Emotional Play in Games


This post is a reaction to Bluestockings’s Be Vulnerable: Emotional Play and Toxic Masculinity. I’ve been chewing on it for a few days, and I find that there are important things it doesn’t say, solely relative to my own gaming space. Nothing you read here is going to reject anyone else’s experience or tell Bluestockings how she should have written this better – if you think you’re seeing that, well, I did something wrong.

My gaming experience is strongly, though not exclusively, in the span covered by fantasy adventure, even when the game is Mage: the Awakening or Over the Edge. There’s been a smattering of Paranoia, a soupcon of Nobilis, and… I think everything else has been adventure with at least a shading of fantasy. So what typifies this most common genre of gaming?

  • Violence is central.
  • Either a good-and-evil dynamic or unbounded greed (we tend toward the former and away from the latter).
    • This drives players toward emotions of either (self-)righteousness or callous and murderous greed.
  • Most wins and losses are total for one side or the other
    • This element isn’t necessary, and GMs everywhere push against it, but the general trend remains. Moreover, because of items 1 and 2 on this list, enemies that outlive an encounter are usually an unsolved problem. The point here is that compromise and negotiated wins or losses are not favored, and players push against them.
  • Protagonist and antagonist strength tend to increase over time. You get stronger, so you take on bigger threats. Scaling the danger of the threat includes scaling the breadth of the threat, so the protagonists are defending ever grander things from destruction.
    • As a result, there’s a particularly great sense of needing to prove one’s mettle against new foes. This drives players toward pride, and toward scorn for the opposition. It’s interesting that this is true even in social encounters where the other side is anything other than a clear ally, or a victim of the enemy’s iniquities.

The core emotions of this situation are all things that Bluestockings spells out: feeling “satisfaction, achievement, mattering, validated, appreciated, victorious, powerful, anger, pride.” I think that the fundamental nature of adventure gaming as we’ve experienced it pushes this outcome. When it’s paired with agency – the power to act on a situation – anger feels good. For what it’s worth, the player (and character) most noted for incandescent rage is a woman. 

My experience suggests that a pretty wide variety of men, women, and genderqueer players enjoy feeling the emotional cycle of an adventure – mounting righteous anger, hardening of the character’s ethos, and finally vindication and pride. To put that another way, everyone wants to be an iconic hero, weathering the storm and stress of the world to prove the superiority of their heroic ethos. Ultimately, what I see is that fantasy adventure dwells in a space that actively rewards the patterns of toxic masculinity.

This isn’t a criticism of my players. Not even a little bit. My players do choose negotiation as a first approach, every time; they do try to work through legal channels; they do try to accept the society that I present, and fit their characters into it. In most cases, though, their adventures are vigilante justice and righteous indignation. There’s nothing wrong with that! It just doesn’t push beyond the dynamic that we’re talking about here. I hear a lot of jokes about murder-hobos in gaming, but my players – tabletop and live-action – just don’t seem to be the arbitrary-murder type. (If you’re an exception, you don’t need me to call you out. You know what you did, and that is punishment enough.)

LARPing Is Different

I’ve also played and run various boffer LARPs with these same people, as a partial overlap of much larger LARPing community, for… uh, almost nineteen years now. Other LARPing communities have very different experiences, but what I’ve seen is that many male-identifying players bring up times that an encounter or storyline made them cry as some of their most memorable and important experiences. Fantasy adventure is still the general thrust of the boffer LARPs I’ve played (Eclipse is science fantasy adventure), so there are villains to thrash and towns, countries, or worlds to save, but there’s also more breadth of emotional experience.

I think there are two main reasons for this. First off, players have no contact with the game staff or NPCs for substantial stretches of the 36-hour event. They generally fill this time with social interaction with other players, creating a lot of room for romantic interest and tension (not all players go in for this, but I think it’s clearly in the scope of emotional play), as well as exploring in-character platonic friendships, political maneuvering, and so on. In a LARP, many separate scenes can run simultaneously, simply by spreading out to different parts of the game site; in a tabletop game, there’s generally only one scene going at a time, so that scene needs to fold in as many people as possible.

