Applied Emotionality: A new trait set for Cortex Prime

The emotions from Inside Out
The emotions from Inside Out. Clockwise from top: Joy, Fear, Disgust, Sadness, and Anger.

As I mentioned in a previous blog post, I recently ran a playtest campaign of the draft rules for Cortex Prime. I provided feedback on the system to Cam Banks, and my group updated to the latest version of the SRD several times in the campaign, but the campaign is now over and Cortex Prime‘s Game Handbook is close to publication. I was delighted to see so much of my group’s feedback addressed in subsequent versions of the rules, but that’s not all I have to say on the matter!

Cortex Prime, being modular by design, is customised for each campaign that uses it, and a quirk in my campaign’s rules reference has given me an idea for a brand new mod for the community’s toolkit: the emotions trait set!

The elevator pitch

Characters roll a specific emotion when they feel that emotion in the fiction of the game. The precise emotions that make up the trait set can be customised, but a good starting point (derived from basic emotions) would be:

  • Anger
  • Desire
  • Disgust
  • Fear
  • Joy
  • Sadness

You’ll probably notice similarities to the anthropomorphised emotions from Inside Out (pictured at the top of the page), which is natural given the producers of the film referred to a lot of the same psychological research that I did. Another inspiration was the RPG Michtim: Fluffy Adventures by Georg Mir, which already uses emotions as game stats, and which I’ll talk about more below.

Each emotion trait is given a die rating. Unlike values, this doesn’t represent the depth of the character’s feeling, but rather their ability to control that specific emotion and use it to their own advantage.

We then have the option of building other mods onto this foundation, such as:

  • Letting players choose to roll an emotion at d4 for a mechanical benefit, similar to the standard SFX for distinctions that earns a plot point when you roll a d4 instead of a d8;
  • Rolling multiple dice when a character feels an emotion with a particular intensity (which in turn unlocks mods that lets players mechanically manipulate others’ emotions); or
  • Replacing trait statements for another trait set (e.g. relationships) with a connection to specific emotions.

I’ll go into more detail on these ideas below, but first I want to mention how the idea came about.

The inspiration: villainous motivations aren’t values after all

The playtest campaign that I ran was about a group of supervillains who were pulled out of their ruts and given a chance to be better people. Over the course of several sessions, the Fearsome Foodies (Baroness von Breakfast, Dr Cavendish, The Chef, and the Muffin Man) had their beliefs and motivations challenged, reconsidered the paths of their lives, and finally came together to defeat the evil alien plant robot Famine at the olive oil well on Mount Olympus. They prevented Famine from destroying all food in the universe, the day was saved, and the team parted ways. Some didn’t make it, some changed for good, and some… kinda stayed the same. But that’s ok.

The campaign used two prime trait sets: motives (based on Prime‘s values) and M.O.s (based on Prime‘s roles). However, the way that I created the motives set meant that, ultimately, motives did not work in quite the same way as values do in Cortex Prime (or in Smallville RPG, where they first appeared).

In my campaign, I wanted a selection of motives that would work for villains but would also work if any of the player characters did a heel-face turn and became a hero. To make the motives suitably generic, I did some research into basic emotions, and came up with the following list:

  • Anger (self-explanatory)
  • Gratification (based on Joy)
  • Loathing (based on Disgust)
  • Melancholy (based on Sadness)
  • Pride (not a basic emotion, but good for a villains game)
  • Sentiment (based on Love)

Then, somewhat accidentally, I said in the player reference sheet that players should add a motive trait to their dice pool if the PC was feeling the relevant emotion or expected something to elicit the emotion in them. This changed how the motives were used.

Trait statements, which for values say what characters believe or want, instead had to expand on the way that characters experience the relevant emotion. How do they act when they’re angry? what makes them happy? etc. When a trait statement didn’t do that, or didn’t make sense in situations when the person was actively feeling an emotion, it made the motive harder to use. One player had a trait statement that boiled down to “conceal don’t feel“, and that’s hard to work into a scene when every roll assumes that you are actually feeling something. Unlike values, with which a player could roll their Glory trait (say) when eschewing the spotlight if their statement presented a negative view of Glory, a character’s opinion about an emotion is irrelevant when they are actually feeling that emotion.

What’s more, the gaps in the emotional coverage became very obvious. I didn’t include a motive based on Fear because I wanted the choices to be pro-active, but that proved to be a mistake. The characters still experienced (lower-case-f) fear, but had nothing to roll when that happened. It turns out all those qualified psychologists who compiled their lists of basic emotions had a better idea of what they were talking about than I did when I threw together the list for my roleplaying campaign. Who’d have guessed, right?

