How to Get Your Players to Engage | Behind the Screen with DMDave

Cell phones, laptops, and off-color jokes, oh my!

Anyone that’s been a GM before–no matter how good you are–probably knows that getting players to engage is one of the toughest parts of being a game master. Even I sometimes fail to impress, watching my sessions devolve into total chaos.

So how do you get your players to actively participate and cling on to every word of your story? This article offers up a few tips for keeping your players engaged.

Ask them what they like!

This one probably seems like a no-brainer, but it’s probably the biggest problem that GMs have–even experienced ones! The easiest way to get your players engaged in your game is to (duh) figure out what they like. And the easiest way to do that is simply asking them. Do they like combat? Do they like roleplaying? Do they like hex-crawling? Maybe a mix of all, especially if you have a big group. Once you know what grabs their attention, add that into the mix.

Cut the crap!

Sure, you’re building an awesome world and you’re totally in love with it. But there comes a point when you don’t need to describe every single little detail. Buying a mundane dagger at the local smith doesn’t need a play-by-play description. If your players aren’t interested in travel (and you know this because you surveyed them), you don’t need to describe the entire journey from Point A to Point B. In fact, think of your sessions like a movie. Just keep the scenes that matter and use a broad brush to paint everything else.

Use props and visual aids!

You might not be a great storyteller. And that’s fine. Just be sure to lean on the skills that you do have. If you love painting minis, get some minis on the table and make sure they’re used. If you’re an awesome cartographer, make sure your maps are seen. Or, if you and your players like puzzles and riddles, come up with some nifty handouts. Slideshows, visual presentations, and even music all help grab player attention.

Play somewhere free of distractions!

I started my game at the back of my local gaming store. Unfortunately, the nights we played were contest nights for a certain “magical” card game. This was a huge distraction. Not to mention we’d sometimes get the oddball who’d wander into the room and stare at us (of course, some of those oddballs later joined my group, but I digress). If you’re playing your game in a place that’s loaded with distractions, you should probably consider moving it. These days, I run my game in an attorney’s office. There’s no toys, books, games, or TVs to distract my guys. Even if you don’t have the luxury of having a massive boardroom table to play on, try playing in a room of your house that’s low on distractions.

Boot toxic players!

Time for a little controversy. I get a lot of folks on social media asking me how to deal with troublesome players. A troublesome player is one that, no matter what you do, just won’t get involved in the game and does everything they can to disrupt the setting. They argue rules, split the party, and distract others. When you’ve got a player like this, the best thing to do is to pull them aside and ask what’s up. If it’s something you’re doing, you can probably fix it. But if it’s all on them, it’s best just to ask to part ways. Toxic players derail games fast. Remember: being a GM is a hobby, not a job. Boot ’em!

Don’t penalize for inattentiveness!

Beyond booting toxic players, I recommend that you don’t penalize your players for failing to pay attention. First of all, it’s a game. And if they’re not invested in the game, then they’re probably not having fun. It’s your job to correct that. Docking experience, ending games early, and being meta are poor ways to address the issue, and can lead to more problems. I believe that even banning cell phones can be seen as a negative move. Fix what you can, address the rest.

Let me know what you think! Join us on and share your thoughts on keeping the attention of your players.

See ya!

Thumbnail art by Wizards of the Coast.

2 thoughts on “How to Get Your Players to Engage | Behind the Screen with DMDave

  1. I have a player who seems immune to all my attempts to get him to fully engage. When it come to combat he’s all there but he has little interest in npc interaction or exploration beyond it leading to combat. When it comes to character creation, he creates the minimum to get by. I usually have to force him to name his character! Even then it usually boils down to Eric (for a cleric) and something that rhymes with Eric for anyone else! I’ve let it go since probably 2nd edition so I think I have no chance of changing him.

    1. Maaaan that’s a long time. But I guess if they’re not being disruptive, then whatever.

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