Over the last few years, I have subconsciously implemented my classroom behaviour management strategies at my gaming table. I only became fully aware of this recently when I took a back seat to running games. I was getting quite burned out and not really enjoying being in the driver’s seat. This gave me the chance to be a player.
And being a player is excellent for Game Masters because you get to observe how other people run their campaigns and it gives you a chance to be reflective. The first thing that I noticed was that I wasn’t equally as interested in every game that I played, and it was the Game Masters presence, and how they managed their table that made the biggest difference.
I took notes on the games I was playing and started to see patterns. The tables and games I enjoyed the most had Game Masters who were using classroom management techniques, but in this case, at the gaming table. They didn’t know that’s what they were doing, I don’t think, but they were making the table more enjoyable by ensuring everyone was present and engaged.
I have come up with a list of ideas that all Game Masters can use at their tables. These are strategies I use every day at work, and when I run games. This list is by no means exhaustive, and I do not consider myself a professional Game Master, but I am, however, a professional teacher, and these techniques are tried and tested to help manage the rowdiest classrooms. They are not hard and fast rules but guides to help create a safe, fun, and enjoyable playing space.
This does not give you permission to treat your players like children.
1. Be prepared
If you want to capture the attention of your table, you must have something to capture them with.
Everyone’s level of preparation differs, but it is best to be over-prepared. Even if you rely heavily on improvisation, have something written down; a few notes, a character, something. Preferably have a lot more than that. Sly Flourish’s Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master is a must for anyone running games- you can be as lazy or as thorough as you like with that book, but it gives you a framework for preparation.
Your players will know if you are under-prepared, so walk into that room, sit down at the table, and be ready to rock the dice out of their hands.
2. Set boundaries
Classroom Management 101. Set boundaries. Set your expectations. Communicate what is expected of players, and make sure they know what to expect of you. This is something you can organise during session zero. Often people act like they don’t care about rules. But that’s shit. People love rules. Boundaries help us flourish; they give us a space to work in and experiment with.
What exactly do I mean by boundaries? I mean discuss behaviour. Are you cool with alcohol and swearing? What language is appropriate? Can characters attack each other? Ensure that your table is safe and inclusive for all of your players. It’s your space. Don’t put up with intolerable behaviours and attitudes- You set the standard for what is OK at your table. When a player starts to cross the boundary, that when you need to talk to them about it. You might pull them aside and have a private chat, but if they are really out of line let them know immediately.
Boundaries are also about setting up what your players expect out of the game. If you have a cleric, two fighters, and a barbarian, throw monsters at them! But discuss all this first. If you have planned a campaign of espionage and political intrigue, that party might not be so keen. However, it would make for some laughs.
3. Start Strong
In teaching, we call this a hook, which is different to those ‘hooks’ you see in many published adventures. The hook is designed to grab the attention of the players (students) as opposed to just starting an adventure. It really needs to get players and their characters focused on what is happening at the table.
Sly Flourish outlines this perfectly in Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, To start strong ask three questions;
What’s happening? Set the scene, let your players know your world is living and breathing and their actions make an impact.
What’s the point? You players need some sort of meaning behind getting into this adventure. There are plenty of goblins to kill, why these goblins?
Where’s the action? Someone attacks you, a building collapses, there’s an earthquake… whatever it is, start with some action.
If you get the players hooked, interested, and ready for adventure right at the start, keeping them engaged throughout the session will be much less of a challenge.
4. Connect with your players’ characters
Your players spent time in their heads and in their books creating their characters, and quite often their characters’ backstories are fully fleshed out with detail.
Seed your games with events, issues, characters, locations, and items that connect directly to your player’s characters. They want to feel immersed in the world, they want their characters to be important. Have those characters do awesome shit. They are the heroes. Ensure every session has something that connects with at least one of your player’s characters. It will have them eager to explore the world you have created and kept them coming to sessions!
5. Read the room
This is all about knowing when something isn’t working or when something is working really well. Listen out for clues for when the players need a change of pace, scenery, a break, or even the time to end the session. I know, you’ve spent so much time on this awesome encounter, but the dice have been doing their thing and it might not be going the way you wanted it to. If the players are bored, on their phones, talking about everything but the encounter, and worst of all, every time it’s a player’s turn they ask, ‘So, what’s going on?’, change it up.
This is your feedback. Sometimes it’s the only feedback you get. So, keep your eyes peeled, ears unfurled, and your nose… something.
This also works when players are fully focused on the current encounter- make note of what you could see they were keen for. Ask yourself, what lead up to it, what did that encounter mean for the players, and how did you manage it?
6. Wait for silence
Shouting over a classroom of 30 kids does not work.
They might be quiet for a little while, but it doesn’t last.
The same with a group at your table. If you want to speak to a group of people you have to do two things. Give them a cue that you want to speak, and wait until they are silent. Now, in the classroom, my students know that when I am standing at the front in the middle of class, saying ‘Settling down, facing this way, and listening’ they need to do just that. In most cases by the end of the first term, I don’t even need to say anything anymore.
Come up with a phrase or a gesture for your table (I don’t suggest clicking your fingers). You might say, ‘Adventurers!’ or ‘Heed my call’ or ‘Alright, you lot, listen up.’ It’s also most powerful when combined with physical actions. Maybe standing, or a hand sign, but whatever it is you choose to do, be consistent with it. You will feel like a fool to start. Because they won’t be quiet. And you’ll be saying some dumb phrase. So, explain what you are doing and why. Be consistent with how you get their attention and they will respond.
Then wait for the silence, ten seconds if you need to, but never give important information to a table of people talking over you.
7. Command the table
Sometimes, you just gotta take control over what is happening. This does not mean being a tyrant, but it might mean standing up and getting into character, to really grab their attention. It might mean being firm and direct with your players. If you have someone that literally won’t shut up, let them know politely that they’re distracting you, and the rest of the table from gaming.
You might get a player that is constantly unprepared for their turn. Tell them they have two minutes to decide or they miss out that round because their ‘character is stunned by the violence’ or whatever suits the situation (this does not apply to new players but you might set up a more experienced player to sit with them to help them out). Often players will have upwards of ten minutes between turns- make sure they know what options they have and be ready to roll.
Be firm, direct, calm, and don’t ask. It’s not a request. If they don’t want to play at your table, they don’t have to.
8. Be consistent
This is important. This is about structure. This about be being solid. Bill Rogers, an expert in classroom behaviour management (a lot of tips here are from him), says that if you are not consistent your students won’t be either. And neither will your players!
Be consistent with how you start, and to learn from the best, watch how Matt Colville and Matt Mercer start their game. Go, now. Watch how they go from table chats to starting the game.
‘When last we left our heroes,’ and ‘When we last left off…’ every time. It sets the scene. It lets your players know that it is time to start. This also important for how you treat your players and the ruling you make. If you implement a home-brew rule, that needs to be for all players and used until the group decides it doesn’t fit.
These are just some of the things I use to manage my classroom and my gaming table to help you create and maintain a better environment for you and your players. They are not hard and fast
Below I have some links to some resources you can check out if you want to learn more.
Bill Rogers on Behaviour Management
Return of he Lazy Dungeon Master by Sly Flourish
Matt Colville’s Running the Game series, a selection.