[Warning, I'm rambling as I tend to do. If I come off as an asshat, that's not my intention. ]
With player engagement a big part of why I wrote (am writing) LCA! my own RPG system I find myself listening to podcasts by other groups and literally shaking my head going no, you’re doing it ‘wrong’, you’ve already lost them at this point.
I think it’s easier to hear player disengagement as a third party than the GM sitting at the table can even though they’re there and have so many other cues to go on.
Primarily because the GM has sooo much on their plate. Trying to keep their planned story straight, trying to juggle the numbers and plans and tactics of the endless lists of bad guys, weaving plot lines together, all the while trying to keep the players entertained. If you’ve never sat in the GM’s chair then take some time out to be nice to one. If you have GM’d then you know what I’m talking about and should already be doing it to someone who’s willing to GM for you and put up with your crap as you surf the web looking at football scores while they’re trying to run an adventure or playing doodle jump on your phone.
Anyway, I’m currently listening to a podcast by a group at a con and I keep waiting for the GM to grab these people by the throat and send them on a wild roller coaster of emotional highs and lows given the subject matter and it keeps just kind of fizzling.
I think our player groups of today, even though a whole lot of us are the same people that were playing 20-30 years ago, we’re simply not the same players we were 20-30 years ago but I keep listening to GM’s doing the same style of gaming.
We, the old timers and the new players, are more comfortable with shorter sessions but packed with more flavor. The really pointless encounters that have no bearing on anything should be minimized. Both sides know the players are going to win them. It’s only a question of how many healing potions, spells, surges, cure light wound wand charges are going to have to expended at the end.
Just hand wave them, if the encounter is nothing but combat? By that I mean it offers no background, no information/clues, no quest items,no phat lewt etc, it’s just combat for the sake of filling session time. Then I recommend don’t having that encounter at a tactical level, just narrate it out.
[Disclaimer: If a pure dungeon crawl is the point of the session then of course by all means have encounter after encounter, just be sure to make them hard or you'll lose your players through most of them. "My turn again? Okay who did what?"]
For today’s players you really really have to have a big opener, a Trinity against the Agents or the Expendables on the ship encounter. Something with bombs, guns, kung fu, either literally or figuratively to get your players attention. Then you can slow it down with some filler, background, color and backstory before you heat things up again with another explosive encounter.
If you’re going to strand some people from a plane wreck in the amazon, then open with the storm that takes down their plane and the big crash and dash as they struggle to recover enough gear as it slowly sinks in the swamps and go straight into a fight in the jungle with the natives as the rains lash around them and lightning flares in the skies.
If your’e going to plan a jewel heist then the first scene should have U.S. Marshals or the Feebies breaking downthe door to the building the group is planning their strategy out in and have the group have to disengage and get away while sub machine gun fire Brrrrraaaaps through the air.
We’re a different bunch than we used to be, tailored that way with the movies we watch and the books we read.
Watch movies from 20 years ago, or 30 or 40 and you can see the stark contrast in the way the popular moves of each decade have changed.
To get back to the point, (You have one Dennis?) I find myself telling the GM I’m listening to, Dude, you’re at a con, you have at most 4 hours and probably less than 3 to engage these people and show them a good time. Don’t blow the first 30 minutes on the ride just to get to where the action might eventually start. Specifically in this instance I was all “Man, throw some scary ass shit at them now, throw a silver eyed clown at them peering through a sewer grate, or a black shadow with razor sharp talons and red glowing eyes briefly glimpsed out the corner of their eyes. Have the guy in charge shimmer revealing a creature of such unimaginable horrific visage that everyone who glimpses it has to make a fear check or huddle in the corner for an hour.
And then mellow their shit out with descriptions of how idyllic the place they’re going to appears and how serene it is on the surface even as the stench of evil and decay and danger wafts over the french vanilla of the air freshener fastened on the rear view mirror.
And if you made it this far in this post then you have a lot of stamina or mroe than a bit of a masochistic streak.