For my slowly-building Dungeon Fantasy (DF) game, I decided to try out a few new table rules in play. Amusingly, even as I typed this up, a challenge came up on Hill Cantons for your three top table techniques. I didn't follow the challenge exactly, but here are my three tips for keeping the game rolling and focused.
I've always, personally, had trouble staying on target and staying focused. I get distracted, pulled away by tangents, and then fatigued. This just feeds into the lack of focus. Couple this with the usual player indecisiveness, Monty Python jokes, and food/drink/bathroom/smoke breaks and you get a very disjointed session. So here is what I do.
1) Everything you say is in character, unless it's obviously out of character. So, "I do 10 damage" is out of character, as is "Peter, do you want a beer?" or "Hey, I think your PC is on fire." That sort of stuff. Everything else is in character. You need to rigorously enforce it, although early on you can get away with NPCs acting shocked as if at a bad joke ("What is this about coconut shells, sir? I only have horses . . . ") to nudge people back onto target. Rules questions that are on topic are fine, but disruptive ones should be treated however you treat poor roleplaying. "Do I know if my healing power can heal undead?" is fine, if the PC is faced with healing an undead. "Hey, if we were using Psi powers and I had a TL10 Psi Shield helmet, would that stop a Brain Sucker from eating my brain?" is NOT, not in a TL3 DF game when you are fighting orcs. Or even Brain Suckers.
Results so far: This has worked out pretty well, although it only got used in a playtest session we used as a dry run for DF. It helped keep people in character more, even if they are third-person ("My character draws his sword") instead of first person ("I draw my sword") players.
2) Table Music = In Play. When the background music starts, the game is in play. When it stops or is turned off, we are on official break. During official breaks, nothing is in character. You can ask anything, discuss anything, go get a smoke, order food, make Monty Python references. It's musical chairs - when the music stops, so does the game play.
Results so far: This has worked out very well. The music - so far I've used classical or soundtrack music - provides a nice background we can all easily talk over. But it's a constant aural reminder that we are in character and in play. Coupled with official breaks whenever the action stops or it seems like people need it, this has worked wonders. I knew people used music before but I saw my friend (and excellent GM) Ryan use this one. It exceeded my expectations in play, and it wasn't just "continuous background noise" but rather a tool in play.
3) Sit in the order of initiative. We go around the table in combat, so having people sit at the table in the order they play is very easy. I go as all NPCs, then the PCs go in order.
Results so far: This should work better than it does, but it does work. If you go clockwise, you know who goes before you so you can damn well be ready to go next.
Next time I'll post up some table rules I'm thinking of trying, and see if anyone has feedback for me on them.