Hello and welcome to this week’s installment of “Only On Tuesdays!” This week we will be discussing how controlling the flow of your session will help you keep your players engaged.
Session flow is an important skill that I feel every DM should learn how to use. As the DM you are in control of a lot of things and keeping the flow at a good pace is one of the best ways you can keep your players engaged. Session flow is an aspect of the game that if controlled, gives you a lot of power in determining the tension, mood, and overall awareness of your players. A session with a very fast flow will have a very different tone to one with a slower flow. Learning how to control the flow of a session will give you a brand new tool that you can use to change how your game is played.
So what is session flow and how can we achieve it? Session flow is the process of controlling the speed of the game by shifting the attention from one player to the next at a set pace. In a fast paced action scene, the focal point will constantly shift keeping everyone on their toes and ready for anything. In a discussion, the flow will be much slower which will give your players a chance to grab onto every word and learn small details that would otherwise be missed. The pace at which you shift attention from one character to another will help define the mood of your game at that moment, and this mood is something that all of your players will experience if done well. Flow is also something that can be controlled, much like a faucet. Want to raise the tension of a scene? Jump from one player to another in a faster manner. Want to slow things down to give your players a chance to catch their breath. Do you want to jump sporadically to keep your players on edge, or keep things in order? Session flow has a lot of versatility and can help to keep things interesting.
There are a lot of things that can disrupt the flow of a session however and can make it very difficult to bring everything back on track. Out of game disruptions are the main concern with things such as cell phones, excessive talking, and rules checking being the quickest ways to kill the flow of your game. Learning how to deal with these issues as they present themselves will help you keep your game moving at a reasonable rate, and will ensure your ability to engage your table for when it really matters. Let’s discuss Flow Killers and how we can handle them.
When trying to establish the pace of a game, there are a few things out there that can put a hard stop on all of your work and make you start from square one. Chief of these Flow Killers is out of game distractions that keep your players from focusing on the game. Anything from cell phones, tv shows, rules questions, constant talking, and many more things can kill your sessions pace and make it nearly impossible to get back on track. Other distractions can even include in game items such as lingering on certain NPC’s, constantly checking for traps, or players taking too long on their turns. Let’s go over some ways that we can handle these issues in a respectable manner, and how we can get the game back on track.
When you are trying to establish the flow of the game, it is important for your players to keep their attention on you. Establishing flow is built on the idea that you can control the pace of things by switching from person to person at the pace that you desire. If there is constantly one person who is on their phone when the attention shifts to them you will have to reestablish the scene in order to get them on the same page. This kills your flow because you are forced to stop bouncing from one person to the next, and instead re-describe the scene that the majority of players already know. When faced with a situation such as this, often times the best way to address the situation is to simply talk to your players. Is one player’s lack of attention killing the pace you are trying to set? Simply ask them to put away their distraction while they are at your table. This will not only help improve the flow of the session, but it should also improve the fun of the player as they are now able to more fully engage in your game.
In game distractions are a little more difficult to handle. Your players could all have their distractions set aside, and be focusing on your game but the desired flow isn’t there. Perhaps they are spending too much time talking to NPC’s or searching for traps, and you were hoping for a more action packed session. In this case, I like to use a method known simply as “A Man Walks Through the Door with a Gun”. This method is simply introducing conflict into the situation so that the player’s attention shifts to something more interesting. (If you would like to know more about this, check out my other post about it here.) What’s important about establishing conflict is that it puts the control of the game back in your hands, and thus gives you back the flow. Another method of establishing a good flow is by putting the situation on a timer. If the players have limited time to achieve the things they want to do, they will waste no time searching for traps or talking to irrelevant NPC’s.
Another way that the flow of your game can be killed is through rules disputes. When you and your players argue about how a spell should or shouldn’t work, it can often lead to digging through the rulebooks in order to find that specific ruling on page 135. While this is acceptable in some circumstances, most of the time searching for that rule can kill the pace of your game. As you and one player are searching for the rule, the other players at the table get to simply sit and wait until a ruling is made. Because you are the DM you have the power to simply say “this is how it is going to work now”. However, it is important that you tell your players that after the game is finished you will go through the rule books and find an appropriate ruling. This builds trust between you and your players and allows you to keep the pace of your session without interrupting it with a minor rules clarification.
Now that you have established the flow of the game it is now time to use it. One of the most important uses of flow is creating a specific tone for the session. A fast flow will bring a tone of action, fighting, danger, and uncertainty. A slow tone, on the other hand, might indicate methodicalness, mystery, peace, and patience. The spectrum of flow is one that you can appropriately tune for each of your sessions so that they all feel unique and distinct from one another. You must also be careful that you are not using the same pace too often. If every session feels as if it is going by super fast, and doesn’t give anyone a chance to breathe then the adrenaline inducing effect of this fast pace will wear off. Using multiple types of flow per session is another way you can keep things fresh, and can give your players necessary time to breathe after a fast paced section.
Typically when you start to give focus to the flow of the session it is typically in response to the start of combat. This is the time where we ratchet up the tension and keep things moving quickly by bouncing from one player to another. This sort of faced paced momentum helps to keep your players engaged because at any moment they could become the next person in the sequence. Keeping the flow at a high pace also allows the players to feel more like they are in combat. When things are changing at the pace of several things in a minute, it feels much more rushed and real. When handling flow in this manner, it should feel like you are moving by a beat. Snap, move onto one player. Snap, get the action in that scene. Snap, move onto the next player. It is fast, furious, and fun, and is a perfect fit in a high action sequence such as a fight or chase scene.
The Angry GM actually has his own article where he talks about how you can maintain the flow of a combat by treating it like you were a dolphin. (You can find that here.) Pay attention to how he talks about weaving in and out of a player’s turn through the use of narration. By describing what is going on at the beginning and end of a player’s turn you help to maintain the flow by connecting it all as if it were one motion instead of several. This helps to make it feel more like it is one whole scene, instead of just multiple things being tacked onto each other one at a time.
Handling the flow of the session is one of the many things you as a DM can do to improve your games. A well-maintained flow allows you to set the pace and tone of your sessions and allows you to ratchet up the tension of any given moment simply by how fast you address it. Once you are able to learn how to control the flow of any given session, you are much more prepared to dictate the tone and feel of the session at your own choosing. Flow is an important tool that I believe all DM’s should give a chance to learn and understand, as the benefits it can have on your game are huge.
Thank you for reading this week’s post! If you have any questions or comments please let me know down below! I hope that you were able to gain some insight on how the flow of a session can impact your games for better or for worse. Have a great week, and an amazing Tuesday!