Mastering the game: The Peak-End Rule

Spot the peak, and then go for it!

We all want to run memorable games. We also want our players to really want to join our games, instead of just participating because their sense of duty.

There are bazillion tricks to run a memorable game, and here is one more! This particular trick is based on psychological thingy called The Peak-End Rule.

Here is a Wikipedia quote because it explains the peak-end rule far better than I ever could: “The peak–end rule is a psychological heuristic in which people judge an experience largely based on how they felt at its peak (i.e., its most intense point) and at its end, rather than based on the total sum or average of every moment of the experience.”

In game master language: After the game session, your players remember two things: the peak moment and how they felt at the end. Other stuff is not forgotten, it is just not “used” when your players subconsciously evaluate the experience.

Now, you can use this information in many ways but here are some applications from my head:

When I’m designing a session, I always try to make sure that there actually IS a peak moment in the session, whether it’s an emotional meeting with a NPC or a fight to the death. Something that stands out. It feels obvious when read here, but I’ve both ran and participated so many game sessions that are dramatically just a flat line: either there’s something epic happening all the time, or there’s nothing happening at all.

For your next session, try to identify the peak moment and build your session around that. What are the players expecting to happen during the peak moment? Make a list of your players’s expectations — and then surpass them all!

Also, when I’m running a game, I always, always, try end the session when people are still energetic and willing to go on. When I end the session, I want to see disappointment (“Not yet!”) on my players’ faces, not relief. Quality over quantity, people!

There are tons of research about the peak-end rule, and my text here is a very simple take on the subject. If you want to know more, start with a classic.

Until next time!