RPGs, Stories & the Brain

Why Stories In RPGs Are Important

The Brain Is A Story Teller

Stories are literally how we make sense of the world and not just through the obvious mechanisms of metaphor and fable. To the brain there is no difference between the story of why a dropped glass falls and smashes to the ground, from the story of World War 2 or the story of Lord of the Rings. To our most basic neurology, all stories are true which makes how we tell stories and the nature of those important in life generally and to role playing games specifically.

In our brains there is a mental model of the world as we understand it. When we think about changing the world – be it deciding what colour socks to put on or invading a foreign country, we use this model to predict the outcome of our choices. In essence, the brain tells us a story starting with the world as we know it, incorporating our action and finishing with the resulting changes to the world.

As our brains tell the story the experience triggers the same neurological and biological responses as if the story was real except they are toned-down, just echoes of the real emotions. If we think about jumping off a cliff we feel fear but not to the same intensity as if we actually did it. Our brains know the difference between reality (i.e. what we directly experience through our senses) and the imagined reality of the story though it can be tricked. The better the story telling, the more we reality and imagined reality blur making those emotional echoes more intense.

This neurological process is the basic structure of a story – there is an established world view in which something changes which stimulates an emotional response. The type and intensity of a response depends our emotional attachment to what’s changed, the consequences of that change and how well the story is told.

Stories Within Stories Within Stories

The modern human brain is remarkably adept at dealing with stories allowing us to play ‘lets pretend’ which mixes reality and imagined reality in real time. Humans can communicate a stories to another and even have stories within stories. In Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream the character’s in the story put on a play which asks us (the ‘real audience’) to feel the echoes of emotions triggered by the echoes of emotions of imaginary people.

Tabletop RPGs takes this further. We are not passive consumers just listening to the emotional echoes but part of the process. It is a mix of “let’s pretend” and traditional media which triggers enjoyable emotional responses. Stories are not the only reason for the pleasure we feel playing tabletop RPGs but they are a big part of it. For players and GMs, it is important to understand the nature of stories to improve on and expand the ways in which we enjoy a game.

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Photo Credit: Andrew Mason

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