One of the issues that I’ve faced as a GM over the years is maintaining player engagement, namely during long combat sequences. What do I mean when I talk about player engagement in the context of this blog post?

I’m talking about having your players’ attention and commitment to what is currently occurring in the game. Clear indicators of low player engagement are when your players are on their phones, iPads or they respond with a “so what just happened again?”

Now there could be a ton of reasons why this happens and some might have nothing to do with the game, the campaign or your abilities as an engaging GM. There are some groups blessed with players that are for the most part “always on” and there are some groups who have a few folks who are a bit ADD or easily bored. But let’s hypothetically control for all these factors that are out of our ability to manipulate. Let’s pretend you’ve got an average group and you’ve got a great GM who is entertaining and has a fantastic and interesting campaign.

I believe that there are certain design choices in a game that turn the dial of player engagement to either the lower or higher end of the spectrum.

In a game like D&D 4e, you have tactically deep options during combat. You get a Standard Action, a Minor Action, Move Action, Action Points, Healing Surges and a Reaction to play with. Then you layer on top of that a wealth of tactical powers that are spread across 4 different categories. With each level-up of your character you gain more and more options. While this is deeply engaging to the player who’s taking her current turn, it can be a very long wait for the rest of the group while the player figures out her best course of action. With so many little mechanical bits and efficiencies to try and squeeze out, a battle can absolutely drag on. This isn’t even counting for the hitpoint inflation that occurs as the campaign progresses. Even if we say that the player can plan ahead what her course of action will be, the individual turn system of 4e means that by the time her turn comes up the dynamic of the battlefield might have significantly changed and she will have to re-jig her plans. All of this is silent contemplation while the rest of the group sits there and waits, or pulls out their phones and start to zone out. This isn’t to take away from 4e either, it’s always been at the forefront of my mind as one of the most tactically rich roleplaying games out there.



Can’t blame ya


On the opposite end of the spectrum, you can take a game like Dungeon World that embraces narrative freedom and seamlessly transitions between non-combat scenarios into combat. Engagement is more or less always a given because the players are painting a picture together and they don’t know when they’ll be called upon to add their brush stroke to the collaborative mural. In fact some might be foaming at the mouth to get a word in edgewise to escalate the situation. There are no real “turns” and the spotlight moves around according to the fiction or in some cases the GM’s will. You can’t afford to look away, nor do you really want to because something is always happening. But while DW does engagement really well, it leaves me wanting in the tactical department. Not tactical in the general sense of the word (because you can get very tactical in a flowery sense in DW) but tactical in the gaming sense. I like having builds to my characters, I like having powers that are based off timing, resources and rewards intelligent usage. By also not having rounds, we also lose a lot of design power by not having a quantifying dimension to define certain abilities/powers – i.e. a spell that should last X rounds, how do we quantify that cleanly in DW?

With Unity, I’ve yearned to marry the R and the G in RPG in a balance that’s somewhere in between the two games I’ve listed above. At the same time, I’ve also been greatly cognizant of the issue of Player Engagement and I know if I lean too far towards the gaming side of things, I’ll end up with lower player engagement for the folks who are still waiting for their turn. I sat long and hard and thought about how I could remedy this and what tools were available to alleviate disengagement while still maintaining tactical game depth.



Design, design and more design


Design Choices to Increase Engagement

Simultaneous Turns: This is where the dissolution of individual turns came from. Initiative is streamlined. Enemies take their turn as a group and players take their turns as a group. Even inside of their respective groups, there is no turn order, the floor is open for discussion and strategizing. You can ask the players to do it in character if you don’t want to break immersion. Engagement immediately goes through the roof as soon as players realize they can synergize their powers and actually coordinate and attack – everyone’s involved. It’s no longer a GM and one player “dealing with their turn” in a silo’d fashion and then moving on to the next player. Everything is happening at once.

Diceless GMingWhile there are alternate rules to facilitate the visceral GMs who enjoy the feel of tossing dice around (hey I’m one of those guys from time to time), by default the GM never has to lift a finger. His sole focus can be on adjudicating, narrating and painting a spectacular cinematic picture for his players. We may not realize it but the amount of times a GM needs to check a monster’s stats, which dice to use, pick them up and roll them adds up over the course of a game – it’s A LOT of lost time. Now all the GM has to do is look at the Monster’s Attack Rating number and then pick a Monster power to use and all the players being attacked roll. As the dice fall the GM immediately sees the entire scene unfolding in his head, which sword strokes slide past the heavy metal plates to find soft flesh and which arrows plink harmlessly off the iron shields of our heroes. All the players are engaged, they are all rolling and now eagerly awaiting their fates as the GM can describe the entire scene as one coherent action sequence. No more “This goblin runs up to attack you Joe.. hold on” *looks at stats, looks for dice, rolls* “what’s your AC? Oh ok he hits you.. one sec” *rolling for damage* “he jumps forward and thrusts his rusty shortblade into your stomach… ok now Sarah it’s your turn.” Rinse and repeat.

