Getting in the Player’s Mind

Tabletop Role Playing Games (RPG) occur in the mind.  Sure, there are dice and pencils, character sheets and players but the action that is described is meant to ignite our minds.  Now a majority of what happens in the brain occurs in the subconscious and that is true of the game experience to so we must try to understand how it works.

There are four processes  that our brain undertakes that facilitate game play.  These are;

  1. Modeling;
  2. Focus;
  3. Imagination; and
  4. Empathy.

Mind – Modeling

The brain needs to filter what is fed to it from our senses and turn this into a reality for us.  What it obtains through our eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and nerves in our skin all culminates in the brain as a modeled whole of the surroundings about us.  That means that each of us never really deals with reality, instead we are dealing with our own perceptions of reality.

This is a static image and yet our minds alter the reality of that image.  Thanks Wikipedia for the image!
This is a static image and yet our minds alter the reality of that image. Thanks Wikipedia for the image!

The above image’s dots do not change color but they appear to based on the way our brain processes the image.  The image is a static “png” file with no trickery or animation and so our brain alters the perception of the image based on where we look at it or where our focus is held on the page.

Consider the idea of light and how we view it.  Visible light, infrared, ultra violet and microwaves are all the same thing but at different wavelengths on the electromagnetic radiation scale.  Our mind translates what it is capable of experiencing and models that into our experience of the surrounding world.  It does not mean that these other things do not exist but our mind does not have a filter for them so does not apply them to our model.

Rainbows appear to us to have defined block colors but in effect they are a smooth transition of all colors and no such definition of lines exist.  In fact, colors do not actually exist and it is just our minds way of modelling a perceived reality.

Cartoon image of Charles Darwin and his Books
Illustration by the artist Goedecker in 1871 after the publication of Darwin’s Descent of Man.

This image appears to be of a man but in reality it is ridiculously not a man.  The head is much too large for the body, the features are unnatural and it is made up of lines which is nothing like a man.  The brain models it so we perceive a man, especially as the brain is trained to read facial expressions so a large head does not register as unusual and we can gain information from the features of this caricature.

RPG’s hinge on the ability of the brain to model what is described.  Sometimes we hold up images from the book that allow the brain some visual focus to model and at other times we describe the scene and the model is built from the description.  Maps are a common way to explain and display what we want to model so the brain can get to it and do it’s job.

Mind – Focus

The brain is able to selectively focus on things whilst ignoring other things e.g. in a room full of people you can concentrate on a single conversation regardless of the fact that the sound waves from all conversations are hitting your eardrums.

What our brain focuses on is determined by our unconscious desire and our conscious will.  When we create an experience through a game our goal is to grab and hold the focus of the player.  If something grabs our attention we enter a mental state called “flow” where we focus totally on what we are doing and time falls away from us allowing no intrusive thoughts.

To get someone into the flow state you need:

  • Clear Goals: when we understand what our goals are in simple terms it easy to stay focused on task
  • No Distractions: Any distractions from the task reduces the ability to obtain a flow state
  • Direct Feedback: If there is a break between taking an action and finding out the outcome then there will be a break in flow.  If feedback happens immediately after the action the flow state can be maintained
  • Continuously Challenging: Need to have a challenge involved and it must be a challenge that the player believes they can achieve.  If they cannot achieve it they will be left frustrated and fall out of the flow mode.  It also cannot be too easy because it must be challenging.

As the skill in the game increases, so must the challenges.  In a game of chess this would be done by selecting more skilled opponents and in RPG’s this could be provided by the escalating skills of foes or dangers increasing in magnitude.

Dial set to comfort zone
Getting the players to the flow is something you may need to tune the dials to. Image shared by Creative Commons Share Alike 2.0 generic licence by Trevor Blake

To maintain the focus the GM must ask the following questions of themselves:

  • Does my game have clear goals?
  • Are the goals of the player the same goals that I intended?
  • Are there parts of the game that cause the player to become distracted from the main goal? Can these distractions be reduced or tied into the game goal?
  • Is there a steady stream of not too easy, not too hard challenges to take into account the players skill increasing?
  • Are the players skill increasing at the rate I had hoped? If not, how can I change that?

The first two of these questions can feel a little contrived if you are attempting to run a sand box style game, but even then the questions are incompatible.  When setting up the sandbox you would have liberally set up hooks at locations and with various NPC’s and the questions above would need to be directed based on the hooks that the players involve themselves with, not the overall goal of the game if you had planned it more on a plot arc.

Mind – Empathy

Humans are able to imagine or project ourselves into the place of others.  This allows us to consider the feelings of others.  It is one of the fundamental concepts of game play in a Role Playing Game.  Without this ability we would not be able to imagine what it would be like to be a futuristic space traveler or a fantasy based barbarian that lives day to day with large flying creatures attempting to eat her.

Humans have been seen to show empathy with robots that were subjected to harm.  Image found here under a Creative Commons Licence
Humans have been seen to show empathy with robots that were subjected to harm. Image found here under a Creative Commons Licence

We tend to do this on a sub conscious level where simply by seeing someone experiencing an emotion allows us to feel it as well.  This can even extend to photos, drawings and even descriptions of situations etc. which is why it is a powerful thing in a game as we can draw players into the game using such things in our presentation.

Empathy is the key to the success of a true RPG where the players are asked to provide responses to stimuli based on a character concept.  This requires that the player is capable of thinking and feeling like someone or something else and respond to modeled imaginative stimuli as the character would if the situation was in a real world.

Mind – Imagination

Imagination puts the player in the game by putting the game in the player.  The imagination is used on a daily basis in communication to elaborate on details told to us to “complete” a picture.  These facts are often only in our minds eye and never actually communicated to us directly.

Child sitting in their own imagination
Harnessing the imagination is the key to an RPG. By Mehdinom ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

This is because our mind works in simplified models of reality and so can manipulate those models effortlessly and unconsciously.  The descriptions that we come up with are modeled by the brain but given life by our own imagination.

A player can picture their character and your world by using this process.  Descriptive words in your play enables the player to bring a great vista to life in their own heads.


You may wonder why I described all of these thing to you.  I hope that you realise that the reason is because these are the four things that RPG’s are founde on.  For us to build an experience that is fun and engaging we must design with these ideas in mind.  Sure, I do not often sit down at the designing table and directly ask myself does this build the model, focus, empathy and imagination in a player but I do sit at that table and know that if the design fails it is because of something I missed.

Build some questions for yourself that you ask when you are building a game.  Things like “Is this going to be fun?” or “Can I imagine this?” and maybe “Is that description good enough?”.  Each of these questions will guide you toward matching your design to the above ideals and get the game inside the players mind.  Trust me, the players will thank you if you do.  Keep rolling!

Many thanks go to Jesse Schell and his book The Art of Game Design for this post.

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