This is a guest article from Yacine “Yax” Merzouk and Kyle Ferrin. Yax runs a storytelling project called Minstrel and co-founded Gamer Lifestyle, a site for gamer-entrepreneurs. Kyle is an illustrator who loves role playing games. He likes drawing commissions for people, and running his webcomic “XP” You can follow/contact Kyle on Twitter: @d20plusmodifier.
Did you ever meet someone whose stories always fizzle without much of a punch? Me too. The issue with their stories isn’t necessarily the content; some other guy or gal might tell the same stories with everyone around them hanging on their every word.
For game masters, the how of storytelling is at least as important as the what of the story. In other words, how you behave and react at the gaming table leverages the time and effort you invested in preparing your campaign.
A Player’s Body Language at the Gaming Table
One way to monitor the intensity of the game and the enjoyment of your players is to pay attention to body language – yours and theirs. There are so many things going on during a typical social interaction. There’s even more happening on game night. Thankfully, we all pick up on some body language cues subconsciously. The objective here is to bring this information to a conscious level and be aware of most ebbs and flows of energy during a game session. Engage tired players before they check out mentally and you can turn a good game into a great one. Notice that player leaning back after leaning forward for the whole game? You just hit a dip in the story or your storytelling; take a break or crank up the action. These are examples of how you can improve storytelling by being aware of what’s going on at the game table.
A player with his head down is possibly disconnected from the game. Involve that player’s character as soon as possible – let them find the next clue, notice something unusual, be the recipient of an unexpected or mysterious buff effect, anything.
A cocked head probably means you are not making sense or that your plot just got so complex that some neurons went harakiri. If it’s the former, take a moment to make sure everyone’s on the same page. If it’s the latter, well, good for you!
Crossed arms are the worst – it’s almost always a sign that you’re being blocked off and that the player is dissatisfied or disengaged. This is another situation in which you want to throw that player’s character in the thick of things and try to establish a connection with the player. It could also mean that it’s cold, in which case, crank up the thermostat, you cheap bastard!
Are your players facing you or are they at least slightly tilted in your direction? Yes? Good! It means they are into the game and are likely to be receptive to what you have to say. The knights of the round table got this one right.
Fidgeting with dice
The sound of dice being thrown, spun, or shaken repeatedly for no good reason chills my blood. It would be easy to blame the players for their ADD but there are more productive ways to make it stop. Take a break or throw a wrench in the current scene. Let the villain make an appearance. Start a fight. Anything. And remember: when in doubt, kill someone; if there’s no expendable character around, maul someone and let the cleric clean up the mess.
Crossed legs, just like crossed arms, could mean you’re being shut out. However, be aware that women and Mediterranean men often cross their legs just for the heck of it.
Feet tapping on the floor are often a sign that a player is getting impatient. Time to focus on what the players and their characters are after and go straight for the jugular. Enough foreplay, it’s time for action. And make sure you’re tightening up the combat turns too. Force the characters to either defend or make a basic/boring attack if they don’t know what they’re doing in combat are are taking too much time. Enough hesitation and flip-flopping; we have a world to save!
It’s cool when Fat Joe sings it. It’s less cool when your players do it. Ideally, you want all your players leaning forward, on the edge of their seat. If they are leaning back, it could mean that they are only mildly engaged in the game.
Slouching is the ugly cousin of leaning back. It has no place at the gaming table. You have to seriously consider taking a break and asking the culprit to shotgun a couple of Red Bulls.
Body language isn’t an exact science so keep these 2 things in mind:
- changes in a player’s usual body language mean more than the actual body language
- multiple negative hints are more likely to be meaningful than a single one.
A GM’s Body Language at the Gaming Table
Now that you pick up more cues from your players, time to send cues their way.
As a GM and storyteller, it is your duty to make eye contact with everyone regularly. It’s easy and it keeps all players involved. I’m sure you’ve had a GM in your life who kept looking at a single player even when he addressed everyone. Not fun. It’s a basic public speaking skill and it makes a hug difference.
When giving information, end your sentences on a low tone – it shows authority and makes the information you just handed out weightier. When speculating and asking question, end your sentences on a higher tone.
Mirroring is the behaviour in which one person copies another person usually while in social interaction with them. It may include miming gestures, movements, body language, muscle tensions, expressions, tones, eye movements, breathing, tempo, accent, attitude, choice of words/metaphors and other aspects of communication. It is often observed among couples or close friends. -Wikipedia
Use mirroring to your advantage by doing three things:
- mind your posture
- stay upbeat
Do these simple things and you can run a gaming session at a high energy level easily and consistently. I guarantee that 80% of your players will match your behaviour and perk up, participate, and enjoy the game session more than usual.
Congratulations! You now speak a new language. Now it’s time to use it. So if you see a single player becoming disengaged, react! Give them information that only their character knows, make them roll dice (and let the result affect the game). If none or the players are involved it’s overhaul hour: take a break, start a fight, introduce new characters, improvise, just do something. And finally, when all players are involved, mind your own body language and stay engaged, keep things moving and postpone that snack break.
Storytelling is about people at least as much as it is about story. Being aware of your players needs and energy level will make you a better storyteller and a better GM.
Have fun gaming!