Become Emotional

"Sympathy for the Devil" (c) 2010 Chris SimsThe psychology of desire and attachment defines our lives in countless ways. This fact is true even in the roleplaying games. Every character you play is an extension of you and the desires you want to fulfill by playing. More elusive, though, is real attachment–emotional connection–to a game’s goings on. Fulfilling player desires is where much of the fun is, and this is something the DM should facilitate. But when circumstances in a game also hit a personal chord, they have more meaning and can create even more fun.

Have you ever noticed how almost every player enjoys the fights in a roleplaying game? That’s because combat has real stakes and real consequences to something valuable to each player–his or her character. The danger to each character strikes that aforementioned personal chord. This is an example of attachment or emotional investment at its simplest in an RPG.

Attachment, and the significance it provides to imaginary events, is hard to pin down. No unaltered publication, such an adventure, can pull it off for you or your fellow tableside explorers. Hooks in such products exist only to help your DM make the connection between a published work’s assumptions and the campaign’s reality. However, even with these tools, your DM can’t create all the necessary emotional involvement. You have to help. And you should, because everyone at your game table will have more fun if you do.

If the roleplaying aspects of a game aren’t as fun and exciting as combat, somebody has failed to make those aspects personally significant. Perhaps you haven’t provided the DM with the tools to create situations you (character or player) care about in more than a superficial way. Define your character meaningfully, and you’re on your way to bringing such game-enhancing situations forth. Even a shiftless, unaligned mercenary has motivations and secrets that can be tapped to enrich a game’s storyline

The 4e Player’s Handbook goes into a little detail on this subject in its second chapter. It aims at inspiring you to describe your character in nonmechanical ways, and it’s right in that you need no complex history or extensive motivations for your character. But like countless other RPG systems, it fails to clearly define why this exercise is necessary. Therefore, your choices can seem arbitrary.

A character’s quirks, appearance, and history can be interesting as a simple narrative that allows you to roleplay consistently. It’s more important, however, to define traits that motivate your character or others in ways that push game’s unfolding tale forward. Such traits should make the story personal and evocative.

Extremes, opposites, and mysteries are good places to start when defining meaningful traits for a character. The most interesting characters in literature and movies have strong attributes with contradictory flaws. Straightforward but potentially significant qualities also work. A noble warrior who hates orcs has difficulty when faced with an orc that displays honor or begs for mercy. An addict might put her addiction before the welfare of others. A thief with a heart of gold can’t just take the treasure and leave suffering in the theft’s wake. An adventurer who values family and friends returns home often and might share the wealth. A strange birthmark might have meaning.

Once you have a few of these traits for a character, simply answer one question for each–why? Does the noble warrior hate orcs because orc raiders slaughtered his or her family (cliché but still useful), or is this hatred based on the teachings of a mentor, religious order, or leader? Is the addict’s addiction someone else’s doing or the result of an addictive personality, or due to accidental exposure? Is the thief kind because of personal suffering or regret for a past deed? Do the ties that bind the family oriented-adventurer come from burdensome duty or genuine affection? (What if he or she is adopted?) Does the birthmark single out the character as a messiah in the campaign, or is the mark just the thing to send a religious fanatic over the edge for one encounter?

Players can (and probably should) work together as a group to come up with a few traits that two or more characters share. Is another character a lover, a sibling, an old friend, or a onetime rival? Could the party share an overarching affiliation or loyalty? Have similar circumstances forced the characters together?

These traits, even simply detailed, should give the DM a springboard from which to weave a tale  that is emotionally motivating to a character (and player) and the party (and players). The DM might, for example, decide that the noble warrior’s mentor is corrupt and deceitful. Clues woven into the game could eventually lead to a momentous confrontation with an unexpected but wholly personalized villain. Perhaps the party, sharing affiliation with the warrior’s religious order, has an interest in seeing such corruption rooted out. Will the warrior be able to confront and destroy a once-trusted teacher? How will the experience change the character? Certainly none of this will happen without some play-enhancing emotional investment.

Such traits also give other players special points of interest to interact with in your character. People are complicated, and groups even more so. Motivations mesh and clash. This give and take can be interesting at the table.

Players and the DM should emphasize the positive aspects of character traits, though. A DM should use them to influence the path of a session or game rather than to force an outcome. Players should use them as a means to facilitate roleplaying, rather than derailing the game with the infamous, “My character wouldn’t do that.” (Maybe not, but what would he or she do when faced with something important to a comrade?)

Molding a character and party to purposely build attachment to the game is a worthwhile task. Doing so allows the DM to reinforce emotional investment by taking cues from player desires expressed as character traits. The game then becomes a shared narrative that is sharply focused on its protagonists, rather than a series of unfortunate events heaped on the shoulders reluctant participants.

