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Managing OOC time during game sessions


Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
We have another thread going about length of game sessions, but within that discussion there was a wide spectrum of how much time is spent focused on gameplay versus social (OOC) or divided attention. I've been running and playing solely online over the last year and have evolved my group and time management skills. I'm interested in everyone's views on game time management, what your personal tolerance (or preference?) is as a GM is for out-of-game and off-topic time, and how we wrangle attention when it's time to focus again. I'm going to share a few of my learnings, in many ways unique to my own group, and I'll try to organize them in some fashion.

Also, I want to say that 100% in-game focus is not my aim! For reasons I'll discuss, it's important for us to spend some of the time joking around and chatting not only for our social enjoyment, but for enriching the game itself.

Pre-session strategies
These are some learnings I have about managing focus through planning and environment preparation outside of the in-game moment.
First, during COVID times we've been able to meet (online) more frequently and have settled into a weekly session rather than every two weeks. We have a clear start and finish time. I know that this type of scheduling is standard for many groups, but hile these aren't always met (sometimes someone runs late to start time or we go over or under our 11 pm cutoff), we communicate promptly about deviations from the schedule--my guys will even text if they're running 5 minutes late. With a diversity of personal work styles including engineers, a schoolteacher, and pro artists, it helps to be on the same page about scheduling at least, so I consider that an accomplishment! I believe the increased consistency of timing has helped drive a sense of active focus.

Second, everyone is expected to come with working audio and video. I play in another online game where video isn't used, and another of my players is in a similar situation, and we both find these games suffer from a lack of engagement. This is less about distractibility of the group as a social whole, and more about individual players being disengaged with their own worlds. If anybody has A/V issues, we wait to resolve those before moving on.

Start of session
We usually spend 15-30 minutes socializing at the beginning of session, and almost never jump right in. It's really important to me to get an idea of everyone's mental state. If someone's just had a hard day at work, we'll do our best to indulge their preferences, which between my players range from "please distract me with as much focused game time as possible" to "please don't expect me to be on my best game."

If someone has to miss session, whether this was planned or due to a last-minute drop, we decide as a group whether to proceed with game. I have the final say, since I don't want anybody to miss certain pivotal moments that may be likely to drop during a given session. In the case that we play with an absence, we have more recently switched from "we can just have your character be off screen" to "GM will play your character for you." This is for several reasons, primarily that I want to enforce the sense of immersion. It is not a West Marches style game, so there is not much downtime where it makes sense for a PC to be unavailable. I am mostly hands-off when I sub a PC, but I will play them in combat encounters and occasionally chime in with relevant action or info in other situations (e.g. "I can pick that lock!" or "I know of that legend"). If a player really prefers I not sub for them, I'll respect that, but so far everyone has been agreeable. The added benefit is that it requires the absent player to get a proper recap of events before the next session, since they were "there."

And speaking of recaps, one of my possibly controversial choices when it comes to pre-game recap... There is a common wisdom that we should ask our less engaged (or late arriving) players to be responsible for recap, or that we provide rewards for recapping in order to drive engagement. For a time, I was most often picking a specific player to do recaps because he was the most consistently distracted and I wanted to enforce the expectation of attention. This ultimately led to tension between us: his recaps never improved in terms of attention to detail, which I as the GM found frustrating (even insulting), the other players found frustrating (they could recap it better!), and he found antagonizing. While it's true that this behavior didn't meet the agreement at the table (he felt antagonized by the very rules he was meant to follow), the fact is that he is welcome at the table for other reasons, and I didn't want the tension to ruin that. My perhaps controversial choice is, I started having my MOST engaged player provide recaps instead. She didn't want rewards; she just really enjoys taking notes and following threads. The result seems to be that the less engaged players are keeping up better. I believe their learning style is not only to require repetition, but to require hearing something from multiple sources before it sticks. Sometimes the agreement at the table needs to be adjusted to individual capabilities.

