Gaming in Silence

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on December 5, 2011

Playing D&D is a social experience. It’s often as much about getting together with your friends as it is about killing monsters. But I’ve noticed that we spend a lot of time talking about stuff that isn’t even related to the game. This has really become a big problem in public-play games at my FLGS. I’ve noticed that over the past few sessions of D&D Encounters I’ve had to ask people (with alarming frequency) to stop talking when it’s not their turn and pay attention to what the other players are doing, and that got me thinking: what if you weren’t allowed to talk during an encounter or an entire gaming session? How would things change?

To begin this kind of gaming experiment, the DM must make it clear to the players right from the outset that anything they say, anything at all, even if it’s something that their characters obviously wouldn’t say, is going to count as an utterance by their PC. Absolutely everything the player says his character says. No exceptions. Silence is going to be the key to success. Excessive noise will either force the PCs to fight something they know they have no chance of defeating (hence all the sneaking around) or it will lead to a final confrontation that is a lot more difficult because the PCs kept talking. In either scenario, the stakes should be incredibly high.

So let’s imagine a scenario where this would make sense. It needs to revolve around the PCs remaining undetected for as long as possible. Normally this is just a matter of good planning and Stealth checks, but for this to work there needs to be more going on. I’m envisioning a situation where any noise the PCs make will make their job harder. The first two setups that came to mind were an infiltration into a secure lair or fortress, or an escape from one of these places.

I like breaking in a lot more than breaking out, so let’s run with this example. The PCs have to infiltrate a section of the Underdark in order to rescue a hostage, retrieve an item, or defeat a monster that poses a significant threat to a nearby community. Sounds exist in the Underdark, so a party that attempts to move silently and doesn’t flub too many rolls shouldn’t attract undue attention. The heroes’ progress will likely be dismissed by their enemies as background noise. Until they talk. The PCs’ voices, and more importantly the common language of the surface dwellers, is completely out of place and will immediately alert anyone who overhears them. Now the stage is set.

Of course another option is to say that the PCs are in an area under a magical silence spell. I’m not wild about going this route, but it might make sense if the DM only wants to try gaming in silence for one or two encounters. I once read an adventure hook where a powerful Bard was imprisoned in the dungeon’s lowest level. A magical silence spell on the entire floor kept the Bard from using his lyrical magic to free himself or harm his jailers. It’s simple and forces the players to stay silent.

Regardless of the setup, when combat does happen tactics need to account for stealth. Obviously any fighting will make noise, but tactics like focusing fire will help drop foes quickly. If the party has been lucky enough to remain silent during their approach they could even get a surprise round which could be all they need to complete an encounter fast and quietly. After combat have the PCs make a few checks – Stealth to hide evidence of the fight and Perception or Dungeoneering to detect the approach of anything curious enough to investigate the noise. After a certain time period has passed the PCs can proceed.

The players need to realize that every time they talk there is a negative consequence. The DM should track how many times the PCs violate the no talking rule and have a sliding scale of repercussions. Personally I like the idea of a monster that can absorb sound. When the players talk the final monster becomes more powerful. Think of how much harder it will be for the PCs is if the DM kept increasing the monster’s maximum hit points every time it absorbs sound from the PCs talking. A creature that began with 200 hit points but ends up with 350 because you couldn’t keep your mouth shut will teach the players and the PCs a lesson in being quite.

One important detail to note is that powers with the Thunder key-word are by their very definition going to make a lot of noise. I don’t think it’s right to penalize PCs because the power they though was coolest happened to be a Thunder power; however, a PC that only has a couple of Thunder powers should be strongly discouraged from using them during this kind of silent gaming (at least until their cover’s blown and they’re in the final fight).

Now that we’ve got a few ideas on how to set things up let’s look at how they’d play out. Imagine how combat would work if none of the players can talk. On your turn you move your mini where you want him to go, indicate the opponent (if it’s not obvious), say the name of the power you’re using, make your rolls and resolve damage, and then explain any other effects that accompanied the power. That’s it. You don’t have to announce that you’re shifting one square. We’ll realize that’s what you did. You don’t say you’re using an action point you just take that extra action. If your actions don’t affect other characters (say you’re healing yourself, drawing a weapon or drinking a potion) then don’t say anything. Just do it and indicate when your turns over. The DM may allow “done” to be the only word that’s exempt just to keep things moving.

This really forces the players to pay attention. If you’re a defender then you have to watch for monsters that trigger your mark. Leaders need to watch their allies, pay attention to who’s bloodied and whose not, and heal when you feel like it and not when someone asks for it. You really don’t realize how much conversation happens during combat until you eliminate it all together.

