• Hello game master! Welcome to our growing community. Please take a moment to Register (top right button, see how: Slides).

    If you use Campaign Logger, you can use the same login details - we've linked the app to this forum for secure and easy single sign-on for you.

    And please drop by the Introductions thread and say hi.

RPT Newsletter #1,205 | How to Deal with Silence at the Table

Stephan Hornick

Community Goblin & Master of the Archive
Staff member
Platinum WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Borderland Explorer

How to Deal with Silence at the Table

From JohnnFour | Published June 6, 2022

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1,205

Brief Word From Johnn​

Today Jonathan talks about silence during sessions. There are many kinds of silence, and he shares his thoughts about a couple of the trickiest ones. If you worry about conflict at the table, be sure to check out his advice.

One Card Dungeon
Changing topics for a moment, I recently discovered solo print & play games. A random video came up in my YouTube echo chamber about a cool game called One Card Dungeon. There are a lot of such games out there, and I find them fascinating. One Card Dungeon would be especially useful as a positional play tutorial for your campaign combats. The rules aren't the same, but the thinking and approaches are.

Super Hero Tips
I'm hopping onto Zoom to interrogate Wizard of Adventure @Nemsoli who created these fine Roll20 tutorials. He's an experienced Mutants & Masterminds GM, so I'm going to hit him with super hero GMing questions. If you quest for super hero tips and advice, let me know your questions and I'll cover them off in the interview for you.

Ok, enough from me. Enjoy today's tips and have a game-full week!


Section Divider

How To Deal With Silence At The Table
By Jonathan Hardin, sojournersawake.com

A Story to Begin
I remember that revelatory moment when I realized my players were not all the same, and certainly not all like me!

Even though it’s obvious, it still surprised me, because of the way I learned it — from a player. She loved to build her character, sit quietly and smile, and then chime in only 10% of the talk-time. And she kept coming back week after week. So, was she enjoying the game even though she was mostly quiet? The answer is, absolutely, because she’s not like me — a talker — but like me, draws enjoyment from being around the table playing RPGs.

Today’s roleplaying tip is all about how to deal with the silence around your table as an opportunity, and as a problem.

Good silence
Bad silence
1 Thought

Good Silence
Good silence looks a lot like the player in my story. Arriving on time, dice at the ready, always knew what to do in combat. However, with words per minute, she ran in last place. When she did say something, it meant a lot. This example of good silence means anyone, including quiet folks, can enjoy RPGs.

Good silence looks a lot like when the players gather together around a somber moment and in character, roleplay their respects for the dead, the fallen comrades, the vastness of space, or the presence of a god. After Sam and Morgan described their character’s ransacking the town, they paused for a moment to describe absolute silence when they witnessed the ruined mission in the center of the desolate town. This example means we can tell many kinds of stories, even ones we don’t have words for, when we play RPGs.

Good silence looks a lot like other players listening when one player is talking. Sidebar conversations, verbal interruptions and other media of entertainment in the background are all a no-show in my games. That being said, verbal interruptions still pop up like pushy adverts from time to time. I like to think it’s because I’m so excited to share with you this brilliant idea that I believe you’ll welcome my steamrolling comment right over you talking. While I believe the best in people, interrupting is a habit that needs constant pruning or it becomes a nasty overgrowth in conversation. With that being said, listening is the antidote. And I mean, really listening. Here’s an example.

Jamie and Frankie sit and listen as Charlie describes their character, The Silver One, sailing through the air, using for the first time the skill of flight. It’s a big moment.

Jamie and Frankie were listening to Charlie. They catch onto the importance of this event to him. So they incorporate The Silver One's moment into their action descriptions:

Jamie: “Ooh, when I see that Silver Hero soaring through the sky I chant a war cry and bang my drum, so everyone gets a bonus to the next action!”

Frankie: “Yeah, I’d like to run as fast as I can in tandem with the Silver One and strike my swords upon the same enemy they struck. Then I give them a good wink.”

This is a good kind of silence, because it is supported by good listening. I know this, because it improved the story and incorporated all the features the players would usually use in the game anyway. Overall, though, it makes for happy players that feel valued.

If you experience this kind of silence, then keep up the good work!

Bad Silence
Bad silence can be painful. This happens when someone suddenly feels uncomfortable because of a topic brought up in the game. We don’t always know the limits of other players, and surprisingly not even our own.

When an uncomfortable topic arrives at the game table, I've noticed that any confrontation is prefaced by a strong awkward silence by the party member offended. Keep in mind that these offenses are usually unintentional and we want to continue the game.

Game master, take that silence as a call for a break. Wrap up the scene with a solid statement of “to be continued,” and announce a short break. Approach the party member with gentleness and say, “That encounter might have been uncomfortable for anyone, do you have any input you would like to offer?” And then let them direct.

If they say yes, then apologize with sincerity. If they say no, then respect the boundary and ask if it’s ok then to continue with the encounter. You may also ask, “Would you like to give any input on how we can do the encounter differently?

Here’s an example:

Tony and Emerson announce their characters loot the bodies of the fallen soldiers. Joy finds they are uncomfortable and demonstrate silence during the encounter, keeps their eyes down, and doesn’t laugh at any of the jokes. The game master picks up on the cues and calls for a quick break and approaches Joy.

