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Guest House: Writers Write

Emotion in Role-Play

by Eric Nail
July 31, 2001  

The face of role-playing has changed since I first started playing in 1986. Although some games have always emphasized character portrayal over tactics and numbers, these RPGs have proliferated over the last few years. It is now almost cliche to say that a modern RPGs emphasizes role-playing over roll-playing. Accurately conveying a character's personality and emotions is, however, a difficult thing. Almost none of us are professional actors, and many of us have never even taken a drama course. We're hobbyists, and we do the best we can with what we've picked up along the way.

One easy way to quickly add depth to a character is to have them experience vulnerable emotions, such as fear and wonder, when appropriate. A character who displays a variety of emotions, both good and bad, is generally more believable and empathic than one who does not. People in the real world experience a whole range of emotions, from abject terror to awe to elated happiness, so a realistic character should do the same.

I mention the vulnerable emotions specifically because they are more often overlooked. This may be because players are uncomfortable having their character express any weakness, any chink in their armor. Some find it nearly impossible to have their character feel something they themselves do not; the character may be gazing up at the beautiful idol of a long-forgotten Dark God or staring down an ancient dragon, but the player is seated comfortably at the gaming table. Others may be unwilling to tap into these very personal, primal emotions in front of an audience. My only advice concerning overcoming these difficulties is that experience helps and tactful, constructive criticism helps even more.

A character who displays a full range of emotion can also be more enjoyable for the GM and the other players. A fully three-dimensional PC gives the other players something interesting for their characters to interact with. It can be fun to explore the other characters' personalities, hopes, fears, and quirks over the course of an adventure or campaign.

It is especially rewarding for a GM when characters display strong emotions, such as fear and fascination, during an adventure. When a GM puts work into describing forgotten, crumbling ruins or a horrible monster in all its gory glory, they want to see the characters - and, by extension, the players - react to it strongly. In this way, the character's emotions are a compliment to the GM.

Vulnerable emotions also add spice to the game. There is little excitement when the characters - and, therefore, the players - don't think they can lose. These emotions also give the character more obstacles to overcome in pursuit of their goals. A hard-won victory is far sweeter than one which comes easily. In addition, vulnerable emotions help define a character's most heroic traits. Without the darker emotions, courage and valor are meaningless. If a man has never tasted self-doubt and despair, how can he truly be courageous?

The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding, go out to meet it.
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What do you think?

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All Guest du Jour columns

  • The Ten-Minute Guide To Becoming a RPG Transvestite by Shanya Almafeta, 02sep03
  • Gamers Who Rock by Jason Sartin, 03jul03
  • Play is Political by Johan Soderberg, 01jul03
  • Darren MacLennan provides The Ten Deadly Sins of GMs, January 23, 2002
  • Darren MacLennan provides Marching Goes Johnny Home, December 14, 2001, an adventure
  • Darren MacLennan provides a Wild Weekend at Turner's Junction, October 30, 2001-- our first adventure!
  • Kyle Voltti on Would I Be Gaming This Week? September 14, 2001 [about 9/11]
  • Eric Nail with Emotion in Role-Play July 31, 2001
  • JT Scott's gaming Renaissance June 1, 2001
  • Todd Downing on The RPG Player's Checklist May 2, 2001
  • The Hitchhiker, Head: the Floating April 1, 2000
  • Mark Strecker on Accurate Arthurian Gaming January 4, 2000
  • Joanne Ellem on From the Trenches- chicks in roleplaying and other stuff August 3, 1999
  • Bailey Watts on Portrait of Goob June 29, 1999
  • Eva on Eye of a She-Gamer May 11, 1999
  • Darnit Jim, I'm an Adventurer, Not an Exterminator! January 12, 1999
  • Paul Franklin on So You Want To Do Reviews for RPG.net? December 22, 1998
  • Shadow Sprite on The Economics of Gaming December 23, 1997 (or, "How to Dissuade Those Pesky Non-Gamers")
  • Mike Montesa on being an expatriate in Japan October 21, 1997
  • Lise Mendel on Coming of Age An insightful and personal look into what it means to be a gamer. September 30, 1997

    Other columns at RPGnet

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