beside a group discussion. The important thing is to approach it from the angle of everyone trying to have fun: "Hey guys, I have more fun when we're all actively engaged with what everyone else is doing, so when players divert their attention to other things, it degrades my experience. Does anyone else feel the same way?"

Hopefully, the people you're playing with are interested in you having fun as well, and will be swayed by this argument, at least to some extent. Then, you can come to some sort of compromise. Maybe take occasional breaks. Maybe they agree to get more invested in the game, but only if they're promised more fights (or less). The specific arrangement is dependent on the specific individuals in your group.

If the other players do not care about your fun, then you have a serious problem. They need to understand that being the GM takes a lot of time and investment, and if you're not having fun then you don't have any incentive to continue. It's not a threat, it's reality. If they aren't having fun, then they shouldn't keep playing either, because that's the whole point.


Here are a few relevant links which may help:

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This answer is not an exclusive alternative to "speak with your group about it". By all means, please do that, too.

When I was mentally absent from the table (back in the time when that meant bringing another book to read) it was mostly due to the fact that the adventure was build to have tasks for each type and exclusively for that type. By what you mentioned, I suspect that might be the case. With seven players and tasks for only one player, it would mean I'd have to wait for 30 minutes even if each player only takes 5 minutes. In your example, the bard took 10. Taking turns that way would make me wait for 60 minutes for my turn. And while people enjoy playing RPGs, only a few enjoy watching others play RPGs.

A solution would be:

More Teamwork

First example: the jail

You mentioned the bard singing his way out of jail. That engages the bard only. If you build that challenge in a slightly different way, so that many more characters are involved, more people at the table will be included in the game. For example, maybe the bard alone is not annoying enough. So he needs the Paladin's and Sorcerers (High CHA) fine voices to build up a choir. But all the church songs the paladin knows are too tame. So they ask the barbarian for a more offensive drinking song. Now you have four players engaged. Now when this works, they can say "we got out of jail, cool", instead of looking up from their other stuff saying "oh, he got us out of jail".

Another example for healing:

A battlefield needs a healer. But it's your choice if that means the cleric says "I cast cure light wounds 5 times" and the rest of the people drifting away because they are not part of it, or if you involve all of them. You need people to get the fallen frontline fighters into the back. Somebody that is quick but strong and can dodge a few arrows. Maybe a barbarian would work well. Then you need someone in the second line who can do the triage and decide who must be treated next. That might be the place for a bard and his jack-of-all-trades knowledge. And finally the cleric treats those that need it most. But wait, the enemy has harpies harassing the third line. So someone with a large shield has to protect the cleric doing his job. Maybe a paladin. Again, that means a lot more people are engaged. There is a lot more reason to use "we". "We did it".

Put priority on teamwork, not on rules

There is no rule saying the barbarian knows dirty songs. Or the bard knows enough about medicine to do triage. Or the paladin and sorcerer can sing as a choir. Matter of fact they probably don't have "performance (singing)" or medicine at all. But really, how good do you need to be to sing a horrible drinking song? Or check if the beheaded guy has a chance to survive if properly bandaged? Don't make them roll checks they will fail anyway. Sometimes, the decision to help should be enough, even if the rulebook says otherwise.

Try to avoid situations that a single party member can solve alone. If you do need them, solve them quickly with a diceroll. For example a wizard might not need help to decipher an ancient scroll, but that's what simple and fast skill checks are for. Try to create situations, where the party can really say "We did it". People that are engaged, even only as helpers, will not be bored and be less likely to turn away to do something less boring.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I like your answer, but how do you get your players to think that way?I would not want to say "no one notices your singing, how about the others join you? (...) well, the guards like your song. Maybe the barbarian knows something darker or more annoying song" \$\endgroup\$ – Ferox Oct 19 '15 at 11:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ Just present challenges and place some hints. Your players will figure it out. "The walls of the prison are strong, your single voice is not loud enough". "You sing the song the paladin likes best, but the guards look as if the like it. The barbarian growls. It's not his kind of music." \$\endgroup\$ – nvoigt Oct 19 '15 at 11:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1, Whether the players can be convinced to get more invested via discussion or not, these are still great suggestions to improve the DM's part of the bargain. \$\endgroup\$ – DCShannon Oct 20 '15 at 1:25
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Distractions

My immediate suggestion is to ban electronic devices at the table, except those needed for the game (e.g. a tablet with a character sheet on it).

