Last month, I wrote about overcoming engagement inertia and how to get your game running to a point where it becomes exciting enough that the interest and engagement in the game help to keep it going. In that article, I talked about frictions that if left unattended can wear down that engagement force to the point where your game could fade away, as players lose their engagement. So let’s keep this strange RPG Physics metaphor going and talk about friction.
Friction, in physics terms, is “the resistance that one surface or object encounters when moving over another.” That resistance causes the object to lose its velocity and, if it’s high enough or goes on long enough, causes it to stop.
Engagement Friction, in RPGs, is a situation or environmental element that your game encounters as your campaign progresses that can lower engagement and eventually cause your players to become disengaged (or disinterested) from the game. These are typically negative things that are going on that can eat away at the engagement of your game.
Engagement Friction has levels of the resistance it creates, that is some frictions do not wear on engagement as much as others. Some frictions are constant and some may arise and then fade away. So on a continuum of frictions, the worse would be long-lasting, high frictions, and the most manageable would be transient, low frictions.
So let’s look at three common frictions that arise in games, and at the same time, talk about things that you can do to mitigate these so that they are not as severe or don’t last for a long time.
Disruptions to the gaming schedule are very common frictions, as we all lead complicated lives, and from time to time games get missed. In setting up your game, you discussed the frequency in which you would play, and that expectation gets set in the group. It is pretty common that as the next session comes up, everyone gets excited to play. When a schedule disruption occurs, most often in the form of a canceled game, you generate a little friction.
Now if the schedule disruption happens only once, it’s a small and transient issue that will have more effect earlier in your campaign than later, before you have overcome that emotional inertia. Where this friction becomes a real problem is if you have multiple disruptions in a row. Then the friction begins to grow exponentially. In a bi-weekly game, missing a session means waiting two weeks for the next session – miss three sessions in a row, and a month and a half has passed.
Now some groups have pretty stable game schedules that are assailed by the occasional emergency or business event, and for them, this is not a large problem. Other groups have more instability, with people who are on-call, new parents, people who have changing work schedules, etc. These groups are far more prone to this kind of friction.
Here are some ways to combat schedule disruptions:
- Metagaming/Homework – Metagaming, as in playing the game outside of the game (not using player knowledge), is a way to maintain some kind of engagement even if a session or two is dropped. Having an activity that people can do between sessions keeps them engaged with the game. Some examples of this are character journals, artwork, Pinterest boards, or making game-themed playlists. You can even reward this effort with XP, Inspiration, or another currency your game uses. These activities could be something you worked out when the campaign started or you can come up with an ad hoc one if you hit a streak of missed sessions.
- Chatting Between Games – Having a place for the characters to chat is another great way to keep the game in people’s minds when you are not playing. A good example of this is having an in-character Discord channel, where between sessions the characters can talk to one another. Now, this chat could be in time with the game session or it can be out of time and not even canon. As long as people are embodying their characters, they are engaging with the game.
One of the largest frictions is when there is a problem among the players. It could come in the form of one player or it could be cliques of players, etc. The issue could be play style, attitude, relationship issues between players, etc. (Note if the issue is safety, as in someone is not safe, that is different and needs to be addressed aggressively and separate from the advice below).
Group issues often start small and when not addressed grow over time until they grind away everyone’s engagement in the game. In many cases, we wind up being too polite and hope that the irritation will go away the next time we play. We avoid confrontation rather than nipping things in the bud. In many cases, dealing with something early can often prevent it from blowing up into something that grinds the game to a halt.
Here are a few ways to deal with these issues:
- Expectation Setting – the first line of defense is setting expectations. Having discussions about how we expect people to behave at the table, how the game is going to run, and discussions about tone, safety, etc are all things that we can do upfront to establish a shared set of expectations. In doing so, we avoid misunderstandings and we have a basis for correcting people who stray from the expectations. Things like: Social Contracts, Session Zeros, CATS, and Safety Discussions, all help build those expectations.
- Candid Conversations – Confronting someone about something they did is not easy. There is a skill in being able to have a conversation that is candid (truthful and straightforward) without it being hurtful or coming off as an attack. People who are made to feel defensive often dig in rather than bend. Google the term and you will find some good articles on how to have these conversations.
- Kicking People Out…including yourself – You can set expectations and you can have candid conversations when something goes wrong, and that may still not fix things. In those cases, you may have to remove someone from a group. While that is easier said than done, it is sometimes the only thing that can resolve the issue at hand. Harder than that is the idea that the person who needs to go might be you. Not all games work for all groups and not all groups are good groups. Sometimes people have to be removed from a group (This could be a whole article unto itself).
Sameness, repetition – these will slowly grind away at your game from both sides of the screen. For the players, things become predictable, and with that their chance of surprise and the excitement that comes with it drops. On the other side of the screen, for the GM, you grow bored, and your intensity in presenting the world drops.
Monotony comes in a lot of forms. The first is in the core loop of the game. If the game is only about exploring dungeons, then eventually this will become monotonous. Or it could be at the encounter level, with the opposition the characters are facing. If the characters only ever fight the Obsidian Footmen and never see an Obsidian Knight or Horseman, things will get boring.
Another form of monotony comes from the game system. Some systems are more complex than others or offer more options than others. In some games after a dozen sessions you have explored most of the gaming options, and in others you have barely scratched the surface. When the system becomes monotonous it starts to feel mechanically boring. Everyone is doing the same things, has the same character builds, uses the same options in combat, etc.
There are a few things you can do to combat monotony:
- Change Beats – The first thing you can do is to break up the repetition. If your game’s core loop is exploring dungeons, then drop in a wilderness adventure. If they only fight the Obsidian Footmen, give them a session where they are having to hunt forest predators. If your mechanics are becoming monotonous, this can be a bit harder to deal with. You might bring in supplements but they have their own risks, or you can run a session that uses some of the more fringe rules, such as doing a session that is one big car chase rather than any melee combat.
- Subvert Tropes – In a similar manner to the advice above, subvert tropes. Meaning take something that is expected in the game and flip it. Make the characters have to defend a dungeon from some outlaws, and have them team up with the Obsidian Soldiers to overcome a different enemy. You don’t do this all the time, but toss it in when things are starting to feel monotonous and you really shake things up.
High Speed…Low Drag
Keeping a campaign running is not an easy task. There are a multitude of forces that are acting against it grinding down everyone’s engagement. But as the old GI Joe PSAs taught us, “Knowing is half the battle.” Knowing about these frictions allows us to look out for them, and to take action to combat them, and in doing so we can reduce those frictions and keep our games running.
How about you, what do you do to combat these common frictions? Which ones have worked for you? Which ones do you still struggle with?