Use My Core Gameplay Loop When Your Game Stalls

During Monday’s game master coaching session, one GM, Mr. Snakes, encountered a plot block.

His players had just completed an epic 5 Room Dungeon on a demon-infested ship, caught up in faction play while trying to solve a murder mystery. (Well done, Mr. Snakes!)

He asked about my core gameplay loop because, after the ship docked, the party walked the plank… into a foreign port city full of strangers. That’s when his game’s momentum halted.

One adventure ended, and there was no new adventure in sight. What’s a GM to do?

Mr. Snakes has plot points galore, but they are all on the horizon. He needed something now to rebuild the energy and set the party on the path to an exciting new adventure.

First off, this is a natural occurrence. Some folks call it the denouement period of a story. In GM lingo, we call it downtime. We’ve just had a peak energy moment with our climactic finale in Room IV, followed by a whiz-bang revelation and treasure haul in Room V. It’s time for a downbeat.

And this introduces a problem in our gameplay. How do the players transition from the previous 5 Room Dungeon to a new one, especially in a case where it’s an entirely new milieu?

Let’s talk about my core gameplay loop for a second. Molt away all the details, and we essentially get:

  1. GM triggers an Event to start an encounter.
  2. Players decide on character Actions.
  3. GM gives a Response to PC actions.
  4. When an encounter ends, players Transition to the next.

In the very first Step #1, the GM bootstraps the campaign or adventure. Then we follow our core gameplay loop until the campaign ends: fizzle, TPK, or victory.

However, Mr. Snakes became blocked during Step #4 because he introduced an entirely new locale, and the characters had no hooks to chase. Gameplay stalled.

Step #1: Event needs a successful hand-off from Step #4: Transition to keep the core gameplay loop moving along.

To solve that, we give Step #4 two options:

  • 4a. Players Pull a new encounter into play from the GM by taking an action the GM responds to (bringing us to Step #3: Response).
  • 4b. GM Pushes a new encounter into play (Step #1), provoking a response from players (Step #2: Action).

(Wizards of Adventure, for more details on Push-Pull, see the 2018 Musings Compilation, “The Four Levers That Inevitably Pull Players Through Your Adventures”.)

Transitions are sneaky little snakebites that I bet have ruined many an adventure.

If the players do not seize the initiative to make something happen and Pull the trigger on a new encounter, then we GMs must Push the characters into a situation to hatch a new loop. Hopefully, the Push gets the serpent biting its own tail to get the infinite game moving along once more.

Which brings us back to our strange new port city. Without any obvious player hooks and no knowledge of the milieu, Mr. Snake’s players struggled to Pull an encounter into being to kickstart a new 5 Room Dungeon. There was no obvious transition from boat to city.

Therefore, our GM Move is to recognize this situation and make a Push to get gameplay going again.

I try to minimize GM Pushes and intrude only when I need to give gameplay a kick or my plotline involves a pre-determined event that fires. And to facilitate Pushes, because they are almost never planned, meaning I need to improvise, I have Back Pocket encounters ready to drop into play.

Putting this all together, I’d advise Mr. Snakes to consider two GM Moves:

  1. Offer downtime. Ask the players if they need to top up on supplies, gather information, recover some Sanity points, or otherwise engage in some downtime activities. He could do this in-character or out.
  2. Push a situation that triggers a new encounter designed to drop hooks for the next 5 Room Dungeon.

The downtime denouement lets the party unwind, spend treasure, get new clues and hooks, and regroup for the next mighty adventure. During downtime, Mr. Snakes can Push a situation, or see if the party bites on a hook that leads them to restart the core gameplay loop.

Either way, it sidewinds into dropping interesting gameplay onto the table and finding out what happens next!

Have more fun at every game!

P.S. RPT GM, if you’d like to have more discussion around this topic, or some other aspect of your game that’s bugging you, I’m holding my monthly Wizard of Adventure call tomorrow, Feb 24, 12pm Mountain (2pm Eastern, 7pm GMT) over Teams.

Come join us, listen in, and ask questions.

Click here for more details on becoming a Wizard of Adventure today.

Join a private community with Johnn