Be blunt with the players.

"I'm here, giving you my 100% attention for two or three hours. I've also spent twice as many hours beforehand preparing for this. Its just common courtesy that you give me your 100% attention."

If a player says they need the tablet for their character sheet, then that's OK, on the understanding that if I see Facebook or Angry Birds or anything that is not a character sheet or a rulebook then I'm taking the tablet away from them and they play the rest of the session from memory. Oh, and if they misremember anything about their character's statistics, they get a large penalty.

If they don't have the option of playing games or using social networking then they will be more likely to fill their time with gaming stuff.

To repeat - this is just common courtesy.

To stress - paying attention to the other people at the table (and not playing Diplomacy) is the minimum standard I expect from people, whether it is a card game or a board game or a roleplaying game. The comment about playing their character from memory is a lighthearted way of saying "pay attention to the game or leave the table."

To quote AngryGM: In point of fact, there’s really only one useful piece of advice GMs ever give players. One. And that is this: “pay attention to the —ing game, even when you are not directly involved, because you never know when you will have to be involved and you make us repeat things and stop the game for you when you don’t.”

Pacing

Vary the timing of scenes. Follow luxuriously slow scenes with fast! frenetic! chaotic! action! What does your character do? Nothing? Too Slow! Next person? Go. Go. Go.

When a player looks up from their smartphone and goes "huh, what just happened?", do not stop and explain. Just move on. Leave them confused and disadvantaged. It's their fault they missed out on exciting stuff. Next time, they will pick up on the cues in your voice and pay attention, because they don't want to miss out the cool things.

Conversations

If a character is present, then ask the appropriate player for input.

For example, the party is in the cell talking to a noble about getting freed. The noble asks the Paladin "So, what's your take on this?" If the player doesn't immediately answer, then just move on, but make a note that the character snubbed the NPC (see Consequences below).

Ticking Clock

Add tension by making a ticking clock, something that the players and the characters can see. The more tense a scene, the more likely they will want to participate.

They are in jail but they need to warn someone about an incoming disaster. Perhaps a dam is going to break? Perhaps an army of giants is heading to town, fleeing the bad weather? perhaps they know when the big earthquake will strike?

Every minute they spend in the cell is a minute the mayor is not organising defences.

So, put an alarm clock on the table. An old style one with a loud ticking. When the alarm goes off, the earthquake hits.

Props

Something physical in the middle of the table will generally get everyone's attention. I like putting together notes and handouts and maps and the like, so its easy for me.

As a bonus, having a letter in the middle of the table that the players have to read saves your voice.

Consequences

Make sure their actions have consequences and make sure those consequences are visible to the players.

A week later, in a store (maybe an armour and weapons shop), the proprietor recognises the Paladin. "Oh, hey, I know you, you're pillow-fort guy! What are you doing in here? Shouldn't you be down the road at the sewing shop?"

The barbarian is trying to get services from a noble. "Oh, now you want to engage with me? Well, too late, you lost your chance two weeks ago in that jail cell."

Buying Items

GM to players:

"You have a rulebook. All common items are for sale, at 10% extra price. You have five minutes. Go."

"Punishments"

To address the question in the comments. "How do you propose that stealing peoples' stuff and penalising them for not memorising their sheet for a game they don't seem interested in will make them more interested in sticking around for it? Has this ever worked out for you in comparable circumstances?" Yes, it has. It made the people who weren't willing to commit to the game go away so the rest of us could play the game without distractions. I've been in that situation twice. First time, I called off the entire campaign, which in hindsight was not the best idea because it meant none of us had any fun. Second time, I put the hard question at the table. Two players left, the rest of us went on to have a good game.

"A DM who treats their players like that might find many of them quitting the game." Good. If a player is not willing to show respect to the other people at the table by paying attention then they aren't welcome at the table.

Personally, I prefer the word "consequences" over "punishments". The consequence of a player's bad manners is that they don't play the game.

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TL;DR, kill the phones, go to paper, and involve everyone in the story as well as helping run the game itself. Yep, talk to the players and find out what they enjoy the most about D&D, let them know you put work into preparing, but you want everyone to have fun together (including yourself).

