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Emotion In Roleplay

An Article By Eric Nail

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.
  Thucydides