The GM finds that Joy doesn’t want to talk about the details, but says, “Yes, looting the dead soldiers made me feel bad.” The GM apologizes on behalf of the table.

The GM describes the encounter as complete and will write up the loot gathered later on. The encounter concludes as the GM then describes the opening for the next encounter. If the other players persist in returning to that previous encounter, the GM simply says, “For now, I decided we are going to move on with the game, but don’t worry, I will make sure we talk about the loot outside of the game.” The GM quickly moves past the encounter to satisfy Joy, and puts a bookmark in the story for the other two players so they don’t feel cheated.

Here is another example that requires a higher level of listening:

The same encounter occurs but this time Joy announces they feel uncomfortable because of family history. Having more information, the GM can then ask if Joy wants this explained at the table. After resuming the game, the GM can simply say, “Everyone, I decided we are going to skip through this encounter, I don’t want anyone to feel uncomfortable because of family history, and Joy brought this to my attention. Can we all agree to move past the encounter? Tony and Emerson, I will make sure to write up a way we can get you treasure in another way. Will that be ok?"

If you experience this kind of silence, take heart, for it’s not the end of the game. Level up as a DM and address it politely and privately and may your story continue.

Silence at the table doesn’t mean you are running the game poorly. One of the highest attractions for TTRPGs is the lack of audio/visual stimulation, which grants room for the imagination to run wild.

What role does silence play at your table? How can you welcome it without feeling awkward? If you find yourself listening, you are doing it right!

May your Story Continue!

Stephan Hornick

Community Goblin & Master of the Archive
Staff member
Platinum WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Borderland Explorer
I had a player who just needed more time to imagine things. This was when he was silent. After I pointed this out to everyone (of course with his consent), no one was baffled when I gave players time to imagine after descriptions.

I have another player, who is silent when he has to make a decision. At first, it irritated me. But after a while I learned that he is quietly thinking about all possibilities to reach the right decision. As no one has a problem with this and it doesn't bog down our game, we give him the time. And it feels nice to have this relaxed mood at the table, focusing on everyone's fun.

I had another player who was constantly quiet through the sessions. I always wanted to "bring him around", help him "open up" and "have fun". But I was wrong. He had fun. He didn't want to speak up. It was fun for him just listening and being a part of the story. But there is after all this fine line between "just listening" and "not speaking much". Be careful to give others not more of your time than these people. After all, they should receive the same attention than the other players.

This one was not the case, but I had a player who felt uncomfortable speaking in-character. She didn't realize it, but she hardly ever spoke up. And as she was a very new player, I initially thought it was because of that. But one day, I spoke to her about it and she said, she doesn't know "how to do it". I gradually got her to describe her actions and behavior (even if unimportant). And that she was liking. She got better and better and was beginning to shine even though her character hardly spoke a word. But it was very fitting to her ranger. After a while, she began to speak in-character also.

And then, I had this player, who quickly fell silent, when there was something that he didn't like or didn't expect. It was nothing so dramatic as family history (like above) or specific to a scene. It was just very strong expectations of how the session should go or how the world was supposed to react on his character's actions.
Alas, everyone noticed this change every time. And it was a fun-killer. We had many long discussions about this. In the end, it just didn't work out between us.

And of course, there are also those evenings, in which I was a player, and the GM suddenly fell quiet. This is a shocker. One GM just sat there with panic or anger in his eyes and we as players knew that we have crossed a line. Not so much as a personal line, but expectations were not fulfilled. We "broke his game", so to speak. There was nothing we could do about it though. We stopped the game and discussed. It was a bummer.

Another GM fell silent and just grinned at us. He was satisfied with our roleplaying. I was not. I longed for a story, for adventure and emotional roller-coaster. But he was just "in the mood" and believed that to be all that mattered. I need something more though. Adding to the fact that he usually came drunk and was unprepared, I eventually stopped attending these sessions, took the players and ran adventures myself (but it was a pity, as I loved my PC).

And then, there was a session I will never forget. It was already very late and players were exhausted. But at the end, I had a major plot turn.
It is Shadowrun. A player always whined that his PC was so weak! Eventually, he was able to pack his PC full with deadly cyberware.
A strong trope in this universe: If you want to be someone, you need to chip yourself, kill your soul and become half-machine. And the player did after I had warned him out-of-the-game that it would be a dangerous path.
This time, he was strong. Very strong. He killed several. And then, in the last scene, I really got into the mood with this player and described his hollowness, his flat rage, his super power. And he played right into it with arrogance and detesting all that are weaker. And as he stood over one still living witness of his killing spree, I crossed the line of another player. The cybered PC's player was ok with it and I knew it. He loved this intensity. But I didn't think about the feelings of the others in that moment.
I made the cybered PC's player roll for willpower and he failed. And I described (for him!) that he slowly (!) pushed the blade into the man succumbing to his soulless cybered self. This was horror for the PC, but fun for the player.
(I don't want to go into too much detail here because I don't want to cross lines with readers - and if I already have, I am deeply sorry)
Doing it for him was wrong. And describing the act as slow was wrong also.
That night, we lost one of our players. And eventually, this group broke into pieces. And I hadn't noticed the silence of that player until it was too late.