Flashbulb Memories: The Pinnacle of Gaming?

September 11, 2001.


If you were born prior to 1990, then you likely remember this date in history. You probably recall what you were doing that morning and throughout that day. At the time, I was in graduate school and woke up from my telephone ringing. My girlfriend (now wife) called and said a plane hit the World Trade Center. Groggy and slightly disoriented, I ambled out to the living room and turned on the television to see live footage of two smoking towers. We stayed on the phone because her father was flying into Washington, DC that morning, so she had no idea if he was safe (he landed safely in Detroit). The clearest memory I have from that morning is being on the phone with her and watching the first tower collapse and being dumbfounded as she gasped in an agonized and empathetic voice, “Oh my god – all those people!?”

This is called a flashbulb memory – “a highly detailed, exceptionally vivid ‘snapshot’ of the moment and circumstances in which a piece of surprising and consequential (or emotionally arousing) news was heard.” In addition to 9/11, other commonly referenced flashbulb memories are events such as the JFK assassination, the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger and the night O.J. Simpson drove his white Bronco down the highway. These specific memories are reinforced and strengthened because they are based on a shared experience – and in the examples above, they are shared with an entire nation.  

Flashbulb memories are a type of autobiographical memory. For example, most people may not remember what they did on October 30, 2009. But I know I flew from across the country to visit family and attend a Pearl Jam concert. My friend and I went to Tony Luke’s before the show, ate in the parking lot, found a way to upgrade our tickets and watched Pearl Jam blow the roof of The Spectrum. It’s an experience that I can recall with accuracy and reinforced by the fact that I shared the experience with a friend. (Side note, they showed footage from this concert in PJ20, which blew my mind when I first saw the movie!)

On this smaller scale of autobiographical experiences, tabletop RPGs provide a unique environment for flashbulb memories for those in the gaming group. One of the first things I noticed when I joined a long-running gaming group was the sheer number of shared stories about prior adventures they celebrated. The level of detail in the stories was interesting because they were routinely talking about earlier editions of Dungeons & Dragons (that I never really experienced) and it was so nuanced. I cannot do the stories justice – perhaps one of my former gaming cohort will share a tale or two in the Comments below – but moments from gaming sessions taking place many years ago were recalled as vividly as if they just happened yesterday. And the memory was rehashed and enjoyed by others in the group who experienced the same unique event.

To put it another way, the players enjoyed telling their war stories. Below, I talk about a recent event in our Blade Raiders campaign that will live on for many years and how a DM can set the stage for flashbulb memories to “pop” for his or her gaming group.

The Wrendof Experience

Jognik's Treasure is a great adventure that can be source material for any game system. And only $5.
Jognik’s Treasure is a great adventure that can be source material for any game system. And only $5.

A group of us have been playing the new game, Blade Raiders. The game features easy character creation and a flexible rule system that is easy to jump into – heck, even my wife has played twice and she is typically against playing tabletop games. Without spoiling the adventure module we were going through, The Hunt for Jognik’s Treasure, is populated by a NPC named Wrendof. Over the course of two sessions, Wrendof interacted with the party and the adventure culminated in one of the most absurdly ridiculous moments I’ve experienced while gaming.

To quote a genius by the name of Inigo Montoya, “Let me sum up.” A string of events transpired over two sessions that led to a pivotal moment in the adventure when our party was likely in for a world of hurt. Because of specific interactions with Wrendof and decisions made by the party, two consecutive improbable and perfect-for-the-situation rolls brought the house down, saved the day and immortalized Wrendof forever. Songs will be written about him – literally, one of the players has a band – and it’ll be one of those flashbulb memories I’ll relive with the group for years to come.

In many ways, this is the essence of playing tabletop roleplaying games. It’s about a group of people coming together to create a unique story with twists and turns with surprising and unexpected results. No one person could have planned the outcome of our adventure searching for Jognik’s Treasure; collectively, the group created a sense of drama that fostered a specific event in the game to be amazingly crafted. As a result, the group will carry this shared experience from the gaming session forward. Wrendof is now part of a shared lexicon that only those folks sitting at the table understand. Playing tabletop games is about exploring, meeting people, completing quests and killing monsters. But it’s these memories that keep players coming back. However, because they are unpredictable by nature, it may be a challenge to achieve them in all their glory (or infamy). The DM can set the stage for flashbulb memories with surprise, consequence, arousal and rehearsal.


The first element of a flashbulb memory is the individual must be surprised – he or she cannot expect the event to take place. It must be unpredictable by nature to become ingrained in the memory system. As a DM, surprising players – especially those seasoned by many years of gaming – is a difficult task. Roleplaying game players have typically consumed a great deal of fiction (e.g., novels, comics, movies, television shows, and many RPG plots) to know all the usual tropes. In my 4th Edition D&D campaign, players were routinely guessing about the course of the plot and hypothesizing about what was to come. It is a form of metagaming and something I tried to steer away from as much as possible. So how does a DM surprise players who have seen it all?

Avoid relying on routine plot paths. Keep the party off-balance as much as possible. And allow the players to guide the story instead of scripting  too much of the adventure ahead of time. For players to form a special memory about a gaming session, an event must take place that was unexpected. The players have entered a cave to defeat a dragon and take his treasure plenty of times; take those expectations and twist them to engage the players in a new way. Create an environment in the adventure that forces players to break their routine. Guide them to surprise each other; reward players throughout the campaign who perform an action that is outside “the ordinary.” Zig instead of zag!


The second element for flashbulb memories is for the stakes to be high. Events that have significant short- and long-term consequences will be remembered more often than events that do not change the course of a campaign.  The consequences must be related to something the players care about. When creating worlds and running games, DMs can fall into a trap of caring more about certain characters and plotlines that the players do not. Learn what the players invest their time and energy in during sessions. One does not need to wait until high-level play to set events in motion that are dramatic and far-reaching.

