Gamemastering for Emotional Impact Pt. 1


Emotion: The Raison D’Être of Roleplaying Games

Recently I wrote a preview article about how to use emotional strengths and weaknesses part of the Morality mechanic in Star Wars: Force and Destiny, an element that I designed in collaboration with Sam Stewart. At the same time, I’ve also had Deuterium Ice’s article on the lack of intermediary GM materials floating in the back of my head.

Over the weekend I was thinking a little more about exactly how a GM can dramatize these internal conflicts via an external impetus. How do you prep that? How do you brainstorm ways to illustrate a specific emotion? And then, how do you execute it through play?

The more I thought about it, the more I realized how hard it can be, especially for new GMs, to craft a social encounter specifically designed to draw out a character’s compassion or arrogance, or to develop an investigative encounter that can be solved by either harnessing the PC’s caution or succumbing to her anger, with different outcomes for each. And since I’m also wearing my writer/fiction editor hat even on my days off, I was like “damn, this is show vs. tell, but for roleplaying.”

Isn’t the real magic of reading when the author can combine words just so to evoke a feeling or emotional response in you, the reader? But as a game master, you have a couple of extra wrinkles added in. On the plus side, you have more than just words at your disposal: you have a full suite of props and mechanics, “intrusions” and characters, funny voices and body language. Yet, you don’t have control over the characters the way a writer does—you can only set the stage and introduce the scenario. All the preparation and delivery in the world isn’t going to help you if you don’t have buy-in on the part of the players, too.

I’m not sure that it’s something you’re likely to read in most gamemastering guides—it’s so fundamental as to be taken for granted—but I think it’s possible to frame one’s entire approach to GMing in this way:

The main job of the GM is to elicit or evoke emotion in the audience, i.e. the player. At least, that’s why I play roleplaying games, why I don the persona of another: so I can experience emotion I don’t normally get to in my day-to-day life. To me, emotion is the difference between a “meh” session and an awesome session.

Using this frame, all those hats a GM wears at any given session: actor, arbitrator, architect, entertainer, facilitator, storyteller—whatever labels you want to use—these are all roles we assume in the service of evoking emotion. But if you only learn the tricks and tips for these roles without the context, without having a sense of purpose of why we don these hats, your session can still fall flat without your understanding why.

This is a topic that warrants more than just a single article. I recently picked up Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias. It’s primarily for screenwriters, but I think it’s directly applicable for writers—and game masters, too, with a little translation. As I read through it, I’ll chronicle my thoughts and experiments using those techniques in my weekly campaign, Knights of Dragoneia.

In the next article, I’ve dug up an amazing list I found with the types of emotions roleplaying games can evoke besides just excitement or fear or sadness or wonder. And please comment with ideas for topics you’d like me to cover in this blog series! On my list for sure are tackling social scenes as well as how to stage a scene to make it interesting or complex, but I’d love to know what you struggle with in particular as a GM. As always, thanks for reading!

2 Responses to “Gamemastering for Emotional Impact Pt. 1”

  1. Ben Yendall says:

    I’m looking forward to this series of posts very much.

  2. Dustin says:

    It seems like there is an unusual opportunity to really create something great right now. I see an inverse relationship between technology advancing and story-telling. When you’re able to nail down both, there’s a good chance you’ll have something special.

    My fav books on storytelling are:

    The Storytelling Animal
    The Artists Way

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