Wednesday 29 July 2020

External Engagement in RPGs

Last week I wrote about how I found External Engagement was hindering my enjoyment of videogames.

Again this is just my own experience. Some enjoy it as a part of their game experience, and for others it's their main way of engaging with the hobby.

Now with Tabletop RPGs the divide between External/Internal Engagement isn't quite as simple.

At its most obvious it's the classic player/GM divide. The GM spends all week preparing for the game and the players roll up, play for a few hours, then go home and don't think about the game until next week.

But there's a lot of space between those two extremes, and some nuance in the way that people engage externally with the game.

Prepping Content: This lies closest to the actual playing of the game, whether it's a GM crafting a setting or a player planning out their character. 

Training: I guess this is a sort of prep, but instead of making content you're brushing up on your skills. That could be learning tips to running the game or reading up on how to be a better player in terms of tactical decisions or portraying an interesting character.

Spectating: Essays have been written about the growing appeal of actual play streams and podcasts. I don't really have much experience of them but fair to say it's a form of external engagement.

Discoursing: Talking about RPGs. Not necessarily to get ideas for content for your game, or even necessarily to understand the game itself, but almost for the enjoyment of the discussion. I describe this slightly pejoratively because I'm clearly a sucker for this myself, and I'm in an ongoing process of reviewing how much I actually enjoy it

Designing for External Engagement

Some games do this pretty clearly. Forgive the dated reference, but in the 3rd Edition days the official D&D "Character Optimisation" forum was pretty popular. This was a whole lot of people crunching away at the numbers to make powerful characters, completely away from the realities of at-table play. A fun process in its own right for some, I'm sure, but if you're not somebody that enjoys that side of things its very presence can affect how you view the game. Should I be like the people on that forum when I sit down to play 3e? Is this what the other players are expecting of me? Will they be mad if I just make a weird character that isn't super effective mechanically?

Games that are designed to support this sort of External Engagement might see the positives being reaped ("everybody is talking about our game!") without necessarily seeing theses hidden negatives. From the inside I've always felt like the barrier to entry for RPGs is super-low, but dig a bit deeper and it's easy to see how they might appear more daunting to a newcomer.

"Oh I always liked the look of the 40k RPGs but I don't want to have to learn a bunch of setting stuff"

"D&D looks cool but I don't want to have to buy a load of miniatures"

"I want to run Mothership but I heard on Twitter that it doesn't support campaign play, so probably not worth starting it"

So External Engagement is Bad, Right?

No! Again, this is about working out what your own preferences are. 

The activities listed above can all be enjoyable, and I enjoy them myself, but I feel like going too deep into them hinders my enjoyment of the actual game when I sit down to play. 

Will it be the same for you? Depends entirely on the person, but I think it's interesting to consider whether these engagements are laying too much pressure on your weekly game, or setting unrealistic expectations. 

We all remember that session where we were excited all week, spent a tonne of time doing prep, and then it was a big flop. On the other side sometimes those unplanned games turn out to be the most enjoyable for me, where you have nothing planned and have to run on pure improvisation.

Everybody has seen that person posting a hot take on twitter presenting a purely theoretical argument or describing a bizarre situation completely alien to your experience at the table. Sometimes you sit back and think "has this person actually played this game or do they just talk about it online?"

Do you ever feel like you're that person? Might be worth considering whether External Engagement is improving or hindering your enjoyment of the hobby.

Designing for Internal Engagement

So you'd expect Electric Bastionland to be designed purely for Internal Engagement, right? Well, no, because this is only really a recent concept for me. Even if I were to re-write the game today I don't think it's useful to see this as such a clear dichotomy.

There are loads of ways you can engage externally with EB. There's regular discourse on how best to run the game, and the Oddendum is basically a huge chapter where I engage in that discussion. There are procedures for creating maps and stocking your locations, both of which you'd usually sit down to do between your games. I even made an Actual Play video so that people can watch before they play.

But it's missing some of the key points of External Engagement.

Character optimisation? Don't make me laugh. Roll up a character and see what you get.

Sure, there are a bunch of procedures in the book for prep, but you're encouraged to leave lots open to discovery at the table. I try to lead by example here, where the entire setting of Bastionland is only really presented through the lens of an RPG. There's no delusion that this world deserves a nine-book fiction saga, this is a world built for the table.

There's certainly no giant wiki of setting to digest. You only get to discover Bastionland by playing it.

But like I said before, this isn't about purity of design. It's about... wait... what is it about again?

What's the Point of All This?

As I said at the start of this post, this whole process has been a bit of self-reflection, and I'm sure there are people that feel similar to me. My hope is that somebody might read this and consider whether they're enjoying tabletop RPGs as much as they possibly can, and whether there's another way for them.

It's extra rough if you don't have a group to play with in-person, a situation a lot of us are in at the moment. I spent years in this wilderness before online-play became so straightforward and local groups more commonplace, so I sympathise with those who feel like they only have External Engagement to enjoy, but I'd encourage them to look at all options to get themselves involved in the actual playing of the game.

And maybe think about stepping away from RPG twitter for a week. Limit yourself to an hour of prep for your game and accept that you're going to be filling in blanks on the night. Rather than listening to actual plays, dive into a history podcast or audiobook that might give you some cool ideas to draw on.

Don't deny yourself the type of fun that comes with that low-pressure, no-expectation game.


  1. You know, character optimization is a form of "external engagement", especially considering that these days it's often done talking about it on forums, arguing about it, reading guides etc...

    ... I know some people like it a lot, and that some systems (I'm looking at you pathfinder...) really lend themselves to it. But I fear that it becomes a mini-game, and the purpose of the "real game" is to "prove" that their build is great. But that has corrosive effects on the game! If the build turns out to have a flaw, or not match the focus of the campaign, the player becomes frustrated. They may try to engineer situations where their character's strengths are valuable, and are bored or impatient in situation where their (often very specialized) character is not as relevant.

    It's a bit like photographers who care more about their cameras than their photos...

  2. Thank you for these two articles about External Engagement.
    This theory is revelatory for me.
    I loved (my concepts of) games. I wanted to get better at them. I tried to read all the rulebooks, all the expansions. Then all the forums. Then the blogs. Then the videos. And the actual play streams.
    Ultimately I became "better" only at thinking and speaking about them. Articulating the games out of the game. If it did anything to my confidence and ability at the table, it decreased it by ingraining the false expectations.
    Self-reflection is a very good call, as I know I enjoy engaging externally while thinking good thoughts and ruining my later in-game enjoyment of the game by doing so.