How to Read Minds: Body Language at the Gaming Table

Body language at the gaming table: pizza!

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

Body language at the gaming table: slouching!

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.

Head Position

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!

Arms

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!

Angles

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.

Body language at the gaming table: stacking dice!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.

Legs

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!

Body language at the gaming table: lean backLean back

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.

Changes

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.

Eye contactEye Contact

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.

Voice

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

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:

  • smile
  • 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.

happy playerInvolvement

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.

Conclusion

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!

Comments

  1. Very entertaining article Yax! Good to see a post from ya! Haven’t seen ya on the blogsphere for awhile, but that may have been my own lack of noticing! Really enjoyed the article though!

  2. Great article! I always like to see articles on subjects like this that aren’t always addressed, but help us all be better gamers.

  3. @wrathofzombies: Thanks. Yeah, I have been quiet. I’ve got a couple of projects going but they’re not as time-consuming as my previous DMing site was.

    @Brian: I’d be curious to hear from people who actually have a background in psychology and/or public speaking on this topic.

  4. Interesting read, but always keep in mind that crossed arms is not always a bad thing. In the military, crossed arms is a standard pose that keeps your hands occupied and your attention focused.

  5. Great article. Even though I’ve been the default DM in almost every group I’ve played in since the age of 12, I still struggle to pick up on the subtle messages from players at the table. Maybe that’s why I don’t play poker very often.

  6. Yax! So good to hear from you. I missed you man. It’s hard to be the only one holding the torch of most handsome Canadian RPG blogger… 🙂

    As usual, solid advice, reading players is a major GMing skill.

    @Kyle, I need to catch you for a new banner for a French Geek blog I opened! I’ll email you!

  7. Mirroring can be an incredibly persuasive sales technique. It never once occurred to me to use it for player buy in. Nice post.

  8. @chattyDM: I don’t think I can usurp your MHCRPGB crown. It’s a burden you might have to carry all your life.

  9. @Chatty Awesome. Email away!

  10. I agree with most of your suggestions… though I do not expect to hold my players’ rapt attention for every second of every session. Its neither necessary nor realistic. Some sessions will be better than others.

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  1. […] did a guest post over at Critical Hits about body language at the gaming table.  Not only did we find this article entertaining (check out the illustrations) […]

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  4. […] couple of weeks ago, I wrote this article for Critical Hits: How to read minds: body language at the gaming table. The sketches drawn by Kyle Ferrin (check out his XP webcomic) for the article are all kinds of […]

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