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]

Monday, January 1, 2018

2017 in Review - yeah, I do that too ...

Not much to look at, tough. It's been a slow year here on the blog. 30 posts ... not an all time low, but way too close to be comfortable. Life's just too damn crazy right now to allow for more. I hope this changes a bit in 2018. I have plans, of course, but as they say: a plan is a list of things that do not happen. Anyway, let's look back at 2017! I'll try and make it interesting.

Lost Songs of the Nibelungs (the elephant in the room)

It's been a good year. Mostly due to very enthusiastic play-testers in the f2f games and in virtual space. One of my players in the local group even agreed to DM the game a bit and gave me a chance to play a character for a change. I died. Fast. Good times :) I did not heed my own advice. Lost Songs has cooperation deeply ingrained into the combat system. Fighting alone is a game of luck you'll most likely lose in the long run ...

I also finally managed to write a magic system that holds up in play-testing! Two years of hard brain work right there. It needs to connect a bit more with the system, but it's all there and just needs to be done. Here, have a peek:
Open in new tab for details ... There'll be a post
explaining it all in the near future.
There's still lots of work to do with the game, but I feel confident that it will eventually happen. Couldn't say when, though. Those things take the time they take and that's a good thing. Other construction sites I need to tackle are (in no particular order):

  • The seasonal aspect of the game. I talked about this a couple of years ago. Still needs to happen. The concept I'm working on includes some sort of rune oracle attached to the Narrative Generator.
  • Another thing I'll need happening is the tribe generator I've also been talking about a couple of years ago (see here). I have a clearer picture now what I'll need and how it connects to the game. And the sandbox needs it, so it'll happen soon.
  • The third big construction site is how non-player characters, monsters and combat work on the DM side of the screen. I've talked about this a lot recently and you can see some of this on the magic grid posted above. Most likely the next thing I'm working on, as it connects too many things in the game to get ignored any longer.

All of those are partially done to one degree or another. It'll need testing, of course, and after that the game needs another revision where all that stuff gets connected properly. That's the finishing line and it is in sight. Still, could be another 2 years before Lost Songs will be that complete. We are getting there, though :)

The Blog in 2017

I know, it's not much to look at count-wise. Content-wise that might be another story. I've written some looooong posts this year, chewing on some ideas and concepts of gaming like a dog on a bone. Some of this got read, some of it got received well and there's always people out there who are willing to read and comment on my thoughts. I appreciate you all!

It's hard to gauge what works best for the blog and what tanks. Walls of text certainly don't help the traffic, it needs time and dedication from the reader, which is a lot to begin with. However, if I get feedback, it is always from those who actually sat down and read it all, so it's always worth to sit down and write it all. That said, it's the design philosophy posts that get the most traffic (which is good, as I don't intent to stop writing them ...), D&D always draws a crowd (need to write some more Oddities posts in 2018, I suppose) and the Lost Songs stuff comes after that (seems that there are a couple of people interested in seeing where it goes).

What I didn't get to do often last year was writing reviews. Not that I lacked material, but when I started having less and less time, something had to give. Didn't have the time or the energy. I hope that'll change in 2018. Another thing that fell a bit short last year were community projects and cross-blog chatter. The blog is over 5 years now and I've been lurking for much longer. If I look around today I see it all changed. Many, many blogs I loved to read and share content with are gone some way or another.

I'm sure there's lots of new great stuff out there, but lack of time lets me only find some of it every now and then. Doesn't help that I'm really not interested in 5e. Just won't play it. I generally think I have reached a point of saturation (tried to capture my thoughts on this in a post here, if you are interested).

All the shit storms didn't help. There seems to be trend in which people online try to compensate a lack of content with what they believe to be "personality" and "opinions". Fuck that noise. I'm here to talk elf games and DIY and history and philosophy of the hobby. If I have nothing to say about those topics, I'd rather write nothing than wasting my and other people's time with bullshit politics. YMMV, of course, and I agree that it can be entertaining to watch in moderate doses. However, if that's ALL that's happening in a sad attempt to sell stuff or gain followers, it gets old fast.

