Design & Development01/27/2006

Flow at the D&D Table

We're hoping this column becomes your window into roleplaying design and development -- or at least the way we approach these things here at Wizards of the Coast. We'll handle a wide range of topics in weeks to come, from frank discussions about over- or underpowered material, to the design goals of a certain supplement, to what we think are the next big ideas for the Dungeons & Dragons game. All of this comes bundled with a healthy look at the people and events that are roleplaying R&D.

This week, Dave Noonan takes a look at the mind of the gamer -- when in the middle of the game.

Why you sometimes exclaim, “Holy crap, it’s 3 a.m.!”

One of the weird things about being a D&D designer is how the difference between work and play can become a very fuzzy line. Sometimes I’ll have the kitchen table covered with D&D books, and my wife will come by and ask me pointblank: “Is this mess for work or for fun?”

I often have to pause and think about it before I answer. The encounters I run in my weekly games find their way into the adventures I write. The NPCs that come to life on Thursday nights sometimes find their way into D&D books on Friday morning. And the occasional frustrations—the “proud nails” of the D&D world—that I encounter at the gaming table? I sometimes get a chance to do something about them when I go to work.

What I Read Over Winter Vacation

That’s true of the books I read, too. Are they for work, or for fun? It’s a very fuzzy line. Over Christmas, for example, I read a fascinating book that crossed the line into “Hey, I could use this at work” territory.

The book is called Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, by Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi. (The flyleaf helpfully notes that it’s pronounced “CHICK-sent-me-high-ee.”) The author is the former chair of the Psych department at the University of Chicago. Flow gets shelved in the self-help section of the bookstore. But it’s a pretty serious read, and the author doesn’t spend much time telling you how to improve your relationships, hug yourself, or whatever. Heck, it’s got 40 pages of footnotes.

The author and his colleagues have spent a lot of time using questionnaires, interviews, and experience sampling methods to try to get a handle on what’s going through people’s heads when they’re happiest. He found some interesting common threads to the optimal experience of disparate people like factory workers, surgeons, athletes, and artists. Regardless of whether they were describing the economy of movement during an assembly task, the precise scalpel work of surgery, or mixing just the right shade of blue paint, the subjects of Czikszentmihalyi’s studies tended to describe their optimal experiences in much the same way. “Apparently the way a long-distance swimmer felt when crossing the English Channel was almost identical to the way a chess player felt during a tournament,” he writes. “All these feelings were shared, in important respects, by subjects ranging from musicians composing a new quartet to teenagers from the ghetto involved in a championship basketball game.”

One of the common threads—and it’s where the author gets the word “flow”—is that the respondents said that when they were involved in their optimal experience, they lost sense of time and felt carried away, lost in the flow of what they were doing.

That got my attention right away. How many of us have looked from the gaming table and said, “Holy crap, it’s 3 a.m.”? D&D might be a good way to achieve this state of “flow.”

Going with the Flow

Czikszentmihalyi identifies the following aspects of flow. Let’s see how D&D stacks up.

Transformation of Time. The rhythms of the activity override the external rhythms: clocks, day and night, and so on. D&D is a poster child for this activity. It’s easy to lose track of how long you’ve been playing, and the game doesn’t have very many automatic stopping points. You can almost always do one more encounter, one more task, one more challenge. Most D&D sessions end by mutual consent of the players at the table, not because the game insists that they stop. A game of contract bridge, chess, or Magic: The Gathering has a natural end. But not so with D&D, and that’s why it can so effectively transform our sense of time while we’re playing.

It’s rarer, but people describing flow experiences describe time seemingly slowing down. Rather than the “holy crap, it’s 3 a.m.” effect, a few crucial seconds seem to stretch out for far longer. A ballet dancer executing a difficult turn might describe her sequence of moves as consuming far more than the split second that the clock measures.

I’ve never experienced this in D&D. What would it feel like? Am I watching the twenty-sider fall from my hand in slow motion, bouncing across the table and gently resting on the 20? Am I slowly pausing in each square as I move my miniature into flanking position next to the dragon? Maybe there’s part of the D&D experience I’m missing. If you get this “time slowing down” sensation when you play D&D, write me at and tell me about it. I’m genuinely curious, because it’s a phenomenon beyond my experience.

