Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Stagnant Gameplay

Whether you've realized it or not, all of you have probably been witness to a case of stagnant gameplay. For some it may have been that "something is off" that you couldn't put your finger on, but kept taking away from the fun of the game. For others it could have manifested as boredom or even just the ability to know what would come next. Long story short, it basically happens where there is a lack of dynamics in the game. The PCs become stationary and don't grow or challenge themselves, and the game does nothing to prod those PCs out of their comfort zones. Everything stagnates, and the game becomes dull. Today, I want to talk about that.

Everyone's Problem
The big thing to know about stagnant gameplay is the fact that it is everyone's problem. This isn't just something for the GM to deal with, nor is it something just for the players. In my experience, people generally view it as exclusively a GM problem, but I'm not going to assume that is the only way it's been viewed. On the downside, this means that it can be hard to save a game from stagnation once it has begun. On the upside though, it means that anyone, so you, can do something about it while it is starting to set in.

Small vs. Large Cases
There are two types of stagnation that I've seen. The small cases are individual cases. A player, or a character, becomes stagnant when they stop growing or prompting for growth potential on their own. They sit there, react when something happens but in a way to return to idleness with maximum efficiency, and basically become unfun characters. This could be because the player doesn't know what to do - or worse, fears the consequences of not doing things 'right' - or because the character themselves lends themselves to stagnant gameplay.

Large cases on the other hand usually start with the GM. The GM loses track of how to challenge things, or becomes stuck on one particular method. The game starts to punish actions that deviate from the GM's expectations, and rewards people who make the right choice. The players, usually, will fall into this spiral with the GM. Reacting in specific ways and only growing when specifically given room to that the game allows.

Player Solution: Go Big or Go Home
For small cases, especially if you fear it is happening with your own character, the mantra of go big or go home can help to save things. Don't play things safe, react to them in a huge fashion. Most of the entertaining shows and stories we watch work because people react in a large or particularly outlandish fashion. If it comes down to being bored session after session or losing your character in a spectacular way, well, in my case the spectacular way is the way to go every time. At least this way it is memorable and everyone can have fun with it.

Player Solution: Set Active Goals
The other thing you, as a player, can do is to set active goals for yourself and your character. "Become the best" is a decent goal, but with it you could just have your character train and train and train until they very quietly become the best. "Prove you're the best" or "Challenge Your Betters" are both better and more active because with them you have to be a bit louder. With prove your the best, you need to show people. That means challenging, contesting, and acting. With challenge your betters, well, you have to actively seek them out and then fight/contest them, right? Both of these can ward off stagnation because they keep your character in motion and working towards something.

GM Solution: Relax and Wing It
The times I've seen stagnation come from the GM it has been because the GM has an idea for how things should play out, and they prepare only for that eventuality. As such, there is resistance when the PCs try to deviate. A PC kills an NPC, and suddenly an investigation shows up and is getting close to force the PC back on track - or remove them from the game. The PCs go left and end up at the Castle of Nameless Tears. They go right...and end up at the Castle of Nameless Tears. Basically, wherever the PCs go the game nudges them back onto the GM's alloted path. Eventually the PCs stop fighting, just kind of roll over and go along for the ride. Rollercoasters are fun enough, once you accept the fact that you're going forward and nowhere else, after all.

To fight this, the GM needs to relax and be prepared to wing it a bit. For your next couple of sessions throw away the plans and just let the players do whatever they want. Just run with it. Then, after the sessions, figure out how your world is going to react to those things. Let your players stir things up, figure out how the world reacts, and the game will become less stagnant and more involved. This, in every case I've seen it, is a good thing.

Your Solutions?
There are more solutions out there than what I listed. What are some of yours? Sound off in the comments.


  1. GMs should not only be prepared to wing it, but to happily let the game careen off the rails every now and then. As you say, rewarding behavior that keeps the GM's plot going can really slow things down, not just because the players won't have advanced knowledge of the GM's plans. If they feel like they can make a real difference, then they'll respond with some great suggestions and more involved role playing.

  2. Games careening off the rails, and then finding out how the NPCs try to get their plans back in motion, leads to some of the most entertaining stories I've seen. You're right, the "just wing it" needs more emphasis. Thanks for providing it :D

  3. I've found that when ever things get a bit stagnant reviving the active use of "What are your objectives, and what objectives have you achieved" helps a lot. Not that it's worked every time, but it does get some people's juices flowing.