GMs need to include all players in the game, but it’s hard to do when some players are perfectly comfortable shouting and interrupting each others, and others feel uncomfortable trying to compete with them. (Sociological research shows that men tend to be more likely to interrupt others and women less likely, but of course individual players will vary.) Most players don’t realize how loud they’re getting. They get excited and react naturally. That’s a good sign that the game is going well. But when it shuts down another player, it becomes a problem.
Some of the responsibility for ensuring equal participation falls on the players, but most of it falls on the GM who is running the game.
- Use combat initiative. Most RPGs have some sort of initiative system built into their combat rules, but some don’t, and some players have chosen to ignore the initiative system. Yes, it’s artificial to “take turns” in what would be, in real life, a chaotic mess of a situation, but on the other hand initiative systems give everyone sitting around the table equal time.
- Use declarations of intent. Declarations of intent can be used in both combat and noncombat situations. The GM simply goes around the table and asks each player, one by one, what s/he wants to do. Then the GM describes what actually happens, based on the players’ declarations and the NPCs’ actions and, possibly, the roll of the dice. Declarations of intent are also a bit artificial, but not quite as constrained as an initiative system, and they can be used in situations where initiative doesn’t really come into play—for example, searching a house for clues.
- Go around the table when the group splits up. This is similar to asking for declarations of intent, but it is specifically useful when the adventuring group splits up, with each character doing his or her own thing. By going around the table one-by-one, the GM can make sure each person is heard and all actions are accounted for. Having the adventuring party split up is always confusing, so this will both keep quiet players involved and save the GM a headache.
- Do some one-on-one RPGing with the quiet player. If a player is quiet because others are always butting in, getting the quiet player’s character alone and running a scene can give the player a feeling of quality time … and keep others from interrupting (“Shut up. You’re not there.”). Having a chance to shine like this may keep the player satisfied when, in other situations, s/he takes a back seat to the pushier players.
- Institute a speaking signal. This could be formal, for the entire group, or informal for the quiet player only. The GM can just set up some sort of signal that indicates that someone wants to speak—a signal that’s a little more civilized than shouting at the top of one’s lungs. Examples might include holding up a hand (remember grade school?), waving a “talking stick” (but not smacking the obnoxious speaker over the head with it), or giving a sharp whistle. Everyone can benefit from this prearranged signal—quiet players, players who have a cold or sore throat that day, players wolfing down a big slice of pizza when they realize their character wants to do something, and so forth.
- Give the quiet player valuable game advice. If your game permits, try making sure that the quiet player has some valuable information or clues related to the game at hand. Once the other players realize that s/he has something of importance to all of them to say, they may be more likely to turn to the quiet player and ask what s/he thinks during the game.
- Put the loud players in charge of the quiet ones. GMs can talk to the loud players alone, perhaps between games, and mention that So-and-So is feeling shy about participating. Ask the loud player if s/he would help make sure So-and-So gets a chance to speak up during the game. This makes the loud player feel good by giving him or her a chance to “protect” the quiet player’s interests. After all, the loud player is probably a good, enthusiastic roleplayer, so it makes sense to put him or her in charge of helping others roleplay, too. Since most members of an RPG group are already friends, this type of arrangement is generally agreeable to everyone involved; and if the two don’t know each other well, it could mark the beginning of a new friendship.
Players, too, have some amount of responsibility for being assertive during a game!
- Focus on the game. If you’re not speaking up because you’re only paying halfhearted attention to the game, then put down whatever is distracting you and pay attention. You’ll enjoy the game more and your GM will appreciate not having any other competition. Exception: It’s hard to ignore the kids when they need attention. Babysitters may alleviate this problem. For slightly older kids, some healthy snacks and drinks in the frig and suitably RPG-type movies may suffice. Hey, it’s no less unhealthy than what you’re doing, right? You can hardly insist they play outside when you’re lounging around inside….
- Repeat yourself. This is an old speaking trick, but it works. Sometimes a low voice gets more attention than a raised one. Say what you want to do, or just say, “Excuse me,” in a quiet but clear voice. Are you ignored? Keep repeating yourself, politely, without raising your voice. Somebody will notice after the third or fourth time and shut everyone else down so that they can hear you. Trust me. It works.
- Arrange a signal with the GM. If you talk to the GM about your concerns and don’t feel comfortable competing with the shouters and pushy players, arrange some sort of “I’m ready to speak now” signal with the GM. Slightly lifting a hand and catching the GM’s eye will often be enough. The trick is to sensitize your GM to the problem. Once s/he knows you need a little extra encouragement, you’ll find that you’ll get it.
- Be a watchdog for quiet players. Maybe you’re not suffering from the too-quiet syndrome, but you know others in your game who are. Become their watchdog. Since you’re already comfortable overriding other players’ words, turn that skill to a good end by using it to call for the quiet player’s actions. “Hey, everyone, it’s So-and-So’s turn!” is a perfectly fair thing to shout during gametime, and the GM and quiet player will both appreciate your help.
The key to roleplaying is to have fun, and a player can’t have fun if s/he feels shut out of the game. Both GMs and players can work to make sure that everyone enjoys equal table time.
Originally written March 2, 2001
Image Source: The Story of a Fierce Bad Rabbit, Beatrix Potter, 1906