Long:

I like some of the software out there but the thought of having multiple iPads and phones going at the table would bother me as technology is the very reason I went back to pen and paper. Getting away from being connected for an afternoon and socializing with others playing games I find is a major mental break.

I run a game with my family on weekends who are just learning the rules and ins and outs of D&D. My wife is fascinated with the things her Rogue can do and I've seen her sneaking the PHB around the house many times. As long as she gets to roll the dice and figure out her options from what's on her character sheet, she's happy. My son is in love with the art in the 5e Monster Manual, and remains engaged when I am animated playing NPC monsters, and give his halfling fighter plenty of opportunities to use his level 2 fighting skills chasing after a baby white dragon (who eventually gets stuck in a small room). He searches everything and happily burns through torches doing it. No phones are allowed and everyone has to learn where things are in the PHB. My wife realizes her rogue can't take a beating like his fighter, and he constantly asks her for help in undoing traps after nearly getting killed by a spear hitting him from the ceiling. And bashing down that door and waking up a dragon? Well, he certainly doesn't opt for that as his first move anymore.

If they don't pay attention or debate for too long which way to go in the hallways, I roll a random monster encounter or cause something to happen ("you hear a noise around the corner that sounds like footsteps, then stops..."). Half of the strategy with new players is to help teach them the game and imagine options their heroic character could try.

In contrast, I also game with some long time experienced folks intermittently. Last week, I noticed one guy just sitting on his phone for half of the game while the DM and one other player debate what they said they did or where they would have been. Though I'll RP quite a bit, even I find this group tiresome, as the DM doesn't really keep things balanced (eg. allowing a dozen retainer Knights to go in with the player's character and not adjusting the encounter size). The most frustrating is when the DM who goes off topic and starts talking about non-game related subjects when everyone else is trying to bring him back into the game. All of these problems can cause people to disengage. (Fortunately, the campaign is pretty interesting most of the time).

So, I like a lot of the suggestions before my comment about pace and creating options that require a party of adventurers to work together. If damage is routine and a cleric just casts heal spells out of it, change it up - use poison or disease which is long term and debilitating. Maybe those spells aren't memorized, or maybe finding the cure before the time is up becomes the adventure in itself. That way, the disengaged players become involved with their characters and the party needs to help them find a solution.

It should be obvious that table games get us away from connectivity, but maybe not to the younger generation. So, ban phones (except for emergencies or calls) and character sheets need to be printed out. Put a box of sharpened pencils on the table. Make someone responsible for mapping and another responsible for maintaining the party order and positions with the figures on the table. I just ask for a 4x4 or 3x3 or 5x4 room to be put down (a tile) and the characters to be positioned. That gives everyone something to do in the metagame and something to look at.

Hope you find something that works!

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There are a bunch of reasons why players will disengage with the plot.

Tone Mismatch
Maybe you want to run incredibly serious games where the fate of the world hangs in the balance. Maybe they want a light hearted adventure. Maybe you are the "drama geek" and they want to play a battlefield mini tactical game. Regardless, it one cause is that they do not want to play the style of game that you want to run. Now, I'm not saying give them only exactly what they want. Indeed, that would be impossible if you have a few who want a light hearted adventure and a few that want to go down the rabbit-hole in moving minis around on a battlegrid. Unlike most of my group, I like to balance both light-hearted and serious campaigns.

Plot Fatigue
Maybe you have players who like exactly what you give them, just you have been doing this plot-line for a long time. When I joined my current gaming group, it took us a year of gaming nights to roleplay a month of in-game time. Why? Because we were getting to know each other and figuring out how we played our characters. I suspect we could have chopped most of this time away by having a direct conversation the first or second night we gamed while playing a board game but we didn't. Recently, we played another adventure where we were CRAWLING through the plot and frankly, I got sick of the plot.

System Fatigue
I once played Shadowrun for so long that the system's flaws (to my eyes, anyway) were so blatant that I could not motivate myself to play any game using their rules.

Life Events
I'm sorry to say it but sometimes life will pull a player's mind out of the game. They want to be paying attention, the want to enjoy the game, but they have too much on their mind to really handle game-time.

What in the heck is going on?
Sometimes a game goes on where I think X is happening based on my knowledge (and character's knowledge), yet it appears that Y is what is actually happening. If it happens on major plot arcs and I feel I have no ability to modify those arcs, then I look to other ways to have fun.

