These are notes from W.A. Hawkes-Robinson ("Hawke Robinson") regarding his experiments with optimizing the role-playing game experience. He began playing RPGs in 1977, and began working on techniques and technologies to further enhance the experience in 1979. These notes summarize the observations and suggestions from 45+ years of RPG experiences. Many of these are suggestions to try, while others are based on stronger empirical data with correspondingly stronger suggestions. In all cases context matters, and "your mileage may vary". It is offered as a helpful resource for people looking for ideas on how to improve their role-playing game assessment, game design, game session planning and implementation, post-session evaluations, and documentation.
This page attempts to organize he massive notes from experiments in optimizing the role-playing game experience going back to the 1970s.
An earlier draft of this page, access limited to RPG Research Volunteers currently, can be found here:
The Optimal Role-Playing Game
For most populations:
- Low barrier to entry (does not rely on "massed learning" or the "mentor model") for new players and game masters to learn the game.
- Low financial barrier to entry.
- Low time investment barrier to entry, initially, for new players and game masters.
- Also always offer low-time commitment options (prepared one-shots and short-shots that can be run "on the fly" rather than having to read everything ahead of time ("massed learning")), in addition to the longer time-commitment resources, world-building resource books, etc.
- Offer but do not mandate, availability of easy to use automation analog and electronic tools that make repeated tasks easier and time saving for those who desire them, but not required to still enjoy the game (player/non-player character roster management tools, adventure management tools, combat tracking/management tools, etc.)
- High accessibility for people with disabilities: dyslexia, visual impairments, blind, deaf, and others.
- Easily available in both electronic and printed (on-demand) formats.
For at-risk and higher-risk populations the RPG should initially provide:
- Clearly defined rules (not abstracted highly improvisational "yes and").
- Clear behavior guidance rules.
- Consequences paired closely to choices and actions.
- Avoid highly nuanced moral relativism and ambiguity gray areas, provide clear "classical heroic" concepts of "good" (adaptive), and "bad" (maladaptive) behaviors that are clearly reinforced by the behavior guidance rules.
- For more confrontational populations, avoid house rules as much as possible, instead use a system that has what is needed "rules as written" (RAW) to reduce conflict with higher-risk populations with authority figure an similar issues.
Optimizing the Experience for Maximal Immersion and Achieving Maximal Flow State
Throughout the documents on the topics of optimizing the RPG experience, you will find frequent references to to "Immersion" and "Flow State" as separate though directly related experiences.
Immersion and Flow State Overview
Immersion (Hawke's short definition)
The degree to which the RPG participant is engrossed in the activity.
This is typically subjectively measurable on Likert-style scales using a wide number of TR/RT assessment tools.
We have also been developing on a more objective scale with the Observed Immersion Scale - Role-Playing Games (OIS-RPG) instrument.
Flow (Hawke's short definition)
An optimal state of immersion that can lead to maximal performance by the participant.
This is trickier to measure, while there are degrees of flow, it is somewhat binary in different areas. The more one experiences each of the areas as "on" versus "off", the more intense the flow experience.
When the participant experiences all aspects as "on", they are most likely in the most productive and maximal performance state possible, with the highest enjoyment levels.
Here is a video providing some examples of Flow State experiences in sports and gaming: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dbtma-4qUl8
See more about Immersion and Flow State here: rpgresearch.com/flow-state
Interrelationship to Immersion, Flow State Experiences, Bleed, and Optimization Variables
Some of the variables that impact the enjoyment, immersion, and opportunities for flow state experiences, also impact control over bleed, including desirable and undesirable bleed. Some of the bleed-out that might happen from automatic cognitive-linkage, can be mitigated to some degree with brief post-session processing discussions, helping regulate the type and level of bleed-out leading to full generalization in life outside of the "gaming bubble".
NOTE: The Bleed and Flow diagrams assume only that there is an interaction between them and other variables that impact them. For those people wishing to optimize flow experiences, or control bleed experiences, these are some of the considerations to take into account. This is not meant to suggest that Flow State is the only, or necessarily best, state for optimizing the benefits of role-playing games to achieve specific goals. Rather it is one of many possible to take into consideration when creating a program to use role-playing games to achieve measurable goals. There are many other approaches possible. This is just one area in slowly chiseling away at the extensive multivariate considerations of using applied role-playing gaming. Your assessments of your clients and their needs, should be cross-indexed with which areas should be focused on to achieve the desired results. So, assuming you are in a program that desires to increase opportunities for immersion and flow state, and use bleed to benefit the generalization process, that is where the Flow and Bleed Theory combined diagrams can be taken into considerations.
Key RPG-related Variables to Optimize Immersion and Increase Likelihood of Flow Experience
The list of variables is quite lengthy. If there are just a little "off" the participants can still have good flow experiences, but if they are considerably off mark, then it can completely prevent anyone from experiencing flow in the game.
Again these experiments focused primarily on tabletop RPG, but are to various degrees applicable to LARP as well.
