A few weeks ago, I tweeted this…

I was not prepared for the number of people who also said that they were having concentration issues since the pandemic started. 

Before I posted that, I realized that I had been having trouble reading a rule book for a game that I was about to run, an activity that I have done hundreds of times in the four decades I have been gaming. It wasn’t just reading, I was having trouble staying focused when I was GMing and my games were very loose, with a lot of chatter, and not a lot of progress. 

Pandemic Focus Issues

To be clear, what I am talking about is not the “brain fog” that people who get covid-19 experience, that is a neurological issue that occurs because of a viral infection. 

What I am talking about is an inability to concentrate for those of us who are living in the middle of a pandemic, not sick, but having experienced the increased stress of trying to stay healthy, care for loved ones, keep working, tutor kids through virtual school, etc. This is not viral but rather psychological.

To be clear, I am no clinician, and I don’t have any official sources. There are plenty of articles about pandemic concentration if you search Google, and with all the responses to my tweet, I am not alone on this. 

That all said, I am having a serious inability to properly focus, due to the stresses of the pandemic. What does that have to do at all with gaming, and how does any of this become GMing advice? 

Hold on. I got you. I would not be posting this here if I couldn’t answer both of those.

Concentration in RPGs

RPG’s require a great deal of concentration, over a number of areas. I am going to do this from a GM perspective because we are on the Stew, but know that most of this applies to players as well. 

Away From the Table

Let’s start with things that are outside of the gaming session, where a lack of concentration could impact your gaming.

  • Reading Rules – For sure, learning a new game, getting down how a new system works, requires concentration. A lack of concentration may make it hard to finish reading a ruleset or retain any of the rules. In more severe bouts, it may make reading impossible. 
  • Being Creative – Focus and creativity go hand in hand. When one is disrupted the other suffers. Problems in concentration are going to impact your ability to brainstorm ideas for your game, be it the plot for a new story or some environmental challenges for your big combat scene.
  • Session Prep – Session prep is work, and work requires concentration. If you are having trouble concentrating you are going to have problems getting your session prepped, and that may result in the process taking longer, impacting other things you have going on, or worse, it being so bad that you can’t get your game prepped and have to cancel. 

At the Table 

If that list was not bad enough, concentration issues are going to affect your running of the game as well. 

  • Shared Narrative Space – RPGs exist in the collective consciousness of the players of the game. The reason they work is through the creation of a shared narrative space, where each of us is imagining approximately the same thing. It is through this shared narrative space that we as gamers can take our actions without colliding with each other (honestly, I need to do a whole article about this concept). Nevertheless, maintaining shared narrative space requires concentration. If you are having issues with concentration you are going to start having problems with understanding where everyone is in the room, what actions they are taking, etc., which will lead to having to re-explain things, incorrect actions taken, re-do’s, etc. 
  • Table Control – As a GM, sometimes it is our responsibility (though not sole responsibility) to keep the table focused and progressing through the story. When your focus is diminished the game can drift into table chatter, side conversations, jokes, YouTube videos, etc. 
  • Creativity – Turns out you also have to be creative at the table as well, more so when you are running in a more ad-lib (read: improv) style. Concentration issues during a session can mess with your ability to come up with a cool scene idea based on things that are unfolding in the game, it may keep you in your comfort zone using your go-to tropes, etc. 

All of this is to say that I think I made my first point, that concentration issues are going to impact your game somewhere. 

Ways to Combat Focus Issues

You also don’t want to stop GMing because the positive benefits of GMing to your mental health are important for your continued survival during this pandemic. I am with you. Me too.

Ok, so you are having some focus issues, me too. You also don’t want to stop GMing because the positive benefits of GMing to your mental health are important for your continued survival during this pandemic. I am with you. Me too. 

So, until a time when the stresses of your life lower, how do you function with diminished concentration? I have a few ideas.

  • Be kind to yourself – First thing, you cannot beat yourself up over this. We are living in extraordinary times and we are doing what we can. Getting angry at yourself for this is not going to improve things. Accept that right now your concentration is not what it use to be. 
  • Stick to Familiar Systems – If you are having trouble reading new rules, it might be a good idea to run games you are familiar with. Take that pressure off of yourself, and run things that you know. Also, games you are familiar with, especially the ones that you really enjoy, are going to have a higher chance of producing those good brain feelings when you run them, and that is what we are looking for.
  • Use Published Adventures – If your concentration issues are impacting your ability to prep a session, try running a published adventure. It is going to require some reading and prep, but often not as much as reading a rulebook or prepping a whole game from scratch. 
  • Use some published adventure seeds – If you don’t want to go the fully published route, or the game you are playing does not have published adventures, then consider a GM aid that will give you the adventure seed that you can prep or ad-lib into a full adventure. I would be remiss not to mention Eureka: 501 Plots To Inspire Game Masters (DTRPG Link).
  • Use a Focus Prompt to keep the table focused – Turns out that I have had table control/focus issues before. A few years ago (cough…cough…ten years) I wrote an article about using a symbol on the table to indicate that the table should be focused. Mine is a 75mm d6 (read about it here).
  • Ask for help in keeping the table focused – The GM is not the only person who can help keep a table focused. Enlist the other players. Tell them you are having focus issues, and ask them to help you stay focused as well as keep the table settled.
  • Find something inspiring – I have found, for me, that being inspired about something has given me bursts of more focus. That may mean switching games, it may mean a new adventure path, etc. 

Your Mileage Will Vary

How we deal with stress affects everyone differently. You might be fine reading- in fact, it may be one of your pandemic coping mechanisms – but your focus at the table may be impaired. It could be that you are fine at the table but can’t focus between games. Or it may be that everything is somewhat degraded but nothing is impossible, just harder. Or it could be that you can’t get a game together. 

This is to say that not everything I listed as potential issues may apply to you, and not every solution I presented may be applicable. You are going to need to do some introspection and figure out where you are and then look for ways to address those needs. 

For me, reading has been the hardest thing. This makes me sad because I love reading gamebooks and other fiction. Right now, I can’t sit and read, or at least not for any appreciable time. I am, however, able to get my prep done for my games. My games are somewhat productive, but I do have bouts where I lose control of the table; sometimes I get it back, and sometimes I don’t. 

I Think Things Will Get Better

I don’t really know. Historically, pandemics don’t last forever, and at some point, there is a reasonable chance that we will reach a post-pandemic world where some of the stresses we have experienced for the past 18 months will be gone again, and when that happens things will be better for our concentration. It is a nice thing to wish for.

In the here and now, we can make incremental progress. We can adapt and find ways to keep gaming. Not to trivialize things, but in 40 years of gaming, my life has changed a number of times (school, marriages, children, careers) and I have always found a way to game, because of how important gaming is to my well-being. The same holds true here. We can adapt and find ways to keep gaming. We just need to be kind to ourselves, recognize the change, and then find a way to stay at the table and keep gaming. 

I know I am going to, and I hope that you are as well. Good luck. 

Have you had concentration problems since the pandemic started? Where is it affecting your gaming? Have you found ways to cope or are you still working at it?