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 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 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!