Emotional responses in RPGs

Started by KevinH, July 01, 2010, 02:17:34 PM

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Hello all,

in this thread Horror in Sorcerer: Does it happen, is it different?, I raised the question, "Do any rulesets reliably elicit emotional responses, of any form, from the players?"

To be clear:

If X is defined as the set of Rulesets that reliably elicit an emotional response from players,

a) is X the empty set? Ie, are there games that elicit emotional responses?
b) if a is false, what are the values of x, such that x is a member of X? Ie, What are they?

To answer a; I think there are some; MLWM, Vampires (the one based on Hungry, Desperate and Alone), probably loads of others. I wonder, though. The rulesets I mentioned play with very negative emotions, which brings up another question:

If Y is defined as the subset of X that elicit a postive emotional response from players,

c) is Y the empty set? Ie, are there games that elicit positive emotional responses?
d) if c is false, what are the values of y, such that y is a member of Y? Ie, What are they?


p.s. Maybe there's a better term in use here than Ruleset, but what I mean by Ruleset is:

The parts of the (Lumpley) System that are provided by the game designer(s) and publisher(s), that are not necessarily part of the mechanical Rules. Ie, colour text, fluff, even the way that rules are expressed or named or examples presented.

p.p.s. By reliably, I mean consistently and (somewhat) predictably. Can I say, "I want to play a game so all my friends and I will end up feeling wistful and Edwardian?" and know that if I play My Life with Sorcerorbabe in the Vineyard: Carnage among the Childish Things we will (usually) end up with that response.

Christoph Boeckle

Hello Kevin and welcome to the Forge!

This sure is an interesting topic, but as the forum guidelines demand and my own powers of mental representation require, could you please give us an example of a session where a specific rule set did elicit emotional responses of the type you wish to consider, or blatantly failed to do so when it was supposed to?

Regarding your question of whether "ruleset" is a good term, have a look at Vincent Baker's breakdown, it could well cover your question.

Aaron Baker

Well, to use your math analogy, I would say that of game system worlds (colour text, fluff, even the way that rules are expressed or named or examples presented).
If A is all game systems, X is game systems that are intended to elicit an emotional response, and B is game systems not intended to do so, that B would be the empty set.
Granted, a generic system (GURPS) would not, but GURPS Fantasy would...
But there are two crucial differences between what you asked and what I just said.
1.  Intended to elicit an emotional response vs elicits an emotional response.  Ebberon is intended to make players have feelings of intrigue, slight paranoia, and wonder-but a lot of Ebberon games become generic fantasy.
2.  Emotional response vs Strong emotional response, which I think was left unsaid but meant by your post.  I feel slight nervousness and "danger," when my character in DnD is low on HP, but not much.
There is also the question of whether emotions that are player based but not character based fall into your question, in other words, when my character is low on HP, my emotions don't match my character, I think "crap, I will have to roll up a new character," while my character wonders "Have I been good enough to go to the elysium fields, or am I destined for Limbo?"

I think a better (no offense) question might be "what systems elicit the most emotional reaction, and of what type.  What systems elicit positive emotional reactions on a regular basis?"
BTW, I think you will find that positive emotional responses and strong responses will be somewhat mutually exclusive, which is more the nature of human emotion than anything else.  Think about your strongest emotional reactions in real life, you will probably think mostly of negative emotional reactions, with the exception of a few experiences that I don't think a game can duplicate (birth of a child, marriage, first experience with the opposite sex, etc.).
That said, I think the best method for building positive emotional responses from game is having a DM who listens to player goals, and then makes them work hard for them (not making them impossible, but making each goal take several adventures).  When a character earns that goal after a year of hard work, the accomplishment and pride is probably the best positive emotional response you can get from a game.  Far exceeding the pleasure of finally ending a recurring villain or saving the kingdom.

Callan S.

I think you've got it the wrong way around - the ruleset doesn't make players, as in any old person who plays it, feel something.

It's the other way around - people who feel something because of how the game is written, are attracted to it. The ruleset doesn't control emotions, it is just an object that certain people/players might find attractive.

It's the same as food - really spicy food doesn't make people go 'yum' - indeed some people will scream! But the people who like the spicy food are attracted to it. It's attraction, not emotional pupeteering.