Obviously this kind of play requires a lot of trust. If the players aren’t honest about what they’re doing on their turn simply because they don’t have to announce every little thing then it’s ruined for everyone. But if they get into it, I think the results will be fantastic. It might be tough at first but as a few round go by the players will get more comfortable and will really get the hang of it. I’d also bet that combat goes a lot faster.

I encourage DMs to try gaming in silence, even if it’s just for one encounter. See how things change at your gaming table and more importantly see what the players learn from the experience.

Is excessive table talk a problem in your games? Do you think gaming in silence would successfully highlight how important it is to pay attention or do you think players would just keep talking despite any negative in-game consequences? Has anyone actually tried this before? How did it go?

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1 Erik December 5, 2011 at 10:19 am

I had one DM who tried this. We didn’t go with the whole “no talking what-so-ever,” but just with the “everything you say your character says, too,” part of it. I didn’t feel like it made much difference.

In retrospect, I really think the DM only implemented it because he was a jerk, not because excessive talking was actually slowing us down.

I personally like table chatter. It’s one of the funner parts of the hobby for me. Now with that said, I always pay close attention in combat and get my turn done quickly, even when no one else at the table does. Excessive chatter can be a problem, but I don’t think enforcing a “no talking” rules will fix the problem.

2 GeekFu December 5, 2011 at 10:47 am

My groups started discussing the amount of non-game chatter during our D&D sessions and how distracting it was the flow of the session. We came to the conclusion that, yes, it did slow things down, but half the fun was everyone getting together and socializing, especially for our wives. We tried the “what you say your character says,” but all it did was make the game boring. Half our group is not hardcore diehard players, and we’re ok with it. It’s more fun that way.

3 Thorynn December 5, 2011 at 11:08 am

It may be interesting for an encounter or two, but I’m with Erik, I get together with my friends to game, but cutting up and making jokes is part of the fun. I’ve seen the whole table get really focused if the encounter itself is a really challenging one. It might be fun as a gimmick for some sound monster, as you describe, but long-term I think its untenable.

4 Ameron (Derek Myers) December 5, 2011 at 11:32 am

Just to be clear I’m certainly not suggesting that all table-talk be forever eliminated from the D&D experience. I too find the social aspect of gaming one of its greatest strengths. I’m also not suggesting that you always insist that a character says whatever the player say (that just seems dumb). I’m more interested in seeing how this kind of one-off, self contained experiment would work. How would it affect the play-style of the group and how many of the players would realize that excessive talking during game play is actually hurting the game. I’m interested in exploring the positive findings that gaming in silence might highlight.

5 dmsmaster December 5, 2011 at 1:26 pm

D&D is a social hobby. It is not a historical re-enactment society. It is meant to be something you enjoy, and if enjoyment involves spending time not actually playing the game, then we shouldn’t try to curb it. I get what you mean Derek – it is annoying when people don’t pay attention during another player’s turn and chat about something else, because a) they lose track of what’s going on, and b) the player whose turn it is feels like the others who are chatting don’t care about what he is doing.

But you must bear in mind that for many gamers, including the Encounters crowd, their weekly or fortnightly games might be the only time they get to see each other. Encounters is specifically for people who can’t fit regular campaigns into their schedules. So let them play the way they want to play.

If you want them to pay attention, there are two options: a) set a time and place for them to speak about stuff either before the session or after, i.e. down at the bar. Better before, so all the catching-up gets out of the way and the players can get on with being immersed with the game, although logistically with Encounters it would be easier to do it after; b) learn to speak as a DM in such a way as to capture the attention of the players, throw them into situations which demand their attention, keep things flowing fast. Don’t blame the players if they find your stuff boring: especially in the example of Encounters, many of the pre-scripted sessions ARE very dull, and predictable, and then you have the general 4e problem of combats dragging on for up hours (I love 4e but if it only took a few minutes to kill a bunch of kobolds, do you see anyone drifting off into the real world during that fight? There wouldn’t be enough time for it!).

6 dmsmaster December 5, 2011 at 1:30 pm

I should say one of our local DMs had a rule that you couldn’t speak outside of your turn during an encounter, and that you had to speak only a few sentences as per a free action on your turn. It was quite harsh but it was designed to not let us meta-game the encounter into a tactics’r’us fest, which is kind of the point of the 4e combat system. Disclaimer: I am pro-4e, anti-grognard, anti-Pathfinder, and think 4e is miles ahead of the previous editions in many respects, as it dispenses with a lot of useless stuff no one used anyway. But damn, those combats can be boring. I think the more you try to visualise the session with minis and terrain etc the less work players have to do to imagine where they are, which means they are less “plugged in” to the game world and less likely to pay attention.

