August 24, 2010

Signs of Involvement

Players give off signs when they are involved in an ongoing adventure. There is body language and other outright actions that can reveal how much a player is paying attention and absorbed in the action. Knowing what these are can help a GM figure out what is working and what is not working. The GM can then learn from this and adjust the way he runs a game the next time.

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Some signs that a person is interested in what is going on:
-Eye contact. The player will look you in the eye.
-Nodding. This might be imperceptible but indicates he is agreeing with you.
-Leaning. The player will lean toward you as you speak.
-Moving closer. A player moving closer to a battlemap shows interest. This could also be standing so as to get a better view.

There are other signs but these are harder to notice/apply at a gaming table.
-Squared shoulders. If the player’s shoulders are square with you, he is interested in what you are saying. However, at the gaming table sitting placement often makes this difficult to do, even involuntarily.
-Feet Pointing. If her feet are pointing toward you it shows interest. Most feet are hidden under a table though.

If a player is exhibiting any of these signs it is an indicator of where their interests lie. If they do these actions during role-playing with an NPC, but then do not show these signs during combat, it is an indicator they prefer role-playing. Make mental notes of what each player is showing interest in.

Some signs that a person is bored with what is going on:
-Turning away. Turning their body away from you as you talk to them or the group. This can also apply when you are not talking and the group is interacting amongst themselves.
-Leaning. The player will lean away from you.
-Looking around. Looking away from where “the action is”.
-Eye contact. Not making eye contact; looking at her dice or sheet or rulebook when being talked to.
-Repetition. Tapping fingers, foot or pencil.
-Shifting weight. Primarily when standing, but could also be a sitting “squirm”.
-Tired. Acting as if they are tired. Yawning.
-Slouch. Body sag.
-Distracted. Making dice towers, doodling, texting, reading rulebooks beyond searching for an applicable rule for what is happening on the table, chatting with someone else about something else.
-Changing an encounter. The player has his character do something radically different, such as starting a fight with an NPC while another is trying to haggle over prices.

These signs usually indicate two possibilities. One is that they simply are not interesting in what is going on. Make a note of when exactly they showed these signs. The second possibility is readiness. They could actually be ready for an action. For example they may be showing no interest in a combat…while it is not their turn. Part of this is because they are ready to take their turn and want to get to that part of the encounter.
It is when they feel “their turn” will not come up that they start to do radical things, such as starting a fight during a haggling scene. This is their attempt to take control away from the GM and reduce their boredom by introducing something that does interest them.

Herein is a key point to remember. Signs of boredom (or even interest) need to be looked at carefully. Does a player show boredom during most of a combat, but then interest during his turn in combat? Does a player show boredom during role-playing, unless it’s doing something like shopping for equipment?

One of my players tends to ignore role-playing when they involve NPCs. At first glance someone could make the judgment call that he doesn’t like to role-play. However, when the party is making meta-decisions, such as where the party should head next or if they should trust a patron, he comes alive. Watching the signs has led me to believe he is not a big fan of role-playing with NPCs, but interparty role-play is something he enjoys. He enjoys role-playing, but it depends on the situation and context.

My players have shown boredom during a combat when it is a slugfest fight; when it’s just swapping blows. However, when the combat situation changes during the fight or the fight falls outside the norm for setting, they pay a lot more attention and show a lot more interest. They enjoy combat encounters, but only in certain situations. Simply throwing combat at them is not enough to keep their interest.

Take a look at the signs and make a note as to the exact moment and action taking place at the time. In RPGs, situations become segmented and the “same” action is actually several different types. Combat is combat, but combat can be against a flunky, a boss, in an unusual setting, part of a long string of combats, as a random encounter, etc. All of these are separate conditions and a player can react differently to each of these.

Another thing to remember is that each player is different. What one player likes is different than another. Each may like combat, but they might like and dislike aspects of combat differently. One may like a slugfest while one prefers combats with unique rules to it. You can not please the entire party all the time. There are some things one player likes a lot but another does not. You can not exclude certain actions simply for one player if there is another player who likes it. Players are actually fairly nice about the whole unspoken topic of “I will go along with your haggling for a better price with the merchant, because I know at some point soon the GM will provide a combat encounter for me.”

It is possible to reach analysis paralysis with all this studying of player signs. Don’t assume a player hates your game, campaign or GM style just because he is giving off signs he is bored. It may just be he is not interested in what is happening right now. He may be waiting for his turn to act in-game. You can not keep a players attention for the entirety of a game session. The trick is to provide your players with enough interesting times to compensate for the times something comes into play that does not interest them personally.

Looking at player signs can help you improve your game. They show what interests a player and you can build a better game based off that knowledge. Are there other examples of player signs that you’ve seen in your games?
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