I’m about to say “engaged” a lot, so it’s worth being clear exactly how I’m using the term. I’m pulling from several definitions of “engaged” here, but the resulting composite is the definition I think best applies to roleplaying: involved, drawn in, engrossed, held fast and interlocked.
Observation 1: As a GM, I’m 100% engaged by default. Even if I’m not doing a great job, all of my attention goes to my players and the game. That doesn’t mean I won’t make the occasional joke, or need a quick break from time to time, but I won’t be flipping through a book, glancing at the TV or otherwise getting distracted.
Observation 2: From what I’ve seen, that applies to good and bad GMs (and good GMs having bad days) — if you’re trying to do even a halfway decent job GMing, it’s nearly impossible not to be fully engaged.
Observation 3: As a player, I’m rarely 100% engaged — and based on my highly unscientific observations over the years, that’s pretty common for other players, too. Being less than 100% engaged doesn’t mean I’m not into it, not having fun or not bringing my A game, but it does mean that when I’m not directly involved in a scene, my level of engagement drops.
Observation 4: For me, being 100% engaged as a player means that I’m not only deeply invested in what my character is involved in, but that I’m also focused on the game with laser-like intensity when I’m not directly involved. When this has happened, it’s led to some of the best gaming sessions I’ve ever had.
Summing up, then: As a GM, I can be 100% engaged and still not be doing a great job — needing to devote all of my attention to the game is part of the GMing package, more of a default than a goal. As a player, though, being fully engaged means that I’m on, not just firing on all cylinders but helping everyone else at the table get into it as well.
Which begs two questions: What does it mean that a GM can be 100% engaged in the game and still not be GMing at their best? And if 100% engagement is the key to being a good player (or at least a major factor), how best can we, as GMs, encourage that level of intensity at the table?