Hey peeps. I'm not perfect. No player or game master is. But I've had better days, and whenever life kicks me in the head, I tend to go through a cycle of reflection, beat myself up a little (I'm not as harsh as I used to be), then take a look at a few things that I can change to make everything flow just a little better.
Warrior mindset, ya'll. Let's break it down.
A State of Flow
A State of Flow represents a "lack of resistance" from the player and the game master during a session of play. It is achieved when each player is fully invested and focused on the session, and the GM never feels like they're fighting the players. This doesn't mean that the players take a backseat, quite the opposite actually. The players have a strong sense of how their characters operate and what they would do, thus flowing along with the GM, and their constant adjustments to the players, without causing hiccups; whether they be stretching the rules, misinterpretations, not paying attention to descriptions, being unclear on their actions in combat - there are many, many ways to interrupt the State of Flow. However, EVERY game will have these hiccups. What we as players, GMs, and the group as a whole need to do is try to minimize our recovery time to return to that lack of resistance. This way, EVERYONE benefits from cohesive play. Here are some ideas to help achieve that, coded to GMs - Players - or Both.
Setup and Breathe - Both
Everyone is allowed a bad day. It happens. Maybe you're running late - you got hung up at work, you're stuck in traffic, something came up. Maybe you were just in an argument, and it's weighing on you still. Maybe your head's just not in the game yet.
We've all felt this, no matter the cause. However, with 2 hours of play, I want to get into my play-time as soon as possible without carrying external baggage into my little escape from the outside world. I achieve this by entering and setting up, before engaging with the rest of the story, closing my eyes, and taking a few breaths. I let my emotions flow and take the time to reset, effectively opening my mind and body to the game. When I open my eyes, I can imagine that I am in a new state; whatever happened before does not matter NOW. Now, I am focused on telling a group story with my party.
This works for both groups, and in many moments of life. As teachers, many of us need to switch gears from class to class. We cannot allow the upsets or flow of one class to color our teaching of another; each one must be treated like new. So such is each game session; I do not want to bring in other elements from my life into this game - I want to be focused and intent on playing, so I can get the most out of my experience.
It might be strange at first, but I have led some deep breathing exercises or STOPPED A SESSION and made everyone take a deep breath, when I felt the flow becoming an absolute train wreck. I encourage every player and GM to take the time to set themselves up (get their character sheet, dice, organization, everything), close their eyes, and take a deep breath or two before entering the fantasy world. It may be a few extra moments, but it saves a million headaches down the road, and you will get faster at it. So take a breath, and let's go.
Take Responsibility For Your Own Distraction - Both
This one flows directly from above, but it's more personalized. I KNOW that if I have my character sheet on my computer, I am bound to engage in other things (email, correspondence, marketing, BLOGGING), or at least feel the pull to do so during a gaming session. It's the way my mind works; which is why playing in a session is so healthy for me, as it reminds me to slow down and pay attention, instead of just powering through checklists of tasks. Similarly, I try to keep my phone at bay. Sometimes I do need it nearby, but it's flipped over, and it's ALWAYS on silent. I will never, ever pull up a meme on my phone to show to ANYONE during play, because I know if I let myself do that, that I will fall down a slippery slope of distraction.
That's ME. Now, others can be completely engaged and focused while using their phones. However, if you ever find yourself getting distracted, YOU NEED TO TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR THAT. If you feel yourself being pulled into your phone instead of the game, and it's causing hiccups in your flow and the flow of others, you need to recognize this and put it away. Some people can have their computers out and they know that they'll still be engaged, so I'm not saying "NO ELECTRONICS AT THE TABLE." We live in 2018; I get it. We've got great tools - we're also all individuals with brains and meta-cognition and the ability to introspect. If you are causing hiccups in your own state of flow or the flow of others due to your own external distractions, take ownership of this fact, and make a change. This helps build trust, empathy, and accountability into the group.
Streamline Dice Checks - GMs
Sometimes GMs try too hard to engage party members individually during a group task. This burns time, and can split attention unintentionally. I am guilty of this on a few occasions, and I am working to recognize it earlier than the night after, but it helps to put a few things into perspective.
GMs should assume that we have limited time at all times - this doesn't mean that we need to RUSH anything, but it does mean that precision and efficiency go a long way.
Don't require rolls for simple tasks, just move through it narratively.
If the group is engaging in a group task, have everyone roll at the same time, and announce the DC and what happens down the line to each player.
(Sometimes) Pre-roll opposed rolls if you're really strapped, so they act as general DCs instead of live rolls. I don't do this often, as it can kill that "live play" feeling for me, but using a general DC based on a creature's attributes can still speed things up.
