Monday, 29 September 2014

10 Ways to Improve Your Game by Achieving Flow

Hello World,

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.

8.      Familiarity

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.

9.      Communication

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


Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Consortia Play Tests and Conventions

Hello world,

Within this blog, most of what I have talked about is game theory and design thoughts. I have explained so little about the game I am designing and I would like to share a brief summary with you now.  I would like to start by stating  that after almost a year of work, it finally has a name. Consortia.

Consortia is a game which puts the players in control of an guild or organization, these players then work together to manage the guild’s resources, and dispatch members on a variety of missions. Each session is comprised of one major mission, which is roleplayed out – taking the majority of the session, and numerous minor missions solved with a single die roll and some narration by the players.

With characters working together to complete assignments, there is a heavy focus on teamwork. Each of the characters will have relationships with other members and NPCs, and by working together with each other, they can overcome challenges that they would be unable to overcome on their own.

Consortia is also structured as a story heavy system, which strives to share as much of the narrative power between the players and GM as possible. Players are encouraged to add their own narrative flair to each scene.

I am also pleased to announce that the 2nd draft of Consortia is now complete, and that play testing will begin next week! I will be sure to share what I learn over this next batch of playtests on the blog, so look forward to that.

In even grander news I will be running Consortia’s first public beta test at Virtuacon on October 11th. So come join the session if you are planning on checking out Virtuacon (Which I recommend because it’s online and free).

This will be my first convention RPG session, so wish me luck!

Thanks for reading,


If you wish to receive playtest document as they are released feel free to sign up as a playtester on the right hand side. You can also stay up to date on blog posts by following me on Google+. or Twitter.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

[Tabletop Musings] The Proteus Effect Part 2

Hello world,

In my previous post about the Proteus Effect I talked about how the image a player has of their character effects that players in game decisions whether they are conscious of it or not. Today I am going to take this process one step further and examine how our characters can influence our actions outside of the game.

There is a study in psychology called the Self-Perception Theory, which will be the main focus for today’s post. This theory was originally coined by social psychologist Daryl Bem in the year 1960. Bem hypothesized that as we act, we observer ourselves, and use that information in order to make inferences about our attitudes and feelings. This was a rather bold statement as it meant that our actions influenced our personalities and behaviours, not the other way around. Meaning that you don’t take risks because you are brave, you are brave because you take risks.

Bem’s theory was further proved by James Laird in 1974 with Laird’s own Self-Perception experiment. Within Laired experiment subjects were instructed to hold a pencil in their mouth in one of two ways. This first made you the participant smile, while the latter made them frown. This allowed the participants to make two very different expressions without knowing the nature of the expression. The participants who were made to frown scored much more aggressively on the test than those who were smiling. The smiling participants also rated comic strips as more humorous than the frowning subjects. This shows that our own body position can have an effect on our thoughts and actions, but can we take it further?

Another experiment was done in which boys were hooked up to a fake heart monitor and instructed to flip through a playboy magazine.  For each of the subjects the testers increased the frequency of the heart monitor’s beeps during the viewing a random model, signifying increased heart rate. After the viewing the boys where then asked who their favourite model was. The subjects decided that their favourite model was the one which increased their heart rate. To stress this point even further, in a follow up meeting two months later the boys still said that the heart rate model was their favourite.

Ok, so what does all of this have to do with tabletop RPGs? Quite a lot actually. During tabletop RPGs you don the mask of a character and  perform the actions they would for the duration of the session. Granted there is a good portion of the actions which you just state the character does, rather than performing them yourself – You wouldn’t want to get in a fist fight with the GM every time combat rolled around would you? But with that said, there is an area of actions which most groups tend to act out in surprising detail, and that is social interactions within the game. When players roleplay out conversations with non-player characters within game you will often act and speak in a manner you wouldn’t do in your day to day life. You don’t care if that orc is the chieftain of a deadly tribe, he is set to pillage the town you have sworn to protect. You will most likely hold your ground in discussions with him even though he is more influential and powerful than you. Even though you may just be with your friends around a table in a basement, that moment feels like you are negotiating with someone in a much stronger position than you. By playing out that negotiation, and standing tall against an intimidating aggressor, you perceive yourself being brave and fearless. This perception then influences your future actions, maybe down the line you will be more willing to ask your boss for that raise.

