Saturday, January 6, 2018

How to keep people engaged in your games for years ...

Not what I imagined my second post in 2018 to be, but I take material where I can get it. Saw a post yesterday on the interwebz about how to keep players engaged in your campaigns engaged for years (here) and while I respect the authors opinion (especially if he can make it work for himself and his group ...) I also disagree to a point where I think that taking his advice as generally applicable does a disservice to the DMs out there and to the hobby in general. Here's me adding to this in the hopes that it opens some productive dialogue and maybe a different, less (for lack of a better word) desperate collection of ideas how to keep people engaged.

First of all: we are not inventing the wheel here!

In other words, do the fucking research, goddammit. If you google "how to keep people engaged", you'll get a shitload of business articles how to do so. Just by surveying the first two entries, I found only advice completely contradicting the points in the post linked above. Why? Because if you want to keep people engaged, you have to take them seriously and you have to involve them. It's on the DM to offer, not to decide how the offer is to be taken.

Of course we have to distinct a bit between players and employees, but the relations DM-Players and Boss-Employees are similar enough in many regards to get some great pointers from the research done in management and business studies. What's more, they actually do that research (compared to, say, our hobby). It's not just opinions.

Anyway, let's take the same research linked above and go to "pictures". Usually you'll not only find lots of words about social topics but there's also a very good chance that someone took the time to visualize what you are looking for (if you are aware of that need is optional, btw, I found great stuff by just prowling). Like this, for instance (from an article found here):

Highly applicable for rpgs. Open in new tab for details ... [source]
Note that we are already talking about communities at large here, so we are circling in on where we want to be. They say you'll want to get to the intrinsic motivation part for your group and I agree. Key words are COMPETENCE (the game system, the character, the story and there is even a social dimension to this in our games), AUTONOMY (this one's a bit more tricky, but sandbox play does that for you and I believe that characters getting more and more powerful over time might factor here in as well ... at least it does for me) and RELATEDNESS (completely a social dimension, which our games of course have ... it's usually connected to the argument that that's why playing with friends is so beneficial since it brings a greater sense of connection to the table than just the game; however, I think there is (can be?) more to it).

It'd lead too far to explore the picture above in its entirety (we are just doing the research here, for now), but it's save to say that it not only shows how keeping people engaged works, it also shows why it applies to some degree in that post linked above while also pointing out why those 6 ways can lead to participation but not engagement.

Alright, let's see if we can find something gaming specific. The closest thing we can get is looking at research done about computer gaming. TED talks are always a good way to start (for instance this one about 7 ways games reward the brain), but I'll go with one example that seems a bit off course and still brings the point across I want to make. Follow this link and check out a post about computer game design and how to make difficult games fun.

Here's the synopsis for those not having the time to read the whole thing: if you want to keep people engaged, you raise the challenge as they get more and more competent in what they do and give it a clear reward structure to allow them to assess their own success.

There is, as I said, tons of material out there talking about this subject, with several degrees of research and science put into it and yet more material to go from there. What we have is plenty to make a somewhat informed list of tips how to keep people engaged in our games. If you read along and followed the bread crumbs you should already have more than enough general ideas.

One last thing, though. We should take a look what's already written about it in D&D circles (as using D&D will have the most traction as a search term). There are, of course, several hits. The first two are most on point here, with the main take away after a short superficial look is that people need to get rid of their mobile devices during the game. There is more, but it is also all over the place and addressing several connected issues somewhere between very general and very specific.

You could also do yourself a favor and check what the game supplement of your choice has to say about this subject (as I believe rule books should address that issue as well). It'd go too far in the context of this post, but I'll take a quick look into the Rules Cyclopedia and see if I can find something ...

[runs away to read ... gets back to the computer]

Alright, there's advice all over the place, some vague, some outdated and some very useful. Here's a good piece I could find by checking for campaign advice real quick:
"The campaign and the adventures within it are very similar to a series of fantasy novels. The characters are the heroes and heroines in these novels; focus the action on them. A campaign is only useful when it fulfills the purpose of the game: Fun. An inexperienced DM can easily become caught up in the creation of a gloriously detailed medieval empire, only to find that the players want something simple. You should talk with your players about their interests and create a fantasy world that entertains and satisfies both you and your players."
There is A LOT to be said about this piece of advice alone, but it boils down to a very common theme already established here: our hobby is about people. People need to communicate and find common grounds to get along. There are thousands of rule books out there and if my experience is any kind of indication, a search for valuable advice might vary to a huge degree (which is a problem, of course, but nothing I will go further into in this post).

Enough with the research.

How to keep people engaged, then?

Well, how explicit is the advice we can give? It's all wildly individual and if you can make it work, all power to you, regardless how you managed to do it. From a more general point of view, I see several aspects one could consider to use in his or her own role playing games. This will be hugely colored by my own opinion (if that hasn't been clear), so YMMV. However, all of this can be found in or concluded from the research linked above.

