Time to refine a word I’ve used in the past – Momentum.
Before I used it to talk about the flow of play, thinking it came mostly from the group dynamics of the people playing. I think it’s better stated this way:
How often and reliably can everyone playing experience and participate in the fun of what this game is about?
Now, an important shift I had to make, was that I thought Momentum initially as a result of group dynamics, and it is, but I didn’t think back to the fact that the group dynamics (“how do we play this game?”) come from the text.
A lot of rpgs simply don’t have good rules to facilitate momentum for their play – individual players and groups have to make up the difference and become “good roleplayers” for basically kludging together something that was missing key components.
We see this a lot of times in rpgs when groups spend a lot of time, sessions, months even, meandering around and unable to get a solid grasp on not just what “the characters” in the most abstract sense do, but what do THESE characters, Mr. X, Ms. Y, Mr. Z, do in THIS situation? This isn’t an issue of learning the rules, this is an issue of the core focus of play being absent, and the result of a game failing to give people tools to even know which direction play is supposed to go in, much less facilitating that process.
This is basically the point that I think is the defining line between modern rpg design and “broken wheel” design – can the game effectively communicate what play is about and give tools so that a group can reliably hit what is fun for this game?
When you’re having fun, things go by quickly – it has momentum and a lot happens in play. When things are dragging, nothing gets done in play. When the D&D team brought up “20 minutes of fun in 4 hours”, that’s a place where we’re talking about failure of momentum.
This is why games like Riddle of Steel or Apocalypse World tend to get labeled, “traditional” but in fact are very, very different experiences than most traditional games. This is also the reason why nearly any traditional game becomes 1000x more functional and entertaining when you throw a Flag-based reward mechanic on it – it becomes a way for the group to hone in on what play is about and to engage it meaningfully. (Flip side, it’s also why games that reward, “showing up” above actions in play, tend to suffer this problem of stalling out.)
This last year of doing 1 hour games has really taught me that the two aspects of play that define the entire experience for people are 1. Logistics to start (how hard is it to learn, how much set up including character creation, conveying concept & setting, etc.) and 2. momentum in play.
If you can’t reliably deliver fun in 1 hour (really, in 15 minutes), your game just isn’t working.