While reading Jane Mcgonigal’s “Reality is Broken” I tried to connect each of the arguments she made to tabletop games and RPG design. It was working relatively well until McGonigal began talking about flow. For those who don’t know, flow is the state of being completely engaged in the action currently being performed. It is often referred to as being in the zone, and is depicted as the pinnacle of game engagement. Many video games today capitalize on flow, examples are Bullet hell games, Rhythm games, or my personal Favorite Super-Hexagon. My question is, can tabletop games elicit flow?
Mihaly Csikszentmihali, the man who coined the term flow describes it as occurring only when we are doing a difficult task which we are highly competent in. If our skill level is much higher than the task’s difficulty than we are left bored, but if our skill is much lower it can make us frustrated. This is explained rather eloquently in the below diagram.
But tabletop games have another element tossed in that make it a little bit harder, pretty much every tabletop game is played with other people. Although it is more difficult to achieve flow in a group, it is still possible. Researcher R.Kieth Sawyer who worked with Csikszentmihali, did a large amount of research with group flow and produced 10 key factors to encourage flow within a team. In this article I will be going over each of his 10 postulates and expanding upon how each applies to tabletop games. I will also be giving some tips on how to improve flow in each of these areas. If you are interested in reading about his research HERE is a link to a good article on the matter.
Now on to the Postulates.
1. A Clear Goal
All flow relies on the player working towards a clear goal, but with group flow it is important that each of the participating members is on the same page. This gets even more difficult due to the fact that people go to tabletop games for a multitude of different reasons. If one player wants gritty combat and another wants to role-play it is going to cause a conflict of interest. It is crucial that the entire group is interested in achieving the same thing.
As a DM running a game it can be very hard to find out what each player is interested in doing and achieving. One method which I find very helpful is to look for flags on player character sheets. A flag is any piece of information that the character has put time and resources into. For example if a player puts a bunch of points into his stealth skill, he wants the game to require his character to sneak around.
2. Close Listening
Group members need to be able to listen as well as talk. Listening also extends even further by encouraging members to take every idea and statement sincerely. Players are encouraged to do their best not to reject any ideas without discussion, this goes double for the DM as they often have the most narrative agency.
If a player says “My character swings off the chandelier and lands on the table getting the high ground over his foe” and the DM never planned for the room to have a chandelier, unless it is going to badly disrupt the game, let him do it. Shutting down an idea really hinders the experience of flow and I encourage all DMs to be as flexible as possible. This leads me to my next point.
3. Being in Control
If a group member feels like they don’t have a say in the group or that their ideas aren’t respected they are just going to get frustrated. Same goes for players, the more power the DM gives their players the easier it will be to achieve flow. Players have to feel like they have complete control of what their characters do, if not than they are just being told a story and playing a game.
My tip for this is similar to the last point. If a players wants something, do everything in your power to give it to them while maintaining the games integrity. To expand even further on this I encourage the group to trust each of the other members. This trust will lead to more willingness to share power.
4. Keep it Moving Forward
The best way to keep the ball rolling is to not slam on the breaks. This is a rather common complaint I hear players having. They are having fun in the game, but then there is a rule which the group is uncertain about, so the game has to get paused so that the DM can flip through the rule book and find the proper ruling. This pause completely halts flow and makes it much harder to achieve engagement.
My best recommendation for this it to improvise when there is confusion on a ruling. If you aren’t sure what would be fair to the players, choose an option that sways in their favor, I am sure they won’t be mad. Once the game is over then you can look up the ruling so you know for future, but try to keep the game going.
5. Complete Concentration
With the advent of virtual tabletops it is easier than ever to get distracted during a game. The internet is a very tempting outlet for distraction, but it isn’t the only place distractions can be a problem. Most local games operate on a no cell phones at the table rule, this is due in part to it distracting players. Another more divided argument for distractions is the use of music in an RPG session. I am on the fence for this debate as I can see the benefits to both sides. In my opinion if music is done right it can greatly enhance engagement, but it is so easy for it to become disruptive it not controlled.
Another method to improve focus in a session is to skim over the mundane. It is a lot easier to tune out as players are shopping at a market, but if you are in a heated debate with an adversary, I doubt you want to look at your phone.
6. Bending Egos
Each participant needs understand and accept that they aren’t the best part of the game, or that they need to be center stage all of the time. If you are set in your ways and have a plan for what you want your character to do, you miss the chance to expand upon another player’s ideas. An individual cannot steer a group, it will only lead to frustration for both parties.
It’s the ideas that are built upon by all members that are the most interesting and engaging.
7. Equal Participation
All players need to feel as though they have agency and power within the group. If one player has too much or too little influence it begins more difficult for everyone to have fun. DMs should encourage players to influence the story and give them as much narrative power as possible. Another important aspect is to encourage players who don’t get involved with the game to get front and center. Focus a small arc of the game on their character or backstory to embolden them to act.
This one can prove difficult for new DMs and players as being familiar with both the group and the system can really help with flow. When you get to know a group you develop this unspoken language – psychologists call it Tacit. This unspoken language can really speed up the game allow for much more frequent moments of engagement. The familiarity with the rules also aids in the process because it allows for fast on the fly decisions without worrying about mechanics.
The best way to improve this is time, time to get to know your players and the game a bit better.
The allowance for players to discuss ideas and work together to make decisions is crucial. Having every player involved on the choices allows each of them to feel like they accomplished the task as a team. If just 2 players do all the talking it isn’t much fun to all the others.
10. The potential for failure
This one is crucial. If the group feels like there is nothing at stake then there is no reason for engagement. This is why bands don’t experience flow while rehearsing, it’s only when they step up on stage that they get “in the zone”. The best way to encourage this through play is to raise tensions and ensure that actions have opportunity cost.
Flow is the pinnacle of gaming engagement, although it can still be done, it is much more difficult to pull off in tabletop RPGs. Hopefully these tips have helped you improve your games, as well as help with your designs.
Thanks for reading