The actions within a tabletop game are all act, taking place in the groups collective imagination. But that doesn't stop our in game actions from bleeding through into our everyday lives.  Author of the book Infinite Realities said: “Avatar’s are not just ornaments – the alter the identity of the people who use them.” I think that this applies in volumes for tabletop games. Those who enjoy the Tabletop RPG hobby are seen to become more confident and outgoing than before they started playing (video). I believe this is because RPGs are a playground for us to act with boldness and creativity which we are two scared or shy to show in our normal lives. This playground gives us the tools to better ourselves.

So next time you make a character for a campaign, try making the character you want to become in your own life, see where that takes you. In the meantime Thanks for reading.


If you wish to receive playtest document as they are released feel free to sign up as a playtester on the right hand side. You can also stay up to date on blog posts by following me on Google+. or Twitter.

Monday, 1 September 2014

Fan-Expo Notes and New Twitter Account

Hello World,

I spent this past Labour Day weekend at Fan Expo in which I got to meet some of the major designers in the tabletop industry. I got a chance to speak to Robin Laws, Eric Lang and Johnathan Lavallee among others over my two days at the convention. During this time a was able to attend numerous panels on a variety of topics regarding the tabletop industry. It is my hope to share some of what I learn with you today in this post.

The first piece of information I am pleased to share with you all is that tabletop games are hitting their renaissance. Board games and RPGs have exploded in popularity over the past few years and it has never been a better time to design or enjoy playing tabletop games. Games of all types and genres are becoming increasingly available to players through the internet as well as the invention of the board game cafĂ© – which has become an enormous community in Toronto, where I live. This increase in availability has lead to much greater attention put on the tabletop industry. As an example of this the attendance of Gen Con – the tabletop gaming convention – has been increasing steadily over the past 5 years. With the increasing community along with the invention of crowd funding sites like Kickstarter, the barrier of entry has been dramatically reduced allow for more games to be released

Crowd funding was actually the focus of one of the panels I attended. The panel speakers consisted of tabletop Designers, Comic Writers and a representative from Kickstarter. Most of the panel focused on topics involved with running a successful Kickstarter. With the main point being that the best way for a project to gain attention is to have the creator be excited and passionate about their project. The panelists went on to talk about projects in which the creators were not excited about their project, which ultimately led to the project not building the momentum needed to get funded. They continued by stating that people who were passionate about their projects and that treated backers as partners, each with their hand in the project, were much more successful. The more that you can make your Kickstarter interesting and fun, the more people are going to notice it and want to get involved.

Robin Laws, Author and RPG designer stated “…It is as though Kickstarter was made for the tabletop industry. Kickstarter’s size and scope resonate perfectly with that of tabletop games”

I was also able attended a panel about board game design. A large portion of this panel talked about areas of design I have talked about on this blog, namely Know Your Audience Fail Faster, and Play Testing.  The discussions in the panel followed pretty closely to what I have written in those articles, and rather than repeating myself you can follow the hyperlinks to those articles. One thing that was repeated numerous times throughout the panel was the simple lesson that in order to design better games. Play more games. Play games you like, play games you think you won’t like and most importantly play games you know you don’t like. Only through playing a large variety of games can you develop a better understanding of good game design. This is an interdisciplinary skill to, if you are looking to make an RPG, play some board games. They are bound to have some form of design information that will help with your own design.
Overall Fan-Expo was quite the learning experience and it was great to meet some professionals in the field. I am sure I will release future articles which contain the information I've learn over this  weekend, so be on the lookout for those.

In the meantime thought I have finally created a twitter account in which Intend to post game design musings as well as updates regarding the blog and my games production.  If you are enjoying the blog and/or are interested in my upcoming game please follow me @MTTJ_Patrick.  Next frontier, a Facebook page!

Thank you so much for reading,


If you wish to receive playtest document as they are released feel free to sign up as a playtester on the right hand side. You can also stay up to date on blog posts by following my on Google+ or onTwitter @MTTJ_Patrick