Last night, I was playing The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt when I got to a critical point in the story where something heartbreaking happened. I’ll save you the details in an effort to not spoil the game for those who haven’t played it, but it got me thinking about something that is really important for Game Mastering tabletop RPGs for my first GM advice post.

Making players feel actual raw emotion at the table is one of the most difficult things to do when running a game. That said, it’s also the most rewarding. I don’t claim to be a veteran GM but I definitely do have some things I’ve learned to share.  On Saturday nights I’ve been running an ongoing 13th Age campaign for the past 2 years or so. In the beginning, considering it was the first game I ran, it was pretty hard to adjust things to get them the way I wanted, but there were some really great moments that became memorable. As things progressed, everybody got more invested in the game and we had our first tragic experience. A player made a character decision to leave the party to pursue a an opportunity that presented itself. The players felt betrayed, even the player that invented the character! and I couldn’t help but think, “How funny is it that this game is getting a legitimate reaction out of people.”

I did a lot more thought on this, analyzed some films and other games to really see what pulls at peoples’ psyches then tried some experiments in my game and reevaluated. I swear, it’s a freaking art. Hat’s off to anyone who works on a developing team for movies/games and even more so to any actors that manage to pull the damn thing off. Now what triggers emotions? Well… events! the most common I’ve found that are easily do-able in RPGs is as follows: loss, triumph, and defeat. That’s really it. Those three things can trigger a myriad of emotions, however, doing them well is where the real challenge lies. Now, one could argue that other thinks like conflict and dissatisfaction can be triggers too, but I’m more of the opinion that those are subcategories of the three I listed. Conflict leads to either of the three, dissatisfaction can lead to conflict (physical or verbal) and thus ending in the same.

None of these three situations are easy to set up in such a way to make someone go home from the table contemplating their decisions, but it can happen. Loss is the easiest on to explain. In a game setting, what exactly is loss? Loss can pertain to both an object or a person. It’s easy to create a reaction when a baddie steals a PC’s precious magical weapon. Sometimes this will create a feeling of personal attack, rather than a player feeling connected to his/her character. Like many things in life, this is walking a fine line. Better than stealing his/her most powerful magic item, try to get an item that has a personal tie to the character: maybe their passed away master left the PC with an heirloom? Perhaps the PC took something off of an enemy as a trophy that now means something to them personally? Just make it more interesting than, “the bugbear takes your +4 sword and bolts while his buddies stand in the way.” That’s not fun, just really annoying. The more complex version of loss is with an NPC or a PC; losing a person. Either it’s a personal falling out that severs personal ties or a character dies, both can  have a tremendous impact on the players. But this will take me unintentionally to another subject; NPC’s. The best NPC’s are most often created by PC’s, and honestly I try to do this as much as possible. If the PC creates the character and you reinforce their concept through role play, they have a tie to a character directly. Rather than the farmer up the street that they so happen to save from goblins, you now have ammunition taking the face of your player’s favorite drinking companion or childhood friend, maybe even a previous member of an adventuring party they were in together (obviously depending on the character’s background). Ultimately, the player writes the story of the bond they share making it stronger than if we as GMs introduced an NPC. I know, sometimes you make an NPC you love and the players don’t really react to the same way you feel about the character. Just a part of the game, baby, let it roll. Now, I probably shouldn’t have to say this, but I will: DO NOT kill or take away every NPC that he players grow near and dear to! This makes the game horribly predictable and takes away a really awesome way to make a memorable moment. Some players might even go as far to take it personally, we all have that one guy. Regardless, if the avenue is death for the NPC, make it freaking epic and memorable!

Here’s a long example: The city in my Saturday campaign was under siege by a horde of sentient undead (which by itself is horrible). They were losing, had to fall back, and continued to lose. The wizard of the party, Corbin, understood what had to be done and wanted to allow for an escape. He had a 5 with the Archmage for his icon relationship point for the night (a story mechanic in 13th Age) and then was the time to use it. Augmenting his lightning bolt spell by tapping into the wards that protect the empire, he collapsed a couple of buildings to block the particular street the enemies were coming from to buy some time to gather any civilians along with the rest of the guild to flee. Now this alone is great, an amazing moment of the player feeling useful to protect the weak. Since it was a 5 relationship instead of a 6, there was a drawback. The buildings toppled onto some of his guild members that were fighting over there attempting to form a line, and among them, their hearty dwarven leader. The reaction at the table was more than priceless. Now it wasn’t all doom and gloom, the elven cleric had a 6 with the Elf Queen lying around and managed to put him in a stasis, and now his consciousness lives inside her head until they ever (if at all) find a way to fix his mangled body.

