Imagine this. You’ve been invited to a dinner party, along with several of your office mates and their significant others. Your manager wanted the team to get to know each other a little better, so he’s invited everyone over to his place to unwind. But when you get there, you’re less than impressed with your boss’s skill as a host. He ignores everyone except for Ricky, his second-in-command at the office. Your boss doesn’t break the ice. He doesn’t make chit-chat. He doesn’t do anything to make all of his guests feel welcome.

Now imagine a different scenario. You’re sitting at the gaming table. Through some miracle, you’ve managed to carve out about 4 hours from your schedule twice a month to hang out with your friends, roll some dice, slay some orcs, and win some treasure. But, instead of getting to tell legends of epic proportion, you spend about half the night stacking dice towers and swiping through Facebook on your iPad. One of the other players, a charming rogue with never ending schemes, has been monopolizing the GM’s time with secret notes and regular trips to the other room to handle side business. There’s plenty of story being told in this campaign, but only two people know much about it.

Both of these situations share a common problem: a host failing to entertain his guests.

In the first case, your boss. In the second, your GM.

Have you ever thought of the GM as a host before? Think about it. The GM’s job is to bring friends together for 3 to 6 hours or so and keep them entertained. Often, this involves hours of preparation–sometimes more than a dinner party (though, admittedly, much less of the GM’s time is spent cleaning).

Of course, the GM’s role in dictating the direction of the story varies from one rule system to the next, but it’s safe to say that in most RPGs, one of the GM’s primary roles is director. He is responsible for directing the players (often gently, but sometimes with much gusto) to make the story progress, and–more importantly–to ensure that every PC has a turn in the spotlight.

That’s why I stopped passing notes at the gaming table.

I used to be all about bringing the conniving sorcerer into the other room to play out his devious schemes to make a deal with the demon that the rest of the party is trying to defeat. And the rogue who was slowly working his way into the local thieves’ guild? We’d pass notes all night long.

This is a roleplaying game isn’t it? We’re striving for immersion aren’t we? Might as well take care of the private business in private to prevent metagaming, right?

But eventually, I came to a realization: fun trumps immersion, and the fun of the many trumps the fun of the few.

It’s no fun to sit and stack dice while the GM deals with one other player’s side quest, especially if you don’t learn the outcome for weeks (or maybe ever!). It’s no fun to wait around while one player monopolizes on the GM’s time by constantly passing notes behind the screen.

So What’s the Solution?

I call them asides.

An aside is when I roleplay with one PC at the table in front of all the other players. One player becomes the star and everyone else is the audience. This allows the entire table to watch the action, laugh at the misfortunes, and feel the suspense.

For example, let’s go back to the sorcerer who was plotting against the rest of the party. The group has been working to stop the return of the archdemon Asgaroth. They’ve journeyed to collect the Sword of Ages, the only weapon known to harm the fiend; they’ve infiltrated the Cult of Shadows and learned that the summoning ritual will take place at the next full moon; and they are currently in the process of deciphering clues to learn where the ritual will take place so that they can put a halt to it.

At the same time, however, the sorcerer of the party has been spending his nights gazing into a crystal ball that once belonged to Asgaroth, and he has slowly been turning to the dark side. The sorcerer has been telling the demon lord the party’s movements, plans, strengths, and weaknesses–and Asgaroth, in turn, has been granting him new powers.

If all of those late night asides between the sorcerer and Asgaroth take place in full view of the other players, they can join in the fun of watching two layers of plot unfold. They can wonder about how the GM will make it all come together in the end. They can worry about whether or not they are going to lose a party member to the forces of evil.

Will some of them metagame? Maybe. But any GM worth his weight wouldn’t let too much metagame thinking turn into metagame action. And the cost of metagaming is worth the payoff in fun. Because the fun of the many trumps the fun of the few.

About The Author

Ish Stabosz
Editor & Co-Creator

Ish is a father, teacher, and writer – and he finds ways to tie all of these roles to gaming. Whether he’s helping his 5-year-old design Little Heroes the RPG or transforming his English class into a fight for survival in the zombie apocalypse, games are an integral part of his everyday life.

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3 Responses

  1. 1freethinkr

    Interesting idea. I’ve used what I call conspiracy sheets or notes for years. I do NOT let it out get out of hand and from time to time, some of my players will resort to them. Sometimes, I’ll just hand out some scrap paper with the words “just make pretend I’m passing you some cool info” to some of my other players if I think someone’s been trying to hog the limelight too often. Great ideas here & thank you once again for your wisdom!

    Reply
  2. Mike

    As a player that has sat through both of those ways of handling this situation…. its not really that different. Whether you step out of the room to do the rogue’s sidequest or stay in the room so I can hear the sidequest, if the GM and/or that player are still continually monopolizing time then it doesn’t matter if i get to “witness” their scenes or not. I’m not your audience, I’m a participant. After a while it becomes pretentious… this week on The Bard Takes Over the Table, everyone is subjected to him running a scene of hitting on the princess while we either “watch” and feed his ego or I go back to swiping my phone. At least when you leave the room then the other players can have a friendly conversation without interrupting the game you’re running for the other player.

    Also, notes aren’t bad. Notes are quick and simple. Notes allow players to choose to share character knowledge. While players may not outright use meta knowledge if you share it openly, after say a week or two weeks or three months… it becomes hard to remember if that thing you know was because everyone knew it or whether it was because of a meta sequence & you shouldn’t have acted on it. It helps compartmentalize things over the course of a multi-week, multi-month, multi-year game. Its when the GM doesn’t know how to handle things and lets someone else control the game that then these notes and asides become a problem.

    Reply
    • Brian Feister
      Brian Feister

      I don’t know Mike, I think you’re projecting your own experience in a place where it’s not terribly relevant. The article doesn’t suggest that the GM allow one player to hog the spotlight. Rather, it’s suggesting that everyone should get their chance to pursue their own goals solo and that it should be done in view of the rest of the group to add to the experience for everyone. If you have an imbalance in player spotlight time, that’s a separate problem not addressed by this blog post.

      Reply

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