Strip away the rules and combat mechanics. Take away the character-build and monster-creation options. Stop rolling dice and moving miniatures around the table. Now, look around . . . What remains is you – the DM – sitting down with a group of people communicating with each other. I explain below how communication between you and your players should take place in the Arena. There is a great deal of commentary on game mechanics, stats and rules, but a dearth of advice on how to properly communicate with your players. It is a niche I will humbly try to fill with this and future articles.
It is not my goal to regurgitate “pop-psychology” ideas or encourage you to “analyze” the players in your game. You do not need to be a psychologist or professional counselor to be aware of some basic communication factors that could be influencing your gaming sessions. What does seem lost in discussions of gaming is the ability of the DM to react and respond to the numerous dynamics between them and the players at the table.
For instance, a typical gaming group has one dungeon master and approximately five player characters. That means the DM is communicating with five different people all at the same time through speech, body language and gestures. On top of this, each player is communicating with the other four players and the DM at the same time through their speech, body language and gestures. At any given moment during a gaming session with a DM and five players, there are 30 lines of communication. Yes, 30!
I would argue the DM should be aware of all lines of communication during the gaming session, which is quite a daunting task. One method I believe can assist DMs to understand the communication patterns at the table is a theory, the Johari Window. The Johari Window is a 2×2 matrix that displays how communication between self and others plays out in any situation. The four quadrants are:
Arena: Both self and other are aware of.
Blind Spot: Self is not aware of, but others are aware of.
Facade: Self is aware, but others are not.
Unknown: Self and others are both unaware
Let’s take two examples of a Blind Spot - one rather silly episode and another more serious issue. I start with this quadrant because it can present the most problems. First, the silly example – you are eating a slice of pizza at the table while DMing. You have sauce all over your self, which you cannot see but the others all notice. This is a blind spot moment. Everyone at the table is aware of something you are communicating, but you are not aware of it – namely, that you are a slob with poor hygiene and/or sub-par motor skills! But let’s move to a more serious example. As the DM, you use a computer program to run your encounters, and often find yourself typing in things during the flow of combat to keep track of initiative, damage, status effects, etc. You’re unaware that the others in your group find this annoying because you rarely look them in the eye during combat. You are communicating disinterest to the others in the group, but you are not aware of this yourself. You may think you’re just being diligent, on-task and organized. This type of self/other disconnect is an example of a more problematic blind spot.
Above all, we want our players to have fun and enjoy any given gaming session. But there is a balance for each DM in terms of how to run a game that satisfies the needs of their specific group. And we adjust our game based on the verbal and nonverbal communication we receive from players during the campaign. Ideally, communication between the DM and players would fall in the Arena quadrant, where both the self and others are aware of and understand the communication that is taking place. For example, you might want to improve the speed of combat and talk to your players openly about it before the next session. Or, from the players’ point of view, they might inform you before the next game, “Hey, the last game didn’t feature enough combat. We were just walking around town talking to people and we didn’t know what to do. Let’s go beat up on some monsters next time.” However, the communication between players and the DM is often more subtle.
The lack of direct communication (in the Arena) is likely more prevalent in gaming groups that are not composed of long-standing relationships. I am curious about the composition of your gaming groups. If you are willing, then please reflect on the following questions and leave remarks in the Comments below:
- How long has your group been together?
- How much turnover has there been?
- What are the relationships between any new additions and older players?
- How many people did you know before you started the group?
- Did you join an existing group of players?
- Are any of your players long-time friends or relatives?
- Do you see any of your players outside of gaming nights?
- Are any of the players friends with each other outside of the gaming sessions?
If your players are new to each other and to you, then the communication is likely to be stunted and difficult to read with many blind spots. A more likely scenario is that your group is composed of a combination of people who know each other well and people who are not close friends outside of the gaming sessions. The combination of these two elements can be a challenge as some members of the campaign may think they are communicating openly, but new members may not understand the intentions. Recall the 30 lines of communication I mentioned above? Imagine a Johari Window for each line of communication, and you can see how complicated and confusing group dynamics can become. (And if you really want to blow your mind, increase the number to about 50 lines of communication considering that everyone at the table is also roleplaying a character!)
As a DM, begin to think about how your group communicates with you and with each other before, during and after games. The DM has enough work already, but I believe a focus on communication can improve anyone’s campaign. Your task should be to increase the amount of communication between you and your players that occurs in the Arena, so that the self and others are aware of it. After all, without rolling dice, writing down stats, creating monsters and setting the stage for your players to perish or save the day . . . you’re really sitting around a table and talking to people.
- Be aware of the dynamics at your table, including the communication between players, between players and you, and your own communication. Monitor not only the verbal communication but the nonverbal communication as well; body language, gestures, sighs and groans can be more telling than spoken words.
- Become more aware of how your verbal and nonverbal communication is coming across to your players. Limit your Blind Spots by asking for and receiving feedback from players, and by increasing self-disclosure with the players. At the very least, you can work to decrease the size of your blind spot. The result will be your players understanding your actions and words without misinterpretation, and they will know you are open to receiving feedback.
- This warrants repeating – I am not advocating for DMs to start counseling or analyzing their players, but to be more aware of communication and encourage players to do likewise. This will likely lead to an improved gaming experience for everyone. However, open communication can also lead to hurt feelings if handled in a mean-spirited manner. Be aware that casual acquaintances may see this kind of openness as threatening or inappropriate. Be respectful of your players’ boundaries!
- If your group is willing, then facilitate feedback and disclosure among your players about their own blind spots. Promote a culture and expectation for open, honest, positive, helpful, constructive and sensitive communications to increase the size of your Arena for all gaming sessions.