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Handling Game Flow in Tabletop RPGs

Just a boulder in a field.

Just a boulder in a field.

The currents of a tabletop session can be treacherous and unpredictable to navigate especially since the game-flow of a tabletop roleplaying session is dependent upon the flow of information. Whenever this flow becomes too minimal or stops altogether the game is in trouble. A skillful Game-Master knows how to not only control the flow of info but also what to do when it’s reduced to a trickle or cut off completely.

Imagine this, if you will, the player group has been traveling for some time and it has come time to find a spot to settle down for one reason or another and after they’ve rested the Player Characters (PCs) can look forward to even more travel. The game is slowing down, the players are bored, and you as Game Master (GM) realize that the game has arrived at its lowest point of action, suspense, and drama. It is at these low-points that the game session and potentially the entire campaign can most easily sink.

The player characters in our example survey the area, a green field with the only distinguishing feature being a large pitted rock jutting up from the verdant landscape. The players all look to you, silent. Their characters are essentially looking around impotently shrugging their shoulders. There appears nothing to do. The game has come to a halt.

The game has stopped because the exchange of information, formally measured in Play-Units, has stopped. The Game-Master (GM) has the responsibility to maintain these exchanges, a game session being built of multiple exchanges, and if they stop it’s also their responsibility to initiate a new one. Basically all tabletop role-playing games rely on the back-and-forth between the participants from which the games and their stories, otherwise known as campaigns, are composed.

From which I derived the Play-Unit idea (pg.80).

Exchanging Ideas

The game begins when the GM presents some information to the players and allows them to act upon that from whence the flow of information springs. These exchanges can be the actions and responses of the PCs, Player questions, and/or the responses and text presented by the GM. This flow and exchange of information is vital to the game and arguably is the heart of all tabletop role-playing games (TRPGs).

Each bit of that flow of information, each Play-Unit, is essential in that an accumulation of exchanges is what builds the fantasy world and what institutes player engagement. The players must find some bit of information in these exchanges to latch onto, that is their attention or interest must be piqued by something either contained within or inferred by the Play-Unit thereby engaging them.

Now, using the large boulder in the field as an example this can be demonstrated by adding a few details to the rock to solidify its image in the minds of the players then finishing its description with something out-of-the-ordinary, a weird little detail that should provoke questions or in the very least a brief inspection. The boulder has had a strange and sinister-looking rune carved into its face, the nature of which escapes the PCs for the moment. Note also that the ‘weird little detail’ is also characterized implying that they SHOULD pay attention to it. Random objects and scenery can be fixed but not emphasized when painted with a general detail, a specified detail will mark an object for special attention it will just be a little more subtle in players’ minds than a ‘weird’ one: as in our example the boulder being ‘pitted’.

Using this method a GM should be prepared for some follow-up and if that detail doesn’t lead to any more significance or meaning in the overall campaign the players will expect it to lead to at least a brief episode. This is where the GM’s improvisation skill comes into play especially if they haven’t any notes or other material to work from at the moment.

The players need to have enough information to grab onto, that is, enough info for them to act upon. The GM should be careful not to put forth too much information which can bog the game down causing the players to ignore most of it and such a constant stream of exposition will simply throw them out of the game preventing their engrossment due to boredom and inattention. This is where ‘railroading’ comes into the discussion.

Railroading is essentially the GM favoring their own story over evolving one through the game with the players limiting the players’ ability to change the direction of the story or contribute to the campaign narrative in any significant way. This doesn’t mean the GM shouldn’t have some plans and pre-written material but taking a sandbox type approach in combination with some ability to get on the rails to keep the game not only moving but to give the feeling that it is ultimately going somewhere is the way to go.

Nobody sits at a gaming table to listen to the GM tell them a story, participation is key. If the players have enough information they will hopefully begin either interacting with what they’re given or asking questions allowing the GM either to expound upon what they have already written or to improvise adding new information forged by the exchange.

Being told a story and helping to grow it through interaction are two very different things. Though there are similarities between a story and an RPG campaign there are definitely major differences though both do rely heavily upon the engagement of the audience.

Spin-technique is a brief burst of information in response to the players’ actions/inaction and/or inquiries using what may already be present in the current scene ... simply a methodology to keep the game in the sweet-spot...

Engagement & Spin-Technique

Engage the players by giving them enough but not too much information to work on (as stated before) keeping in mind the interests of both the player and that of their characters. In the very least, try to keep them asking questions. As long as you have some applicable tidbits and details in your notes and/or keep improvising plausible answers, the exchange continues just try to keep continuity and coherence in mind. In the long run continuity and coherence become almost essential especially if the GM does have an ending for the campaign in mind.

