In design, the greatest tool for improving a game is iteration. There are very few games that are completely, objectively perfect, if any at all. Iteration is vital to improving upon an existing game, from the smallest parts to entirely new editions and systems; however, this concept can be equally staggering as it is interesting. It’s dangerous to go alone, take this guide and make the first steps of evolving yourself from player to designer.
When drawing the eye of the player, things that stand out will stand out, whereas common elements will continue to be common. While it may attract their attention, this will also attract their ability to remember. This is also known as the von Restorff Effect, a phenomenon of memory in which noticeably different things are more likely to be recalled than common things.
Most often used in marketing, the von Restorff Effect is used in such examples as contrasting something that is aesthetically “clean” or organized with something that is visually engaging. When listing something, items at the beginning or end of a list are naturally more easily memorable than items in the middle of a list, unless the middle items are different.
While best used visually, this can be used in description to place a visual in the mind of a player when artistically unavailable. While a giant, throbbing, red area of the final boss might be the most likely area of doing noticeable damage, it is immersion-breaking in that there is no reason for such an area to be giant, red, and throbbing.
Here's an example. The players walk into a rather well-furnished room of an important person. Within the room, they found a very nice couch, a meticulously organized desk, an ornate and decorated gun hanging above the fireplace, a desk with a lamp, and a well-suited rug.
Of the previous description, the most memorable element would be the gun above the fireplace. It is not a piece of furniture, it is the only piece that can be held and inspected by the player easily, and it is concertedly more interesting than other such furnishings of the room. Most importantly, while it is still a furnishing, it is not a piece of furniture in the mind of the reader.
I could continue to use that gun in any aspect of the life of the important person. I could also trick the players into viewing it and have it have no real connection to any other section of the game, making it a Red Herring. Most importantly, in three sentences, I have delivered a concrete piece for the rest of the session that the players will naturally and organically assume is important.
In any setting or any establishment, easiest way to describe something and have it exist as relevantly more catching than other elements would be to “highlight” the element. In that sentence, the word “highlight” is bolded, to catch your eye, and make you focus on the point of my statement without having to do extra work.
If the players are looking at a garden, and there are green vegetables, and green leaves falling from the brown oak tree, with a single patch of red roses in the middle, surrounded by a small white fence, they will notice the roses.
The scientific reason behind this would be that I led the statement with something that is green, and contrasted the natural setting with green’s complimentary colorred, then finishing with a rather basic staple of a garden being a generic fence. The roses did not have to be red, per se; they simply had to be different than everything else. As the only element that is red, it is naturally attractive.
Rather than having a series of elements that has subtlety to their differences, the most catching and immediate memory-catcher would be having something that is unnatural blended with something that is natural.
If I have a box of shapes, one square, one circle, one rhombus, one rectangle, and a shape of indiscernible points and edges that makes my eyes lose focus as I gaze into its many compartments, I would very likely have forgotten what the second shape was in this statement without looking at it again.
I am obviously much more interested in the element that is fascinating rather than the elements that are common, natural, or understandable. Then again, it is awfully hard to make shapes interesting as a description runs long without something being rather different.
These effects are mostly used when describing an area, as description and placing a thematic setting in the mind of the player is one of the largest and most difficult aspects of tabletop gaming. However, with proper use, the players will naturally lead themselves towards the intended target, simply by memorizing the pieces.
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