Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Let's Talk About Feelings

Now, calm your sphincters. The good news is that this isn't another of those "game vs. story" posts. The bad news is that this is a "logic vs. feelings" post, and I expect people to wig out even worse about that.

Bowing to Strange Pressures

Tabletop roleplaying games occupy an unusual ground, in that play can legitimately be directed both by strategic and mechanical considerations, and by whatever emotion is called for by situation and narrative.

Bear in mind, it wasn't necessarily supposed to be that way. If anyone created that balance between logic and emotion originally in the larval form of the RPG, it was the Imp of the Perverse.

Suffice it to say, though, it's here now and just maybe you need to be more aware of it.

A Happier Time, Before People Cared

It was the early 1970s. Tactical Studies Rules (TSR) was the plucky little underdog to the raging behemoths in the wargaming trade like Simulations Publications Inc. (SPI) and Avalon-Hill (AH). And if you remember what wargames were like in those days, the pieces moved around the map tended to be large units, or small units so interchangeable that they'd have what these days we'd call "no characterization." Conflict resolution was usually handled by single die-rolls, the possible results of which were a) stalemate, or b) whole units being eliminated. There wasn't much room there for anything like "yes, but" or "no, but."

<getoffmylawn>And by gum, they liked it that way.</getoffmylawn> (I'll get into that a bit later.)

Wargames are from Mars...

But suffice it to say, wargames were done this way. But then came a game that did things that way, and things got a little weird. And out-of-hand.

The game was Chainmail, the original game for which Dungeons & Dragons was first conceived as an expansion, and it was one of the earliest games to take that wargame formula and apply it on the personal level. If there was a unit on the map, that unit was the whole assembly of the group controlled by the players.

Remember how I said the wargamers liked how they played their games? As roleplayers became numerous enough to be counted as a demographic, there was more and more tension between wargamers and roleplayers. Some events were roleplaying-exclusive, some were wargame-exclusive, and it felt at the time like there were few that readily accepted both. There was some genuine vitriol shared between the "grognards" and those upstarts that were doing wargaming wrong. Little actual violence, but some of them were really big into snubbing and shunning. You couldn't spread the disdain with a knife—you'd need a trowel.

For a modern perspective, consider the "pc vs. console" debate. Or the "old-school vs. story game" debate.

Oh, yeah. Sorry, it may creep a little into "game vs. story" territory, if only by example. Ultimately, rest assured this is still all about "logic vs. feelings."

You know it. But do you feel it?

That little bit of history (and its consequences) dovetails into what I ultimately want to talk about: If you're playing an RPG, there's going to be emotion in it. And you should be aware of how its presence (or absence) will affect play.

(E)Motive Force

First, I feel (I know, there's that word again) that I need to prove that the emotive, touchy-feely stuff is even more integral to the roleplaying game than the dice or GM are. The endgame here is to prove that not only is the emotion important, it has to be considered because blind emotion may, nay, will affect not only the game, but also the dynamic between the players around the table.

Lawful Neutral: The Game

So, let's start a mental exercise. Let's take an RPG, played all-out full-tilt as a game, not some sort of foofy story engine. Rules provide no color, no connotation, no meaning beyond the mechanical circumstance and response. They represent only the most pragmatic and mechanical elements to the presentation, no fluff, no touchy-feely tomfoolery. The board or map has no art, just black-and-white line-based diagrams and text boxes describing what effect the suggested representation of terrain has on play. Fortunately, the goal of the game is clearly described, so whoever is playing this game has a clear picture of what way to go.

Characters can be treated as bare sets of numbers as well. These attributes don't even have to be labeled, so a high number could be intelligence or strength or dexterity or something else. But you can't call it those, because they have connotation. You might as well give them short strings of letters, like variables to a computer program. The computer doesn't care what the variable is called, or stigmatize it for your choice of name. It only cares that you spelled its name correctly.

What results is more than just the deaths of body-shaming and the stigma of being dumb. It's decidedly unfamiliar and has some severe problems. Even in the face of a clearly stated goal and clearly denoted sides trying either to achieve that goal or prevent that goal from ever coming to pass, strategy becomes king and a lot of considerations that might affect your decisions are thrown out the window.

In the system above, the barest, most clininal take of a situation may look like...