How to fix all of these problems First, I would suggest that you talk to the players either individually or collectively. You will likely get more substantive feedback if you talk to them individually and ask open-ended instead of yes/no questions. Realize they are "right" to have their opinions and those opinions are fully OK to differ from yours. Maybe they did not catch a clue that ties this whole adventure into a personal fight for them. Maybe they get that it should be personal, just are tired of the tone, the plot, etc.

If it's a tone-mismatch, conclude the current chapter in the plot and in the next one, for goodness sake throw them a completely different challenge. Even though you mentioned this incident was a consequence of a natural disaster, I'm forced to wonder if the natural disaster is integral to the theme of your campaign, or if it is a side-plot? Most groups I know of would find a disaster to be a fun change of pace from their "normal" plot-line... but let's face it being stuck in post-disaster [whatever the city's name is] is something that can also get very old very fast.

If it's a plot-fatigue, is there any way that this disaster can clear itself quickly? Maybe a dought that is broken with a gentle soaking rain that lasts for a week? This takes the disaster off of the table, allows things to go back to normal, and the group can move on to the next adventure.

System fatigue is simple to fix, plan a night "off". Play board games or roll up a paranoia (or other silly game). Do it as a one-off where the PCs are all slaves and put into a gladiator pit (or do they try to escape during a fight??), etc. But most importantly, DO IT WITH A DIFFERENT SYSTEM. If you play D&D, have the players do this in... say... WoD system, or Shadowrun, or anything else.

Player confusion is perhaps the easiest to clear up, have an evening where the players are in a pub or inn and comparing notes. This can then go sort-of meta and allows players to come out of character to ask clarifying questions of the plot. I once played in a campaign with so many twists and turns and surprises hidden in enigmas that my character's in-game action was to buy a boat and sail into the middle of the ocean with no maps because then MAYBE he would know better what was happening. We had a night of clearing up these questions and my character still felt he should buy the boat but I knew what was going on, at least.

Life events is the most difficult of these to "fix". Simply because there is nothing you can do (other than invite player(s) to leave the group) that will resolve this issue, and if you have any sort of friendship with these folks then kicking them from the group for being distracted that they think they are about to be fired is about the biggest jerk-move you can do. Honestly, if one or more of your players has this issue, it may be time to shelve the campaign for a month or so and play board/card games because there ain't nothing that will keep their attention.

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Do double-check why your players think it's cool to be playing other games (solo) while there's supposed to be a group game going on. I suspect the answers, if honest, will really help. I don't think there's a lot you can do to fix that sort of player dynamic in-game, but consider:

If there's no possibility of a single character handling the situation (i.e. they have to work as a group to solve the problem) then they'll all (or most) have to be paying attention.

If "their turn" comes up so fast they can't make any progress in the solo games... they'll stop playing them. In other words, try to speed up turns. There's an existing Q/A on this site with recommendations on how to speed up turns.

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I've answered a question with some similarities to this question here. The social disconnect happens when one or more of the players either attempts to shoehorn the game into their solitary control or when a group of players feel that there isn't anything engaging them at a specific time so they decide that Angry birds is more important than what's happening with their teammates. In this game when each individual person attempts to do something on their own without thinking of how the group will respond, they are in essence the Angry barbarian in the question I linked.

There are a few gaming techniques that you can use to reacquire your characters imaginations and rekindle their motivations, I'll go into detail below on each of them.

Pen And Paper

The primary issue that your game seems to be suffering from is a social disconnect that introverts suffer from. Having a screen in front of someone forces them to pay attention to their screens instead of other people around the table, which replaces some of the interpersonal reactions that Dungeons and Dragons is founded upon. If there's a screen in front of them they're less likely to pay attention to their Barbarian who just ran straight into a trap filled corridor or some other danger, and this creates a disconnect between the players, their own characters, and the characters of the team.

This is a problem at the table because you can't create an engaging scenario when no one wants to be engaged. If they have their phones you'll never have their full attention which makes it difficult for your PCs to empathize and connect with NPCs or the other players, which destroys any immersion that your players would be getting from the game. Being a good GM is all about immersing your group in an adventure, keeping their attention with hooks, and ending the session right when something potentially bad will happen that will keep those players wanting to spend the time to come to your house a few hours out of every week.