And yet, despite the way that these traits didn’t work as expected, they did work after their own fashion and, I feel, can be turned into a useful component for other campaigns.

Harnessing emotions as a trait set

It didn’t take much tweaking to convert emotions into a new type of trait set, since I’d already established the rule of when the traits could be used, i.e. when characters experience the relevant emotion. The main thing that needed to change was what the sizes of the emotion dice meant.

According to the Cortex Prime System Reference Document (SRD), “The die rating of a value measures how much the value matters to the character”, i.e. it represents the strength or intensity of the character’s feelings. The thing about emotions is that their intensity changes almost all the time. So that doesn’t really work. Fortunately, Prime uses a different model for the die ratings of distinctions that works much better for emotions, and I credit Benj Davis (who came up with Drama Dice, you may recall) with pointing it out to me on a comment on this blog post: “Their die rating isn’t a measure of how much they are that thing, it’s a measure of how much being that thing helps them.”

In short, the die rating of an emotion represents the character’s ability to channel those emotions constructively, to use those emotions to their advantage. A high Anger rating, for example, doesn’t mean that the character is very angry; it means that, when they are angry, they can usually harness that anger without it causing them too many problems. (Taking a non-roleplaying tangent for a moment, here is a story about Terry Pratchett, my favourite productively angry man.)

Anyway, the other thing I needed to do is get a default list of emotions that’s more generic than my villain-themed list. I went back to my basic emotion research and re-watched Inside Out, but I also looked at the RPG Michtim: Fluffy Adventures by Georg Mir.

The circle of Emotions from Michtim: Fluffy Adventures
The circle of Emotions from Michtim: Fluffy Adventures. Clockwise from top: Joy, Love, Grief, Fear, Anger. Even the colours are basically the same as Inside Out!

Michtim already uses emotions as its core traits, and it was a useful reference when I was thinking about the topic, even though we’ve approached the idea from different directions. In Michtim, actions are tied to specific emotions (Anger is used to fight, Fear to flee, Sadness to heal, etc.), so it’s a bit different, but useful nonetheless. The diagram to the right shows Michtim‘s emotions in a circle. (This diagram will be referenced again later, you may want to come back to it. Also, Michtim is an adorable game with some interesting elements, worth checking out.)

I ended up with the following default list for my emotion trait set:

  • Anger
  • Desire
  • Disgust
  • Fear
  • Joy
  • Sadness

Desire and Disgust are the two I’m least certain of. Inside Out didn’t have a Desire (and which I’ve renamed from Love in Michtim to capture general feelings of wanting), but I think it’s needed as a standard motivating factor in a dramatic game and to balance the list more positively. Meanwhile, Michtim didn’t have a Disgust, and it may not be necessary in some genres, but I think it covers a sort of experience that can’t easily be captured by other emotions like Anger or Fear (“I don’t want to touch that, it’s gross!” and so on).

And that’s basically it: a functional new type of trait set that could be used in Cortex Prime games that focus on strong feelings and inter-personal drama.

But we can go further…

Optional variant 1: Losing control

The first optional variant is the most straightforward: player characters should have SFX that let them benefit mechanically if they choose to roll a given emotion as a d4 instead of its usual die size. This mechanical benefit could be a plot point, as it is when a player rolls a distinction as a d4 instead of a d8, but it doesn’t have to be.

How about combining it with the drama dice mod from my last blog post and letting players earn a drama die at the normal rating of the emotion that they are rolling as a d4? After all, it’s dramatic when a character’s emotions get the better of them, especially if they usually have them under very tight control.

Optional variant 2: Emotional intensity and MORE DICE!

Gif of Captain Raymond Holt from Brooklyn Nine Nine, saying "I am good at emotion."
For no reason, here’s Captain Raymond Holt.

As I mentioned above, emotions are constantly changing. The emotions that I feel, and how strongly I feel them, can vary from hour to hour, minute to minute. This sort of shift is usually captured in roleplaying, and when using emotions as a trait set it will be partly captured by what emotions people want to roll at a given moment. But is there a way of representing this fluctuation of emotional intensity in the mechanics as well?

Michtim represented emotional intensity by using Mood Markers, a sort of meta-currency that attach to specific emotion traits, giving benefits to that emotion but also applying penalties to “opposed” emotions (more on this concept in the next section). That solution doesn’t seem right for Cortex Prime, but what if instead of mood markers we added extra dice?