  • background: game_entity_421 stands in way of goal.
  • declaration: game_entity_421 wants to prevent direct attacks to self, by blocking incoming attacks with game_entity_649.
  • action succeeds: attacks on game_entity_421 will instead affect game_entity_649 until game_entity_649 is either destroyed or released.
  • declaration: game_entity_649 employs skill_39 to prevent direct attacks to self.
  • action fails: direct attacks on game_entity_649 are still available.
  • declaration: attack game_entity_649 to remove defense of game_entity_421
  • action succeeds: game_entity_649 removed from play. game_entity_421 may now be attacked directly

...but reintegrate connotation and emotional triggers into it, and what happened? The bad guy picked up a hostage—in this case, a young girl, who pleads with you not to attack and to save her somehow. That plea doesn't affect you because whatever the equivalent of a willpower stat is was high enough, and in response you cut through her like butter so you could get at the guy who really stood in the way of your plans.

The action, which made sense only when framed in the coldest of logic, would be outré to most players, unless they were playing the most coldly logical characters. Or they knew something about game_entity_649 that made eliminating her worthwhile. That logic may be cold, but it can be complex, convoluted, and deep.

In this way, the very descriptions of things in an RPG will affect all aspects of your interaction with them, from basic dealings to life-and-death decisions. So, claiming that a game that uses actual evocative text like names for attributes and weapons and armor and people and magical spells and houses and good and evil and stuff like that, is "purely non-emotional?" action fails.

It wasn't an RPG, but someone did design a board game this way, boiling actions and "resources" being moved to their minima and giving players one clear win condition. It didn't quite achieve its goal of total neutrality, nor was it supposed to—the names of real-life places, and their associated emotional baggage, were left intact. It was called Train.

Manipulative Bastardry? Why, That's Baked Right In!

For players, there's not much here that can help you in play. Those connotations and the resulting emotions give whatever story is being told around the gaming table their force. They really shouldn't be ignored, unless you're going to play one of those coldly logical types.

In fact, I'd described in a fairly popular (for my broll, anyway) previous post how the story could emerge from something as cold as a bare set of rules and a situation. It's the trappings of the situation and their emotional loading that guide the players' actions and make the story. Even if the parts themselves don't have much emotion wrapped around them, the emotion they're imbued with based on how they're presented gives the story its legs.

So, GMs... I think you can see where I'm going with this...

Basically, use your words. Choose your language to evoke feelings. Get the players emotionally invested in whatever situation is unfolding. Get them angry. Embarrass them. Reward them with the satisfaction of a job well done through the adulation of their beneficiaries or the fulfillment of their needs. Instill fear, whether because the situation is a complete unknown or because they understand it completely and doubt they can untangle it before very bad things happen. Pique curiosity with mysteries, and give them reasons to investigate.

The story happens because of the emotion. The players, or their characters, have to be invested in what's going on. In moderation, that emotional investment is a good thing because it animates the story and keeps things moving.

New challenge: Spot the two dangerous words in the previous paragraph.


It's the "in moderation." Too little emotional investment, and the players might not play at all. Plenty of emotional investment in the setting and general goings on, but not enough in the specific adventure going on at that moment? That's when games meander.

Too much? Well, that causes very different problems.

"Too Much" is the Lurking Beast

"Too much what, emotional investment?" I might see you mouthing. And in response, I would have to tell you: Yes. Oh, absolutely, yes.

Too much emotional investment is one of the big reasons players cheat, from something as minor as misremembering one's attributes to misreading dice, to out-and-out lying about dice, attributes, previous actions, and anything possible to get the greatest advantage in the game.

Too much emotional investment is why players throw and smash dice that roll crap for them at just the wrong moment. They may be crap dice with chi-squares skewed down (or up), or they may be the ultimate neutral arbiters, but they rolled badly that one moment when it really mattered so they have to go.

Too much emotional investment is why players will threaten other players' characters (or in extreme cases other players) when they think their narrative integrity is being threatened, whether or not it actually is, and whether or not it's deserved.

Other weird comparisons are possible over the long term, too. Too much emotional investment from a very successful game or two will make players cleave to very specific character types or systems, making it difficult to play anything else with them. Different genre? Different mechanics? Nope, they want the character type that they thought was the best, and the game that backed them up, and if it means crapping all over a new game because they want to play their old character in the old system, then brace yourself — poop is coming.

Too much emotional investment in a particular way of playing (again, I'm looking at you, narrativist/simulationist divide) will make it difficult to wrap your head around other potentially satisfying ways to play. Not that the invested will ever be satisfied with any style other than their own, of course.

Too much emotional investment is why people feel entitled toward specific settings or systems, such that if the wrong people try to participate, they lash out at the interlopers in order to preserve their game the way they think it should exist, whether or not the original designers and authors agree. This is how gaming monocultures form, and that's a very bad thing.

And something about "cooler heads" prevailing

Ultimately, what all this means is that you want to get people excited about the game being played right now, in their characters, in the situation, in the adventure, and in the mechanics. But to enjoy the full panoply of games that are out there, that excitement has to be compartmentalized.

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