Skill Challenges

When you're designing your campaign elements insure that you take the time to design challenges that everyone in your group can participate in. Like nvoigt was mentioning, create tense situations which require everyone's input in the group in order for the players to succeed.

If you're in a dungeon being imprisoned by the Big bad the players could lift the hinges off of the gate and remove the hinge pins, having each of them participate in the actual removal of the prison gate could enable their escape. The hinge pins would have to be removed by someone with deft fingers ( A Bard or a Rogue ), The gate would have to be lifted out of its hinges ( A strong barbarian could accomplish this ), And if you give hints that the barbarian isn't strong enough on his own, a Cleric could cast a spell to increase the barbarians strength, or in systems with no magic the rest of the team could hunker down with the person trying to lift the gate and escape successfully. It's not important how the destination is reached, the only thing that is important is that the team reaches it together.

Social Contract

If all else fails, a social contract may benefit your group as well. A social contract is a group of things which your players will agree to do when dealing with one another at the table, such as discarding smartphones and computers during the session, respecting each others privacy, property, or personal space, how to deal with meal breaks within the group to insure that the game keeps running at a timely pace, how to deal with rules disputes, how to treat rule zero when rules disputes cant be decided on with civility, as well as anything you can think of in regards to how to deal with the other players at the table. One night come in, run everyone through the contract you've created, and have them all sign it. This should cover all of the bases you're trying to hit in your game.

Dealing with the combat disconnect

Because of initiative and how combat slows down a game into "Turns" it may be necessary to wrangle some of that control back into the hands of the players themselves via removal of the turn-based combat thematic. Initiative would still exist, however only you, the DM, would use it. Have everyone roll up their initiative, write down all the results from greatest to least.

Once you have when everyone will be "going" ask the group together what they're going to do to surmount the challenge placed in front of them. Have them roll their dice, write down their results, roll the dice for the monsters action, and when you have all of the information available for that individual round, summarize everything that's happening via the initiative order. This will give you more control to keep the group together during combat, allow you to summarize everything that is happening in a combat round all at once to keep the attention of the players, and it will help your Players imagine exactly how these things are playing out.

Since initiative is an abstraction of the "turn based" combat system if you take it away it makes it seem like everyone is taking their actions within the same 6 seconds instead of one person going, then another person going, then another person casting a spell, and so on. To facilitate quickness at the table, set an egg timer when a round starts and give your combat a sense of Urgency. You're fighting a dragon, and the dragon wouldn't wait around on your team to formulate a plan, so this timer won't give the players time to come up with a course of action. It will also help to immerse your players in the actions that are happening at the table at any given time. You'd be surprised how much you can make your players flounder by just twisting an egg timer and placing it on the table. Which brings me to my next point.

Trickery

Trickery is a tool that should be in every GM's toolkit. If you're tricking your players, making them think that things are happening behind the scenes you take away their sense of complacency, and you make them nervous. A nervous player won't be checking their phones because they think something bad could happen at any time, and no one in their right mind would be looking at their phone when their DM starts rolling dice behind the screen when someone does something, or when he sets an egg timer and tells them that the dungeon they're in that they spent all night traveling through is going to collapse when the timer goes off.

Sometimes in my games I like to just wind up an egg timer and place it on the table just to create the illusion of possible consequences should the timer go off. Sometimes the timer will go off and nothing will happen. Other times the timer will go off and the fight that the players are in will be interrupted by additional enemies bursting through a door, or pieces of the floor in the dungeon begin falling away into a trap room below filled with giant insects.

By tricking your players into thinking something will happen when something you do begins to occur, it will serve as an impetus for your players to get on the ball, stay immersed, and forget about their outside lives for a moment to focus on the game at hand. Immersion is important for a games success, and trickery is one of the best ways to do it.

One tip I can give you to keep your players immersed is called "the look". It's a tool in any GM's arsenal which will keep the players on their toes and realize that the proverbial shit has hit the fan. To do "the look", smile as wide as you possibly can, relax your eyes, and lower your eyelids just a bit. People don't normally smile at any given point of a day. A smile is an facial expression reserved for happiness, or peace in the hands of most. In the hands of a skilled GM the look becomes psychological warfare. Your players seeing their GM smile will horrify them in the worst imaginable way. If you do the look, and then something bad happens, you will be able to keep your groups attention almost 100% of the time from that point on, because from that point on your players will be paying attention to Every. Single. Thing. That. You. Do.