More to Come

If I get some interest, shown in the comments, I’ll write more about this from my perspective as a DM, using my recent campaign episodes as examples. I can also expand on player emotional investment in a session rather than just at character creation. Something can be said for using 4e’s background system to create more emotional investment and mechanical benefits, as well.

Feel free to use the comments to critique, as well. Is the essay too long, too impersonal, too whatever. That’s valuable information, so spill it.

Also, I have some interesting mailbag topics. I’m looking for more. Email me.

Check out the new bio, too. Identify the classic AD&D monster and source if you want.

14 thoughts on “Become Emotional

  1. @dwashba & Chris: I’ll try that, thanks! I already reward creative and rich descriptions of actions with a bonus to that action and it sure did help to enrich combats, though I have to remind them every now and then about being descriptive. 😉


  2. Thanks for the comments, everyone. I’ll get more into depth with this subject soon, especially in using existing game elements to define characters.

    zaha: I agree with dwashba that you can’t force those of a casual mindset to roleplay more intensely. The way I encourage players to be emotional is by presenting emotional situations–that matter to the player or the character. I also portray NPC emotions when they’re appropriate. If the DM shows he trusts the players with this sort of roleplaying, the players eventually start to trust each other, too. Moral ambiguity also works well (see below). Also, table awards work well–small bonuses such as the DM’s best friend (+2) work. When someone’s roleplaying entertains the whole group, I have even awarded an action point.

    Chuck Smith: Moral ambiguity is great for finding out how players envision their characters. Intraparty disagreement or clash of wills over “grey matters” can make for interesting scenes, as long as no player feels bored or bullied. The players and characters also learn about each other and what it takes to reach consensus in uncertain situations.

    E: Hopefully, future articles will give you more of what you need. I intend to talk about character mechanical choices and what they can mean for background building, as well as how players can make sure to be more involved.

    Vanir: Aw, shucks. 🙂

    Andy: That book is on my list.


  3. @zaha you should try and push your players to roleplay more but if they don’t respond then just except that there not the kind of gamers that like to roleplay with lots of emotion. It should also be noted that if you or others roleplay around these players they will slowly start to get into it more.
    .-= dwashba´s last blog ..Terror Tuesday #8 =-.


  4. Good post, this aspect of roleplaying games really, really needs to be exposed more. Ever read “Creating Emotion in Games”, by David Freeman? Good thought-starting on the very same issue.
    .-= Andy´s last blog ..An Epiphany =-.


  5. Chris, allow me to practice being emotional now.

    I ❤ this article. 🙂

    What you've described makes the difference between characters you remember (whether it's love or hate), and throwaway characters. Who cares how strong they are or how cool their gear is if you don't give a crap about them?

    You've also finally answered for me why I don't like playing multiplayer FPS games…. there's no risk, and no emotional attachment to anything.
    .-= Vanir´s last blog ..Become Emotional =-.


  6. Hey there,

    I’d love for you to go more in depth with roleplaying and tips and tricks for making stuff more interesting for the Party 🙂


  7. MOAR!!1!

    Seriously, though, I would like to read more like this. As a DM I had tried to get the players to make their characters involved in the world and the story by creating hooks for themselves. It never worked, and I had to instead put hooks in for them, which always felt weak and/or forced. I’ve been reading the 4e DMG2 and that book has some great ideas about cooperative world building that I would like to try.

    For now, though, I’m on the other side of the DM screen for a while. I’m definitely going to encourage my fellow players to invest their characters more in the story.


  8. “A noble warrior who hates orcs has difficulty when faced with an orc that displays honor or begs for mercy.”

    I’m blessed with a truly whacked group of RPers as players. At the beginning of the campaign (some 5 years ago!) we had a discussion about what they wanted in the game. One guy said ‘morale ambiguity’ and they all nodded enthusiastically in agreed. This really surprised me, most other games I had run fell into the ‘epic quest’ style, but these guys were asking for me to plop them into situations that could NOT be solved by the swing of a sword.

    It has ended up the most successful campaign I’ve ever run 😉


  9. Great article, and a fantastic coincidence, as I am trying to encourage my players to roleplay their characters more emotionally as of late. If you have some advice on how to help them overcome their timidity to roleplay emotions, it would be a very much appreciated article.

    Right now we’re stuck on a rather shallow level concerning stuff like this, and I get the feeling this is partly because they are just too shy/afraid to be embarassed since nobody else does roleplay emotions.

    Anyways, I’m going to show my players this article first 🙂


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