What a great story that has become. The best part about this situation, is that I had the full intent of them having to bury their guild leader. The creativity of the players helped make this emotional roller coaster of sorrow, relief and back again more than I had originally intended. On the flip side of that coin, however, there’s personal loss that doesn’t involve death. Though a little more difficult, it can be greeted with just as much enthusiasm. This also something that blossoms from a conflict, just a personal one instead of a physical one. Personal loss is more abstract to explain, so it’ll be easier for me to explain through an example. A character in the Saturday game was a replacement character, so the player and I did some story building before the PC stumbled into the other group. He met a dwarf that actually very quickly became his friend, mostly through his own interpretation of the character, I just took his personality idea and ran. The NPC decided to stick around and became a more important character for the party, did a lot of work behind the scenes. When the players stumbled upon the Deck of Many Things (heh… I’m evil), the character who had the relationship with the NPC drew a card out of curiosity. Figures, it was the card that said “Someone important to you becomes suddenly hateful.” Bam. I didn’t even intend for this to happen, I was just using the random card generator from WotC (Wizards of the Coast). Needless to say, the player was shattered. He did everything in his power to break the magic that bound the NPC’ emotions in this way, even made the NPC aware it was there. In the end, this character just ended up going back to his homeland, leaving the PC to wallow in pain (the player shared the emotion more than I expected).

To back track a little, a personal loss doesn’t always have to be a conflict either. An NPC can leave because of a personal path that forces him/her to leave. Or perhaps they simply got separated from the party, maybe at sea there was a storm or something, obviously depending on the story situation. The word”loss” implies a negative occurrence but a bittersweet loss can be a good one. There’s endless possibilities when it comes to loss.

Which takes us to the next emotional trigger: triumph! Easily confused with simply winning, triumph is victory after a great struggle. Whomping those bugbears is not a triumph, simply a victory. Taking back your homeland from the sentient undead, now THAT is a triumph! Five whole levels worth of pent up frustration will come out that night! Ahem… sorry. I’m a bit excited to get to that point. Pummeling the evil villain of the story, taking the homeland, finding the lost item that will free the trapped spirits of your ancestors, these are all great triumphs that will make the players feel powerful and accomplished by the end of it. There should be (by my opinion) probably three or four triumphs throughout a campaign, depending on the length of course. Each triumph should be somewhat linear as well, all pertaining to each other. Think of a patterned walkway. There are a bunch of little stones here and there, which could represent victories. But the bigger stones that lay flat and give you a steady place to stand, now THAT is a triumph. In order to get to the stone at the end of the walkway, one would likely prefer to use those large flat stones to their advantage. Does this make sense? Maybe it only does to me. Triumph can be the easiest to set up, but building up to it is the key for invoking the strongest emotion. You have to kick the party while they’re down for a while, make them feel like they’re about to be defeated, maybe even killed. Make the triumph memorable by making it difficult. The relief shows at the end.

Defeat. Players hate it. Personally, I almost hate it too. It’s difficult to pull off without killing a character or making the players feel like you forced them into defeat. The best way to set up a defeat, I’ve found, is give them a situation that must be solved by means that wouldn’t necessarily be in the party’s wheelhouse of solutions. If they see a stone giant, their first reaction may be to fight it. Why limit the stone giant to just that? Fluff him up, make it apparent that fighting this guy will probably be fruitless, or at least imbued with heavy casualties. And if they fight, make them regret it. Perhaps seeing a shady character may prompt to the characters a talking situation is afoot. Surprise is, the shady character has his friends lying in wait to whack the PC’s each off the head while they’re distracted. Take them prisoner? Take their stuff? Maybe simply humiliate them? Keep the players on their toes by making defeat lurk in almost every aspect of the game, jut like in life. Now, don’t brutalize them and make them lose all the time. This is their story, they are the heroes meant to win in the end. But make it feel like an uphill battle at times.

So we see that emotion can be invoked in a number of different positive and negative ways. For those who didn’t read this long rambly bit, some points:

  • Let the PC’s triumph over difficult obstacles that have been dragged out over the course of a campaign
  • Let the PC’s lose every now and again in a non-story changing way. It’ll remind them that they’re not invincible.
  • Take away some of their friends… which sounds awful but tear jerking is always good!

Thanks for reading, and as always…

STAY METAL! \m/