A bad story will always cause player frustration.
A Long Time Ago
After the arrival of a new pack drove them from their familiar patch of forest, Ug, Krg and their offspring find themselves in unfamiliar jungle. Hungrily they begin searching for food in the dense green undergrowth. Their primitive hands rummage through the plants looking for anything edible. Ug lets out a guttural cry of joy as he spots a plant loaded with juicy berries. Carefully avoiding the spiky leaves, Ug picks a handful of the red fruit and eagerly eats them. Within moments Ug is doubled-up in pain and Krg watches helplessly while their mate dies. Though despondent in grief, Krg scopes up the youngest child and leads the family away from the spiky leafed plant with the red berries which mean death.
Good Stories Mean Survival
The scene of Ug and Krg repeats itself tens of thousands of times over the next few hundred thousand years. Those descents of Krg who learnt the story about eating the red berries from the spiky leafed plant survive while those which fail to learn die. We, the descendants of Krg, share much of the same story-telling neurology as our primitive ancestors. Those mental processes are hard wired to our most fundamental survival instincts about danger, food and sex. A good story works with those story-telling neurons to educate and entertain but a bad story…
Why Losing Your Keys Is So Frustrating
You are at home, about to go out but you cannot find your keys. They must be in the house somewhere otherwise how did you get into the house? After a few minutes of frustrating search, the keys are found but the level of irritation caused by missing keys has no correlation to the level of delay. A similar delay caused by something a last minute phone call is nowhere near as annoying.
The reason why is because losing your keys is a bad story. There is a bit missing – the point the keys fell down the back of the sofa when you were watching TV. Our brain cannot fill in the gap and to the brain, when something is unexplained, it means danger. A delay caused by something easily explainable is less annoying because all the parts of the story are there.
Ug, Krg and family are foraging for food. Krg hears a strangled cry from the undergrowth and rushes to find Ug dead. What killed their mate? Is it still nearby? Will it attack again? Sparing no time to morn, Krg grabs the children and runs.
Stories are part of our survival instincts and when we cannot make a good story, one that explains everything, our bodies prepare for danger because that is the best survival mechanism. On top of these primitive instincts we have many layers of neurological which have learnt that the loss of a set of keys does not spell immediate danger. Yet somewhere in our brains, there is still a bit pumping out stress inducing chemicals just in case. When we find the keys and can put together the sequence of events which makes it clear there is no danger, our brain releases chemicals to damped down the stress and we relax.
Stories Matter In RPGs
A tabletop gaming need stories otherwise they end up as frustrating as losing your keys. A sequence of explainable events (e.g. a random dungeon) may be exciting at first as the player’s brains react to the potential danger of an incomplete story by releasing stress chemicals. Yet without the release of tension by finding a story, stress levels continue to build until the players become annoyed and dissatisfaction. Finally there is boredom as the player’s brains become normalised to the lack of a story.
Gamers, whether they are players or GMs, who pay attention to the power of a good story will get more out of the game. It is their adventures which will be the remembered and talked about. Don’t believe me? Then answer me this question, do you fancy eating the red berries from the spiky leaved plant?
Photo Credit: Jack Berry