Yet another reason to actually write out all the ways you play, so people can see them and be attracted if they are so inclined.

Jaakko Koivula

I might disagree with Callan a bit, but I still think the spicy food metaphor is not that far off. Eating spicy food might make me go "Aaagh!" and you "Yum!", but it still elicits a burning sensation in the mouth. That's not personal. How much I enjoy the sensation, is. This naturally makes some people eat spicy food and others to avoid it. But the spicyness is still there, even if you decide to not taste the food. If you eat it, it will burn you, even if you aren't attracted to the feeling.

Getting scorched by chili is basically a physical phenomenon, so the same sort of mechanism can't really work as causally with gaming, though. But can it still work to some degree? Can a game be so humour-laden, that even the most stone-faced humour-hating goth might be forced to chuckle while playing? Im leaning cautiously towards yes.

Example: We were playing Paranoia at a gaming convention years and years ago. Some had never played Paranoia and others had. This lead to all sorts of fun. For example: Our group had got an experimental grenade from the R&D-boys. Leader of the group (whose player had never played Paranoia before) DEMANDED, that he as a leader, had the right to test out the grenade. As he pulls the pin, the rest of the group unanimously dives for cover. Grenade turns out to be some sort of sonic-explosive, that naturally activates instantly in the leader's hand, turning the guy into sort of thick paste. The rest of the group high-fives each other for avoiding having to test out the grenade and also getting to blame the leader for "obviously traitorous misuse of highly delicate and important explosive device".

It's been such a long time, that I don't really remember how the player of the leader reacted to this. Hopefully he found it funny too.

My point is: Paranoia is a game that elicits hilarious black blood opera fun. Everyone is expected to betray each other and get tons of laughs while doing that. It's a game that's supposed to be fun, but only if you enjoy the ludicrous setting and the deathly slap-stick comedy that propably happens when you play it. I personally find this exceptionally funny and humorous, where someone else might just be disgusted and annoyed. But if you have even just some basic capacity to enjoy slap-stick, then you propably will be amused by Paranoia.

Also, the more I think about this, the more unsure I get about everything. It's just impossible trying to think about roleplaying without the people involved. If you have a bunch of utter bores playing Paranoia, I don't know if it would be any fun at all. Even though the rules and setting would make them blow themselves up a lot and Computer would drop anvils on them constantly. You need the right people, to make the game do it's magic. I think this might've been Callan's point.

Players use the ruleset to produce some kind of play for themselves. The question might then be: How important or necessary is the ruleset, in making the desired kind of play happen?

If you've got five funny guys around the table, they might not need Paranoia to laugh a lot. But without Paranoia, it would just be talking and joking. How about this: "Rulesets help to define, focus and elicit the desired emotional reactions that the players want." Depending on the quality of the game, they do this either badly or well. I think that at this point we could maybe benefit from more examples of games that do this exceptionally well or exceptionally not.

I'll throw one suggestion: Under the Bed. Elicits all sorts of emotional reactions, but basically only what the players bring into the game. Maybe sort of catalyst for anything the players want to feel? Not inherently funny or terrifying as a game, but just generally emotionally intense?


I only have a partial answer.

(As a preface, I understand you to be asking about what I call "game mechanics" as opposed to "sample setting".  There are plenty of RPGs with amazing sample settings that draw in and energize many people who read or play them, completely apart from the accompanying game mechanics.)

In my personal experience the dominant issue is how slowly combat happens.  Some players really enjoy detail and are invigorated by rolling dice several times for every swing of the sword when the action is suspenseful, detailed, and internally consistent.  Other players find that their suspension of disbelief is shattered when the game's pace abruptly slows from narrative storytelling to combatants making attack rolls.

Thus your question has two answers.

Yes, there are players that get more into their characters and the story with positive emotions when the game's combat mechanics show them "Your brave outlaw is backing up the stairs, fencing with three palace guards, able to use the height advantage to parry successfully while dishing out small nicks and scratches; but he is tiring dangerously quickly" or even "Whish!  There goes the kobalt's left ear!  I guess his hearing is all right now."

And, yes, there are games that use no dice or minimal dice to avoid blow-by-blow combat, which is what other players need to maintain positive emotional connection with their characters and the story.