A roll should only be used for a task where the outcome is unclear.
Strip Away The Gravitas - GMs
I like to describe things with accurate language, but still fantasy-oriented, like a good book. Sometimes, however, elements can literally get lost in translation, and players miss details. In this way, precision and transparency are more important than flowery language. You want to ensure that the visual of the players is the same visual you had in your head, thus everyone is moving together through this collective theater of the mind. If everyone has mostly the same picture in mind, you have a much lower chance of running into inconsistencies with character decisions (like someone assuming that a wall was a door, but the character would have known this, it was the player who was confused because the description was not clear to them) based on preconceived notions on the layout of the room.
This works for mechanics as well. You can be general, but your terms should match those in the book. In combat, for example, it is imperative to note what a creature is doing in established terms so players know exactly what they can and cannot act on. "The bandit uses his Cunning Action to Disengage from the group, then uses his Action to attack with his crossbow" INSTEAD OF "The bandit moves away from you, then shoots you with his bow" - "Do I get an Attack of Opportunity?" - "No, he Disengaged." - "Then how can he attack me?" - "He has Cunning Action, so he can Disengage as a Bonus Action." - "Oh, okay."
Or in the case of Legendary Actions and Spells and Counterspell: "He spends a Legendary Action to use his Disrupt Life Feature (features are not spells, and therefore cannot be counter-spelled)" versus "He uses a Legendary Action to CAST A SPELL (CAN be counter-spelled)." Neither of these spoil anything about the enemy; no one learns anything "secret" about them, and I don't fall into the assumption of trying to "trick" or "trap" my players by omitting elements that they could have acted on. The worst arguments (and wasted time) I've seen in play have often stemmed from that lack of clarity: "Well, if it's a spell, I cast Counterspell." "It's a Legendary Action...so it isn't a spell per se." "Well, is it a Feature or does it say he casts a spell?" You get the idea. The players don't have to know WHAT spell is being cast (a check might reveal it, or not, up to you), but they NEED to know that the entity is casting a spell, because they've got tools to counteract that; if you ignore those tools, you've robbed them of agency, and mucked up the process.
Finally, try to separate cinematic flavor text from mechanical changes. I fall victim to this, too, and it can be frustrating when you're trying to describe a battle cinematically. You might go into a cool description of a particular blow to a creature...and the players will interpret it as a mechanical change. "He's driven to his knees by your strike, the armor visibly denting from the raw force of your impact" - "Oh, so his AC went down!" - "No, it just hurt him a lot." - "But you said his armor dented!" - "But it doesn't affect his AC" - "Well, he must be prone, then; you said he went down!" - "...sigh." Whereas if I describe: "The force of your blow is so strong it knocks the feet out from under him (I move his piece to make him Prone). He falls flat on his back and now prone, the wind momentarily knocked out of him." I added a mechanical clarification to my description, using established terms, and no one clarifies or fights me. Sometimes in the former, I will have to clarify by saying instead "He is MOMENTARILY driven to his knees." See what I mean?
Though, the latter example is also a Player thing. If the GM does not announce a mechanical change, don't argue that there is one, but ask a clarifying question - this way, the GM isn't put on the defensive, and they have an opportunity to make adjustments where needed; this is smoother, and thus faster.
Prep Your Turn - Players
It bothers me to no end when a player casts a spell on their turn...then stares at me as if I have memorized every single spell in the book (I do memorize many of them just out of osmosis, but there are hundreds of spells) and know exactly what their spell means, their save DC, and what I am supposed to roll. It's YOUR turn - look up your spell, know what it does, know the save and your DC...prior to your turn.
Now, the battlefield changes during play, and that can affect people's plans, especially casters, so when it settles on their turn, they may have to scramble. I understand that, and it totally happens, but you as a player are responsible for understanding the capabilities of your character. The hiccups, actually, occur when someone casts a spell...and then sits there, as if they have forgotten the other elements required in casting a spell; some spells are spell attacks (where the character rolls), others are saves (where the enemy rolls), some have varied effects, conditions, contingencies. If you're not sure, have the spell description nearby; the idea here is to be organized, so that you take responsibility for what your character can do.
For EVERYONE, try to have an idea of your Movement, Action, and possible Bonus Action before your turn. Just like board game etiquette, you are expected to think about your turn PRIOR to your turn occurring. Things can change during play, and that can affect your turn, but if you're watching the battle unfold and thinking actively about your turn, you've already made adjustments as you go, so the interruption of flow should be small anyway. And when you take your turn, declare what you're using and how: "I spend my 50 feet of movement to run around the back of the beholder, and I spend my Action to attack twice, and then my Bonus Action to use Flurry of Blows and attack two more times (rolls dice, concludes actions). I'm done." My turn is over.