A Challenging Activity That Requires Skills. Have you seen the thousand pages of rules in the three core books? I think we’ve got this one covered. D&D works about every cubic inch of the gray matter between your ears. Creativity? Check. Spatial awareness? Check. Math? Check. Interpersonal stuff? Check. The list goes on.

But there’s a danger here. Assume you’re the DM, and you want to keep your players in a “flow state” (probably not something you can necessarily engineer, but bear with me). If the game devolves into “I attack it again… I attack it again… I attack it again…” then you aren’t actually requiring skill from your players, even if, by the math, you’re providing challenging target numbers for them to hit.

If you want to provide a challenging activity that requires skills, you’ve got to build encounters that ask for player skill, not just big numbers on the character sheet. That means tactical dilemmas, social encounters that test interpersonal skills, and encounters that demand teamwork within the party. Too often, we D&D designers focus so hard on working out the character-vs.-monster numbers that we lose sight of challenging the players. What’s the Challenge Rating for the first room in the dungeon if you’re measuring it against the “level” of the players, not their characters? Expect a future column on this.

The Merging of Action and Awareness. In other words, people in the throes of an optimal experience stop being aware of themselves as separate from the actions they’re taking. D&D does this, but it “cheats” because it mandates that you invent a second persona (your character) to undertake those actions. Thus it’s easy to stop being aware of yourself during a D&D game. The whole thing is set up to make you feel like Karterrus, cleric of Dol Arrah, instead.

Another way that D&D submerges your sense of self within the game is by mandating that you play it as part of a group. The game doesn’t work unless you’re willing to be part of a larger whole.

Clear Goals and Feedback. On the surface, D&D’s reward structure is pretty straightforward. We’ve got treasure, XP, leveling up. As a player, you know how to get all that. But there are a few chinks in D&D’s armor.

For starters, there’s no “clear goals and feedback” for a DM. I’m usually the DM—where’s my reward structure?

People at conventions sometimes ask me, “How do I know if I’m a good DM?” My answer is usually, “Every session, give yourself two seconds to look up from your notes and look beyond your DM screen. If you see the smiling faces of your friends, you’re being a good DM.” That’s a potent reward, but it’s a far cry from the clear goals and feedback that players get. As I write this, I have no earthly idea how you’d add a DM reward system to D&D. But it’s something I’m going to start thinking about.

There’s another potential problem with the notion of clear goals in D&D. One of the joys of D&D is the joy of experiencing a virtual world. Sometimes we obscure the clear goals and feedback in an effort to make that world seem more “real.”

An example from my game table should suffice. I started an Eberron campaign with the noir dial turned up pretty high—like if Raymond Chandler had the Last War to work with. And I’m comfortable enough with my ability to prepare and improvise that I essentially told the players: “Wander around this world and do whatever you like. As you show interest in something, I’ll provide the necessary framework behind it.”

An ambitious, noble sentiment to launch a campaign, to be sure. But after meeting a lot of mysterious, morally ambiguous individuals and groups, the players came to me and said, “Dave, could you just tell us what we’re supposed to be doing?” My players are a pretty sophisticated bunch, but the lack of goals was driving them up the wall.

Lacking a Sense of Worry About Losing Control. Czikszentmihalyi calls this the “paradox of control”. People experiencing a flow state often describe themselves as having a great degree of control over the situation. They feel the possibility of control even if the situation isn’t actually under their control. Think of a slot-machine gambler, for example—they’re lying to themselves when they discern patterns in the reels and know that a machine is “hot” or “cold.” But they feel like they have control, and that’s what matters.

This is an area where D&D shines. When you play D&D, every few minutes you get to announce exactly what you’re going to do, then you watch it happen. The essential promise of the game—especially when compared to its boardgame and computer game brethren—is “you can try whatever you want.”

There’s a tendency among game designers to want to craft these elegant narratives within our adventures—to plot them out like great novels where the players are the heroes. But from the beginning, a lot of players have been attracted to D&D not because they get to see their characters succeed, but because they want to vicariously experience failure without all the consequences of real-world failure. For these players, D&D is fun because they get to see the consequences of doing dumb things like mooning the emperor. They don’t worry about the consequences of losing control. After all, it’s just a game.

