Depending on the group, you may or may not have moments in the game where the party becomes completely unfocused from the task at hand. Mind you it’s not the party focusing on something that the DM doesn’t want them to focus on, this is when everyone has lost their focus and really isn’t paying attention to the actual game.
This is especially a problem in larger groups such as my main group with 9 players. The more people there are, the longer everything takes and the less people end up actually needing to pay attention. You can’t always fault the players, and honestly it’s the DM’s job to ensure that everyone is involved and enjoying themselves.
So, what can we do? Well, we can do quite a few things, but some of my favorites include speeding up combat, establishing the scene/situation a bit better, and simply providing less down-time.
Speeding Up Combat
This one is generally an issue in larger groups, but if you have a lot of slow players in your group this could potentially be the cause of disruptions in the game. Do remember that if players are new they could just be a bit swamped so this isn’t something you should be doing for newer players.
One of the big things I try to drill into each player’s head is that they are responsible for everything being ready to go on their turn. By that I mean that when it is your turn in the initiative order know what actions you wish to take and what your spells/abilities do. It can be tough using a spell or ability for the first time, but you should try to have everything ready ahead of time so that the game can just continue on smoothly.
At least for my group, combat is the biggest factor in which players zone out or part of the group begins talking and it temporarily derails the group. If this is something that is happening on a regular basis and is disrupting game time, having everyone know exactly what they’ll be doing at the start of their turn (especially you as the DM) is a great way to solve that.
As the DM it’s your job to describe the situation, the scene, and the characters to your players. If you’re giving them a lack-luster description or no description at all, it can be really difficult for your players to be immersed in the game. When the players are fully immersed, they are generally paying much closer attention to the game.
Even little things like calling the players by their character’s name or even finding ways to tie in a player’s background into the story. Making interesting and unique characters that the players actually want to interact with. Describe in better detail what the fights actually look like (this one does not mesh well with the shortening combat idea).
Anything that will help bring the players into the game and make them invested in actually completing tasks and paying attention throughout the entire game is a win in this category. Getting everyone involved or at least invested in the role playing during the game is always a huge plus for keeping everyone on track.
Down time can be a double-edged sword some times. There are plenty of instances where players will get a surprising amount of character development done during down-time either goofing off in the city/town they are in or discussing things together during a long rest. Other times, the players will sort of get off topic as there is a small break in the game.
Try to be concise with rests/breaks in action so that you can refocus your players back on what’s at hand. This is really going to depend on the group and how you all communicate with each other more than anything though. When I’m DMing I tend to set time limits on things like quests and dungeons in order to keep the players more focused and less likely to goof around.
If things are gone too far, perhaps refocus them with a random encounter or a travelling NPC so that they’ll come back and return to interacting with the game again.
These are all decent options to refocusing players and ensuring that things actually get done during sessions. However, you really should read the players. If they’re having fun doing just a low key role playing session then maybe just let them do that; not every session has to be about slaying the big bad guy and completing the quest.
Communication is key. See what the players want and if they’re enjoying everything. If everyone is honest with each other the game will go much more smoothly and people will be more likely to actually focus on the game.