Drama_icon_300What do we mean by “designing for emotion”?

A lot of historical role-playing games were designed specifically to replicate the actions and events of a tabletop wargame. Roleplaying has evolved quite far from this history; modern games, particularly story games and freeforms or Nordic larps, are more like an improvised drama than a strategic wargame. But drama is not automatic; it must be created, usually from a fundamental shift in the situation of a character, and that generally provokes an emotional response in the character who’s experienced that change.

Designing for emotion means consciously creating games that aim to evoke an emotional response (e.g. fear in horror games, love in romantic games, sadness in tragedies). Some game styles (e.g. Nordic larp) have become infamous for their ability to evoke an emotional response not just in the characters, but also in the players – a phenomenon often referred to as “bleed”. For the purposes of this article, designing for emotion means designing a game to specifically evoke an emotional response in a player, which then “bleeds” into their character.

Plot-driven games vs character driven games.

Larps tend to be more character-driven, and so necessarily require more of an emotional response to drive forward the action. The drama comes from the interaction between the characters. Good design (whether by designers or the players) will create those interactions to be such that they produce a strong emotional reaction.

Tabletop games tend to be more driven by an external plot, but this shouldn’t mean they have any less need to be written for an emotional reaction. If anything, there’s a stronger design imperative to write for emotional reaction if it’s not considered to be immediately part of the game.

Games that are deliberately designed to evoke complex emotions:

Monsterhearts – not designed to evoke specific emotions, but to evoke deep emotions in keeping with the teen angst genre
Dread – a survival horror game, the Jenga tower mechanic increases the tension. However, Richard W. pointed out it also evokes feelings of relief, then guilt when someone else knocks the tower, then depression.
Ribbon Drive – uses music as a trigger for emotion, trying to tap into feelings of nostalgia
When The Dark Is Gone – the game is designed to allow for awkward silences, but includes playing appropriately depressing music (e.g. Portishead) for character creation
Forsooth! – People often choose people at different social levels because you have two characters. Poeple enjoy play with the status.
Dog Eat Dog – the richest player in real life plays the occupying force, the other players play natives. Mechanics designed to empower the occupying colonial force, while disempower the native players, drives player frustration with the game, which bleeds into play as the natives become more dissatisfied.
StarPower – an educational game deliberately designed to mechanically recreate how systems can be created which keep those currently in power in power, while preventing those without power from efficiently affecting change.
The larp “1984” – in this larp you play members of the Ministry of Truth, Ministry of Defence, and the euphemistically-named Ministry of Love (Internal Affairs). Your job was to find traitors who broke rules which were very easy to break (e.g. smiling, leaning back in your chairs), and you could report fellow Ministry members to encourage an atmosphere of paranoia. If the MoT or MoD’s letters to Big Brother had any sort of issues, they could be taken away and shot.
Train – A board game where you have a model train and lots of meeples. You put the meeples on the carriages, get cards that give you assignments, and compete to win by ferrying more meeples on your carriages than your opponents. It’s not until very late in the game that you finally get the destination card for your trains – Auschwitz. (There’s a great article about the game, and designer Brenda Romero’s design goals, here).
Monsegur 1244 – A very tightly-designed game where you play Cathars, trying to defend the city of Monsegur. However, the defence is ultimately doomed; the only agency your character has is in deciding whether you will stay true to your faith and be burned, or denounce your faith and live, ostracised from your community.
GxB (Girl X Boy) – Designed to play with notions of gender and agency
A Penny for My Thoughts – quite a larp-y game. You play four amnesiacs, and play through three journeys back – to a happy memory, an unhappy memory, and what happened when you lost your memory. The other players get to decide what your memories are. In Penny, you have narrative control over your memory; you choose from others’ options what you accept.
Our Play is Good, an improv game/acting exercise described by Richard W. Three people step into a circle; two are guards, one is a prisoner. Who plays which has to be established by dominant eye contact; once this has been established, the guards pick up a newspaper and start hitting the prisoner. Difficulty in the game was with the impunity with which the guards were able to hit people. This created a genuine fear reaction which bled into real life – the vulnerability of the prisoner, and the social division between the guards and the prisoners.

Why design for emotion?


