As the title says, multiple of my players are not paying attention during our d&d campaign. Most of the time they will simply talk to each other about unrelated things in the middle of combat and other times, and I have to continuously ask them where they want to go next, and have to ask them to roll dice multiple times. More than once a player will have no idea what is happening and I have to constantly repeat myself. Any solutions, tips, or advice is very welcome.
It sounds like a classic case that everyone has different expectations of the game. Typically, holding a session before the campaign begins to talk about what everyone wants out of the game helps everyone to know what the expectations are. Maybe, those players expect the game to be more loose and social — played more like a light board game than an intense story telling session — and they are getting out of the game what they came for while frustrating you.
Session zero would allow you to know this expectation and to plan more OOC social time at game sessions — maybe more breaks, or just being alright with more OOC table talk because you know to expect it as it is what the party finds fun.
Even though the campaign has started, it might not be a bad idea to either hold a session 0, or informally talk to each player and just get a sense of what they are looking for in the game, and letting them know what you expect of the players.
How Interested in the Game Are They?
Are they playing because they like the game, or are they playing because they like the people? If it is the latter, maybe it makes sense to do one of the following:
- Ask those members to leave.
- Instead of doing D&D night, do general "game night", and D&D is just one game you cycle through, but with clear expectations that on D&D night things are more in character and less chatter.
- Shorten session and add social time at a break or at the end.
Let Them Know They are Next
First, before trying these changes, let the table know about the change ahead of time. That way it isn't a shock when someone gets pushed.
At the end of each turn, don't just tell the player who is up that it is their turn, tell the next player their turn is coming. Do this for all players, so it doesn't seem like you're singling people out.
"Joe, it's your turn. Sally, you're up next. Be ready."
If someone is lost, and doesn't have their turn ready (a minute or so of "umm") when you get to them; give them a warning "You gotta do something, or you'll lose initiative"); after a few seconds more of indecision they get moved to the end of initiative order. If they are moved to the end of initiative order, and they still don't have a move, skip them for the round.
Maybe it's You...
One unpleasant possibility to consider is maybe it isn't them. It could be that you currently lack the thing they play D&D for. Maybe it's RP, maybe they want more combat, maybe they want less combat, etc. Perhaps there is part of DMing that you get bogged down in and lose them.
I used to be a terrible GM.
I would over plan a single thread, and then the party would walk away from the clear hook I laid for them because it wasn't as interesting/clear/fun as they wanted and they take some other action I wasn't expecting — so I didn't know what or where to go with the story line I planned in the trash. I fixed that by having events ready, but not necessarily one full complete story, but a lot of different hooks to different stories ready.
I would get bogged down in the numbers and system (I was playing a complex system with new players, and the system was getting in the way of story and play). It took me forever to realize that it is more important that the story move on than that I find the right answer for how X behaves in this situation. Now, I make sure I know the basics ahead of time, make an on the spot ruling, check it after the game for next time it comes up. 5e makes this a lot easier, as the rules are generally simpler.
I didn't have a GM/DM before I DMed my first time. I didn't know how to be a good story teller. My descriptions sucked. I didn't know how to build in side plots well, and NPCs were a lot like NPCs in MMO games where they would simply exist to tell the player this one bit of info they need. I've spent a lot of time watching other DMs and how they hold the table's attention and build the world with the players — both by being a player in other games and watching online games.
Whatever the case, if it is a mismatch or weakness in you DM style, the only way to know is to ask. I'd suggest talking to your worst offender and asking some basic questions:
- Why do you like playing D&D? What is your favorite part?
- Why are you more interested in talking than paying attention to the game?
- Are you interested in more social interaction with the people at the table (longer breaks and such), would that let you keep your attention more on the game when it matters?
- What can I do, as DM, that would make the game more exciting for you?
Establish If It's A Problem
I get it. You're the GM and you're trying to get something done, and people are going on 10 minute long diatribes about Rogue One during a villain's monologue. But — some people, and some groups, want different things out of gaming. For some folks, getting together and talking geek is the point, and the game is just something else you're doing as a backdrop.
I wrote a blog post comparing RPGs to sports, and in sports you have local pick-up games, league games, etc. And different levels of engagement are expected in them. Some folks are just there to mess around, not to play seriously. And that's valid, even if it's not what you want to do.
