Psychology and D&D (Part 1 – The Peak/End Rule)

I am not a psychologist, but I play one on the Internet.

However, I am something of a polymath.  I’ve been interested in many aspects of science ever since I was in school.  In particular, I enjoy learning about how humans think, especially since I find I tend to think differently than most other people (for good or bad).  So, I tend to read lots of pop psychology books like Fooled By Randomness, Blink, and You Are Not So Smart.

My latest read is The Paradox of Choice, by Barry Schwartz.  The main thesis is that we live in an era of massive amounts of options, but that these options have not made us more happy about the choices that we do make.  I think this has applications for RPG gaming, and this is a summary of some of my thoughts on the ideas in this book and their application to RPG games.

The Peak-End Rule

The Peak-End Rule describes the fact that how we remember a past experience is determined not by the sum of the experience, but by the mean of how we felt when the experience was at its peak and how we felt when it ended (for good or ill).

One example involves colonoscopies.  One group of men was given a normal colonoscopy, which is quite uncomfortable, whereas the experimental group was given a colonoscopy with a difference:  at the end of the procedure, the instrument was left in place for 20 seconds.  While the experimental group had the same amount of discomfort as the control group during the procedure, the introduction of a period at the end that was not unpleasant improved how those men felt about the experience later.  In fact, the experimental group was more likely to comply with follow up colonoscopies.

Although I haven’t read any reason why we think like this, we probably evolved this way.  After all, this could very well be why sex feels best right at the end.  This could explain why women have more babies after their first despite the pain and discomfort of the pregnancy and delivery:  the final act of being born means the mother gets to hold the baby in her arms, and at that point she’s doomed.  🙂

This is why symphonies end their performances with a crescendo. This is why great stories end with a climax.

This is why the Canucks Stanley Cup run in 1994 is remembered more fondly by myself than the Cup run this spring.  <sobs>  However, this is also why Canucks fans always remember Bure and Adams scoring in overtime in 1994 and why we’ll always love Game 7 against those blasted Hawks this spring <YEAH!>.  This is why, despite winning 13 gold medals up to the last day of the 2010 Winter Olympics, those Games wouldn’t be as fondly remembered by Canadians if we had lost the gold medal in men’s hockey to the Americans.


This is why Chris Perkins gets such great mileage out of ending his D&D sessions on a cliffhanger.

This also is one of the reasons that it bothers me that 4e combat takes so long to resolve, even for ‘minor’ fights.  I’ve found that many of my D&D sessions have been unsatisfactory.  Because our group only can play for 3 to 3.5 hours per session (including the obligatory chit chat at the beginning), I’ve often found that we’re getting into combat with around 45 minutes left in the session.

This situation resolves in three ways:  we either stop the session early,  we record the battlemap at 10:30 and continue the battle at the beginning of the next session, or I remove monsters from the combat.

The first choice is bothersome since we don’t get a lot of time to begin. The second choice tends to be problematic with getting back into the groove at the beginning of the next session and often the players forget what powers they’ve used.  The last choice actually has happened twice with climactic encounters:  first the end of Chapter 1 in the Tomb of Horrors, and the second the climax of The Slaying Stone.  With the Tomb of Horrors, the PCs never actually got to defeat the main bad guy (this is also when I decided that I didn’t like the ‘you win, how do you mop up’ solution to ending fights).  With the Slaying Stone, the combat wasn’t nearly as interesting as it left out one group of monsters.  In both situations I wasn’t very happy with the way the session ended and thus have negatively impacted how I felt about the adventures as a whole (even though they are objectively great adventures).

Some ways you can take advantage of the Peak – End rule are:

  • Don’t fret over every single combat encounter or roleplaying event.  Try to create one or two really special encounters.  If you can only come up with one, make sure it’s the last one.
  • End your sessions on a cliffhanger or a dramatic revelation.  Even if the session wasn’t that special (or worse, not that great), ending on a high will keep your players and yourself enthused about the game.
  • Think carefully about continuing your campaign to Paragon and Epic levels.  If combat length is a problem with your group, this issue will get worse, and if the end of the campaign becomes unenjoyable, it could negatively impact how your players feel about the campaign as a whole.
  • If the party is TPKed, consider either continuing the campaign with new characters or at least closing out the campaign in a more satisfying manner.

So what are your thoughts?  Any more ideas on how to take advantage of the Peak-End rule?

Next I will look at what The Paradox of Choice discusses about how we choose, and how this applies to roleplaying games.


Part idiot. Part old man. All geek. I'm a 37-year old meteorologist. No, not one of those guys you see on TV, but someone who actually forecasts the weather. In my spare time (what I have with a toddler), I game. Mostly I run a D&D 4e game every two weeks, but also play Warhammer 40,000 and Warmachine. I'm a skeptic (not a cynic) and am interested in political topics. I can be followed on twitter @ArcaneSpringbrd

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About Arcane Springboard

I'm a 37-year old meteorologist. No, not one of those guys you see on TV, but someone who actually forecasts the weather. In my spare time (what I have with a toddler), I game. Mostly I run a D&D 4e game every two weeks, but also play Warhammer 40,000 and Warmachine. I'm a skeptic (not a cynic) and am interested in political topics. I can be followed on twitter @ArcaneSpringbrd
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6 Responses

  1. I do wonder if the existence of more bookkeeping at the very end of every combat in 4E (e.g.: the short rest) has an impact with regards to the peak/end problem. Just thinking aloud. Nothing formal or interesting to say.

    • I’m not sure that the bookkeeping has a lot to do with it, but I think that the base encounter progression where the monsters are strongest right at the beginning, and then the PCs usually steamroll through the end makes the ending not nearly as interesting.

      • I hear you. But honestly, I’m not sure the “mop up phase” is unique to 4E either. But I’ve noticed that the pause in the action that ends every combat to refresh powers and spend healing surges does seem to diffuse a lot of tension. After a climatic, end of game fight, that’s okay. But in the fights building to it, you want to keep the tension rising. You know? Anyway, this is way off topic and aprorpos of nothing anyway. I was just thinking out loud. Or typing what I was thinking. Whatever.

        • I don’t think this is that off topic- just a different aspect of the original idea. Usually, when the fight ends, that is our break time, so bookkeeping happens right after the break.

          I think the mop up phase can be avoided somewhat. Your ideas for boss fights is one great way. Having monsters run away or surrender after some big dramatic moment (the BBEG dies, a huge fireball decimates the ranks) will avoid mop up and make the dramatic action have that much more impact. It will increase the peak moment.

          Back on to the original topic, this article is a good insight and a reminder to all of us about why we want to end our sessions with a dramatic moment.

  2. Good point about the book keeping. I usually have roleplaying or other action immediately after combat resolves to keep the players engaged, but there’s going to be some amount of “surging up” and looting after any fight.

    Chris Perkins’ article today about building “3-act” encounters has something to say about this, with adding twists or reinforcements to make an encounter have some dynamics in it other than monsters coming on strong then getting steamrolled.

    I do wait until the end of the session to give out XP, however. Players love XP!

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