Starting to Read Your Players

As I Dungeon Master more and more, I try to improve my craft a little bit each week. Lately, the improvements I have been working on are all focused around my players. One of these skills that I have been trying to learn is reading people and intuit if they are enjoying their time. Now let me say first that it has taken me awhile to get to a point where I can add thinking about anything outside of the immediate task at hand, DMing.

In order for me to get to a point where I could comfortably observe and improve my skills, I needed to first get comfortable in my personal DM’s workflow. Here are a few quick hitters that I have done in order to take some of the very unnecessary load off me as a DM.

#1 Make Sticky notes for common rulings that need to be looked up

I started out with something simple, during each session I would take note of anything that was slowing me or my game down. Then, after my players have left, I would pour over my notes and read over the particular rules and note them on a sticky note I would then tape on my DM’s screen. This is something that I have started and have never given up on because it has done wonders for speeding up the game, and it gives me confidence on rulings that come up frequently. Some examples of things that I have on my screen, and come up a ton in play, are small things like how many dice to roll for particular healing potions and what are the modifiers, the multiplier for mobs when the players are fighting more than one enemy. Things like this make gameplay smoother and gives you more time to focus on other tasks.

#2 Bookmark major sections in all of your source books

I have found that a ton of time at the table is wasted on looking for things in the source books. What I have done to reduce this time is use those page markers that people use for school books and stuff. This takes pretty long time but it is worth it once you get to the table. I started with the Player’s Handbook seeing how it has the most rules. I broke the book up by chapters and by important things in some chapters. For instance, I have each race and each class bookmarked and I bookmarked where each letter begins in the spells section. Obviously, I have bookmarked a ton more than this as there are lots and lots of important and commonly used rules in the PHB, but it is a great example. I now find, more often than not, that I am to the page in question faster than most at the table because I have broken the book up in a way that works for me. I suggest that if you do bookmark your book, do it in a way that works for you and makes sense to you.

#3 Make sure your play area is organized

This is a massive one and is something I suggest to my players as well. Make sure that your play area is organized. Some things I have done to organize my play area is put my favorite sets of dice in columns ordered from D20 to D4, I even take it a step forward and make sure that the max die value is face up when it isn't being used. This makes finding the correct die I want a much easier than them just laying around. Other things I do that help me, is have designated areas in my play space for certain things, like condition indicators for minis or source books. This keeps me organized and I cut down on the time looking for things. It is all about process optimizations.

But I digress, I have been working on reading my player’s body language and I am doing this to help reduce the dropout rate and increase player investment and fun. Something to note, if you are trying to read your players then you need to understand a little bit about personal cues. (I have been getting good at this from practice with my son) Some of these cues can be blatant, like someone saying “This session did not go well”, or it can be as subtle as a slight nervous tick. Lots of times, you can feel the energy it at the table.

Let us say that the session isn’t going well. Players are picking up their phones and browsing Facebook. How do you recover from that? Well, I would suggest using some of your strengths as a DM, create a quick situation where players can excel and become re-engaged. This can happen in many different ways, through Role-play, through combat, or a mixture of both. Over time you will get a feel for your players and know what they best respond to then your can start tailoring situations to your players, individually and as a whole. I personally love the idea of bringing Role-play to include a player, but as I have observed my players do not all respond to it. It will take time, but this skill is useful in creating sessions and encounters, and in my opinion, can help take your game to the next level.

That is where I am going to leave it for this week. As always, thank you so much for stopping in and reading. Feel free to comment, I love to read constructive feedback and love discussing topics like these. Check back in next week to see what else I have on my mind or decide to analyze. Remember to follow The DM’s Table on Facebook or on Twitter @dmstable for updates and to let me know what is on your mind, or what you might want to read about. Also, go check out Roll with Advantage! It is a Dungeons and Dragons podcast that releases every Monday at 5 pm Eastern Time. We play, laugh, and have a good time playing a game we all love. Thank you for reading.

― The DM