Using this rule, the intensity of an emotion is represented by the number of dice associated with that emotion, between one and three. Three dice in an emotion indicates an exceptionally strong emotional response. However, the rating of the dice wouldn’t be affected, so it’s just as easy to have a powerful badly managed (d4) emotion (which would probably lead to complications) as it is to have a powerful productively channelled (d12) emotion.

The number of dice available to a player would need to be limited at no more than three above than the number of traits in the set, to stop characters being able to have more than one highly intense (3-dice) emotion. For a 6-trait set like the default I described above, that means no more than 9 dice spread across all of the emotion traits. We could either fix the total number of dice in the trait set but, following Michtim‘s lead, I think it would be simpler to put it as an upper limit.

The great thing about this variant is that it allows us to introduce mechanics that interact with the intensity of the emotions. In Michtim, specific Callings (equivalent of classes or playbooks) have other moves that can affect the emotions of other people temporarily; in Cortex Prime, characters could have SFX that could add or remove emotion dice (on themselves and others) in specific situations. Or it could be something that happens when a character successfully beats the difficulty (or fails to do so) in certain types of test or contest (e.g. meditating to reduce their own Anger, or intimidating someone to increase that someone’s Fear). Perhaps it could even happen instead of some of the ways of taking or recovering from stress or complications.

There should be some sort of limitation to these mechanics. Perhaps you can’t inflame an emotion if its “opposed” emotion already has extra dice in it? Perhaps a 3-dice emotion is so strong that you can’t reduce it until it has been rolled (or it must be rolled into your next roll), and then it reduces immediately? The precise mechanical balance will need to be found through playtesting, but I think the idea has some promise.

Optional variant 3: Show how you feel with emotions instead of trait statements

A potentially powerful thing that emotions can do that other traits can’t is provide emotional context for other traits. In Cortex Prime, this is kinda what trait statements are for, but a game that uses emotions can do it without full trait statements (which can be hard to re-write sometimes).

This is most useful when emotions are paired with relationships as the prime sets for the campaign, so that’s the specific example I’m going to talk about, but it could probably be extended to other situations.

Instead of trait statements, relationships have emotional associations, which really just means that each relationship is connected to one specific emotion. That’s what the character would be expected to feel when they are dealing with their relationship.

From this, there are a few ways to handle challenging your relationships, depending on how often you want that to happen:

  • EITHER, a relationship is challenged whenever you build a dice pool with that relationship and any emotion other than its associated emotion (challenging will be very common);
  • OR, a relationship is challenged only when you build a dice pool with the relationship and the opposite of its associated emotion (challenging will be rarer, and there should also be some moderate benefit for rolling the relationship and associated emotion, e.g. step up the relationship for the roll).

In either case, challenging the relationship works mechanically as it does in Cortex Prime: when you challenge a relationship you roll three times its regular die and, after the roll, step it down until the next tag scene, maybe earn growth or drama dice if you’re using those rules. Optionally, instead of or in addition to stepping down the relationship, the association is broken until the next tag scene.

I’ve mentioned opposed or opposite emotions a few times now. This is an idea from Michtim and the postulates of psychologist Robert Plutchik. Essentially, it means that emotions have one or more opposites, for instance:

  • Sadness is the opposite of Joy
  • Desire is the opposite of Disgust
  • Fear is the opposite of Anger

It’s not a perfect model. I mean, the possibility and acceptance of complex emotions like the bittersweet sad/joy was kind of the whole point of Inside Out. But in a game system, it could work (and there’s no rule against spending a plot point to add a second emotion to a roll).

In Michtim, which had 5 emotions instead of 6, each emotion was opposed by two others. Remember the wheel I showed above? Emotions are opposed to the emotions on the other side of the circle: Joy is opposed to both Fear and Grief (Sadness); Anger is opposed to Grief and Love (Desire); and so on. That’s a good way of doing it if you have an odd number of emotions in your trait set.

At a tag scene (or end of the session or whenever challenges are resolved), you can step up relationships that were challenged (according to the usual rules) and reforge any emotional associations. In a game pushing for intense drama, players should change their emotional associations for all challenged relationships, associating the relationship to the new emotion that caused the challenge (unless each emotion has only one opposite, in which case it’s player’s choice).

And that’s the new emotions mod for Cortex Prime. How does it make you feel?

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