And don’t even get me started on the sense of control that a DM has. We know what world-building, god-complex control freaks they all are.

Concentration on the Task at Hand. This aspect of optimal experience is similar to losing track of time. Those undergoing flow lose track of everything not germane to the task at hand. That’s why a basketball player can nail a jumper despite thousands of people trying to distract him. That’s why the artist isn’t worrying about personal problems when she’s at the easel.

When the game is humming along, it’s easy to concentrate totally on the D&D experience. But this aspect of the flow experience is hard for D&D to pull off—of all Czikszentmihalyi’s criteria, this is the one where D&D is weakest.

It’s hard to avoid distractions at the game table for a couple of reasons. For starters, you’re the active player for only part of the time you’re at the table. For simplicity’s sake, say that the DM is spending equal time with each player during a battle, resolving each action in turn. Furthermore, say that the DM’s NPCs are interacting with the party members equally. If there are five people at the table, one of them (the DM) is engaged all the time. The other four are participants only one-quarter of the time; they’re spectators for 75% of the D&D experience. And even if you’re an interested spectator, your detachment from the proceedings is an opening for the distractions of the outside world.

And if someone is looking up a rule? Then the rest of the table effectively goes off-line while that happens. Resolving a one-on-one interaction with an NPC? Everyone else’s concentration is vulnerable.

As a game designer, I can tell you that it’s a lot easier to design a really cool prestige class than it is to build a cooperative game that keeps everyone involved at all times. But if you buy into the whole notion of “flow,” pacing during that D&D session might be the key that unlocks a really great D&D experience, not your access to my “Dread Awesomebringer” prestige class. How can I help you do that as a game designer? By keeping your nose out of the books, by giving you quick resolution systems, and by building more teamwork into the game. This is another thing I’m going to come back to in a future column.

As a DM or a player, you can do your part for everyone’s flow by controlling the physical environment. Turn off the nearby TV when you’re playing D&D, for example. And be an engaged, respectful spectator when it’s not your point in the initiative. Try to stay focused on imagining your character in the fantasy world, or at least don’t quote Monty Python at your buddies to bring them out of it, too.

Flow and Workflow

Does this notion of flow change how I design for D&D? No... and yes. I design for the game I’ve got and the product I’m assigned. Right now I’m working on an adventure, and I’ve still got the same encounters that need design and playtesting. I don’t get to remake the essential nature of the hobby just because I read a book.

But reading Flow has given me a new lens to look through when I’m designing that adventure. For starters, I’m spending a lot more time thinking about building encounters that demand player skill, not just character power. That’s a common-sense thing, but it’s something you can easily lose track of in your zeal to work out the character-vs.-monster stuff.

More broadly, we can do more to help you with concentration on the task at hand. In a future column, I’m going to show off some innovations that we hope will improve the pace of play at the table. I’m also imagining a stopwatch running as I design resolution systems—and imagining the bored spectators at the table while a complex resolution plays out.

And when I’m out running this week, I’m going to think about clear goals and rewards for DMs. Even if doing so prevents me from concentrating on running and thus inhibits that opportunity for flow.


Now you get a chance to blur the line between work and fun for us. What nonfiction book do you think we game designers ought to read? (We'll do fiction some other time.) Tell us about something you read recently that made you think, "Hey, you could write an adventure around that," or "I'm going to find a place for that in my game world." And how about a nonfiction book recommendation for the friends at your gaming table? Send your book suggestions to, and we'll compile a book list for the well-read D&D player.

About the Authors

Design: David Noonan is a designer/developer for Wizards of the Coast. His credits include co-designing Dungeon Master's Guide II, Heroes of Battle, and numerous products for the Eberron campaign setting. He lives in Washington state with his wife, son, and daughter.

Development: Jesse Decker is the development manager for RPGs at Wizards of the Coast. His credits include a two-year stint as editor-in-chief of Dragon magazine; design work on Complete Adventurer, DMG II, and other RPG titles; and development work on numerous D&D products, most of which he can’t talk about yet.

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