Callan S.

QuoteYou need the right people, to make the game do it's magic. I think this might've been Callan's point.
Pretty much the exact opposite, really. But it probably seems similar as it's just a slight shift of priority.

"You need people to choose the right game for them, to make the game do the magic it does (for the people who'd choose it)"

QuoteIf you've got five funny guys around the table, they might not need Paranoia to laugh a lot. But without Paranoia, it would just be talking and joking.
Even with the book 'Paranoia' open upon the table, if they make the same jokes and talk the same talk as they did if the book wasn't there, the books presence and refering to it is a pointless act. The rules need to be designed so when refered to, they create a significant difference as to what would have happened if you just free formed. 'Need' to as in otherwise it's just more effort for no result, which is surely a waste of time? It reminds me of an old joke where an old man has been advised to please his young bride by bringing in a young stud to wave a towel around while they made love. It didn't work, so he's advised to wave the towel around while the young stud makes love to her. They do so and after she climaxes the man says to the young stud 'SEE! THAT'S how you wave a towel around! Do I have to show you everything!?'

If the RPG rules involve just waving a towel around, it's pointless to refer to the book.


I'm a little late to the game on this thread, but I think it's a really interesting topic. In my experience, one game which consistently succeeds in eliciting it's desired emotional response set (tension, anxiety, fear, defeat, and relief) is Dread.

For anyone who hasn't played Dread, a quick summary:
You play the game with a big jenga tower in the middle of the table. Any time you take an action which could result in failure, you pull a block from the tower and place it on top. If you do so successfully, your action succeeds; you can give up part way through and your action fails. Or, if you knock over the tower, your character dies / is removed from the story.

Unlike any dice-based (or card-based) game I have played, Dread evokes it's desired emotional responses through a physiologically-taxing system. Pulling a block out of a jenga tower becomes increasingly difficult, and thus increasingly stressful (moreso, and in a different way, than rolling dice). The stress increases your heart rate, etc etc physiological science with which I am not intimately familiar, and due to your involvement in the game, you may experience the stress of the system as fear (or anxiety, etc).

This is, I think, similar to the spicy food comparison. Fundamentally, it is a physical stimulus which is designed to encourage a certain emotional response from the players. Of course, if you simply aren't connected to your character or the game, then there is no stress in removing the blocks -- you have nothing to lose if the tower falls. Similarly, if you just don't like (for example) thai food, then you don't lose anything by not subjecting yourself to the spiciness.
Brad H

Anders Gabrielsson

So creating a game that elicits positive emotional responses could be done by creating an environment that creates the corresponding physiological responses? Hm.

Earlier today I thought about what the emotional impact would be if you played in a dimly lit room with each player in a relaxed position on a couch out of the line of sight of the others, with maybe some candles and soft music. It's something I'd like to try, but it would require a game you could play comfortably lying down.


Jenga tiles don't do anything so predictable. I know a lot of people who would be bored or careless or too agitated to enjoy a game based on a Jenga tower (I love Jenga and hate that I haven't played Dread yet). I have seen grow men get giddy when they pick up more dice than they can comfortably hold, cheer for high rolls, throw fits over low ones, etc... I'm pretty sure there's something physiological behind those responses too.

I think the problem with talking this whole elicit emotions thing is that in RPGs there SEEMS TO ME to be a lack of "this is good, in and of itself, despite my personal tastes" kind of talk or interaction. Think about other artistic mediums: anecdotally I can site dozens, maybe more, instance where someone said, you know I hate the style of music that Slayer makes, but I can recognize how technically proficient they are, or I don't go in for classics, but I understand why Casablanca is such a significant film. What I get from exchanges like that is there is a recognition that something can be good, or of high quality, but not fit our particular tastes, and that people who are very into music or film or whatever medium, learn what marks various standards of "good" without (necessarily) having any personal connection to the art. I'm not saying that this is totally lacking in the RPG community, or that any given individual fails to see things from this perspective, but I would argue that in game design there is not enough history or variety (perhaps until very recently) to teach people "Game Appreciation" the way that we teach "Art Appreciation."

I hope that ramble makes sense, and I would love to clarify anything thats confusing.