July 9, 2023

Table Engagement or Engaging with your Players

Marginal Halfling Note: The following information should work at a virtual table just as well as an in person table. Please know that I mostly refer to things as being at the table in a physical manner but I feel that anything that follows will be perfectly fine as advice, if not with slight adjustments that I trust you can figure out. Happy gaming, and now onto the meat of this article.

Bueller… Bueller…

You’ve all been there. Sitting around the table waiting for the game to continue, watching your Referee sitting across the table searching through a book for that one rule. Maybe they are searching for the next encounter or trying to remember how many HP the creatures has left. Or the price of the bobble you are buying from the shop keep. Maybe you’ve been rolling on tables for the last 10 minutes trying to find your way tot he next city in the hex crawl and you keep on getting lost without being able to recover with your horrible dice rolls.

This can be such a drag on the game. this is about the time that people take out their phone and start playing their clicker games or something like that. I know that there have been times when I have looked up from the book and seen the faces of my players and see them slipping from the connected state they were in just a few seconds ago. When this happens I know it is time to move on. Make up the ruling on the spot and let the players know I can’t find the whatnot and I will look it up after the game and let you know. My players are cool with this.

Table Time is Important, Don’t Let it go to Waste!

Being a teacher affords me the ability to visually monitor a room with 20 plus kids at any given time. This monitoring includes many cues I am looking for. One of the main cues is how are the students grasping any material we are covering, but even more importantly how engaged are my students? Now I try not to sit at the front of my classroom and dictate lessons, studies have proven that students with idle hands will be disengaged and often the misbehavior you find in a classroom is from the students being bored and disengaged. What makes this worse is if you stop moving forward for even a second. I only get so much time per day with my students to engaged them in behavior that will grow their love of learning.

The same can be said about playing games. My days are not free to play all day every day, though this is a dream I’m sure I share with many of you! There are a similar set of principals that can be used for engaging a group of players at the table.

Make it Meaningful, No Easier Said than Done, Right?

Engagement is as easy as letting your players know you are here for them and that everything else is secondary. the game is important in so far as it is the means by which you are engaging with one another.

Here is a list of some techniques that you can engage to make sure everyone is free to enjoy their time. I will give a brief explanation as to why these are important.

Shut up and listen to your players

It should go without saying that your players will be engaged as much as you allow them to be. Avoid being circuitous with description. Flavor text is cool but keep it short.

One of the modern design sensibilities in games comes from avoiding those long paragraphs that are describing the place your player’s characters are exploring. This is to help avoid taking the spotlight for a long period of time. Bullet points in text are there for a reason. No one wants to be read to a descriptive explanation about how the rug’s thread count rivals that of the most extravagant Egyptian sheets you got to sleep on that time you went to that hotel in…. see not so exciting is it!

Keep description short and concise! there is plenty of time to descrivbe things in more detail when the party’s thief want to steal that rug and sell it on the open market. If you want to take the time to look at the rug in more detail let them and then feel free to describe the shit out of it, but maybe halfway through description roll an encounter. since the thief was taking too long. The rest of the party was prepared but the thief will go last this round of combat.

Listening to the players will tell you when to expound upon description. Oh, making and keeping eye contact with your players (but not in that weird way, you know what I mean) is a way to make sure they know you are listening to them. This is a game about human connection as much as we sometimes forget that aspect of the game.

Take their suggestions into account!

The players will tell you what they think is important. Run with this. Let them guide play through what they want to do. If there is something you really want to get across let them know when something is important and they need to be engaged, but do not do this as the rule, make it the exception!

In the classroom I try to keep kids engaged through letting them ask questions of the material. Then we hold discussion about what these questions mean for the subject matter. There may be information that I need to make sure they have, but building the relationship with them by showing that their interests matter is so vital to making the students, and by proximity your players, trust you enough to pay attention when it really important.

Letting your players drive the story forward whether a west marches game, hex crawl, point crawl, full on storied campaign or whatever. Taking their interesting into account will improve your game and their enjoyment.

Respect your players time. Give them all a chance to share in the spotlight

We are here to play a game, now I wrote about this in a previous post about Spending Time at the Table so I will not speak to the beginning of your nights session. You need to respect their time by moving forward. Do not get caught up in the nitty gritty of the physics of the falling rock unless your table is a group of engineers that want to really get caught up in those details. If you only have one engineer at the table let them wax about it for a minute but then move on. It is important that each player get to have the spotlight.

Spread the time for each player evenly, let each player take the stager and engage in a way that they want. I recently read the Black Sword Hack SRD (I may review the rules sometime I had some interesting thoughts about the rules) and I scoffed at one of the rules stated at first. I was shocked that this needed to be stated in the rules. I actually took a break and a walk when I read this to reflect. How can this be necessary? Do people really not let each player get a turn?

The answer I came to was probably that this was true! If it is there then that means that there is someone who needs to hear it. So I quote it here and I will move onto the next principal.


To make sure no player hogs the spotlight, a character can move and take one action during their turn. The action’s complexity (and the distance covered with a move) depends on the length of the Turn as established by the GM(moments, minutes, hours; etc.).

Merry Mushmen Resources Page, Black Sword Hack SRD

Give your players regular breaks.

Nature calls, the partner needs to talk about something, its time for a snack. these are all perfectly reasonable reason that your players may feel the need to step away from the table. I’m sure you have heard many other things come up too. Mine is almost always that the dogs for some reason decide they need to go to the bathroom as soon as the game starts.

Keep the session moving along by stopping from time to time. When you build in a 5-10 minute break, your players will stop getting up from the table. they will know that there are built in moments to do these things. Unless it is an emergency most players will wait for the moment that makes the most sense.

Don’t complain when a player needs to leave the table, but like with students, if you build in a time for them to do these things, you are more likely to have them go when it is more opportune.

Make it up!

The rules can wait. Keep the game moving, make up a ruling. Pretend that you are playing a game of make believe with your players, keep the game moving. If you are in some heavy procedural stuff in your game that is different than when you have a character swinging from a chandelier. One may be a bit more important to keep moving with.

I tend to run my games fairly loose. This means that I do not want to stop the game to look up silly rules int he game I am running. There are some things that will be necessary and maybe you can call for a break to look things over, while your players stretch and get a new beer, you look up the rule to make sure you get it right. Or just make it up, this is a game of pretend that you are playing.

Your players are humans, treat them as such.

This is kind of a catch all. Your players are in fact humans and have human lives. They have shit going on that you may or may not know about. Work with them, have a conversation with them, set expectations, and if there is an issue, you may need to have a frank conversation with them, but remember to listen to their side as well.

Having conversations and respecting them as people, long gone are the days for most of us to play 8+ hours of tabletop games (I do miss those days.) As many of us in the hobby grow older we find out that fatigue is real. A long day of work and then a 4 hour session afterwards may not be in the cards, do not be afraid to settle for a one to three hour session, two hours is a pretty happy time limit for me and my table.

Now go run that game…

I’m sure there are more things that could be done to make the players and your experience of game night feel better, but really these will all be a good start. Keep on being amazing and let others know about this post. together we can work to make the RPG space more comfortable and enjoyable for everyone.

Derek Bizier, the Halfling I Hear You!” Master

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