At the core of any game is something called a “Game Loop”, which is a term for a series of actions that the players take part in again and again as the core series of actions within the game. While that may seem repetitive and boring, on paper, the greatest game loops allow for players to constantly repeat enjoyable actions while never knowing that their actions are repetitive loops. In Game Design, this is known as “Entrainment”.
Entrainment comes from the French word “entrainer” and has two meanings: to carry along, and to trap. Entrainment has been commonly used to describe physical and natural phenomenon, such as circadian sleep rhythms to thunderstorms. Game Designer Brian Moriarty uses entrainment to refer to rhythmic pleasure, a process of falling into a patterned activity and continuing to enjoy the experience. In 1998, Moriarty gave a talk at the Game Developers conference about entrainment and game design:
“Rhythm and patterns exist in all games, if you watch. Watch someone playing a game sometime. Not the game itself, lest you be sucked in, but the player, and the space around him or her. Watch the rhythms emerge, and how the players and the game interact. It will become clear that a game is really an entrainment engine. The job of the gamewright, therefore, is to reinforce patterns and dampen dissonance.”
Entrainment is the experience of “same-but-different”. From the experience of firing the same series of weapons in the same matches of Call of Duty to grinding experience in a Final Fantasy, entrainment is the concurrent pattern of repeating actions but enjoying the actions while in repetition.
Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition had a lot of problems with its combat system. Some specifically include fights going on for too long, and becoming boring within the timeframe. With the excess of powers, abilities, and seemingly endless HP counts of enemies, as well as a removal of risk in the way of healing surges and second winds, entrainment becomes rather difficult to inspire within the players.
Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 was able to inspire this kind of pleasure, while theoretically less interactive with the players in the fight. There were not a dozen abilities of use at any given time for each player, but the players were able to find a comfortable routine within the combats, knowing their specific abilities, as well as the potential outcomes for each action. It finds a rhythm in combat that later iterations simply lack: the flow and focus of slowly dissecting an enemy without necessitating more options.
When examining gameplay, as well as pacing for a game or even a session, a GM could establish a point of which the players will be allowed to set into their respective rhythm. By crafting a point in the game of which players are allowed to systematically enjoy their abilities and actions based on the actions they have chosen as characters, the game will naturally create this gameplay loop, and potentially inspire entrainment, the same-but-different gameplay leading towards the experience of entrainment.
It is less of a trick, and more of a phenomenon of perception. By allowing players to experience something they are comfortable doing, while repeating the action, a natural state of enjoyment comes from breaking down a conflict through repetition. This comfortable, enticing loop of gameplay is the crux of design, whether in systems created or homebrewed, and should be the focus of creation for all mechanically focused systems.
Have you ever had a notably entrained game? Is there a point of which you realize you, as a player, or the players before you are falling into a comfortable rhythm? Is there an event you typically introduce to encourage this kind of gameplay? Let us know in the comments, we would love to hear your opinion!
Until next time, stay rhythmic!
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