Example Variables Studied
- Intrinsic motivations
- Play styles
- Overall competence
- Verbal skills
- Cognitive skills
- Social/empathic skills
- Narrative style
- Acting style
- NPC richness
- World richness
- Multiple sensory adjectives
- Background depth
- Sensory richness
- Sense of connectedness
- Logic of environment
- Environment Physics
- Cooperative attitude
- Willingness to suspend disbelief
- Intrinsic motivations
- Play Styles
- Kinds of sensory "visualization" tendencies (some people can't visualize, but experience immersion through other senses)
- Interest in genre
- Interest in setting
- Interest in game complexity
- Interest in game style (combat vs. narrative vs. exploration, etc (Bartle))
- Group/Camaraderie Building Tools
The above is so subjective and difficult to specify (many papers unto themselves), but assuming a qualified GM, and cooperative players (though that wasn't always the case during these experiments, there was a little bit of a "weeding out" process of the most disruptive players that were unwilling to follow the code of conduct consistently), most of the experiments focused on environmental factors to increase the likelihood of flow experiences, that is what the majority of this document covers.
Environment & Game Variables
- Group Size
- Game Session Length
- Game Session Frequency
- Keeping party together vs. splitting up the groups
- One-shots (1 session to completion), short-shots (a few sessions to completion), campaigns (many/unlimited sessions).
- Game Setting
- Game System
- "Alignment" of characters
- "Alignment" of campaign
- Sandbox vs. semi-structured vs. "rail-roaded"
- Camaraderie building techniques
- Technology use/misuse
- Facility temperature
- Facility lighting
- Facility walls (color, maps, posters, etc.)
- Facility cleanliness
- Facility noise levels
- Public vs. private settings
- As above, but specific considerations for convention settings
- Other facility distractions (people coming-going, street traffic, sunlight beaming in, etc.)
- RPG Accessories
- Sound effects & music
- Costumes & props
- Pre and post game processing
Lowering Barriers to Entry, Especially for New Gamers and Game Masters
Different Interaction Patterns
Different activities interact with people and the environment in a variety of ways. These interactions have different effects on those involved. Role-playing games come in several different interaction styles. Generally tabletop is cooperative, combat LARP competitive, computer-based competitive, and SAB/M introspective. Elliot M. Avedon detailed 8 interaction patterns related to recreation and therapeutic recreation, from the behavioral sciences perspective, in his 1974 book "Therapeutic Recreation Service - An Applied Behavioral Science Appoach.".
Here is a summary diagram created by W.A. Hawkes-Robinson on those 8 interaction patterns, and how different RPG formats apply.
Group Sizes and Recommended Modifications
Keeping the Party Together vs. Splitting Up the Party
Running Multiple Simultaneous Groups in the Same Campaign
Game Session Duration
Self-generated Characters vs. Pre-generated characters
Campaign Duration - One shots, short-shots, and long-running adventures
Game Session Frequency (Recurrence)
Evaluated Game Systems
Game World (Settings)
" Alignment", Heroic, Chaotic, and/or Evil Characters/Campaigns
RPG Ability Model - Pure Sandbox vs. Semi-structured, vs. "Railroaded"
Building Camaraderie As Quickly and Strongly as possible
Small Group Formation & Communication Social Dynamics
Impact of Technology on all In-person Participants in Tabletop RPGs
Impact of Technology on Tabletop RPG with Remote Players (Private Sessions)
Impact of Technology on Tabletop RPG with Remote Players (Public Broadcast Sessions)
Music, Sound Effects, Audio Ambience
Costumes & Props for Tabletop RPG
Personal RPG Background
Methods of, and Locations for, Gaming Group Formation
Convention & Conference Settings
Useful Tools & Methodologies for Creating & Managing Campaigns and Many Groups
Babylon 5 Group Formation through Meetup - https://www.meetup.com/SCdA-RPG/events/207984092/
Tolkien d20 3.5 Group Formation through Meetup - https://www.meetup.com/SCdA-RPG/events/101647222/
MerpCon III Article Review by Joe Mandala -
Example Evil Campaign - http://www.spokanerpg.com/forum/rpg-group-discussions/248207091?b_start=0#224074808
Tolkien Moot & MerpCon Convention Gaming Broadcasts
Tolkien Moot XII Live Streaming
Session 1 of 3 The One Ring RPG - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i4fkfdIkZvg
Session 3, Jul 16, 2016 - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sIwIy6sTNI4
Tolkien Moot IX Live Streaming - Palantir of Weathertop
Session 1, Aug 3, 2013 - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PLK2OastfLw
Session 2, Aug 3, 2013 - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jShIZ4Di5GU
Session 3, Aug 3, 2013 - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2bn2nV-nI3I
Day 3, Aug 4, 2013 - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iDnKOkDNy80
Last session, Aug 4, 2013 - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sjWqe4MJAVU
Tolkien Moot VIII 2012 Day 1 table 1Gaming Session Long Excerpts - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aHg05XN0jms
Tolkien Moot 2007 MerpCon 3 Behind the Scenes and Miscellaneous - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qz_D1jShnaU
Tolkien Moot 2007 MerpCon III Excerpts and Final Adventure - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g8sLpyl5SV0
Tolkien Moot 2005 MerpCon I Adventure Introduction and Excerpts with Chris Seeman and Hawke - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Y6nrwfqKGc
The One Ring RPG Sessions (non-convention)
The One Ring Role-playing Game TOR RPG Tolkien Gaming Group:
Session 1 - 3-15-2013 - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=35ggqzrKeWc
Session 2 - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4cGdjk-oXfw
Session 3 - 4-12-2013 - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JD-vR-I--ls
Session 4, Apr 26, 2013 - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h8FPXZxE8X4
Worlds of Beru Campaign broadcasts
D&D 3.5 with 2 Jet City Improv members (Google Hangout):
D&D 5e with The Spartan Show: Adventurer's Guild (Twitch):