Over the decades, I’ve had a chance to play with a few gamemasters here and there, and to observe a few more. One thing I noticed was that very few GMs understand pacing — how to keep a game running smoothly and quickly. Their games bogged down in full, but unproductive side chatter, characters meandering into side plots that didn’t involve their other characters or had little to do with the main story, or simply lacked a certain energy.  There are a few reasons for this. I’ve broken these down in to three rough issues: preparation, engagement, and timing.

In this post, we’ll deal with hardest and easiest to manage: engagement.

We’ll start a lack of engagement on the part of the gamemaster.

Here’s a pair of examples: I played in a Shadowrun campaign about 20 years ago that started off terribly and managed to improve long enough to finish a single adventure. The GM was an older gronard type gamer who, looking back on it, was probably in the very early stages of Alzheimers. He wanted to run the game, but once we were all sat at the table, he was barley involved –until the combat portion of the game. He even wandered off a few times to, we assumed, go to the bathroom, but once was found working on his project Porsche 911! He simply didn’t care and it was only through the active engagement of a few of the players we got through the mission.

So what was the issue here? The GM later said “It just wasn’t as much fun to run as i thought.” Fair enough…so what’s the fix? There are several. If someone else wants to pick up the GM responsibilities, you might have a campaign that can be brought to life. If no one wants the job, find another game. It’s play, not a job.

Another example of GM disengagement: A former friend was going to run the new Dr. Who game for myself and my wife. It took place on a spacecraft, was essentially a playtest of a module he was going to release, and revolved around a lost ship that had strange goings-on. Early on, I picked up on the rips from The Black Hole, but it was obvious that the GM wasn’t prepared, was uninterested in being there (for personal reasons that were obvious even at the time), and the night ended so unsatisfactorily that my wife stated, had I not run a solo adventure (a fast paced spy mission in Nazi Germany using Hollow Earth Expedition), she would have been turned off of gaming entirely.

Whats the fix? Don’t be badgered into running something you don’t want to, with people you don’t want to deal with. Beg off politely.

Most RPGs have a game master, the arbiter/facilitator/storyteller. If they’re not involved in the process, it doesn’t matter how much the players want to have fun, you will run aground.

But what about player engagement? What is throwing them off?

It could be their character — perhaps the initial concept sounded good, but just doesn’t carry through as the campaign goes on. An example: a player creates a Colonial Marine sergeant for a Battlestar Galactica group. The character does well in certain missions, but for the most part is a bit players because all the other characters are officers…no fraternization. Either the GM adjusts the stories to have more for the character to do, or the player builds another character.

It could be the setting. Maybe they’re just not into modern day espionage; they want to lay into monsters with a sword and become lord of all the land. You can either all agree to play something else, or the player can opt out of the spy game when it’s running. No harm, no foul. I’m not a fan of high fantasy and don’t play it. With the right GM and universe, I would consider it, the same way I enjoyed a recent one-shot zombie game on a cruise ship. (And I an SO over the zombie craze, but the set up was so good, it was worth trying.)

You could even tweak the setting to make it work. Let’s go back to the BSG example. The sergeant is pretty useless in a politics heavy set of adventures where the officers are locked in bureaucratic combat with their superiors over the Cylon menace…but once the shooting starts, he could be useful as a survivor on the surface of the Colonies.

But ultimately, if the players isn’t having a good time and it’s draggin down the rest of the group, they could decide to beg off.

Another issue with engagement is distraction. Not just environmental distractions (but we’ll address that), but distraction — not having your focus be on what you’re doing. Distraction on the part of the GM is probably the most likely to derail a game night or a campaign.

First — everyone has an off night. It’s not a disaster. If you’re overly tired, distracted by something going on at work or home, grieving, sick — it’s okay to call it a night early and either watch a movie, sit and socialize, or let the players do some light character bits together or plan for the big assault. Try again next session. The key point is to figure our what the distraction is and find a way to put that aside for the few hours you are playing. Once the distraction becomes so systemic to plan or run a game to your satisfaction — maybe you’re getting divorced, or you’ve developed a disliking for one of the players, or you’re too swamped  — hand the reigns off to someone else. Play instead of GM. Or take the time off you need. It’s play, not work.

Most of the above goes for players, as well, but the level of preparation and responsibility to driving the story is lessened for them If you want to have your character “sit in his cabin inventing until the action starts” (Yes, a player actually said that…see the GM from the first example.), that’s fine. Let them leaf through the rulebook and concentrate on the players who are actively engaged in the game. The wallflower will come forward as things that interest them come along. Maybe you’re feeling a little off or have had a bad day, but you want to socialize. It’s okay to tell the GM and players early on that you want your character in a minor role for the night. Roll some dice…maybe you’ll get into it; it’s okay if you don’t.

Once again, however, if the ennui is systemic, if you keep finding you are uninterested in the proceedings, figure out why and address that as you can. Is it the character? the setting? the game mechanics? Is it something environmental that needs to be addressed? Try and fix that.

The last distraction to be dealt with is the environmental one. Where, when, and how you play can be part of the problem with engagement. My group plays at my house on a week night. I also have a 22 month old daughter who loved people and wants to be involved in everything. The wife takes her out to do things until she’s tired, but even then we could be in for visitations from a curious child or crying from the other room because Mom won’t let her come socialize. This is distracting. It’s the job of a toddler. We have to watch the volume of the voices, we might have aural jamming from a crying kid — that can break the mood.

Is it too hot or cold, and what can you do about it? Is the place you’re playing filthy — some gamers I’ve played with really needed to fumigate and do a dish every once in a while — that can be off-putting. Is the significant other or roommates interrupting on a regular basis? Are you playing in a high-traffic zone like a game store, barracks lounge, or other public space? It might be time to change the venue, or the time you play. (I can only imagine these issues are magnified when gaming via Skype or other video/audio-conferencing.)

Engagement will never be uniform over time. Don’t sweat the off nights, but when your enjoyment of the game wanes for a period of time, it’s time to evaluate why? Is it time to swap GMs and/or games for a while, to keep it fresh? Is the venue to distracting? Is your life in the way? Figure out the proper corrective action, even if that action is to take a break.