Emotional Memory

May 22, 2009

Primetime Adventures has this mechanic, called Fanmail, where any one at the table can reward another player for making a great contribution – good dialogue, great narration, etc.

It’s a tool, to help focus play – it gets the players to make the kinds of stories other folks in the group want to see.

There’s also a secondary thing that this mechanic does- the flow of Fanmail lets you know how much fun people are having- when it flows often, the group is in tune with each other, making great contributions and acknowledging that- when it flows rarely, there’s a disconnect somewhere.

Anyway, what this leads to is how people remember books, movies, or live performances. If the overall experience was entertaining, even if they can’t remember the details, they’ll usually remember it as fun. (Yes, exceptions where one event overshadows the rest are not uncommon, but I’m talking about general goals of consistent fun, not trying to save the world…)

That said, Fan mail becomes a sort of measure for success in play – consistent flow = consistent fun, shaky or stuttering flow = inconsistent fun.

A different, but related example of this is doing horror: the build up gets you to generate a “reserve” of horror, an association of fear with the thing in question, so when the big reveal happens, by itself, it might not be as scary, but you’ve made it scary because you’ve worked yourself up with anticipation.

It’s not the general experience of fun, it’s the general experience of terror, and it’s why if you reveal the big monster (in rpgs, in storytelling, in movies) too early, it doesn’t have the built up terror to draw on (“Oh, look, big spider. Creepy, I guess.”)

Now, to take it a step up, the same could be said of a written set of rules- if the writing is entertaining, people tend to absorb it better in the long run. The writing serves as “hooks” to keep ideas in mind, while a terse, clear, set of rules might slide straight through someone’s mind – they didn’t flag it as crucial .

Just as important, the entertainment someone got from reading your game builds up an anticipation of fun and goodwill towards the game. It’s like the hype before a movie comes out- you’d probably be willing to give it more benefit of the doubt because you’ve already loaded yourself with anticipation for a good time.

In a certain way, this is where I’m glad to see more and more designers being willing to take a personal conversational voice in writing their games. Most rpgs descend from the Gygaxian psuedo tech manual voice and it not only makes it harder to remember, it also makes it bland. Try reading Tolkien vs. Middle Earth Roleplaying. Obviously, we’re just starting out, so finding the sweet spots in clarity vs. colorful writing will probably be awhile coming.



  1. I think it’s very much a balancing act. True, an entertaining text makes the impression come through a lot stronger. But at the same time, it takes away something of the focus. Some rules texts that are like that make it almost impossible to recognize what is the rule that you need in the game, and what is the flavour that makes you feel the game.

    • Can you point to some example games that do that? I’m sure it exists, I just don’t see it as a common problem…

  2. 100% agreed. Look at the success of the “for Dummies” books. They may be a little wanting in the layout, but I look at them as a huge source of inspiration overall.

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