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Note: Boring theory in the first half, specific solutions in the second half.

Understanding boredom

First, let's accept that everybody eventually gets bored with an activity when it doesn't engage them for a long enough time. This doesn't make them bad people or bad practitioners of that activity, especially in the case of hobbies, whose purpose are to be the exact opposite of boring.

In roleplaying, a player mainly becomes bored when their character is not the one acting. Since roleplaying is a conversation, only one player can be truly active at any given moment and everybody else is thus at risk of boredom. In my view, there are two main factors causing this boredom:

  1. The amount of time that a player has to wait until it's their turn.
  2. The number of reasons that the player has to care what happens when it's not their turn.

If you evaluate your game based on these two criteria, your goal then follows: either minimize the amount of time between turns or maximize the number of reasons to care about the game between turns—or possibly both.

How the system comes into play

I had problems with player boredom to varying degrees for many years as a GM, and I am sure that every other GM has had similar problems. While talking to your players is generally the best way to solve problems with the game, even getting your players to "promise" not to become bored will likely not help, because we accept that even good people and good players become bored when they are not engaged. At best, talking to the players can keep them from sitting around with their phones or laptops when they're bored—but they'll still be bored, even if they now express it by just staring vacantly at the table.

What eventually solved the problem for me was changing which systems my group played and acknowledging that system matters, even for out-of-game issues like this. Saying that it solved the problem is bold and seems like the sort of exaggeration you constantly read on the internet, but in this case I feel confident enough to express it that way.

Instead of listing the specific systems that helped me solve this problem, I will list some of the properties and mechanics of those systems that I feel contribute to preventing player boredom. I'll give examples of actual systems for each point, but please focus on the properties and mechanics themselves rather than the specific systems, since this will help you find similar systems on your own or work these properties and mechanics into existing systems. It's also quite likely that I missed some things, so take a moment to think for yourself about how the system that you are playing might contribute to boredom, and how a less boring system might look.

Possible solutions

  • Give every player a role in a scene

    Sometimes, it's hard to avoid scenes where one character gets most of the spotlight. You can still make these scenes engaging for the other players, however, by giving them roles as NPCs such as guards, merchants, prisoners, and so on. If you don't want to hand over control of the NPC entirely, give the player a brief description of the NPC's motivations as guidance. If the player unknowingly makes the NPC do something that doesn't fit with the character or the plot, just do a quick ret-con and then let the player continue. You might be surprised at how well your players can portray characters that they had no hand in creating.

    In Fiasco, every player has a character of their own, but not all main characters will appear in every scene. When it doesn't make sense to place a given main character in a scene but that scene still needs characters, or that player still wants to participate, an NPC can be created on the fly and assigned to that player. If the same NPC appears again in later scenes, it can even be assigned to a different player if needed.

    The most memorable moment in one of my Trail of Cthulhu sessions was a scene in which the players briefly took on the roles of the campaign's antagonists in an "evil society discusses its evil plans" scene. With just a small amount of written background information provided to each player, we were able to act out an engaging scene that if traditionally narrated would have been guaranteed to bore players.

    This technique is a special case of allowing players to control the world and story, which I cover in the last point below.

  • Make individual characters crucial

    One common source of boredom is when the game enters a situation where one character is in the spotlight for a long time because they are the only one with the skills needed to progress. One way of avoiding this is to create challenges that require teamwork. This is largely a matter of scenario design and has been covered in other answers, but I want to stress that there are ways in which the system also comes into play here.

    An example is Trail of Cthulhu, where a character either has an investigative skill or not. When a character lacks a skill, they cannot use it at all. When a character has a skill, they automatically succeed when using the skill. At the very least, this means that even the most talkative and active players must ask the other players to be involved during every investigation, so that they can make use of their unique skills and find clues that cannot be found in any other way. Compare this to Pathfinder, especially in combat, where a player can often either attempt a skill check on their own or find an alternate way around a problem. When the game instead requires a character with the Forensics skill in order to determine a cause of death, that character's player has to become engaged, if only briefly.