A direct consequence for players is character death. The death of Aeofel is probably a flashbulb memory for those who played that game. It was a surprise and resulted in major consequences for one of the players in the game. It does not mean that killing off a player will always result in a special flashbulb memory, but it demonstrates the weight of consequence. Players must believe their actions matter. Whether it is protecting a shipment of goods, defending a town from bandits or stopping the plans of Orcus, the decisions of the players must have consequences – all the time. The DM can turn up the volume on the consequences involved in the adventure at key moments to increase the likelihood that an adventure will be remembered for years to come.


The third element for a flashbulb memory is emotional involvement. The person remembering the event needs to have an associated emotion to enhance the memory. The emotion could be fear, sadness or joy. When a person has heightened arousal (not that kind, ladies and gentlemen), his or her memory system is more engaged. From an evolutionary standpoint, this can be understood through our “fight or flight” system – which my Intro to Psychology professor informed me regulates the Four F’s: fleeing, fighting, feeding and fornication (let’s keep this classy). For example, when you are young and you touch a hot stove – you learn the following lesson quickly, “Touch the hot stove and I get burnt. That hurts, so I’m not going to touch the stove again.”

The DM can model the expression of emotion through the actions of NPCs or through his or her own excitement. If a moment in a gaming session seems awesome, then really let the players know through the voice of a NPC or act like you just witnessed one of the greatest things ever. Go over the top. Ham it up. Learn what is driving the player and/or character and play on those emotions.


The final element of flashbulb memories is repetition or rehearsal. A memory is strengthened when we do not allow it to be forgotten. One method for remembering an experience is to keep thinking about (or processing) the information. After the attacks on 9/11, most conversations revolved around the events of that day. “Where were you when you found out?” became a common question to answer, and that answer was repeated over and over again. Those memories were further crystallized during the first, fifth and tenth anniversaries of the events as the entire country rehearsed their involvement in the day’s events.

In a tabletop RPG, the DM can repeat the details of a significant event from a prior gaming session. The DM can strengthen an experience by rehashing a situation from an earlier adventure and talk about how special it was for him or her to experience. By displaying their emotional investment in the experience and rehearsing the events with the players, it encourages the players to do the same. Manipulative? Perhaps, but if it is genuine emotional investment, the players will likely reciprocate.

Blade Raiders – Where Epic Happens

In closing, the events of our Blade Raiders adventure certainly shared these characteristics of a flashbulb memory. Our adventure culminated in a surprising manner that none of the players – or the DM – could have predicted. The event held major consequence because it directly affected a NPC the party had gotten to know for two gaming sessions and a powerful villain was dramatically shut down. Our DM – the creator of Blade Raiders – went wild (along with yours truly) when the moment happened and continued to share his emotion throughout the rest of the session. Not only did he display emotion (more as a DM than a NPC), he repeated and rehashed the experience throughout the night and subsequent days. Wrendof will live in infamy; we shall talk of him for years to come.

Make it happen with your group, and share your flashbulb memories from gaming sessions below. I’d love to read them!


Author: The Id DM

The Id DM is a psychologist during the weekdays. He DMs for a group of fairly loyal and responsible PCs every other Friday night. In the approximate 330 hours between sessions, he is likely anxious about how to ensure the next game he runs doesn't suck.

3 thoughts on “Flashbulb Memories: The Pinnacle of Gaming?”

  1. As a DM, I often play up the fact that the monsters and villains are playing to win by myself playing to win. I cheer for the monsters, boo the players when they do well, and just generally root for my team just like the players root for theirs. I do this not because I want to win (a well-balanced encounter against reasonably good PCs is rarely winnable for the DM), but because I find it creates a greater emotional investment in the players. People on the outside have called this an antagonistic attitude, but if it is done with good grace and respect (you can cheer for your team without being a dickcheese to the rival team), it can cover the EMOTION portion quite well and help to create memorable scenes. Plus, it helps unifies the players.

    1. I think it can be fun to be antagonistic, but there certainly needs to be a balance. I think you’ve used the phrase, “Build encounters fairly and play to win.” That can be done through RPing the monsters as you described. And if the players have something to latch onto other than, “You take 16 damage, okay, next turn,” then they are likely to be more invested.

      I am not that good with improv so I would think ahead a bit and write out specific taunts as reminders. I did this with the No Assembly Required monsters and people seemed to enjoy that addition. Otherwise, I’d forget to RP enough or use lame lines repeatedly.

  2. Spot on about Flashbulb memories making the campaign. My favourite flashbulb memory from my campaign:

    Heroes pursuing villian on floating platforms above the mountains. The villian summons a dire bat that knocks the party’s dwarven fighter off the platform. He falls thousands of feet and passing out of sight as he falls through the clouds. The heroes press on to confront the villian, a powerful Conjurer, as he finishes a ritual creating a collosal Black Sun of necromatic energy. The paladin smites the villian causing him to lose concentration but he still manages to complete the ritual. Now that the Conjurer can give his full attentions to killing the heroes, things look very dire. Then from nowhere a young adult silver dragon who the heroes rescued from an ettercap colony swoops up to the aid them. On her back rides the fallen dwarf fighter. [At this point everyone at the gaming table (who were all convinced the dwarf was a red puddle) lost their sh*t!] The villian cursed them but gloated that he had still managed to finish the ritual then teleported out. The heroes’ celebrations are brief – from a safe distance they watch the sun occluded by the Black Sun and a shadowy beam of negative energy strikes a town below (including many of their NPC friends) turning its inhabitants into a pack of mindless beasts.

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