The following article originally appeared on an earlier iteration of See Page XX in February 2008. 

Distractions are Your Friend

Using Props and Toys in Your Game by Jamie Maclaren

Role-playing is a very specific type of group interaction, but many of its features are not unique. There are many activities that involve sitting, talking, sharing goals, expressing opinions and creating tangible things through joint creativity.

I worked as a trainer for five years and was constantly amazed by its similarities to the role of GM, especially when it came to engaging the group. And, I soon noticed noticed that something I had given little attention to in my games was attention span, which as a trainer was always a consideration.

Attention Span

Attention Span is widely used in the media in a negative context, how kids are having it eroded by exposure to television for example. But it is clear that we all have a finite attention, and it tends to be stretched out when we are doing things that we enjoy or are heavily involved in.

These facts can lead to problematic ways of viewing attention span, here are some examples that might arise in a game, from the perspective of the GM:

My player is not concentrating, are they are bored by my game, are my plots and scenes dull?

Or, from a player thus:

Whoops, I got a bit distracted! It’s the GM’s job to keep me entertained? it must be his fault.

The reasoning is based on a dismissal of the idea that we all have finite attention spans, and the false logic that, because we can stay concentrated for longer during things we like, it must be a measure of enjoyment.

I really like some three-hour films, but I hate having to sit in a seat, in the dark, for that long without a break, is it the director’s fault, mine, television’s brain rotting effect, or is it the cinema insisting on maximising the number of viewings? I’ll leave that for you to decide, but consider it from the perspective of a role-playing game.

Distraction & Disengagement

Distractions are everywhere and much advice to GMs encourages you to remove distractions from play, I sometimes wonder if this advice is driven by fear that the game will never be as interesting as that 2000 AD stack in the corner, or that DVD collection on the shelf. But, judging from the constant references to Star Wars or Monty Python at most role-playing tables I have sat round, distractions don’t even need to be present to have their effect.

Following inevitably from distraction is disengagement. We have all been there; at some point, we zone-out of the activity we are engaged in and our minds just go elsewhere. We are taught by grumpy school teachers, or impatient parents, that this is wrong or rude, but it happens anyway.

Consider this radical thought, maybe our attention span can’t be used to reliably measure our interest, sometimes we are just more tired or more interested in the other things going on in our lives. Maybe it’s no one’s fault that we drift off into our internal worlds, once in a while, and maybe someone showing signs of distraction or disengagement is just as interested in what is going on as everyone else, just not at that moment.

Using Distractions Positively

A trick I picked up as a trainer is to use distractions to your advantage and not to try and banish them from the environment. Distractions don’t need to be in the room with you, but it helps if they are, because the act of distraction and disengagement can be made more obvious, and more obvious is good.

If someone is beginning to become distracted in a game, their mind will start to wander, and being the naturally curious creatures we are, start to seek other things in the immediate environment to engage with, it’s not a concious choice. Even if we are drifting into an purely internal world, we often play with things to hand in a distracted manner.

How many times have you found yourself idly playing with the dice, doodling, altering trivial things on a character sheet, or just chewing on a pencil.

The trick, as a GM, is to use this inclination to your advantage. Instead of banning fiddly stuff from the table, and squashing those fidgeting habits, put things on the table on purpose. Make it more likely that your players will do visual things when they are distracted, and if you can, make some of that stuff relevant to the game.

Maps, charts, relevant books with cool pictures, printed handouts have all been covered by role-playing advice for years, as a way of keeping players focused on the game. And they do that job well, as a way of engaging more of the senses and providing varied ways to present information.

A player idly flicking through a handout or checking out a map when they are not involved in a scene, is a player who is allowing his mind to wander, and with relevant material this can aid creative thought at exactly the time when the player is looking for something to engage with.

But, however relevant a thing is to your game it can provide indicators of engagement, a visual clue that the player is becoming distracted. Of course, what they are doing can’t provide a window into their head. A player taking an interest in a map could just as easily be thinking about how the map was drawn, printers, paper stock, or their use of colour in an important work presentation.

The visual clue is, in itself, a valuable tool, it gives you insight into the players attention, it is an indicator that the player is disengaging. It is important that this is seen in context, we all let our minds wander constantly, a disengaging player may re-engage in very short order, possibly much more actively due to the creative possibilities of distraction.

This is where distractions unrelated to the activity at hand come in. A player staring blankly at the wall behind you may not be noticed, but a player picking up a toy tank and rolling it around the table, sighting potential targets, is definitely disengaged, even if you are playing a war related game. And far from wanting to discourage that, I would prefer to know when a player is that distracted from the game.

Acting on Distraction

So we have a table full of different types of distraction, and we are keeping an eye out for visual clues that the players minds are wandering, but what should we actually do when we notice them?

Well, for a start, if you put things out on the table you will be amazed at how often they get played with. This is probably why most advice says remove them, because we don’t often acknowledge just how distracted we are, most of the time.

First off it’s important to actively encourage this playful approach, make it clear that you approve of it, by referring to it in positive ways, “That Mech is cool isn’t it” is better than “Hey! Put that card deck down I’m talking”, but both can have the effect of re-engaging with the person. The idea is to let everyone be comfortable at the table and comfortable with their own distractions.

Use that stress toy informally, to chuck around “it’s your action, catch”, or that toy gun to emphasise when someone is on the spot. In other words use the toys to have fun, that’s their primary role after all. Don’t try and enforce things with them like “you need the ball to speak” just make them part of a low pressure environment

It is far easier to call for a break, or talk about changing things to make the game more interesting, when the distractions are out in the open and not disapproved of. “I think we need a break, because I’m more interested in what your doing with that tank than I am in the game right now” is a good way to handle a total disengagement, without blaming the individual. It has to be better than “we have obviously spent too long in this diplomacy scene because you are not listening to a word we are saying”, even if it’s what you really mean.

