Over on Game Playwright, Jeff Tidball has a good post on the ‘flow’ of a game and how it gets disrupted, in as annoying a fashion as disruptions in a movie, by people doing other stuff and the omnipresent jokesters.
I have found this to be very true. In one long-term heavy RP campaign I ran, the group agreed to several rules that were specifically designed to address this.
One – we would have regular breaks, where everyone could get food, drink, go to the bathroom, make calls, whatever. You were to strictly avoid wandering off during the periods of play. This still causes some disruption, but if it’s planned it can be more like commercials on TV – not great, but generally the drama’s timed around them so that they’re better placed than random chance would make them. (In fact, a commercial break with a cliffhanger can be a good trick to use in this format.) This is how business meetings and the like run – no one’s going to tell you not to go to the bathroom anytime, but in general people try to not be disruptive during the presentations and go take care of other stuff in the breaks. In general we did 50 minutes on/10 minutes off. Believe me, you are burning way more than 1/6 of your play time in the free for all model.
Two – a “no talking out of character” rule. If one of the PCs was going to be a laff riot cutup dude in character – perfect. But in general, we had a “when you’re sitting at the table you are acting and speaking in character” rule. No real enforcement was needed, other than peer pressure since it was a shared agreement and the occasional displeased glare from the GM. It helped that we were playing 2e where there were a lot less “rules” – table talk for rules was therefore minimal and metagaming/strategizing was forbidden. (In fact, there were some other relevant rules, like strict information compartmentalization, so notes and side meetings were used.)
This worked for five years, the length of the campaign… And everyone felt like it was the best in-character RP experience of their gaming careers. It’s all about letting people have the opportunity to get into character and not get dragged out of the flow…