The second reason is that my gaming community has always had a significant number of women, both as players and staff. It’s not that men run masculine emotions, women run feminine emotions; it’s that everyone is more on their game when varied views and styles get to inform one another. High Drama blended with intense, stakes-driven action is magic – humans are hardwired to engage with this stuff.
I don’t immediately know how to bring that lesson with me back to tabletop gaming. I don’t have a lot of options for a co-GMing setup, though I think it’s cool that other groups do.

Approaches

How do you dismantle the identifying items of fantasy adventure I’ve outlined above without also destroying what makes fantasy adventure enjoyable?

Violence. The thing that steers players toward violence as a solution is that games are tilted so that they can consistently win. When you write an antagonist, answer this question first: “Why can’t we just go beat the bad guy to death?” There are a lot of viable answers – the castle walls are too high, there are social repercussions we aren’t willing to accept, the enemy is a lich and will just re-form – but put some serious hurdles in the way of a straightforward, violent resolution.

My favorite answer at the moment, though, is the one that exalts the protagonists to heroic status and lets me quote Hamilton lyrics. “We are outgunned. Outmanned. Outnumbered. Outplanned.” The protagonists don’t need to be on their back foot all the time, but they need to start out about as far in the hole as they could be. Earned victory is the kind that feels best.

The benefit to emotional play here is that it should help PCs engage more with their allies, and an overwhelming enemy may be able to force the PCs to negotiate from a position of weakness. This isn’t wish-fulfillment fantasy – but if you’re interested in both fantasy adventure and emotional breadth, you’ve got to leave simplistic wish fulfillment behind.

Good-vs.-Evil Dynamic. It’s important for the PCs to have goals, and it’s fine for those goals to be doing the right thing, or improving the state of the world. However you want to express Good as an ethos. But goodness is not an assertion, it is a judgment made in the long term. No matter how much a character believes himself to be good, that isn’t enough to justify actions.

Evil is all too easy to reach, though. It’s the oldest GMing (and story writing) advice out there, but make sure your villains’ actions make sense in their own context. Reward empathy with the villains’ cause. Create villains who are broken people, not monsters in human form. (A mix of the two will suffice.) Give the villains emotional bonds with the PCs – family, former mentors, admirers, and the like – because it’s harder to purely hate someone who has conflicted feelings about fighting you.

Use your NPCs to set further examples for the complicated ways people relate to one another. Maybe their main ally is the daughter of their main enemy, and she doesn’t want to destroy him so much as fix him – so they can either engage in the messy work of changing his mind, or they can risk losing her as an ally.

Total Victory. This can be tough to arrange, but the main thing is to write encounters with multiple goals, and as goals get checked off, the threats also increase. You won’t be able to do this in every situation, but where you can, it’s a good thing. It adds teeth to the players’ choices about priorities, and if they do stick it out to seize a 100% victory, it will mean all the more to them.

Stakes. The rules for restoring dead characters (PC or NPC) to life are designed to keep the action moving and get characters back into the story with a minimum of fuss (but a hit to the PCs’ bottom line). It’s hard to get a lot of sorrow out of a character making another trip through the revolving door of death. One of the most commonly debated topics, and sources of house rules, is raise dead and related spells. If you want to deepen the emotions of your game, make the cost of these spells something more than a spell slot and a pile of diamond dust. The god of Death should always have a price with real teeth.

Deeper Friendships. Many of the icons of the genre are duos or larger groups with deep, compelling friendships. Tolkien broke his Fellowship into twos and threes so that he could deepen their characterizations and connections. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are there for each other. Games other than D&D, such as Dungeon World, have meaningful mechanics for this. You certainly could adapt PBTA’s Hx bonuses into D&D, but if you already have players interested in deeper emotional experience, maybe that isn’t necessary. Frankly, I’m not sure how to push this in the game, but what I plan to try a little more often is asking players direct questions (in front of other players) about how their characters feel about something that another PC has done or said.

Conclusion

I like a lot of what Bluestockings has to say, and her recommendations of intent are solid. My goal here is to analyze why fantasy adventure gaming typically lacks this emotional depth, and to drill down to the character level on how to implement her recommendations. As much as anything, writing about it is a way for me to process and internalize it. I hope that I can hone my GMing skills to not only open emotional space to men, but to everyone at my table – my experience suggests that the women at my table have gone another with the predominant flow rather than really playing differently.

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