So, you’re a Dungeon Master now. You’ve got a campaign prepared, the players have their characters, you’ve been practicing voices and making props and everything seems like it’s going to be a good game. Once you actually get to the table you find that the examples of play don’t really cover one of the hardest aspects of being a Dungeon Master: keeping everything and everyone together. Trying to keep the play area distraction free, resolving disputes, and ensuring people are actually paying attention to the game, these are all parts of what I call Table Management.
Even non-players can tell when a group’s DM has poor table management. His or her players are all having conversations with one another about the latest movie they saw or book they read while the Dungeon Master is trying to tell them about the orcs about to attack them. Two of the DM’s players are arguing about in-game actions with each other, instead of with the DM. One player isn’t even paying attention to that, he’s too busy playing the latest mobile game on his phone. And worst of all, someone is building a tower of dice. What happened here?
I’m not saying a good Dungeon Master has to be a despotic tyrant, because that’s a quick way to be a Dungeon Master without any players. It’s more like herding cats. You have to get the players to want to be herded. Sometimes, however, it’s not entirely your fault, because sometimes there are other reasons than you would think at first glance. Let’s look back at the sample above with the guy playing on his phone. Does he really think the mobile game is more fun than what he’s doing? Him showing up implies that it isn’t, so there must be something else. Is he given enough of the spotlight during the game to feel as if he is a part of the group? Is he just unhappy with the current story? Talk to him and find out, you’ll be surprised how much your players will appreciate that.
So, we’ve got the attention now of mobile phone guy, what about the two players arguing about in-game actions? This is a situation where you need to be, and should be, unbiased. Most arguments like this result from confusion of some kind, or disagreements on what was said ‘in character.’ My advice is to nip it in the bud immediately. Don’t let this sort of thing escalate as it can kill groups. Let the players calm down, explain away any confusions you can and remind people of the different between their characters and themselves. Just because the rogue stole your sweet roll doesn’t mean the other player is trying to piss you off or ‘go against the meta of the game’ by creating drama between player characters. Sometimes they are, but those aren’t nice people.
When it comes to off topic conversation, don’t worry about it unless it becomes an issue. If 60% of your game is just hanging out and shooting the shit then maybe you have a problem, unless that’s what your group is into. When it comes to that sort of thing you can mostly ignore it. The only times I won’t is during combat or if they’re talking over another player who’s actually doing something in the game. When these kinds of conversations hit one of those natural stopping points, just try to bring everyone’s attention back to the game as quick as you can. Works pretty well.
If you can think of something I didn’t that should have been mentioned in an article about Table Management please feel free to drop a comment or Tweet.