    The point here is not that you should make challenges dependent on a single skill but rather to show that after you have designed a scenario with teamwork in mind, the system can actually help you to enforce some of it. Consider a hypothetical system where every character, regardless of skills and experience, has at least a 50% chance of succeeding at an action. In this system, even a scenario designed for teamwork will not necessarily lead to teamwork, because it's not crucial for any single character to get help from other characters. Now imagine the opposite of this system and you can see how the rules themselves can actually create some of the teamwork for you.

  • Make the turn order less strict

    One of the problems with rules-heavy games is that a player often spends a lot of time deciding on their action. When this is done within a turn-based context—most notably combat—a lot of time can be wasted on this decision-making process, causing the other players to become bored because they have to wait, even if they have already decided what actions they want to take.

    One way of countering this is to let players take their actions as soon as they have decided what they are, without regard to the turn order. That's how Dungeon World does it: players take actions when they think of them and when they fit into the current situation. If you want to make sure that every character can still take the same amount of actions, imposing a rule of "one action per round" but no turn order is a fair compromise. While this is technically possible in a game like Pathfinder by using the rules for delaying actions, that's usually too rigid and complicated to be done in practice.

  • Let players control the world and story

    Likely the most important factor that has prevented boredom in my games is to give the players control of not only their own characters but also of the world and story around them. If a player has the ability to affect what happens even when their character is not involved, they have all the more reason to pay attention even when it's not their turn.

    In Shock: Social Science Fiction, every player is given creative control of one or more aspect of the setting (such as "religion" or "science") and gets to dictate all of the details of that aspect during the game. While this is an extreme example that is probably hard to work into a Pathfinder campaign, the same principle holds there: giving players influence outside of just their own characters will make them care more about the rest of the story. If the group visits the hometown of one of the characters and that character's player is given the authority to describe just how that town looks, that's at least one player who is guaranteed to be engaged during the entire visit.

    Even if your players enjoy being players and shy away from GMing, don't underestimate their willingness and ability to be creators when given the chance. Some of my best moments in gaming have come from ideas introduced by players during the game, and you can make the game more engaging for everybody by encouraging this rather than restricting it.

    I cannot stress this final point enough. Switching to systems where the rules allow and encourage every player to control more than just their character has allowed me to play sessions where everybody around the table was engaged in the game for literally the entire session, which seemed impossible to me until I experienced it. Most likely all of your players do enjoy roleplaying and want to be engaged throughout the session, so you need to make sure that the rules of the game are not getting in the way of that.

A final note on player trust

Most of the solutions above require you to trust that your players are all there to make the game fun for everybody and that they will not abuse any new rules that you introduce. If you do not trust your players to do this, the suggested fixes might not achieve the intended result. That being said, my experience is that any roleplaying game will fail if you play it with people whom you do not trust.

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The best activity for keeping the group engaged is combat. Combat makes sure that everyone gets regular turns, and it gives them regular opportunities to use their characters' cool powers. In a good combat your players will know it's important to keep track of what's going on, even when it's not their turn.

The other thing I notice about your session is that the stakes are very low. The group is jailed, but not threatened particularly: it's just a minor bureaucratic inconvenience. When they get out, they don't seem to have anything urgent to do, they just putter about town. What are your characters supposed to be doing in this campaign?

I actually think your jail scene was a pretty cool idea, sort of a fun roleplaying interlude between more plot-critical bits. But when they got out of jail, you needed to either have an urgent problem for them to solve (enraged earth elementals wrecking buildings?), or else you needed to say: "Okay, you spend the night in town. You can buy items at market price if you want." and offer them some other interesting quest to go on in the morning.

If your players try to do something that isn't awesome or plot-relevant, remember that you can just hand-wave it rather than roleplay it out: "Okay, roll a skill check. You do that! It works great. What's next?"

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    \$\begingroup\$ I actually find that my players get more distracted during combat for the exact reason you say they will be more engaged... to my players "regular turns" means "I wont be needed for another 5 or more minutes". Admittedly, we have 7 player characters so balanced combat can sometimes take along time just given the number of things taking turns. Even still, with smaller groups i still find they look at phones etc between turns in combat. \$\endgroup\$ – MC_Hambone Oct 17 '15 at 7:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DanB Particularly when playing a game where combat turns take a long time and there are few opportunities to act out of turn, MC_Hambone is right about combat being an invitation to stop paying attention. \$\endgroup\$ – GMJoe Oct 20 '15 at 22:58

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