– For some games, particular emotions are implicit within the genre (e.g. fear in horror games), and so to properly recreate or represent that genre means to evoke a specific emotion
– Having an emotional experience is implicit in playing a roleplaying game; the emotion might merely be satisfaction at an adventure succesfully ended, but emotions always come into the play experience


– Some people can find it difficult to differentiate between themselves and their character, and experience unwanted emotions as a result of a play experience
– Without proper psychological training, it is difficult to design debriefs that adequately decharacterise a player and separate their emotions/experiences from their character’s, potentially leaving a more sensitive player with a form of post-traumatic stress as a result of their play experiences.

Some games can resonate with players on an emotional level, even if that wasn’t inherent in the design. For example, in a recent run of What Happened In Lanzarote – which was not explicitly designed for deep emotional play – some players brought a strong emotional undercurrent to it, creating a deeper play experience for everyone around them.

How do you design for emotion?

Give agency or surrender control?
Opinions were mixed on whether allowing the players to create their own story, or imposing a story on them, was a better way of designing for emotion. Some felt that you get more emotional play when you don’t have agency or narrative control – for example, if you are surprised by something a GM springs on you, then you will react in a more genuinely surprised way than if you are aware that a particular change is imminent, and that if you have narrative control, you can’t be fully immersed.

If something’s in your character sheet, you pre-prepare your emotional reaction – this can become too rational, a thinking exercise. However, that gives you the opportunity to defend yourself intellectually and emotionally if you need to, by playing a character that, say, doesn’t care about what’s coming.

Others thought the opposite; that a player who had chosen a particular emotion to explore through having narrative control of their decisions was more likely to be invested in experiencing that emotion through that character, and so more inclined to dive deeper into exploring that emotional outcome than someone who had been forced into a particular emotion.

Tools you can use to impact the emotions:

  • Emotive plots in character backgrounds – setting up a character for, say, sadness via a pre-determined loss, e.g. imminent divorce
  • Creating character connections in the backgrounds and before play starts. Connected characters are a shortcut into deeper, more emotive play. Characters can either need to know each other well historically, or have commonality in their backgrounds that causes the characters to bond with each other in the present.
  • Utilising bleed, e.g. providing characters with plots or themes that resonate with their players on an emotional level, or using an existing relationship between players to create a deeper in-game relationship
  • Player knowledge – this is different for different people, as some are more emotional around strangers, some are more emotional around people they know and trust
  • Characters as alibis; being handed a character sheet gives players an alibi to play an emotional response that they might not feel comfortable with as a player
  • Surprise, delivered via plot twists, dramatic revelations and staging – if a player is surprised by a situation or event, they have to play from their heart as opposed to their head
  • Emotion-flipping scenes; cinema often uses an emotional bait-and-switch to prompt deeper emotional responses from actors/characters. Examples include Marlon Brando – On The Waterfront. Brando reacts to his brother pulling a gun on him with sympathy to his brother for the situation he finds himself in, not the expected anger, amplifying the emotional resonance of the scene. Additionally, the “It’s not your fault” scene in Good Will Hunting – Matt Damon’s armour is stripped away by compassion as opposed to strength.
  • Setting/theme – match the theme of the game to the emotional response you want to evoke. Modern day settings tend to be more immersive as they’re closer to home.
  • Scenography – appropriate set-dressing, phys-reps and vis-reps can all enhance the resonance of a particular scene
  • Premise, what is your situation/role as a character? e.g. GxB – premise is to cause embarrassment to the other characters
  • Goals: what is your objective/role as a player
  • Mechanics – Dread and the Jenga tower mechanic; games that use poker as a bluffing/confidence mechanic; Apocalypse World “moves” are all changes in the fiction which come with consequences rather than being pure resolution; e.g. the “turn on” move in Monsterhearts, which pushes you to a change in the social situation, but then it lets you decide what that change is
  • Player expectations – ensuring that these align with the role will give you a greater emotional play
  • Silences can be a very powerful emotional tool (e.g. in Quaker meetings, people gather in silence, unless someone is moved to speak about something)
  • Music – connection to emotion, also allows for a comfortable silence and thinking space
  • 1 to 1s – the actors invite audience to get close and personal
  • Casting – casting close to home (i.e. giving a player a character that’s a lot like them)
  • Pre-game workshops – using directed workshops to develop a mindset towards a desired emotion in players ahead of the game
  • Style aesthetic, such as the old World of Darkness – a strong visual style in costuming and set design makes for greater realism, which encourages bleed

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