The trouble we run into is present in three ways. First, we're only waiting until our turn to even approach thinking about what to do. All that time between was us being distracted and departing from the scene. So, when our turn arrives, we're playing catch-up. Sometimes we need to pee - I get it, everybody does it - but when we come back, you make it a priority to catch back up before it's your turn. If you return and it IS your turn, then the pressure's on and you need to make some quick decisions.
Speaking of speed, the second way we interrupt flow is when players forget HOW the mechanics work and the steps needed to execute certain actions. For example: Attack and Damage. An Attack requires a D20 roll, then adding Proficiency Bonus and Ability Score Modifier to that roll (this should be ONE number next to the weapon on their character sheet for simplicity), and announcing the total. THEN, if you hit, taking the appropriate damage dice, rolling those, adding on the appropriate modifier and any extras (again, marked clearly on their sheet for ease of calculation and speed) and announcing THAT total. We get bogged down when that checklist is unclear or we skip steps.
The third way...is detailed in its own section below.
Respect The Scene / Wait Your Turn / 6 Second Rule - PLAYERS
BE EVERYONE'S BIGGEST FAN. If it isn't your turn, plan your turn (so you're ready), but celebrate the achievements and actions of your allies - this keeps you engaged in the scene, no matter what it is. This also makes your fellow players feel FANTASTIC. Now, this requires some caution - remember that when it isn't your turn, it isn't YOUR turn. Try not to, in your celebration of others, begin to add your own character into other player's turns. It's one thing to cheer on a player using an awesome ability and another to horn in on that use of ability; Ken uses Deflect Missiles - we all cheer and high-five him / Ken uses Deflect Missiles and Colton mimics him doing so, rolling an unprompted Performance check out of his turn trying to distract the Duergar chieftain. The former celebrates without taking the attention away from Ken, while the latter pulls the attention away from the active player. There's a difference.
The key point here being that you need to Wait Your Turn; plan it out, sure, pay attention, celebrate, but WAIT for your time to shine. This also means that you should be aware of your side conversations. If you're engaged in everyone's turn, those side conversations will be minimal to none, and that's great. I hate the feeling that comes up when I'm playing, it's my turn, and everybody's chatting about something else - but I'm quiet and engaged in their turns, how come they can't show me the same respect? And though that may not be people's intentions, it can come off that way; we want to avoid that perceived double-standard of respect. And though it might feel like you're waiting a while the first time, I guarantee that it makes everything flow faster. You'll be back to your turn before you know it.
When out of battle, and this one can be tricky to achieve without some patience, it is important to respect the scene that is transpiring. It may be an interaction between the barkeep and one other character, or a courtier and two characters, or most of the group talking down a hill giant while another investigates his house. Just because the rest of the party isn't there doesn't mean they should carry on their own conversations. Think of it like a theater production. No scene will transpire at the SAME MOMENT as another scene on the stage. Timeline wise, they might be happening at the same time, but we will SEE them at different times. What this looks like literally is the party watching and waiting and listening to an interaction until it comes to a close, and then taking an opportunity to engage in their own scene(s). Scenes where the whole party is engaged with the same things tend to flow pretty well, but the same principle can be used. If it doesn't involve you - watch and listen. If it does involve you - engage. If the former, and you want it to involve you - watch and listen for a moment that you might be able to enter the scene.
I know, it's a lot more waiting and listening, but if we've done everything else on this page, this one should be pretty easy by now. No person wants to feel drowned out by others, and everyone wants to shine, so respecting each other's scenes allows characters to shine without feeling like they're fighting to be heard, AND we get the added benefit of building up trust and empathy across the group.
Finally, don't try to cram a million things into your turn. Movement, Action, Bonus Action. 6 seconds, dude. The more you adhere to that main mechanic, the faster the rounds go, and no one can perceive that you're getting more bang for your buck during your turn as opposed to others. It also makes you more efficient if you assume that you only have those three (often two) things to worry about.
In conclusion, both GMs and players can do a lot to make our sessions flow better, but the greatest take away here isn't speed so much as taking a breath and staying present in the game. We all get hang-ups, and our brains can be more distracted than ever, but I have to remind myself: Slow is smooth, smooth is Fast. Slow down and take a moment; watch and listen to your fellow players; let them shine, so you can shine; get organized and let go of the day; take responsibility for your own engagement. And we'll all be better for it.
See you at the table.
PS: Remember, talking is free...unless it's a monologue.
...Please stop monologuing...
Game On! Director, musician, music teacher, game designer, and professional game master. In short, I'M A BIG NERD.