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Engagement Force & Inertia

I have for the past few months been running a one-on-one game with my co-host, and all-around lovely human, Senda, and recently our gaming session got disrupted for a few weeks in a row due to life, kids, etc. These things happen. At first, we were both nervous about missing sessions but realized that we had overcome the engagement inertia, that missing a few weeks would be ok, and that we were both excited to play again, as soon as our schedules re-aligned. 

That is not always the case. If you have not overcome engagement inertia, those kinds of schedule disruptions can be the death of a game. That is what I am going to talk about. What is engagement inertia? How does it affect your game? And how you can overcome it quickly.

Engagement Inertia? Is that really a Thing?

I make up a lot of terms when I write here and when I podcast [1]. This one is not my best term, but I think it does a decent job capturing this specific feeling about a game. For today’s article, I am going to really stretch a physics concept into a gaming metaphor, and I need you to just go with me on it. (My apologies to any physicists and physics teachers). 

If we all turn our physics books back to chapter 1, inertia is defined as, “a property of matter by which it continues in its existing state of rest or uniform motion in a straight line, unless that state is changed by an external force”.  An object in motion tends to stay in motion, and an object at rest tends to stay at rest. 

For RPGs, we are going to define engaged as being “greatly interested”. 

So engagement inertia is “a property of a campaign by which it continues in its existing state of interest or disinterest unless that state is changed by the people playing the game”. 

This means that interest is a force, and that being engaged means a strong force. 

Engagement Inertia and your Campaign

Where does this idea of engagement inertia fit into your campaign? Players in campaigns all have some amount of interest in the campaign. For simplicity, we can pick a scale – such as none, low, medium, and high. Each person will fall somewhere on that scale at different times during the life of the campaign.

For right now let’s look at the early phase of the campaign. We start with a session zero and character generation, and then we have the first few sessions as we are figuring things out in the game. It is often during these times that we are not as fully invested or engaged in the game, because we have not fully overcome the engagement inertia. 

At this stage of the game, there is a lot going on and you are doing a lot of mental work and don’t have the space for deep emotional investment. Here are some of the things that could be taking up your bandwidth: learning the rules for the game, learning the setting, and working to get into character. In addition, emotionally, we have not played a lot to get any deep connections between characters, with NPCs, or in the current story. 

So at this point in the game, we are interested but we are not fully engaged. We are trying to overcome that engagement inertia so that we can become fully engaged with the game. 

Disruptions – Before Engagement Inertia is Overcome

During this fragile time in the campaign, the worst thing that can happen is that you stop playing. There are plenty of reasons that a game session could be canceled, and if it does you lose a chance to increase interest and overcome the engagement inertia, and the state you are in persists. So if that state is one of disinterest or low interest, then a schedule disruption or two may be enough for people to drop the campaign. 

It’s going to be weeks before we can all get together, and no one is really excited, and suddenly there are questions about should we keep playing, play something else, etc? And like that… your campaign dies quietly. 

Disruptions – After Engagement Inertial is Overcome

Contrast the above to a time after engagement inertia has been overcome. We have reached a part in the game where everyone has a good handle on what is going on, and we have hit that moment in the game where an inciting event has created a strong emotional reaction, and everyone is engaged with the game. 

Now we wind up with some scheduling issues, like the holiday season, where we may have to take a few weeks off from the game. Now it’s not a big deal. In fact, all the group is doing is talking about how excited they are to get back to the game. They can wait out the scheduling issues and the campaign persists.

Overcoming Inertia is the Key

 …the point is that once we have overcome the engagement inertia the interest in the game is able to sustain the game when there are disruptions in scheduling… 

Building on those two examples, the point is that once we have overcome the engagement inertia the interest in the game is able to sustain the game when there are disruptions in scheduling and gives the campaign a greater chance of continuing.

In order to make this work to our advantage, we need to create that interest in order to overcome the engagement inertia faster. We can do that by lowering the barriers that prevent us from engaging. 

So on the intellectual side, let’s look at some things we can do:

Learning the Rules

First, if we play games where everyone is already familiar with the rules, we have already eliminated this problem. If you are new to the game, you are best served mastering the core rules as quickly as possible, so that the bulk of the game plays smoothly – you can worry about learning sub-systems and fringe rules later. Also, find or make handouts to help everyone learn the rules. 

Learning the Setting

Again, if you are playing in a familiar setting, you have mostly eliminated this. If you are playing a new setting, keep the scope small…a city, a small region. Don’t learn or teach the world, just a corner of it – you can introduce more later. If your setting is complex, a cheat sheet with key terms, NPC names, etc, can also help. 

Getting Into Character

Before the campaign starts, and if your game does not already have one, do an exercise to create some connections and backstory between the characters. I recommend Backstory Cards [2]

During the session, create some scenes where the characters can interact. Ask questions, such as, “what are you feeling?” to help them get more into character. 

Between games, post a few character questions for players to answer as their characters.

Setting Emotional Stakes

This one can be tricky to accomplish. In order to set some stakes, you need to introduce something early in the first session or so that the players can connect with, and then affect it a few sessions later. While you can create opportunities for emotional investment, you can’t force it. Mine the character’s backgrounds and any session zero discussions or activities for things that you can incorporate into the game. The things listed by the players are strong clues to the things they want to invest in. Find a few and work them into those early sessions. 

By doing these things you shorten the time to overcome that engagement inertia and flip the game from low to high interest, and in doing so, you have greatly increased your campaign’s ability to withstand disruptions.

It Gets More Complicated Than That

If we extend this metaphor a bit more, there is then some kind of engagement friction, which wears down on a campaign over time, and if unattended slows down the interest until the game flips back to a low to disinterested game. This is how many campaigns fizzle out and just fade away rather than go out with a glorious ending. 

That sounds like a topic for next time… 

Your Homework for Tonight…

So engagement inertia is a thing and in all campaigns, we are working to overcome it and reach that part where the interest in the game is driving the game and keeping everyone engaged. With a little work, we can overcome that inertia earlier and keep our campaigns going. 

How about you? Have you ever lost a campaign to engagement inertia? What things do you do to overcome that inertia?