GMing Advice: Evoking Emotional Engagement in Players

This article is also published on Gnome Stew.

One of the primary roles of a GM is to serve both as the players’ senses and the interpreter of their senses. GMs not only tell players what their five sense are experiencing, they provide an interpretation of the environment the characters inhabit (“That NPC is angry”), and an interpretation of what the characters themselves are feeling (“That NPC is making you angry”). Pleasure, fear, attraction, joy, anger…these are all emotions that characters experience, and GMs dictating to players how their characters are feeling is part of the shared storytelling method of role-playing.

Telling Me I’m Sad Won’t Make Me Sad

How then should a GM best describe the emotional experience of a character to the player? When describing a physical thing the GM need only provide a more vivid description to better engage the players. Instead of saying “you see a goblin” the GM can provide more detail in order to give the players a better sense of what their characters are experiencing. However this can be much more difficult with emotions. Many GMs intuitively know that just saying “you feel sad” isn’t enough to engage the players in what their characters are supposed to be feeling, but unfortunately many attempts at describing an emotion just lead to a stream of synonyms: “you feel sad, depressed, somber, and unhappy.” Synonyms are not an effective method for evoking emotion in a player. So what is? To answer this question let’s look at a genre where evoking emotional engagement is absolutely essential: horror.

Many a GM (myself included) have tried to run a horror game and have discovered just how hard it can be. The biggest barrier to an effective horror game is that it’s so hard to actually instill fear into the players. No amount of “you feel scared” will get the job done. In order to be effective at horror a GM must evoke fear in their players, and the main way to do that is to describe the physiological effects of fear their characters would feel. Telling a player their character feels a slimy centipede crawling up their leg might creep them out, but then describing the physiological response adds another level of engagement, to the point where a GM can evoke the fear of a character in the player. Describing the physical feeling of fright is the best way to evoke fear: heaving breathing, a dry mouth, sweat dripping into ones eye, knees shaking, muscles spasming, the hair on your skin stiffening like pin pricks, heart pumping, teeth chattering, knuckles tightening, vision blurring, this is what fear is. Fear is a word we use to describe a particular set of physiological sensations, and remembering that is the best way to evoke fear in your players. When you’re describing these sensations to your players don’t even use the word “scared,” or anything like it. Don’t begin by saying “you’re scared” and then go onto describe the physiological response, drop the word “scared” (and all its synonyms) from your vocabulary and only describe the physiological reaction. You’re players will know exactly what emotions you’re talking about.

All Emotions Have a Physiological Component

All emotions, not just fear, are fundamentally rooted in physiological sensations. And the method described above for evoking fear in players is exactly how a GM should go about evoking emotional engagement when it comes to all emotions. GMs should drop words like angry, sad, happy, and scared from their vocabulary. Never speak them when referring to a PCs emotional state. Instead, use the physiological components of those emotions, some of which are below, to evoke the emotion in your players.

Fear: Heavy breathing through the mouth, a dry mouth, sweat dripping into ones eye, knees shaking, muscles spasming, the hair on your skin stiffening like pin pricks, heart pumping, teeth chattering, knuckles tightening, vision blurring, everything becoming louder, inability to distinguish sounds.

Sadness: Muscles becoming weak and sore, endless tiredness, lack of energy, head feeling heavy, pressure building up behind the eyes and across the forehead, dizziness, skin feeling cold, slow movement and speech, lack of appetite, yet hollow stomach, hazy vision, limbs feeling heavy.

Joy: Light feeling in the forehead, muscles relaxing, limbs feeling lighter, energized, wanting to have physical contact with others, feeling compelled to move your body, smiling, energy rushing through your legs, skin feeling warm and soft, intermittent laughing.

Anger: Muscles tightening, fist clenching, teeth grinding, pulsing in your ears that makes it hard to hear, eyes focused, heart beating loudly, toes curling, cheeks becoming hot, lips pressed together, biting the lips, heavy breathing through the nose.

Using This In Your Game

The list above is not only an incomplete list of emotions, it’s an incomplete list of possible physiological components to those emotions. It’s up to you, as a GM and as a human being with your own experiences of different emotions throughout your personal life, to come up with a longer list and to utilize it in your game. As I said before, do your best as a GM to drop all usage of words like “happy, sad, angry and scared.” If you replace those words entirely with something like the descriptions written above you’ll be much more successful at evoking emotional engagement in your players, and ultimately enhancing the role-playing experience for all involved.

A method like this is especially important when dealing with character’s quirks and phobias. As we all know many players create characters with unique preferences and fears, and it’s hard to get a player to empathize and be engage with a character who is obsessed with cakes and deathly afraid of red tricycles (I’m sure you all know at least one player like this). Especially when it comes to phobias, it’s awkward to role-play a character’s phobia when the player almost never shares that fear. It doesn’t feel genuine, and in those situations it’s up to the GM to try to evoke fear in that player. Not only will that player role-play their character better in that situation, it adds depth and genuineness to an otherwise awkward role-playing situations.

Don’t forget that this method also works with describing NPCs! Telling the players that an NPC looks “happy” or “sad” isn’t very engaging. Just as you’d describe what a goblin looks like, in detail, to the players in order to make them feel more engaged, describe what being a sad NPC looks like without using the word “sad” or any of its synonyms.

At the end of the day this method is all about making the players feel the same emotions that their characters are feeling. Evoking emotions in the players makes them more engaged with their characters, with the game, and with the story being told. When a player is just told “you feel sad” the player will nod their head and sit back, disengaged from the story and the game. That’s because being told “you’re sad” is like reading a terrible book. Great books and works of literature evoke emotions in their readers, and GMs should endeavor to do the same.

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One thought on “GMing Advice: Evoking Emotional Engagement in Players

  1. Really good stuff following one of the basic rules of thumb for storytelling “Show, don’t tell” what’s going on. One of the best things I’ve learned while running games is when a player asks a question or needs to know the description of something I attempt to project myself into the physical space of the PC(s) and imagine how I would experience say, a pitch black cave. What do I feel around me, what do I hear, and smell? Using not-sight senses in explanation helps to evoke specific ideas and images in imagination land.

    Also, one of the things I’ve liked about Fate. Trade off a later bonus (fate point) by invoking or compelling a PC. Giving a player a treat for ‘playing along’ makes them much more receptive to act when you want their character to really emote.

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