Welcome to Accelerated Story part 3, where we’ll continue to look at Willem Larsen’s “Rules of Accelerated Learning” from his Language Hunters blog, and explore how to apply those rules to story gaming/roleplaying.
As always, Willem’s disclaimer: Each rule is very contextual; these are not silver bullets or cure-alls.
The third rule is The Fluent Edge:
It’s easy to be bored by the amount of repetition needed to become fluent, and overwhelmed by the complexity of what you want to learn.
Therefore, perform your skill at your current level of fluency, and then increase the challenge by a tiny bit more – taking you to your FLUENT EDGE.
This is perhaps the most fundamental principle of accelerated learning, or even of gameplay itself. The energizing factor, the sheer excitement of play, is the walking of this edge, getting into the “zone” where players are just challenged enough to engage fully in the game without becoming bored or overwhelmed.
If you think of the Fluent Edge like a precipice on which you balance, on either side of you you’ll see the twin chasms of Boredom and Overwhelm. Falling into either of these will exhaust you and drain the fun from an activity. So engaged gaming, like any activity, is a matter of walking that line.
As I discussed in Middle School Energy, this means paying careful attention to both your boredom and overwhelm levels moment to moment and making adjustments to stay in the sweet spot. It’s worth revisiting Willem’s diagram:
What do these states look like in roleplaying and story gaming? Well, to me, Boredom looks a bunch of lethargic players sitting at a table as a game crawls along, occupying themselves with private amusement for long stretches while they await their turn to contribute. Or it looks like restless, fidgety players waiting through dull description so they can get to the exciting stuff, trying to engage with the rules but not finding enough “meat” there to sink their teeth into. Or it looks like a bitter group squabbling and arguing over minutia while play fades sadly into the background.
Overwhelm looks like brows furrowed over character sheets and rulebooks while play stops dead. Or it looks like a group “turtling up” and playing cautiously, uncertain how to engage effectively with the game’s fiction. Or it looks like players giving up on learning even the simplest of rules and falling back on the mantra “just tell me what to roll.”
These are worst-case-scenarios, perhaps, but should give a good picture of the range of non-fun states. What they looks like in your games will be individual and contextual, of course.
The Fluent Edge, by contrast, looks like excited players, eyes shining and faces expressive, all fully engaged and participating. It looks like creative contributions freely flowing back and forth throughout the group, energized and on the same wavelength. It looks like deft engagement of game mechanics to bolster those contributions, just when needed, the strategic and aesthetic implications fully appreciated by the whole player group.
The secret to maintaining this fully engaged state is, as Willem says, “adding or removing BITE-SIZED PIECES of challenge” throughout play. If you’re in a teaching role, this means controlling and adjusting the flow of information as you introduce new rules and techniques, presenting a new bit just in time to fill an immediate need. For all players, it also means monitoring your own engagement as well as the engagement of others, and adjusting your gameplay to match. If working out a sweet combat combo in all its intricate detail is going to take you out of engagement with the living, present moment, maybe refrain just this once. If hitting two Keys, buying off a Third, and spending Pool points on the clever use of a Secret is going to leave the person sitting next to you bewildered, maybe pull back and do just one of those things, and save the others until they can be introduced in a way that gets everyone on board with their awesomeness.
Most people are unreliable reporters of their own fun and engagement; this is why I mention excited looks and shining eyes. No matter what a player might say—“Oh, sure, I’m paying attention” “Yeah, I’m having fun, let’s go!”—if you’re not getting eye-shine and enthusiastic body language, you’ve probably got boredom and overwhelm on your hands. Rather than call people out and try go get them to admit that they’re not having fun REALLY, just monitor facial expressions and body language and adjust the game environment to compensate, changing physical space, adding or subtracting rules, or changing the direction of the game to one more exciting for the participants.
Everyone’s Fluent Edge is likely to be at a different point on the spectrum of the target skill. Self-monitoring your own Edge is a useful discipline in itself. But additionally, since we’re doing this thing together, in a roleplaying game we need to adjust the group dynamic to maintain the maximum Edge for everyone. This may sometimes mean finding a new game, or changing the player group composition, but ideally subtle adjustments to the game environment and game structure can arrive at a spot that’s satisfying and engaging for all players.
And that’s a sweet spot to be in.