The way the engine has been designed, as a GM you no longer need to ask for your player’s AC or track it, you just need to know the figures on your enemy/monster card and then the results from your players’ dice roll give you everything you need to paint that awesome picture. Combine that with the concurrency of 5 players rolling simultaneously versus you as the GM going around rolling individually for each player, you get an engaging fast paced combat experience.

Power Design:  Powers have been designed to be compelling and effective to use. As much as I love the laundry lists of tiny spells and +1 skills in a lot of RPG games, it can be overwhelming and cause that paralysis by analysis I mentioned earlier when you have *too* much to choose from and you are trying to make the best choice possible. Instead I examine the game design philosophies from popular video games like League of Legends or World of Warcraft and ask what makes them tick? What could make a character that has only 4 abilities have so much depth and possibility?

Take that spirit of design and implement it into a tabletop game fully understanding that I don’t have a CPU to crunch away the tedium for me. The results are tiers of powers that provide compelling choices to players. Choosing between powers that your character will have at each tier should be difficult, everything should look super enticing and be greatly effective at whatever they are suppose to do. Each power has been designed with this in mind as well as how it synergizes with other powers in that class’ kit or with another class’ powers. But now that you have picked your power, when you engage in combat, it’s a matter of how cleverly you can use that power in conjunction with your teammates. The discussion will be between the folks at the table, not just a silent conversation in the mind of the player — engagement increases.

There are some further engagement increasing mechanics integrated into Unity’s system that I’ll reveal as I continue posting to this development blog but for now I hope that gives you some insight into my design choices. The game takes on an entirely new life when everyone is on the edge of their seat, wide eyed and attentive eagerly awaiting to see what happens next. To be able to capture that feeling will be a huge win.

Check out the main game here:

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11 thoughts on “Player Engagement: Design Choices to Help Maintain It.

  1. Not sure I buy the difference between “he attacks you, hold on what’s your AC” and “he attacks you, hold on what did you roll”.

    I understand if that’s the style you prefer, but I’m not sold that it’s objectively better or even all that different with regards to pacing, it’s just a different aesthetic. I do agree that group initiative snaps up the pace a lot, potentially, but the diceless GMing is a separate mechanic. One nice thing about diceless GMing is that you really trust the dice to do arbitration. None of the “behind the GM screen” stuff.

    1. Agree. This entry could have used a bit more editing 🙂 The articulation of the argument for increased engagement with regards to Diceless GMing was coloured by my subjective experience playtesting with Unity’s rules. It ‘felt’ faster. But I think the big takeaway to focus on with regards to Diceless GM’ing is the decrease in ‘dead time’ where players don’t have things to do. It’s the ability for the GM to free up his/her cognitive capacities for scene painting over splitting focus for silo’d interactions with the players. Concurrency great increases efficiency and in this case it saves times and provides the players with something to focus on. The Simultaneous Turns is a separate mechanic concerning the players’ “round”.

      You also hit the nail on the head with regards to not gaming the dice. I can understand some GMs prefer the safety net of gaming dice and using it as a tool to facilitate fun for their players so the option for GM rolling is still available but by default Unity should run diceless for the GM. There’s something very raw and tense about everything just being out on the table and having your fate decided by an apparatus that doesn’t lie.

  2. This kind of combat system has always appealed to me. There’s a RPG called HackMaster and its most recent edition got good reviews for trying to increase player engagement. Their solution to this problem was to make every single action, spell, and movement take a certain number of seconds. Instead of keeping track of turn order, the GM simply counts seconds and the players have to know when their actions/movements initiate. On paper, it’s a really fun, creative way to do combat. However, the system requires far too much bookkeeping and despite the fact that there are no turns, all the players resolve their actions singularly instead of together. On top of that, the players have to be constantly doing math to know what second their next action initiates. In the end, player engagement may increase a little, but the system is hardly any different from a classic turn order because of how tiring it winds up being.

    Unity’s system seems to be far simpler, and yet more elegant at the same time. I love how you compare it to League of Legends because that game truly is the exemplar of simultaneous team work. Can’t wait to see what else this game has in store. Especially all of those sweet, combo-able powers 😉

    1. I never had a chance to play Hackmaster but I’ve heard that it is incredibly crunchy. The idea of tracking seconds frightens me 🙂 I’m trying to make Unity be as streamlined as possible without giving up depth and every design decision has that at the forefront. Powers preview and examples of their use together as team will be in a few more updates… Hold tight.

  3. Great with a bit of insight into how you handle some of these issues. Here’s looking forward to seeing what makes the powers tick, exactly. : )

  4. I love the initiative approach in Unity and the synergy between powers and classes seems really promising combined with it. And I completely agree with what you say about player engagement but there is one question I wanted to ask – would this approach cater for the loudest player telling others what to do? I know that every player makes a final decision about his actions, but some players can be rather persuasive and assertive which might shut down more reserved players at the table. Have you encountered such problems?

    This problem exists with other types of initiatives and games as well, of course. And the GM can reduce it if he’s any good. But considering your system really builds on synergy and other characters’ actions could improve the actions of the dominant player it might be slightly more emphasized with this approach.

