What happens in RPG sessions? How the fuck do they even work?

Here, I am trying to externalise my mental model of how and why rpgs “work” — “why people, including me, play them and want to play them”. I don’t think the below is startlingly original, nor do I think it’s complete. But by writing it down I can expose the insides of my mind to the criticism and commentary of others, which is useful for learning.

I’ve written this in a way that can apply to GMed and GMless games. Details will differ, but the space of rewards is basically the same.

What do we do?

We do banter-like storytelling


Someone says something that implies/presupposes a particular imaginary world, then someone else says something that implies/presupposes it (or at least a world consistent with it), then a third… then thru mutual act-as-if we come to experience it as being real (that there are facts about it, and that it has a certain internal logic — those facts change over time due to causal rules somewhat like those of our own world).


As either of the occur, we socially reward each other (with attention, appreciative noises, eye contact, signs of positive emotion etc, my building on your contributions, etc) which encourages us to do more of the same.


Doing strictly more of the same soon gets boring, and the others stop reinforcing it, so we get creative and experiment with variant behaviours.


We follow rules and procedures that are supposed to lead to a good experience of this type — we trust them to lead to good experiences, including but not limited to ones involving the social reinforcement noted above.


We get visceral and aesthetic pleasures from the experience of the imagined world e.g. from imagining firing guns at our enemies.

What do we get out of the above?

We get fellow-player approval and the experience of fantasy

I think two reward types dominate.

Social rewards (S)

In the sense of “I tell a joke, somebody laughs, and that makes me feel good”.

Common forms in rpgs:

  • Clever action — you figure out that the tables from the other room can be brought in here and stacked up to reach the ceiling trapdoor. You’ve shown the other players that you’re resourceful (presumably out-of-game as well as in).
  • Social action — before you open the trapdoor, you say out-of-character “Why is there a trapdoor in the ceiling of an abbatoir, anyway? What the fuck is kept up there?”, and the other players grin nervously  — you’ve raised the tension.
  • Creative action — you climb through the trapdoor into the dark attic, and the GM asks “So, Merlina, what happened the last time you climbed into a dark place?” and you give an in-character account of climbing into a stilt-tomb as a child. The other players listen with rapt attention — you’re entertaining them.

Game-experiential rewards (GE)

In the sense of “I imagine the events in the game world, and that makes me feel good”.

Common forms in rpgs:

  • Safe fear — “I imagine being all alone in the dark cave, and feel a safe thrill” (much like the thrills provided by films, video games and rollercoasters)
  • Power fantasy — “I imagine manhandling the tyrannical landlord into the stocks, while all the villagers cheer”
  • Wonder — “I imagine standing outside alone, under the strange stars of a new world”

In the latter two social examples above, the other players are getting GE rewards in response to the subject player’s actions (and then are giving the subject player some S rewards in return)

S and GE have an uneasy relationship

S and GE can fight — a common example is jokes and banter breaking a serious tension or mood, which is people grabbing S rewards at the cost of GE ones.

S experiences occur predominantly during the game session, but they can occur offline through other conversations, chat, Facebook. And of course there is anticipation of such rewards, which is itself pleasant.

GE experiences can be stronger away from the table, in particular those related to game books as artefacts. The table environment is very distracting, and the polished nature of some game books jars with the messy experience you have from home-made material and the words the players say.

We get a pleasant selection of lesser rewards

There are some other rewards which I think are less important, perhaps because they happen less often or tend to be weaker.

  1. Technical rewards (T) — rewarding experiences from working with numbers, counting dice, looking things up on tables, etc. These are significant for many players, especially if you include the satisfaction of learning and applying rules — lots of us love that shit.
  2. Status rewards (ST) — a sense that e.g. by being a respected player of the game you are improving your social status – your recognition by the player group as someone valuable and important.
  3. Meaning rewards (M) — a sense that playing a game serves a larger purpose beyond the immediate game-local one. E.g.
    • Building relationships with other the players
    • Learning external-world skills (e.g. improvisation, social creativity) or otherwise gaining in competency
      • E.g. a GM may feel that they are getting better at leading small groups.
    • Meanings you feel but can’t explain — the game seems worthwhile, but you can’t say why

People are complicated — it’s not as clean as I just suggested

My suspicion is that M is triggered by subconscious predictors saying that some activity will eventually provide rewards beneficial to survival and procreation, most likely by increasing our social status or attractiveness in some way. Or rewards giving benefits for our and family and tribe. Most likely this means rewards that imply we have improved our competence — rewards that suggest (to these predictors) that we are doing well at life.

Such predictors of course evolved for a very different environment. They can profitably be fooled, although never perfectly.

My suspicion is that the distinct rewards can be put in a hierarchy, with “succeed in life” at the top and these game-specific things fitted in somewhat lower down. “M” will correspond to a class of node in the hierarchy where the experiencing person can’t clearly articulate why some thing feels rewarding.

But that is beyond my scope for now – it’s too complicated to think about. (Particularly given “tricking the evolved predictors” as a common practice – many reward experiences won’t make much conscious sense unless you understand the evolved predictors, which is a messy subject and not well understood even by the best experts of our civilisation.)

We can assume that all the named rewards relate back to some evolved drive, predisposition or targeting system, whether they are sensible or not in our modern environment. We are, after all, gene machines. And this means that the reward patterns of rpg play are likely to have lot have a lot in common with other activities — unstructured conversation, formal meetings, dating, sports [1].

The only things in rpgs that’s likely to be unique is “creation of a shared fantasy world” — an even that’s not totally unlike to the “agreement of a consensus reality” that goes on in a planning meeting.

Rewards sum to give the game it’s value

For each “reward”, above, there are “reward experiences” i.e. events that trigger the sense of such a reward. Again “I told a joke, somebody laughed”. Individually, these are small, but they sum together in our minds to a more abstract sense that a given (ruleset, playgroup, or campaign) is “X rewarding”. And that’s what makes us want to do it.

Games (rulesets, playgroups, campaigns) that reliably extrude the rewards listed above are good, and will attract players.


1. I chose those examples because they are cases where the subjective rewards are as important as any ostensible objective. Dating is an odd one, because it’s a high-stakes selection process, but it fits because the grounds for selection (“do I like this person?”) are often the same as the rewards experienced during the process — if you like them while dating, you’re likely to judge that you’ll like them long term. Contrast job interviews, where the (ostensible) aim is to make the best selection for their non-interview performance.


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