This improvisation technique, which I like to call Spin Technique, is highly useful and in my estimation one of the most important skills a GM can have. It relies on the ability of the GM to fill in details in answer to the players’ questions and on the GM’s ability to spin a short yarn in order to coax the players into asking questions in order to propel the game forward and to essentially “kick-start” it after it has begun to stagnate. Essentially the GM is putting a ‘spin’ on anything they can to feed energy back into the game.

The spin technique also deals with “spinning” a mundane object or dull scene into something more interesting for the players. It emphasizes improvisation as much as imagination and descriptive ability on the part of the GM but it also emphasizes in keeping the exposition short. This technique is useful to the GM when the players reach an avenue which has not necessarily yet been defined, they are simply not asking questions (i.e. exploring), and/or the game is at a low point (typically the group is travelling, shopping, or trying to figure out where to settle down for the night, etc.).

The actual spin-technique itself consists of a quick sketch of a scene, any details to fix the setting in the players’ minds (allusions to the local religion, natives, local legends or tales known to the players), focus on any characters or plot happening, keep it brief, and fill in any other information necessary for the game on the fly. It’s a brief burst of information in response to the players’ actions/inaction and/or inquiries using what may already be present in the current scene.

The spin technique is simply a methodology to keep the game in the sweet-spot. The sweet-spot being where there are vigorous back-and-forth exchanges between the participants (Players and GM) and whenever the players are engaged and asking questions about the things within the game. This vital communication can dry up due to player disinterest, the GM ‘railroading’ the players, and the GM being ill-prepared or unable to improvise for whatever reason.

However, even a well-prepared GM will need to pause a bit to gather their thoughts and notes especially when caught off-guard, the trick is to not pause too long and if the players are still throwing out questions the GM should try to play off of those to reduce down-time as much as possible. Remember one of the most important points in keeping the game flowing is to give the players something to work with and likewise they can also give back the same ability to the GM. The impetus is still on the GM to prevent stagnation, whenever the flow of information dries up gets repetitive, or the exchanges stop or become one-sided the game is in danger of becoming a slog.

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Two more common and time-tested techniques to minimize this stagnancy are simply “fast-forwarding” time (glancing over long stretches of uneventful travel) and introducing a random encounter. Both options are fine but doing either too often will also tend to drag down the game as it can become repetitive and reduce opportunities for the players to explore the game world and further engage with it. Basically, mixing it up and using any one of these techniques when most appropriate (or as a matter of group consensus) is probably a good idea.

Now this does not mean that a GM should constantly be throwing out encounters at PCs never allowing them to stand still even for a moment, even PC’s need some down-time, some time to breathe. Even lulls in the action can be used by the GM to the advantage of the overall campaign.

A rune is clawed into the boulder's craggy face.

A rune is clawed into the boulder's craggy face.

Using Downtime

Downtime refers to a point of low-activity or a lull in the action of the game where the characters can choose to do nothing, take actions that are of little consequence but help to keep the players engaged such as catching a meal or drink at a favored watering-hole, or time to get certain seemingly mundane activities fulfilled for their characters in-game.

Moments of low action or a lull in activity can help to magnify or accentuate bits of drama and certain events within the game that they either follow or immediately precede. Of course, downtime by definition is a moment of low-action. So a GM can enhance the high action or drama points in a game by allowing downtime just before, think preparation or training montage, which would magnify anticipation, and/or afterwards which allows the consequences to take shape and gravity to settle in. GMs can use downtime in order to emphasize a prior or proceeding event giving time for its consequences and meanings to sink into the minds of the players.

It is possible even in downtime however for players to stumble into unexplored areas of the game. Players can have their characters experiment, build, forge, or randomly probe while occupying their own downtime or to relieve the boredom while waiting for others. In fact, it seems to me that it is during this time in the game when players tend to find the gaps in the fantasy world much more frequently and it is here that the spin-technique also finds a use.

The spin technique can help to spackle-in the areas of the game world which lack information that can if the players stumble into them reduce immersion if not entirely throw them out of the fantasy. Inevitably players will wander into these lacunae in the setting particularly if they’re busy exploring the game-world with their characters, an activity which should absolutely be encouraged. It is vital to fill these gaps in quickly to keep the game flowing. Just keep in mind that these “quick-fixes” may have implications that echo farther down the road in the campaign becoming a permanent feature of the setting. A GM should make sure to note these improvisations down.

Player investment encourages player exploration.