But on the other hand, this can verge over into just being plain rude. If you were playing poker or Xbox or basketball or Uno or anything else in the world and someone interrupted play to jibber jabber for that long someone would tell them to shut the heck up and take their turn. Gamers are sometimes not super high on the social skills/cues end of the spectrum and, regardless of how "serious" the game is, can be engaging in behavior distracting in any other situation.
What you want to do is get group buy-in on what you're doing and what the general tone of the game is. But if in general everyone in the group is happy with the current mode of operation, it may be you that has to change. You don't have to accept pure-play rudeness — if someone interrupts what you're doing, especially as the GM, get over the geek social fallacies and call them out. "Hey Beavis I was talking, simmer the hell down." But some groups play games as an excuse to come together and geek talk for 6 hours, and if you want something different you may have to switch/cull groups.
For a while, I was a single dad who had to pay a babysitter for my once-every-two-weeks break, and I wanted to spend it gaming. I certainly looked for a group that spent their time on task; I don't need to pay $20/hour to listen to some fatbeard talk about George Lucas; I can get that for free on the Internet at home. It's fine for you to want that too, you just have to understand that you may want something different and valid from what the others in the group want. Get that hashed out.
Fix What's Wrong
If you can get the group to generally say "Oh OK, we should probably stay a little more on task during the game, some people are here to play the game and not just chat, fair enough" then you can do a couple things.
First, take breaks. I ran a super serious "everything is in character" campaign for years, and I'd run for 45 minutes and take 15 minute breaks, so people could get the talking (and snacking and whatnot) out of their system. If you try to bull through 4 hours without distraction you're always going to be disappointed.
Second, maybe divide groups. To run that serious campaign, I had to take a large group and split it into a "funsies group" and a group of people willing to accept a less screwing-around premise.
Third, do other smart logistics things like have the group get together for lunch beforehand to get some of the jabber out of their system.
Fourth, if you're running the game, you can simply start enforcing a variety of moves — like "What do you do?" "Well if this were Deadpool I'd blah blah..." "Ok, you spend your turn engaged in fantasies. Next player in the initiative order, what do you do?" Or a variant on that, insist on things being in character — random joking and blathering will bother the NPCs, give you away to the monsters, etc. Just keep running the game, and those not participating will miss out. Again you need buyin for this to not backfire, but it's fine to do. Force action in-game. Interrupt the misbehaving dialogue with "an orc shoots you with a crossbow!"
Fifth — general small group skills. There's any number of articles on the internet about small group behavior/small group discussion that you can learn techniques from that are useful in leading any small group and keeping them on task. Stress goals, redirect disruption, basic management/meeting facilitation skills. These are out of scope of this SE but there's plenty out there to learn (bonus: helps you in management, teaching, etc. in other parts of life).
Try to engage your players as much as possible. Create roles and create challenges so that specific characters in your party can feel like they are involved intimately in the story or campaign that you're trying to tell.
If you can get each of them more involved on an emotional and story level with the campaign they will likely be more willing to pay attention even when their character is not the focus of the game.
In order to get people to pay attention as much as possible:
skip them in the initiative order if you mention to them that its their turn
if they don't have an action prepared or haven't been listening to the state of combat skip them
If they have their cell phones out at the table and are paying too much attention to them (aside from using them to look up an odd rule or spell effect), institute a "no electronics space." It's considered quite rude in a game to pay attention to your phone more than you are to the other players and the GM. First and foremost, you're there to tell a story and play a game. If they're spending a lot of time on a laptop or a phone it might be something to bring up to them.
If the problem is that they're geeking out about things not related to the game which you're currently playing, and not paying attention to combat, another thing you could do is force your creatures to engage them.
- If Person A and Person B are paying attention, but Persons C, D, and E aren't, your monsters just found themselves new targets.
- Instead of telling them the things that led up to there being monsters in their face, tell them that while they were distracted, a monster appeared adjacent to them ... this should get their attention.
You can exaggerate this at the table by pounding on the table with your fists (to simulate a large creature moving up towards the players).
They won't know how the monster got there, but they'll have to deal with it regardless of the situation. What doing the above achieves is creating tension and surprise related to the in game situation. This provides and incentive to pay attention what is playing out on the table.