Most good games evoke emotions, but some emotions are much easier to work with than others. When you try to get your players to feel a certain way, you run the risk of making someone upset — this can be very dicey!
There’s a line to walk when trying to trigger emotional responses from your players, and where exactly that line is depends on the emotion in question and the folks in your group. There are three categories: simple, challenging and nigh on impossible.
I’ve assigned a variety of emotions to these three categories. Which category an emotion wound up in depends on two factors: How hard it is to evoke that emotion, and how tricky it is to work with. (Within each category, emotions are listed in alphabetical order.)
With well-crafted NPCs and plotlines, these emotions aren’t too tough to bring out. They’re also not terribly controversial — you can evoke them without worrying much at all about your players’ reactions.
Challenging emotions are either fairly hard to evoke, or dicey to mess with at all. Fear, for example, is an easy one to take too far. For example, if one of your players is afraid of spiders, it would be downright mean to bring an actual spider to the gaming table just to freak them out.
Nigh On Impossible
I’ve never seen either of these emotions evoked in an RPG — and if I did, I think it would creep me out a bit. It’s one thing to be passionate about the game, but could you really feel either of these emotions about something in-game?
All of this begs the question: Should you try to evoke emotions in your players? Or should you just keep emotions in the back of your mind, and let them develop naturally at the table?
The real question is: Why are you trying to invoke emotions in the players? What is the goal of the endeavor? Evoking emotions in the characters that those players control is a collaborative effort between the players and the GM, but evoking any emotions in the players themselves is a risky proposition.
A good player will recognize the efforts of the GM to play to his character’s weaknesses/blind spots and play out the emotions appropriately (and to the entertainment of everyone present).
If a player associates so closely with their character that they cannot separate their character’s emotions from their own, they need to not be playing that kind of game. That kind of player will eventually melt down in game, because of some percieved slight, ruining the evening (at least) for everyone.
If the GM feel that he/she/it needs to evoke emotions in the players to get them to play out those emotions in game, then maybe the GM needs to work out a better “social contract” with the players, so they both know better what to expect and what is expected.
When the GM tries to evoke emotions in the players, it is just too easy for someone to become generally uncomfortable with the game, or upset about what was done. Its just not worth it.
I think it’s a good thing to evoke emotion at the table. I tend to think of roleplaying games as the modern equivalent of the tribal storyteller around a campfire. We’re examining life, telling great tales, acting out the deeds of great heroes we’ll never have the chance to be. Because of all this I think it’s great to evoke emotion. Invoking, maybe not so good, evoking great. Slight difference in semantics there.
I can think of 3 times when emotion was evoked from the players, and it was brilliant. The first was a combat scene between a kind of yeti, and my warrior character. The DM and I were acting it out, epically, moving with the motions, then going back to the table and rolling. There were no bonuses to hit for my upward swing to the creatures gut, or the raking of the claws down on my head, but every other player there, sat rapt with their eyes wide. When we stopped, and apologized for taking the focus, they made us go on in the same style. They didn’t want to stop watching. It was a truly epic fight.
The second was the fear and loathing I brought out for a villianess. Everytime she came on the stage (to torment the main character in the group), I would play the song whatever lola wants. Her machinations were so subtle, and so ingrained to the character that whenever I play Whatever Lola Wants, or he hears it, he screws up his face and says “Damn Lealia”, and goes off on a 5 minute tirade about the character.
The final was on the verge of a TPK in the final session of a long running game. The dragon god was about to nuclear breath blast the heroes, they had given it everything they had, and could see no way of getting out of it. One player grabbed some magic draining chains they had (which they had melted down from components of an airship), and threw them at the dragons mouth. I gave him a last ditch, no chance roll to be able to act fast enough, and another one to be able to make it. He had to roll 90% or above on 2d10 percentage dice. The dice read 90 exactly. It was just a dice roll, but it was the one thing that saved the party. The feeling of relief they had at that, was so massive.
So while I think it’s hard to make these things happen in the players psyche, and sometimes people can take it too seriously, they’re the experiences I talk about from gaming. They’re the ones that stick out in my mind. Invoking or bringing out a charactesr emotion, is a whole different bag, but evoking emotions from the players is the goal (along with the always goal of people having fun) for me when I play. It shows they’re connected and attached to the game.
You guys have two very different, equally valid perspectives, and you express them clearly. Well said!
One should absolutely invoke emotions in the players, not just the PCs. Strictly simulated emotions in the PCs misses out on a key component of why other forms of entertainment, theater, movies, books, television, even watching sports, is so fun. An emotional involvement draws the participants in. Given that physically all you are risking is a set of numbers written on paper and perhaps a few hours of time, emotional involvement is perhaps the most significant stake players bring to the table.
Properly done, most players will thank you. Even some of the challenging ones can be fun. For example, while fear is hard to evoke and will turn some players off, others really enjoy the simulated thrills and dread, just like they’d enjoy the thrills of roller coaster or the dread of a really good horror novel.
Martin, I like your rough breakdown, although I’d suggest some fiddling with the categories. Happiness can be a bit challenging to specifically introduce, players are pretty good at signalling what will make them happy. The easiest route is to give them someone to be jealous of, someone to hate, then give them the chance to beat them. Generally, empowered players tend to be happy.
I definately agree that Love is Nigh On Impossible. I’ve never seen it done as anything other than acting in an RPG. I’m not surprised as I’ve never had any form of entertainment invoke love in me. Perhaps a little bit of a crush (which I think is possible in a tabletop game), but nothing more significant. However hatred is possible. Hard and risky; but possible. The key risk is that the hate will be misplaced. If the goal is to have a player hate a character, the player may direct his hatred at the person portraying that character, be it a PC or NPC. Neither one is good.
To me, the issue isn’t your goal, but what you’re doing. Playing your NPCs up to the elbows is inspiring and can persuade your players to step up and match your efforts. If you’re describing atmospheric effects (Ravenloft’s clammy fog, the crack of a branch as they flee in the dark, etc.), that’s also great– just make sure that you’re not spinning out so much description that you’re destroying the scene’s pace. Neither of these is a direct attempt to make someone feel something specific– they’re just good GMing.
On the other hand, you may want the PCs to engage with an NPC. If they don’t, they don’t– it’s pretty hard to force them to take interest in someone they’ve decided is scenery. On rare occassions, you can use this when they encounter the NPC again– but don’t overuse it.