Filling in the Blanks

Any lack of information perceived by the players can cause them to lose interest and this aside from such concerns as believability. So filling-in any lack of details that is detected in any exchange during the game is another essential skill of the GM. One solution is to make quick notes and lists much like bullet-points that contain details about an area that the players are meant to explore or have a reasonable expectation that they may explore which are vague or not fleshed out but which the GM can easily fill-out on the fly should they require them.

Concerning our boulder, the players should now have a question in their minds that needs answering. They are hopefully investigating the mysterious rune and the area around the rock where you could drop a clue or two. These clues could be bones adding to the ‘sinister’ characterization of the rune described before or if one of the characters surveys the area, a hovel in the distance which promises an occupant who can be questioned regarding the strange rock.

Note that this technique can enhance play when the players happen to (intentionally or otherwise) retrace their steps into places where they have left a mark, so-to-speak. Here, the GM can use short-hand referring to objects and places by what role it played or stories connected with it including a few details of the visible signs that the players’ characters have influenced the place. The GM can demonstrate this in many subtle and not-so-subtle ways in-game.

The GM can start associating stories with locations and objects in such cases letting the players feel that their characters are truly incorporated into the game world. Hopefully this can lead to player investment not just in their characters but in the game world. This can help to bring the players into position to finding more information themselves within the game world with which to interact taking some of the weight off of the GM. Player investment encourages player exploration.

The PCs will begin expanding their own stories and building on the previous actions and choices made by individual members or the entire player group. This activity by its very nature immerses the players in the game world and its struggles. Also they can relate the in-game environments to stories that they are familiar with about the places, characters, and things within the environment of the game world with which they have interacted.

The PCs hopefully will also begin to form their own initiative and begin investigating the world around them and strive to interact with its inhabitants and objects without much prodding on the GMs part. The stories they begin to create and shape concerning the game world and its contents will add new depth to the group mythology and create new shorthand references for the GM to use. The fantasy world of the game will begin to become increasingly familiar and it’s up to the GM to keep adding in some mystery and danger.

It all comes down to the flow of information; the players need to be fed information that can help them decide on their in-game actions.

Gamers' Cant

When utilizing the spin-technique the GM should try to make use of group short-hand. Short-hand refers to things and phrases that carry with just their mention plenty of descriptive information for the players to act on without any description having to be given directly by the GM. A good example of this is the ubiquitous ‘tavern’ found in just about every fantasy campaign. Players familiar with taverns will have plenty of details to act on without much prompting. Only odd or important details need be said.

Going back to our example of the field and marked stone, the players understand generally what a field and large boulder look like and what details these may entail. Perhaps they may even have a good idea of what the flora and fauna are like based on what they know about the current setting and general area where their characters are currently find themselves. The only odd detail given to them and that which needs to be described to the players is the strange rune carved into the stone with only a couple of adjectives to help fix the mental image.

It all comes down to the flow of information; the players need to be fed information that can help them decide on their in-game actions. But this information cannot come in a flood it must be kept to a constant and even flow which allows the players to parse what is being narrated to them or they can be overwhelmed and in turn be thrown out of the game. If this happens repeatedly they will eventually lose interest in the game altogether.

In addition to the rune, there is a skull and some bones along with a rusted helm in the rock's shadow.

In addition to the rune, there is a skull and some bones along with a rusted helm in the rock's shadow.

The Info Must Flow

The flow of info is important for believability thusly immersion and keeps the game session flowing with the back-and-forth accumulation of detail & action. To initiate, maintain, and when the situation calls for it to restart the flow of the game the Game-Master needs to hone their Spin Technique and skills at improvisation as well as keeping at least moderately detailed notes including lists and random encounter tables.

Glossing over certain unnecessary portions of a game such as stretches of travel or other small mundane details which only serve to slow the flow of the game down may be necessary as is the use of these to deliberately put the brakes on when needed or to simply control the pace. These odds and ends are often things that the players can fill in on their own with only a brief mention identical to the short-hand method mentioned earlier but which are dead-ends leaving the players nothing to do when actually played. This also refers to certain activities assumed to take place such as the group getting into a vehicle and then having the GMs narration put them already at their destination. That they traveled there in said vehicle will naturally be assumed.

Keeping the back-and-forth exchange between all of the participants in a TRPG not only keeps the game (and hopefully the fun) alive but also organically grows the world through the groups’ experiences. To do this GMs need to be careful not to railroad the players, be sure to not let the exchanges become too one-sided, learn to play off of the players’ inquiries, hone their improvisation and descriptive techniques, and pay attention to the players’ interests and aims. Don’t let the table fall silent! If it does however, using the Spin-Technique you should be able to bring back the noise.

What stalls YOUR game?

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