Fundamental scarcity of attention

Attention is a critical resource to manage in game design. The enjoyment of players (and GMs) is contingent on getting it right. It’s particularly important when you want to move from “passable” to “excellent”. In design and prep and postmortem you will benefit from thinking hard about attention and where it’s going.

I know I’ve not been thinking about it enough because I’ve been distracted by other concerns in my designs and GMing (e.g. world simulation, inter-PC balance).

Design is about resolving conflicts between goals. And the biggest bottleneck in rpg design is attention. Primarily GM attention, but players too. And central to design is tradeoffs. For example:

  • When you put miniatures on a battlemap, you may lose attention to the theatre-of-the-mind situation.
  • When you award XP for both player-set goals and standard list, they have to share attention. If you only award XP for player-set goals (a la The Shadow of Yesterday), you get more attention on that, and more consequent behaviours.

GM attention bandwidth, in particular, is tiny compared to what a GM’d game demands of it. Management of GM attention is a dominant factor in quality of gameplay. Pacing hinges on it, and pacing is important.

Attention follows “lures”… some things are grabby, some things are not. If you eliminate one lure, people will look to another. People either look at the character sheet (“I am nearly at Sword B4”) or they look at what some other player just said/did (“That’s sounds brave; I could act cowardly to be a foil for it”) or at the miniatures on the table (“Why can’t they get rid of flash entirely?”. Or at their phone, the wall, the unrelated worries in their head.

Beyond the game design, background noise from spouses, children, sirens in the street outside… all lures.

This is of course true of any process run by humans – board games, running a meeting, teaching a class… attention bandwidth is a critical resource. Film, video games — success comes through making the audience focus on the right things.

The primacy of attention implies a need for focused design… but also for focussed play and houseruling. Groups, and GMs in particular, need to choose where attention will go, and make that happen. Some practical suggestions:

  • Simplify your character sheets as much as possible. Think about how they could be simpler.
  • Get junk you don’t need off the gaming table. Rules references you don’t use, a map of an area you left twelve sessions ago… put them in a drawer.
  • Simplify your rules. Formally drop rules you never use. Strip down your rules references and screens. Change to a simpler game system.

Attention is critical to play. There are many ways to use it, but you cannot escape using it. General corollary — if you’re having a good time, you’re doing something good with attention.

A specific corrollary — If you intend your game to be played rarely, as a one-shot or short run, then this is a mandate for focus. There’s no way that people will learn good attention behaviours in the short term unless the game helps them a great deal. This of course is one reason why the “GMless storygame” crowd are obsessed with focussed design, while most traditional RPG players are less concerned. The latter have to learn new games quickly; the latter get many sessions.

charsheet vCURRENT

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s