Flow: Capture and Hold

I wrote last time about how I think the best D&D sessions trigger the mental state known to psychology as a “flow state.” The flow state is a state where you are focused, relaxed and make near perfect decisions whilst experience a time dilation. The experience of time either speeds up (we’ve been playing for four hours and it seemed like 10 minutes) or time slows down (I was nearly t-boned at an intersection but saw the car coming and it seemed like I had all the time in the world to maneuver out of the way). This is caused by a combination of inputs which trigger your brain to dump powerful neurotransmitters like dopamine and norepinephrine into your system whilst dampening activity in the frontal lobe. The experience is powerful and the parts of the brain which deal with memory consider these moments significant and so you remember them even decades later. People in many different cultures engaged in a variety of activities have been documented as having these experiences. So it doesn’t seem far off to say that D&D, in its best moments, can be one of these peak experiences. 

You probably already know is that flow states are not easy to evoke. Even if you know every trigger and use as many as you can, flow won’t happen every time you sit down to roll some dice. I’m going to do my best to help you figure out how to do that at your table. I’m no expert in this and I’m not a psychologist. These are just some ideas I have based on what I’ve read and experienced. 

One of the triggers of the flow state is that the situation must capture and hold attention. Action and adventure athletes put themselves into situations that demand attention. If you are a big wave surfer, the 100 feet of water towering over you is all you can think about in the moment. The danger of the situation insists on your attention. Danger is one of the most powerful flow triggers known. 

In D&D we’re sitting at the table talking. We are not actually standing on the edge of a swift and murky subterranean river wondering how to get across but if the DM is doing a good job, the image is firmly in our mind and we are closer to triggering the elusive flow state.  Brain imaging studies have shown that you can imagine doing a thing and the mere act of thinking about it wlll light up the same areas of the brain. In one study, imagining eating something delicious actually caused the brain to release various hormones associated with the pleasure of eating. 

“You don’t need a giant wave or a big mountain to trigger these responses,” says neuroscientist and director of the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study at the George Mason University, James Olds. “The brain’s reaction isn’t dependent on real, external information. It’s reacting to a constellation of inputs from the sensory systems. IF you can light up that same constellation- say replace the novelty found in the natural environment with new routine in daily life- you’ll get the dopamine and norepanephrine.”  The Rise of Superman. Steven Kotler

This ability of human beings to create these sort of simulations in our heads is a critical difference of what makes us human and makes us such an adaptable species. When we are trying to solve a problem, we simulate and model different solutions in our head before we attempt to take action to solve the problem. I don’t have to jump off a cliff to find out what happens if I fall onto the rocks below. I can model the likely outcome in my mind and avoid the cliff. D&D makes use of that superpower of the brain. We can use that capacity to guess the odds of killing a dragon with ventriloquism and then figure out where we want to cast the spell.

How can we, as DM’s grab out player’s attention and hold onto it?

In the above quote, the good doctor brings up novelty as a useful trigger. DM’s have long known that reskinning a monster, creating new monsters or giving a common monster a new power or trick evokes a powerful “What the fuck?” response from players. That’s nothing new in the DM’s bag of tricks. DM’s can introduce new monsters, unusual traps or tricks, NPC’s with strange clothing or hair styles or strange magical phenomenon. Novelty is a tool that can capture and hold the attention of the players to keep them focused on what is happening in the moment. 

The quote mentions the brain’s reaction “isn’t dependent on real, external information.” Neuroscientists know from research on people reading books or hearing descriptions that the parts of the brain that process sensory information are stimulated by reading or hearing about experiences that have a sensory component. When you are describing the aching chill of the swift moving glacial river as the PC’s wade across it leading their jittery mounts, parts of the players brain are thinking, creating a simulation if you will, of that experience in their minds. Include words that evoke the senses in your descriptions. The bed of the subterranean river is slippery. The air is damp and chilly. The roar of the white ape echoes off the ceiling over the rush of the river. 

The threat of character death and dismemberment demand’s focus. “Roll for initiative,” are not what a player wants to hear when they are low on hit points and healing magic. Players get nervous when they are hanging by a thread. Real danger in the real world is a focusing stimulus that triggers flow. Because our brains can simulate these sorts of events and the same areas that are stimulated by actual danger are stimulated by pretend danger (though not to the same degree). Presenting players with potentially dangerous encounters will enhance the focus of your players. It is especially rewarding to players when they figure a way out of a sticky situation by the skin of their teeth. They get the rush of danger and the exaltation of victory in the face of almost certain destruction.

Making your play time and space as distraction free as possible should be a given.  Cell phones, pets, kids and other distractions should be avoided. In short, Keep the players focus on the white ape wading out into the icy glacial dungeon stream to eat your PC’s. 

Capturing and holding your player’s attention is one of the keys to triggering flow. Novelty, descriptions that trigger the brain’s sensory processing functions, danger and avoiding distractions are ways you can accomplish that. Using props, maps, images, miniatures, dungeon terrain tiles, battle mats and other play aids can also bring the player’s brain more into the moment. Thinking in the moment and setting aside their real selves for a little while is all a part of getting to the sweet spot.


Further Reading:

The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance Steven Kotler

Stumbling on Happiness Dan Gilbert