It's actually one of the biggest changes here on the blog: I ignore those people now. My blog-roll is somewhat shorter for it and the OSR banner is down. I'm still "old school", I just don't think the OSR is heading into a good or healthy direction. Compare what's happening now to what was going on, say, 6 years ago on OSR blog-rolls and you'll know what I mean.

What else? Projects! (there's a free game in it, too)

There's of course a couple of project developing here on the ranger. I guess it's something that happens when you blog long enough. There is, of course, Lost Songs of the Nibelungs as the main project, but I'm also still collecting material for The Grind (card-based action rpg in a steampunk-setting) and the Goblin-Tribe Simulator is not forgotten (if neglected, but I can't change that for now).

However, nothing of that got finished in 2017. What I did get done, though, is publishing my very own first module. Took me only the biggest part of 2016 and a good chunk of 2017 to get there, but Monkey Business saw the light of day on the 1st of May 25017. There was some positive reception about it and I know for sure that's there are people out there who enjoyed it for what it is. That alone makes the effort worthwhile, but it also was great fun writing it. Expect more of the same soon (see below).

I did not manage to make a print version available, though. Time just wouldn't allow it. That it'll happen is all I can say right now.

Another thing I did and didn't talk about that much here on the blog, was a editing and layout job for one of +Mark Van Vlack's games: Phase Abandon. It's a fantastic little DM-less and rules-lite game. The layout and editing was merely an exercise, a fun side-project and a present for a friend. However, Mark decided to make it accessible on drivethru and there you can get it for free (just follow the link on the name of the game ...)! Check it out, it's a great game.

That pic had been in the public domain without any
kind of attribution & I love it for so many reasons ...
if anyone knows the artist, give me a shout!
And that's about it. Considering how busy I had been last year, this is plenty.

What 2018 might bring ...

More of the same, I guess. I'll try and review a couple of things I read and liked last year. More free stuff, if I can find it! I'll also try and position myself away from the OSR, maybe as some sort of branch (?). I'm thinking about labeling my publications
"OSG" for: Old School Gonzo
(or Gamers / Geeks / Goodness / Glory / Grognards / Groove .... there's plenty of good words starting with "g"). I'll whip something up in that direction. Maybe as soon as for my next publication. The blog needs a new banner, too, so ...

Next up projects will be a modern day supplement for Labyrinth Lord/Mutant Future called
"be1967 - A Game of Extraordinary Splatter"
(the "be" stands for Basic Edition - it's not a new game, though, just a collection of rules to make it work with LL/MF). It's something I needed to write for the next weird adventure module I'm working on called:
The Rise of Robo-Hitler -
A Grindhouse-Splatter Extravaganza
A module following the simple credo that Hitler can't be killed often enough ... More about this soon. The supplement already saw its first play-test (with a group of ten people, 5 of them being newbies to rpgs in general ... it's been crazy) and it is fun to write. I'll aim to publish it in 4 months. Let's see if this works out. Probably not :) But it's happening this year, I can tell you that much. be1967 might see a first publication here on the blog as early as this month.

I've also been asked to do some editing for +Jay Murphy's
USR Sword & Sorcery Deluxe Edition
(check out his blog here). It sounds like a great project and I'm looking forward to work with Jay. Interesting times, I'd say.

Here's to the next year!

Turned out to be a long one again. Ah, well. I'll keep writing them as long as you guys keep reading them. 2018 already shapes up great and I hope it'll be a little bit more productive than the last one. What I wouldn't change is my readers, the g+ crowd and the commentators here actually engaging in dialogue about my scribblings and (of course) the people I had the pleasure to game with (special shout-out to +Van Noa and the A&A group!). You guys are awesome and I hope we get to exchange as much thoughts and ideas as we did the years before. Good show, folks, good show!

2018, here we come!