1. Take the people you play with seriously:
Warts and all. We are all individuals with different quirks and flaws and limitations and idiosyncrasies and preferences. Embrace that, if you can. Compromise and choice are what make relationships work properly. A player might tag along because he likes to roll dice, another one is there for the story or her character ... you know what I mean. They don't need to share your vision to participate in a meaningful way in the fun of the endeavor. Getting along is key, seek those people.

2. That said, be able to work a crowd:
Acknowledging that people are different leads to needing the means for uniting all the moving parts of the group into one cohesive entity. It means doing what's necessary to make the game happen in the best possible way. This can go from finding a great place to play to determining a seat order for the players for better synergy. It can mean formulating rules to get along (like banning mobile devices or politics from the table). Communicate the game on a regular basis, but don't forget that people have lives. Have a BBQ every once in a while (or similar group activities ... basic team building stuff). Showing interest and consideration can go a long way. If you take care, people will stay.

3. Allow growth:
This has several dimensions. It goes for the DM as well as for the players, but it also goes for the group dynamic and how people see themselves in it. It also goes for the assumed powers and dependencies that exists in a group. In short, look for healthy relationships on the table. They form the fertile grounds for personal growth.  It's all connected to 1. and 2., of course, but it deserves a point in itself since it highlights a very important role a DM has in his group. It's also something one should be able to assert quite easily, as we could argue that the amount of fun a group has is directly connected to this. Pointers are, if the players take the game seriously, do they learn the rules, do they know the story, do they have goals within the game they try to follow up on regularly ... and are you aware of those things? People tend to keep doing something if they think (consciously or not) they get something out of it. Ideally that means growth in some form or another and it is on the DM to offer (for instance) a healthy environment for personal growth.

Too much? Idk, I lie it :) [by Josephine Wall, source]
4. Choose your tools wisely:
This takes some practice, but you need to know what you want and what game will fit that bill best. You want a campaign lasting for years? Look for a game that allows for the right level of complexity and range to support something like that (example: the D&D RC with characters going through up to 36 levels with the option for immortality, adding several cycles of characters to that ... it also has a mid-level and end game). You want one shots? You'll want games that allow for short narrative loops and don't necessarily need level progression. It'll also most likely draw a different crowd ... Experiment and read, ask people what they liked and why. After that, get good at that game. Skill will always convince people that it's a good idea to stay in a group.

5. Fluctuation is Continuity:
If there is any continuity in life than it is change. We know that. Clinging to something to a point where we start giving up ourselves beyond compromise is always a sign that we are not willing enough to let go. A general assertion, but consider it a touchstone for anything related gaming. You keep checking for the same rules all the time? Let it go and find an alternative. A player you love starts developing other interests and keeping him in the game gets more and more difficult? Let him go (or her). A campaign doesn't click with the group and they keep trying to get away from it ... you get the picture. Embrace change, but offer continuity as good as you can. Make it work, keep a rhythm for gaming nights, recruit new players and see what sticks. Something always does.

That's all I can come up with for now. I think the beauty of our hobby is that we never need to stop exploring it in all its facets. In many ways this is the major draw for most of us, I imagine. Play, write, design, grow ... It'll keep you busy for years. A good pizza delivery doesn't hurt along the way (says the girlfriend), but that goes without saying :) Feel free to add to this in the comments or wherever I can see it.

One final thing: I know lots of people rely on some sort of online variant for getting their rpg itch scratched and it can help with that. However, I have yet to hear from a person that says it is the superior way to play and for me personally it could never substitute for the "real thing" (although I really appreciate the opportunity to play with people all over the world!). There are always people out there willing to play. If it works or not is something we need to engage to find out.

Get out there and talk people into it. Even if they just play once and have a great time, you have managed something spectacular and who knows, maybe they'll pick up the game themselves and play with someone else because of it. What I'm saying is, it's all worth it. I hope this contributes to the discussion. Here, have a funny give at the end:

Harmony in dance ...[source]


  1. My group has played together for longer than 25 years, it isn't what defines us; we are friends first. We don't always play, but no matter what, we are brothers and sisters. We go camping, have cook-outs, go to funerals, we are there for one another. Need help moving? You bet! Something fantastic happen? Tell me about it. We play a cool game to hang out with each other, it's fun. We don't even really notice that the years are flying by.

  2. Engaging. I love the occasional light-touch "RPGs, but not just" kind of post.

    I agree with all points, especially the strongest - "not inventing the wheel" - statement. I personally have this notion that, someday, I ought to dig into management, stagecraft or psychology manuals and plumb their depths for group exercises that might translate into cool minigames/discrete rules/whole rule systems.

    Reminds me too of my perplexity upon learning that a friend's group had recently begun moving their table game online despite the fact that the whole gang lives within 15-20 mins. driving distance from each other. Seeing this done just for convenience's sake really saddens me, as I don't think I could ever play, let alone run, in such an impersonal environment.


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