And now I cast…Oh! Look! A Monkey!

In honor of my second vote, I now offer a consideration of non-tabletop things…Those things that can be distractions or enhancements and how best to deal with them. For the purpose of this entry consider a distraction anything that takes players away from the environment of the game and an enhancement as something that adds to the enjoyment of all involved. There are individual distractions as well as individual enhancements and I will brush by them in the appropriate context, but mostly I will be talking about your whole table. Don’t forget, that you are at the table too and should be enjoying things as much as everyone else!

I had a hard time deciding how to cover this…by category of issue, by level , etc…but I have decided to do, like many of my post some broad stroke guidelines and I will start with Distraction and how to deal with them and enhancement and ways to increase it. However, I also have in my pocket a whole blog about that specific topic where I will talk more about the tools available and whatnot. So…what is a Distraction? Distractions occur at your table often. Side conversations break out, a players cell phone rings with an amusing ring-tone, a child thinks they need to eat, or maybe a player needs something to keep their hands busy above the table…While all of these can be classified as distractions in the truest sense, what I want to discus is the incident that breaks the mood. For instance, My Lady wife often brings her embroidery to the table. It could be considered a distraction, so I will use it as an example of how it could be in this context. If she were to lose track of the plot, that would be a distraction for her, but if her character is not pivotal, then the character might also be distracted…by the fly buzzing next to their ear, or the hissing of the air leaving their vacc-suit. That is NOT a distraction in the point of this blog. If, however, she lost the plot AND her character was pivotal…then having to stop and explain what just happened again WOULD be a distraction. If she was doing something that the whole table had never seen before and all game stopped as she did it so they could watch her and ask questions…Yup! Distraction. (As it is, she keeps the plot quite well, and our gamers have watched her enough to not be too taken away!) Side conversation can be a HUGE distraction, because not only do (usually) 2 or more of your players lose the plot as they talk about their latest escapades, or their last game…it often interferes with the other players trying to listen to what is going on. What about when two players need to take junior to bed? YUP! Distraction…so, lets assume this simple equation: Distraction = Interruption. So, how do you deal with these? All together now…”It Depends!” Overall, you have to suffer some level of distraction, because this is a social encounter, and real life always has a certain priority, or even a persistence, over the game table. You are all there to have fun, but sometimes that fun IS talking about a similar situation in another game, or how another character would have dealt with this issue. The first line of defense on any of these distractions is to point it out. If one person is responsible, such as constant phone calls, or playing games on their laptop you might want to take them aside and mention it. Just tell them that what they are doing is distracting, and it is taking away from the other players fun. If several folks are the cause, Just say something to them. Keep the conversation to a minimum, and/or, in the words of my mother, at least keep it to a dull roar! Once you have pointed it out, if it continues, you might offer a warning. But after that, let their character suffer for their lack of attention, but make sure you don’t punish those who are distracted, just those who are distracting (See the difference?). For instance, here is what I have done: In a combat, I normally ask players to keep track of their initiative, and remind me when I forget or they get skipped (yes, it happens even to the best of us!). However, If I am at the punishment phase of a distracter, I may INTENTIONALLY skip their initiative…when they remind me, well, perhaps they were too busy saving us from space invaders to notice it when their action came up, or simply state that the character missed their opportunity to use the initiative, better luck next round. DON’T let this get into an argument. Remind them that they had been warned…and then carry on. Make sure you give every opportunity to those who are trying to pay attention, however. I have also been known to just continue narrating while they have their own conversation, or, of course, take part of the conversation as character dialog! Whenever you are dealing with distractions, always keep in mind the social contract, and the needs of real life…A person on call MUST answer their phone, parents really should feed their kids, and if chatting is unavoidable, stop game for a 10-15 minute break. Let chat go. Usually, I have found, that if I point out that game has stopped for 15 minutes so we can get our chat out…the break only lasts a few minutes!

There is also a time when enhancements can lead to distractions. For instance, the first time I tried to actually use background music/sounds…I thought it worked pretty good. But several of my players found my selection annoying, and the “Soundtrack” too full of noises that they weren’t sure if they should be hearing, and if their characters should respond…I hadn’t intended them to…It was just atmosphere, after all…but it was a huge distraction. (I still try to get music involved…I’m just not that good at it!)

What about things that are really enhancements that many people think as essential? Like what, You ask? Battle maps, maybe? Blue Books? While these can definitely be an enhancement for everyone, If they are not prepared well before hand, and you end up creating it on the fly, well, first of all…for shame…unless of course you have something like a gridded white board that is intended for such use. But in building a map, you have had to stop everything, and basically say to your players, “You are about to get ambushed, you just don’t know it. So, everybody have a Mt Dew and we will return to our regularly scheduled game as soon as I have set up the hose job!”  For those of you who have gamed as long as I have, many times game is played entirely in the mind, and distances and ranges are all best guess. And sometimes that works great…but it can lead to big arguments about exact positioning and facings and the like. I usually draw out rough maps (our game table is a white board! I Know…you’re jealous!) and let them stand, even though I have a copy of the great Campaign Cartographer, I only rarely use it for things like battle maps. (I do use it for character standees quite often though) For these type of distractions, the only real cure is practice and planning. Most games can get by with a blue book pass once in a great while…if you have players constantly passing secrets too you, only action them during their turn…and carefully gauge whether you can intimate what is in the book among your group, and play it out, or if you need to fill out the book and pass it back. As I spoke about way back when, characters with outside game knowledge can usually be curbed of such unwholesome appetites!

Finally, Enhancements that ENHANCE the game play. These are anything that makes game play more vivid and/or helps suspend the disbelief. I will be posting a whole blog sometime about what sort of tools are available, so I am just going to touch on some categories now, and those that have a potential to become distractions, but usually are not. I just talked about a few: Maps, Soundtracks and blue books. Most of the time, these tools are great enhancements (or so I’m told with music…I’ve not perfected it yet). They allow a person to get a very good grip on what is going on, and allow players to share or keep information as required. So long as they do not get out of hand, use them! Enjoy them. Embrace the extra OOMPH they give a game. What about laptops at the table? They can be a great enhancement…automated character sheets…shared maps…secret notes! But they can also cause real problems…nobody looks at each other, buried in their screen…taking up precious table space…and then there is the Creeping Crud, one of the Laptops Greatest enemies! Lighting! Yes…lighting can make a difference…dim lighting can create a gloomy close feeling, while very bright lights and harsh surfaces can be disquieting and modern, but again…the potential for disruptive interference can be high…to dim to easily read dice or character sheets, brightness causing eye-strain…well painted miniatures, and player handouts! All of these things can provide a great boost to your game play…………..but overused, or used sloppily, they can cause notable distraction. What about first person character that the player uses props, accents and odd lexical dialects! A definite enhancement…but, if they are too over the top…it can be nothing but a distracting pain…

As I have said many times before in these blogs, most things can be discussed with your players and dealt with.  It is important to recognize that they exist.  Here is a bit of an experiment, particularly if you and your gamers are a new group, OR if you have been playing for years and learned to deal with each others foibles.  Ask each player to take notes during a game session about things they found distracting or particularly enhancing.  Gather them up AT THE NEXT game session, allowing people to think about them, add more or remove them.  At that time, have each person quickly peruse their notes and see if they were sufficient to stand up between games.  THEN  gather every bodies notes and discuss them as a group.  Maybe something that one player did annoys everybody, or maybe your soundtrack was a complete disaster…or even amazing aide to the scene…use that discussion as a starting point for better games!

Until the next post!  Happy Gaming!