7 Kiel Chenier December 5, 2011 at 2:06 pm

I’ve run a few sessions like that. It was an experiment to see if it encouraged roleplaying a little more. In some ways, it paid off.

Players are more cognizant about what they say and how often they speak, plus the game tends to become a little more serious (where as before it was a more light-hearted affair). All in all, I think it’s a fun experiment.

HOWEVER, I seriously doubt it’d work for D&D Encounters.

The issue with the Encounters program for DMs is that it’s a public event, so pretty much anyone from anywhere can walk in and play. It’s great that it’s as inclusive as it is, but it guarantees that almost no player will be any kind of respectful to the dungeon master. They won’t. They simply won’t. Whether because of age, maturity, or lack of gaming experience, most likely they simply will not care. They’ve come to dick around, make jokes, show off their new characters, and kill monsters.

Ameron, you are an absolute saint to not only put up with it, but to take it in stride.

8 Jordan Quackenbush December 5, 2011 at 2:41 pm

Agreed with Kiel – I stopped going to Encounters simply because I wasn’t enjoying the story that I couldn’t hear about over the other players talking about cats or their genitals (usually not in the same conversation). That and my closest FLGS closed, so it wasn’t practical.

Soon I’ll be running Reavers of Harkenwold with my players, and in the last mission you have to sneak into the castle. It would certainly be a good experiment to run, and any chatter would hinder their sneaking.

I think running this once, or modifying it a bit would certainly increase the roleplaying at the table. One of my peeves is that in games I run or play in, a player will give the “I rolled 24 diplomacy” or intimidate or whatever skill. I’ll prod them (make fun of them) by countering with “your character says ‘I rolled 24 diplomacy’?” By “penalizing” them for not roleplaying skill checks/challenges, I believe it will increase the thought behind the action. It’s one thing to say “I rolled 28 acrobatics,” it’s another thing to describe what you’re trying to do – and that is what engages.

9 B.J. December 5, 2011 at 7:30 pm

I like the idea of “everything you say, your character says.” I feel like idle chatter is annoying in the gaming session that can lead to longer game times. As a new player, I like the concept of Encounters being around a two-hour session. Idle chatter can edge that into three and half hours easily. I’m a professional. I work around nine to ten hours a day and the go right into the Encounters session. I can afford a couple of hours. Three or four hours? No thanks.

I also mentioned this in another thread, but our Encounter group has a couple of young teenaged players that aren’t very into the roleplaying aspect of the game. In order to keep them engaged, the DM has give them a sword or spell and let them trounce something. It’s a struggle to hear or get them involved anything that doesn’t involve killing something. These players talk about video games, school work, or outlandish scenarios during any roleplaying section. They frequently blurt out intelligent things like, “Hey, can I do a athletics check to jump over the throne!” or “Can I smack our contact in the nads with my mace?” Cute, if you’re goofing around with buddies. Not so much when they have pretty much been checked out for the last fifteen minutes of roleplaying in a public event like Encounters. For once, I would like the DM to take their constant rambling into account when playing. Or at least tell them to knock it off.

10 Sunyaku December 5, 2011 at 10:26 pm

This would be an EXCELLENT rule to use for nightmare mode in the first encounter of the current Lair Assault season!!!

11 Bobbydrake75 December 6, 2011 at 10:45 am

I think that the problem is the same as always. Gaming groups that get together often or are otherwise not worried about how much material that they get through are going to feel one way and then there is the other hand. Casual gaming groups that use roleplaying as an excuse to get together and gab are going to be horribly inefficient. I think that for the Encounters you could talk to the people before each encounter about your expectations and why you want to keep chatter to a minimum. I’m not sure that I would want to play at a table that allowed zero talking but I see your point. If players are missing anything because they were talking then I say they reap what they sow.
In my more serious home campaigns we generally have the initiative board assigned to a player and his job is let people know whose turn it is and who is next so they can prepare. Occasionally we will assign an enforcer who gently reminds players to chatter during the round to a minimum but then again we allow a 1-2 minutes at the top of each round to strategize!
My 2 cents

12 donalbain December 8, 2011 at 2:00 pm

In my encounter i always found it easier to be evil then to talk evil my morals always got in the way sadly that is why i could never fulfill my role as a necromancer very effectively but as a warrior i was more neutral then good so i think that its easier to play a class that goes with your morals thus easier to speak that way and maybe that whats keeping your player chatty i dont know sorry if this was off topic.

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