Friday 1 February 2019

RPGs as Emotional Gambling

When you make a PC, you're investing a little bit of creativity into them. You put some time and thought into who they are and what they want. Creativity is, to my mind, quite personal; sharing the fruits of your creativity with others is exposing a little bit of your inner self to them (this, incidentally, is at the heart of the issues I have with many 'pass the talking-stick' story-games). The more you play the PC, the more you invest in them emotionally. The more of an emotional stake you have in them surviving and prospering.
When a PC dies (or is otherwise irretrievably fucked up), all that emotional energy you'd tied to them is lost with them. It's a sudden gut-punch of loss. The risk of that upset is what makes the game exciting. IC successes (gaining magic items, levelling up, increasing IC status) feel good because we know that they make the gut-punch of character death less likely; IC setbacks feel a bit bad for the same reason.

Things that drag the loss out (such as being temporarily turned into a frog, knocked unconcious or otherwise rendered unplayable) feel worse than mere death, because after a PC dies you can quickly recover, make a new PC and get back into the swing of things. An extended time where your PC is useless means you're stuck in that low-point for longer, hoping to get the PC you've invested in back soon.
Having agency over how a character's arc ends has been, in my experience, important. Retiring a PC who's become difficult to play (due to curses, injuries, etc etc) feels better than having them die, because the player gets to choose it, and can imagine them sitting in a nice cottage somewhere, with a big pile of gold, a sword hung over the fire-place, and a small child on their knee that they're telling the story of 'how I got my eye torn out'. It's a Good Ending. In effect, you're cashing out your 'emotional chips', and calling this gamble a success.

For this emotional gamble to be worth it, you need to carefully balance the emotions invested in the PC, the likelihood of death, and the magnitude of the gut-punch when the PC does die. I think the OSR gets this right with it's lower investment into new PC - rolling up a character is quick and doesn't require much deep thought, and low level PCs are fragile as fuck - that allows greater investment over time, corresponding to greater survival chances. Compare this to modern D&D where character creation takes ages (resulting in high investment from the get-go), CR-balanced encounters mean that your chance of death is constant rather than scaling to reflect investment, and death is rare enough that its easy to disregard entirely; here, your investment-risk-gutpunch balance is all off, you invest highly in a PC but have little tension, there's no sense of safety from levelling up since the challenges get harder to match you, and when you DO die it feels arbitrary, unexpected and unusually horrid (which feeds back into GMs not being willing to kill PCs, resulting in EVEN LESS tension).

One thing which I do in my games is to include horrible wounds. These actually tend to result in slightly longer gut-punches, as playing a PC missing a bunch of body parts is kind of difficult, and bleeding out extends the process of dying. However, they also soften the gut-punch as you're more likely to be able to successfully retire a (now crippled but also very wealthy) PC, getting them a good ending
I tend to avoid anything which temporarily makes a PC unplayable (such as hard mind-control, extended unconciousness, transformation, etc), since this keeps the gut-punch just as horrid but draaaags it out. Instead, these effects tend to be either permanent (effectively character death) or just a debuff that encourages you retire the character.


  1. It's a wonderful essay, Emmy. I think the same things about the feelings of playing a PC. Your paper man is born mostly a blank slate; he gains personality as he makes choices which define who he is; then he dies or retires and that's sad, but it's also good because then his life gets a beginning, middle and end.

    Your work would be a lot easier to read if you made the font bigger and broke the paragraphs up some.

  2. Going to link to this the next time my so-called polycular amoro-partners tell me I am not pulling my weight in emotional labour

    1. "But what if I get too attached to you and then you get killed by goblins?"

  3. This makes a lot of sense, actually. I never managed to express it so clearly, but "high initial investment, low risk, low reward" is a pretty good characterization of why I got tired of D&D.

  4. This is a most eloquent explanation of what drew me to OSR gameplay, and the second half of the penultimate paragraph is what started me off in my search for something beyond D&D 5e. It was my first foray into RPGs and, while I could cope well enough with the various rules and crunch, I just felt flat at the end of most sessions as a player and as a GM. I hadn't really felt any excitement. There were some 'Ooh, that's interesting' moments, but nothing really got the blood pumping until one session when the GM threw a fireball and roll monumentally high damage. One PC failed their save, took the full damage and was burnt to a crisp. We all sat back wide-eyed. The GM was most apologetic at the end of the session, but I was delighted. Suddenly I felt that tension throwing oneself heroically into danger vs survival!

    Since then I've been trying to emulate that in my 5e campaigns, particularly helped by the 5e Hardcore optional rules by the guy who created Low Fantasy Gaming.

    With a few tweaks here and there, 5e can become alarming for players. It's the mindset of some of the players which takes a bit longer to come round, though...

  5. In my experience this applies just as well to a lot of older games like runequest 2 and flashing blades. Plenty of excitement and the real risk of character death made it moreso. The observations too about retiring characters is spot on. Good article.

  6. Emmy, wanted to pick your brain on this subject. I'm contemplating offering my players death-proof plot armour in exchange for adding "scars" to the game. Instead of dying at zero hit points, your characer is KOed but they can pick or randomly roll an appropriate scar for their character. This might be a physical scar (potentially with number-effecting consequences) or a mental or emotional scar. (Killed by giant spiders => save or suffer fear whenever you encounter a giant spider or something like that.)

    This feels more fun to me because it encourages a stronger character focus and the consequences of combat can actually shape your character. As you point out, if the character becomes overly burdened with such scars they can be retired. I no longer have to explain why the Holy Matriarch can't resurrect the murdered king.

    But I've also gotten a lot of mileage from the fear of death. What are your thoughts on this?

    1. If death isn't a real threat then you lose a lot of the tension from any dangerous situation, and the situation is reduced to 5e-style power-fantasy with no actual threat.
      For this to work, I think the threats need to be fucking *brutal*. Lost limbs, debilitating madness etc. The feeling that if your PC suffers these consequences, your ability to affect the world & resist danger as them is heavily reduced.
      In short, the 'lose condition' needs to feel at least a bit OOC bad, or else the game's robbed of excitement.

      In my experience, at least. YMMV.