Friday, October 14, 2011

Balancing Act 8: Engagement versus Burnout

Many players want to be immersed in your game world. They want to feel like they’re truly a part of something bigger and more interesting than their own lives. We've covered many elements of immersion in earlier segments so today we'll talk about what motivates that immersion - the concepts of burn out and engagement. I'll also be discussing later how players can NOT burn out your Storytellers, but for now let's focus on using those two psychological theories to keep players engaged in the tale.

Engagement is the feeling a person gets when they’re interested, enthusiastic, and really feeling in the moment.

It is affected by the sensation of being an active participant in the story. If the players feel like their characters are on rails and that they have little effect on the story, then even if they don't mind it, they'll be less engaged in what they're doing. Ensure that they feel they're telling a collaborative story by at least sometimes following their character arcs, drawing their goals into center focus rather than constantly relegating them to the sidelines, and allowing the characters to partially choose their own direction.

Emotional exhaustion can also lessen the amount of interest a player has in the game and this can come about if tragedy keeps striking close to home. If favourite NPCs are consistently abused or killed. If their actions lead to disaster more often than triumph. Horror tales are, by necessity, more grim than other stories but there are few players who have the resilience to take an entire campaign based on failure after failure, misfortune after misfortune. Counter it with occasional wins and save your moments of Favoured NPC abuse for the moments where it'll really matter ... ideally with the chance of your PCs helping restore or save them.

So repeat after me: Hope isn't contrary to Horror. Hope makes the Horror feel more real.

After all, if people could handle countless tales of terrible things happening to people, then we wouldn't hear about Compassion Fatigue where people lose compassion over time and become more bitter and cynical in response to frequent calls for compassion.

Players can also become less engaged if the Storyteller other players continually despise their characters or if other characters keep trying to keep them on the outside. All you can really do here, other than quietly taking the players aside and asking them to stop it or help protect that player character's feelings, is to take a look at the characters as they're made and ask yourself if they're likely to clash completely. Players tend to find reasons to chafe against other characters so you'll get more than enough drama without allowing them to build antagonisms into their characters.

In fact, before starting any campaign, though especially a horror game, you should create a social contract of OOC rules.

Establish if mobile phones will be allowed and under what circumstances.
What are the rules governing OOC comments?
What constitutes meta-gaming?
Who brings the cucumber sandwiches?
Can players make assumptions about their own inventory, clear it with you first, or can they only possess what’s literally in their (the player's) pockets?
Also throw in certain issues that other player's can't handle (whether racism or child abuse).
And, if you really want player cohesion, tell the players to either create three characters and you'll pick the one that fits the most OR ask them to pass their character by the other players and give those players the right to veto.

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