Hand in hand with how easily and casually distracted we can be, goes the fact that we are easily engaged by change, so if two or three people are showing signs of disengagement it is probably time to change the activity a little. This may be the time to have those proverbial ninjas burst through the door, or switch scenes to get the story moving forward. A change really is as good as a break, a change in activity can double attention span. Even if you are involved with only some of the players you can always use another player’s disengagement to your advantage by asking him to look up that elusive rule, or handing him a handout for the next scene.

So in summary, distractions and disengagement are going to happen whatever you do, and they are often no-ones fault. You can choose to try and banish them and drive them out of sight, or you can embrace them and work with them. Props and toys at the table can provide you with an easy and fun way to provide visual indications that they are happening and to make reference to them without blame.

I must confess that I love handouts in roleplaying games. I love them a little too much. In the upcoming expanded Hideous Creatures, we’re doing player-facing documents for each monster, hinting at some aspect of the creature in an oblique way. Some tips on their creation and use…

Handouts are Artefacts

Handouts must feel real. You can spend many enjoyable* hours aging paper and carefully selecting the right font, but you also have to take care when writing the handout to make it a plausible document. It needs to be short enough to be read at the table, contain enough information to make it useful, but also drip with verisimilitude. Short reports obliquely hinting at strange events, newspaper articles, diary entries and the like are ideal.

You can also have handouts that are extracts from larger documents – a single page of a longer book or one section of a report – by including trailing text and references to other parts of the fictional document. (Group a bunch of short newspaper clippings in a scrapbook to create a handout that hints at but never states an awful truth – leave it up to the players to connect a death notice, a report about dead dogs, a mysterious classified advertisement, and a clipping from the catalogue of a rare book store that’s selling a copy of Cultes des Ghoules.)

The diary entry found by Dr. Armitage in The Dunwich Horror is an ideal example of this sort of extract – it’s short, atmospheric, suggests it’s part of a larger document with its throwaway references to other Dunwich natives and ongoing studies, and – most important of all – has an actionable clue for the players: “That upstairs looks like it will have the right cast. I can see it a little when I make the Voorish sign or blow the powder of Ibn-Ghazi at it”.

Atmospheric

Everyone knows that boxed text is awful. It’s painful to sit there listening to a Keeper read prose aloud. It’s stilted, often hard to follow, and at odds with the inherently conversational nature of roleplaying games. Handouts, though, are much closer to traditional prose. You can tell a little story, or go to town on descriptive elements that a Keeper would struggle to convey in a bloc of text.

A handout that just conveys information isn’t necessarily a waste of them – all handouts have their uses – but if you just want to, say, give the players the name of the victim, writing up a police report is probably overkill. Use the space afforded by the handout to hint at horrors to come. Diaries, in particular, let you extend a scenario’s scope back in time by letting you do the Lovecraftian trope of listing a whole series of past incidents and weirdnesses that culminate in the present horror.

Esoteric

In any group of players, there are usually degrees of engagement. Some players are really, really interested in the mystery, or the Cthulhu Mythos, or fighting monsters; others become more or less engaged depending on the action in the game, and others are just there to hang out with their friends. In general, it’s a bad idea to pay too much attention on the overly enthusiastic players – they’re going to have fun and be involved no matter what, so the Keeper’s efforts are best spent drawing the more reticent players into the action. Handouts, however, are a place where you can reward engagement, giving those players a little more to chew on. Use handouts to hint at connections to the wider Mythos, to imply deeper and wider conspiracies, or to flesh out the backstory. Handouts are one place in the game where you can be as obscure and wilfully misleading as you like, as the players can take time – even between sessions – to chew over the clues.

The Clue Isn’t Necessary In The Text

While you can include clues in a handout that you expect the players to spot, you can also have clues that can be discovered with investigative abilities. A player might be able to use History to recognise a name in a diary as the site of a famous murder, or Cryptography to decode the weird runes in the margin as an enciphered message, or even Cthulhu Mythos (“after reading the diary, you start dreaming of that same strange house on the clifftop, and feel this weird urge to go east, towards the ocean. Something’s drawing you to a spot on the coastline overlooking the grey Atlantic. You suspect that if you follow that unnatural tugging, you’ll find that house.”)

You can also use investigative abilities to push the players towards the correct interpretation – “from your expertise in Cop Talk, you’re pretty sure this report was written under protest – whoever wrote it was told to provide a ‘reasonable’ explanation for the weird events. Maybe if you find the original author, they’ll tell you what really happened.”

Handouts Are An Anchor

Handouts feel significant. Even a tiny handout, like a business card, implies the players are on the right track in the adventure, (“If this musician wasn’t important, the Keeper wouldn’t have printed up a business card”) and you can use that feeling to reward the players. Successfully traversing a difficult challenge or solving a section of the mystery yields a handout.

Handouts are also useful for organising information. If you’ve a long list of similar leads – say, all the guests at a party, or all the victims of a serial murderer, or a set of addresses – it’s good practise to give the players the list in the form of a handout. It avoids transcription errors and miscommunications, and keeps the game running more smoothly. Similarly, handouts are a good way of conveying complex timelines or spatial relationships to the players – a map or a diary can become the frame of the investigation that the players then fill in with clues.

*: Hours may not be enjoyable if they turn into weeks, nay months…