    1. Great question mats. We have run into the dominance issue in our playtesting. It usually doesn’t happen right away, we have a bit of an opposite problem when players first try out Unity. Having such a free-form initiative within the group sometimes leaves folks afraid to go first but we remedy this with some GM guidelines regarding “spotlighting” and moving that spotlight around until the players get their Unity “legs”. By the time the 3rd or 4th encounter rolls around, they are blasting out of the gates launching each other off shields, tethering enemies together and timing explosive AoE bombs for their sharpshooter to set off.

      In every group there’s usually one shot caller or outspoken group member. But this doesn’t just apply to Unity but to all roleplaying games. Someone who loves to be the party face, or naturally just takes the reins and initiates things. But like in those other games, a natural order forms that the group becomes comfortable with and it’s also a shared understanding that we’re all here as a group of friends and sometimes strangers to have fun and experience an adventure together. There have been times where our shot caller will formulate a strategy and begin to thrust it upon the rest of the group and most of the time the group is grateful for some initiative and will add little tweaks or say “But wait… this is even better” and that’s when I as a GM smile because they are getting excited and engaging each other to pull off some ridiculous stunt that I know will lead to more interesting situations or a big hero moment.

      But in the spirit of being completely transparent, it could also be the newness of the game and the fact that I keep adding or taking away powers from the Classes as we playtest that the bossiness or persuasiveness doesn’t really show up as a ‘problem’. Players are usually asking… “Crap… so I can’t even dent this guy. Any ideas? Does anybody have something we could use because this is looking like an uphill battle…” It’s this dialogue that I’m interested in between players. That collaboration to see the day through. Possibly I could see if a player was a complete Unity veteran there might be some extensive shot-calling but like in any game, nobody likes a bossy jerk and that kind of behaviour will be self-correcting as they get ejected from the group or reprimanded. I’ll have to keep a close eye on this as the classes stabilize more and more.

      1. That problem is definitely present in other games as well but usually every player has little direct benefit from other characters (outside of “someone please heal me!”). Good GM should be able to reduce it and, as you said, natural balance will restore itself most of the time.

        On second thought this might even reduce the problem of veterans playing with novice players as they can take more supporting classes to show newbies how to combine combos and put them in the spotlight at the same time.

        Looking forward to seeing more posts about the game 🙂 Keep up the good work!

  5. This isnt really diceless GMing is it – there are still dice being rolled – it’s just the player is rolling the monsters attacks, instead of the GM? Is there really much difference between this, and a GM that rolls all combat dice in the open anyway? I like the simultaneous turns idea – that sounds excellent!

    1. Hi Steve. Thanks for the comment.

      When we talk about diceless GMing, it’s that the GM never has to roll dice him/herself. At first glance it might not seem that big of a difference – like you said it’s just reversing who’s chucking dice across the table. But if we take a step back we can see that diceless GMing does a few things for us:

      1) It frees up mental space for the GM. The GM’s focus isn’t split between players as heavily as it would be if the GM were to be rolling. In a traditional “GM rolls” situation, the GM would spend more time in dealing with each individual player at a time. The GM would roll then resolve with that player and move along. By putting the roll in the players’ hands, the GM has more cognitive capacity for narrating and painting the scene. The GM can say something along the lines of:

      GM: As the halberd from the heavily armoured Skulker comes down at you Dreadnought, with a bit of effort you manage to parry the blow aside with your massive Broadsword. The clang of metal is deafening. Judge, you barely get your shield up just in time to deflect the force of the blow.

      The 5 nearby Skulker Skirmishers take their cue from the Brutes and unleash their crossbows at the rest of you. Mystic, Priest, Phantom and Judge roll Defense. Priest you can roll twice as two of the Skulkers decided to shoot at you.

      *4 players Rolling Defense simultaneously* Mystic – 5 / Priest – 13 and 10 / Phantom 17 / Judge 10

      GM: Mystic, one of the bolts digs into your ass cheek as you seemed completely oblivious to the fact that you were being attacked, roll damage. Priest, you manage to side step the first shot but were so focused on dodging that the second bolt finds its mark and drills underneath your shoulder pauldron and into flesh, roll damage. Phantom you easily bat the crossbow bolt aside with your rapier. Judge the crossbow bolt hits you solidly in the chest, roll damage. All the bolts do 1d6+2 damage.

      2) It keeps players engaged. Instead of 1 to 1 interactions between GM and player as actions are resolved, there is –concurrent- rolling. More than one player has a chance to participate at the same time.

      3) It saves time and keeps the pace up. If you have 4 players and 1 GM, it’s easier for 4 players to roll all at once if they are all being attacked than for the GM to roll once for each monster attacking a player. Especially where different monsters with different attack ratings are concerned, the GM can’t process that simultaneously whereas 4 players all know their own defense ratings and the mental load is split between them.

      4) There’s transparency in the rolling. The dice decide your fate and not GM fiat. It increases the tension at the table as you know there’s no safety net. This dial can be turned down by allowing the GM to roll as well (alternative rules are available for that).

      I hope that clarifies the diceless GM-ing in Unity for you. If you still have questions feel free to let me know.

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