Interrupting the Game to Refocus

Diversions Are Fine but Sometimes You Need to Stop and Clarify

Sometimes in meetings game sessions, the participants can become adrift in the topic. Alone, that’s not a bad thing. But, it can lead to people checking out, lengthy conversations, and potential frustration. And rarely do these conversations lead to anything all that memorable. “Remember that time we argued about our character’s approach to sneaking into the castle? Yeah, those were the best 2 hours,” said very few people.

, I was reading through my RSS feed, and as usual Judd Karlman brings some fantastic gaming advice.

The marked text in the following blockquote are my marks.

After stealing the last of the puzzle-cubes from the Yuan-ti, the players had to decide if they were going to kill the Red Wizards in their sleep while their spells were depleted.

The discussion took about 40 minutes and was really interesting. Jusko said something interesting: “Who are we? Are we people who crawl into our allies’ camp and slit their throats while they sleep?”

Drew (who players Jusko) did something cool and prompted everyone to step out of character and also discuss this purely on the terms of what would be fun. That is a veteran-gamer move right there.

I added that they could make this decision based on what their characters would do, based on the strategic advantages of having 4 Red Wizards and their 20 guards on their side and the general fun of who will betray who first. In the end, they decided not to attack the wizards and continue this frenemyship.

One of the design considerations for John Harper’s Blades in the Dark 🔍 is to skip the planning portion of a heist; assume that the characters scoped the place and loaded gear accordingly. This short-circuits the potential hours of planning that I’ve seen.

Why the extensive amount of planning? Because the players have even less information than their characters. The players are trying to get an angle on a complex situation to which the game facilitator may or may not have extensive details.

So when Drew disrupts the lengthy argument asking what would be fun, they were breaking a discussion cycle that involved imperfect information. Drew refocused the players at a different level of abstraction. And then Judd, an expert game facilitator, had the presence of mind to list their options. That simple reflex as a game facilitator of restating the heard options helps refocus a group.

I can imagine, at the table the conversations became quite quick and focused. And Judd, with ears tingling, listened for cool ideas and ways to challenge the characters based on the paths taken.

In our Tomb of Annihilation 🔍 campaign, my group went down a similar path of betraying a fragile alliance with the Red Wizards. This lead to a fantastic session in which the PCs 🔍 baited a Tyrannosaurus Rex and sent it marauding through an encampment of Red Wizards. See my post for more on that. Also, the players were super keen on using Silence akin to old AD&D 2E 🔍 so I house ruled that they could burn spell slots to increase the duration; probably should’ve required some ritual sacrifice to make that possible. Regardless, an extended silence was going to be way more fun, so I allowed it.

Another game designed with mechanics to short-circuit those lengthy character discussions is Burning Wheel Gold 🔍; I could see the characters engaging in a Duel of Wits to tease out a direction. And the game system would reward those in-game conversations of who are we? It’s one thing to float some ideas, it’s another for your character to gain advancements for landing a point that those vile bastards deserve death.

Understanding how to navigate those group discussions and conversations is perhaps the single most valuable skill I can imagine for any player—or meeting attendee.

If everyone is having fun, keep it rolling. I suppose in a work meeting, instead of fun, I’d say *gag* being productive. But if you find the conversation to be looping back on itself or some are starting to disengage, step in and refocus. And in an RPG 🔍 “What would be the most fun?” should always be on the table.