In game strategies
My players like to joke around, sometimes a lot. It's great if the joking is in character, which rarely presents a problem unless they have misunderstood the gravity of a situation. Most often the joking is para-game, not in-character but riffing off a situation that has been presented (e.g. "I'm imagining this NPC looks like Val Kilmer in dwarf form"), which is nice to run with . We're a very "yes-and" group, so once that joke gets made, that NPC will likely have a Val Kilmer voice. Occasionally the para-game asides will be less focused, but I try to employ the yes-and approach for those as well, in part as a strategy to cut down on total randomness. An example is, one time a player just wanted to share a video of cool steampunk wristwatch he saw (in the middle of game). He joked that his character should have one of those. From then on, whenever the party needed to know the time in-game, I would ask his character to check the time. At first he was confused, but I reminded him that HE was the one who decided he had a wristwatch. The intention isn't to name and shame (after all, he got a useful item out of it), but it does enforce the idea that distractions the players introduce can and will be used in-game.

Finally there are the totally off-topic distractions that pop up throughout game. Someone is texted a funny meme from another friend and has to share it. A loud noise disrupts someone's home environment and we talk out of character for a few minutes about zoning laws. Everyone takes a bio-break and the first two people back start a conversation about a movie that goes on for 10 minutes. I have come to recognize these situations as the game tax. Everyone has shown up for game, so we know we all want to play, but depending on mental/emotional state, sometimes more levity and off-topic time is needed. I am almost always the one to bring us back on topic, usually with a brief reminder of what action has just occurred and what choice needs to happen next. I wasn't always confident enough to do this, because it can be troubling as a GM when players steer away from the game activity; it can feel vain to draw attention back to "your" game, especially when the implication is that something else was more interesting. It is a skill that requires practice, just like improv and game prep!

Ultimately, many GMs will agree that sometimes you feel like you're running group therapy in addition to crafting an adventure and adjudicating a game system. And I love it that way!


CL Byte Sprite
Staff member
Adamantium WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Gamer Lifestyle
Borderland Explorer
Thanks for this wonderful thread!

Pre-session strategies
IMO, video adds a great deal to the game - thanks, @Stephan Hornick, for putting me that way before actually starting a new game this year! I find it even more important than dice rollers, battle maps, or shared images. The interpersonal cues are invaluable to me.

Aside from being technically prepared (Discord up and running, devices set up and running), I value players having their characters ready and possible actions prepared (mages knowing their spells, warriors knowing their moves, rogues knowing their skills), as well as knowing what happened last time we met and what their goal for this session is.

New adventures could be prepared beforehand in chat or messaging - what is the mission? What are the objectives? Rumors are collected, characters are advanced, equipment is bought. That way, we can directly start into the action.

Start of session
I enjoy socializing, too, but I am also eager to game. Often we meet earlier than planned and use this additional time for chit-chat. I am also bad at stopping socializing and getting into the game - ringing the "school bell." In recent sessions, players took the reign for that and smoothly transitioned from player talk to character talk by describing what their character is currently doing. I like that as I prefer collaborative, player-empowered gaming.

I am torn on recaps. We took rounds in recapping in the past, but that didn't work well - some are more attentive than others, and some just weren't there or had to leave early. I also tried awarding recaps with XP, which worked better. These were pre-COVID strategies. Today, everyone is usually already prepared when the game starts. Just a few words by one or two volunteers bring back the group into the current scene so everyone is aligned on what should happen next. Of course, I am fortunate to have such proactive players!

In game strategies
I like your way of making "para-game" jokes a reality!

Before online gaming, the game was more distracted by eating together, cell phones beeping, someone starting surfing, etc. I feel that during our normal online game sessions, the game is more focused. We spend less time together and get more "done." The time spent seems of higher quality to me. Although I dearly miss our table games, eating together, and just joking instead of playing.

Interestingly the "therapy" stuff is happening mostly between sessions. But this is good! It allows us to be focused with a clear mind and without emotional burden during sessions.