Revealed Emotionality: Three rules to let your feelings radiate

A friend of mine recently told me that he is getting tired of the sorts of roleplaying games that he most often plays in, and he’s thinking of moving instead to more freeform and improvisational games. I respect the decision of course, but it’s a shame because it means I might never get to play in a game with him again.

I can’t do freeform roleplay. I need rules and structures and hooks and mechanics to help me carve out a space for myself in the conversation, which I am otherwise pretty bad at.

I especially love rules that allow and encourage me to to express the thoughts and feelings of my characters at the table. I find it one of the hardest parts of roleplaying and don’t do it spontaneously. When there are no opportunities for this in a game, it therefore often doesn’t happen. And if something doesn’t happen at the table, then it isn’t canon in the game, so the characters I play tend to be somewhat 2-dimensional. This is either intentional (I bypass the whole issue by playing transparently straightforward characters who wear their hearts on their sleeves) or unintentional (characters that are fascinating in the confines of my head become far less interesting when I’m playing them).

So in this blog I’m going to talk about three examples of very simple rules from games I’ve played that I have found to be a huge help in letting me express myself and my characters. Any one of them could be easily lifted out of their games and used for campaigns under other systems, too. Check them out, and let me know if there’s any I missed! (And don’t forget to check out my last blog post, if you haven’t already, about using emotions as actual traits that you can roll in a game!)

The Confessional (InSpectres)

Above, I mentioned the need to carve out a space in the conversation, and in no game is this more literally true than in Jared Sorensen’s InSpectres.

InSpectres is a light-hearted game of paranoral investigation, horror comedy, and business documentary. The rulebook explicitly says it’s inspired by Ghostbusters and reality shows like COPS, but nowadays I feel the best cultural reference points are mockumentary shows like Parks and Recreation (which is impressive considering InSpectres came out 7 years before Parks and Rec, and only 1 year after the original British version of The Office). The main reason for that comparison is the Confessional.

April Ludgate from Parks and Recreation, saying
Charming… but also a good example of explaining your motivation in a scene

The Confessional is based on moments from reality TV shows where people get alone time with the camera and speak directly to the audience. Think of Parks and Rec‘s typical asides and cutaways (like April’s comment in the picture, right), or the Diary Room from Big Brother. The rulebook calls the Confessional “the most powerful element of InSpectres“.

Players step aside from the action, usually to a chair or space away from the table to make it obvious, and speak in-character to the show’s “audience” (the other players), introducing new plot elements or just revealing what their character was thinking at the time. Confessionals are also assumed to have been “filmed” after the end of the current scene, so players can reveal things that their characters don’t know yet (“Little did I know then…”) or look back on how they were feeling with a bit of distance (“Sure, I was scared at the time, but…”).

It’s freeing and gives players a huge amount of control over the narrative. More importantly, moving into the Confessional space means that you have spotlight. Until you’re done, the other players don’t talk. It’s also limited, to prevent abuse, but not unreasonably. Players can’t use a Confessional to negate something that has already happened in a scene, and each player can only use the Confessional once per scene.

Confessionals are neat, and can turn any game into a mockumentary. Does someone want to try it out in Dungeons & Dragons and let me know how it goes?

The Thought Balloon (With Great Power)

Just as the Confessional is perfectly suited to InSpectres‘ genre as a reality show or mockumentary, the thought balloon is perfectly suited to the four-colour superheroics and comic book escapades of Michael S. Miller’s With Great Power. I blogged about With Great Power before (link here), and said I might blog again about the thought balloon specifically another time. Apparently, that time is right now!

But first, as a quick recap, With Great Power (Master Edition) is a Silver Age superhero game that uses the game engine popularised by Swords Without Master. There was an earlier version of With Great Power that shared almost none of the rules… the main exception being the thought balloon, which is described in the rulebook as “way too fun to leave behind”.

The eponymous thought balloon is a piece of paper with an actual comic-style thought balloon drawn on it. Players can hold this over their head in order to say what their hero is thinking. When players pick up the thought balloon, they briefly pause the action and take the spotlight in the conversation. It’s almost as though the Confessional space has been condensed to a single prop, but of course there are differences as well.

With the thought balloon, players can only explain their thoughts at that moment in the scene; they can’t introduce new plot elements or discuss things they don’t know in-character or comment on the scene as if they were looking back on it, as they can with Confessionals. This makes the thought balloon less powerful as a way for players to steer the narrative, but it’s also more focussed and, being less powerful, it can also get away with being less limited. Knowing that they can’t use the thought balloon to affect the action in any way means that players aren’t likely to use it to hog the spotlight, so there’s no restriction on how often it can be used.

Wild at Heart page 21, from uptofourplayers.comThe thought balloon is also far easier to transport into a different game system than the Confessional, and needn’t affect the genre. It doesn’t need to be an actual comic-style drawing of a thought balloon, which is suited to superheroes but not much else. It could instead be any other sort of prop that you hold or touch, or a gesture that you make: anything as long as it indicates that what you are saying is in character but not out loud.

Here’s a great example of the use of a thought bubble that doesn’t actually use a thought bubble: In the webcomic Up to 4 Players, the main cast members are currently playing a Savage Worlds campaign called Crystal Heart. In the page shown (image left, link here), Rotem gives an inner monologue for her player character, Muna, about the dilemma that she is facing in the moment. The gaming group aren’t shown to be using a thought balloon, but somehow it’s clear to the table that this is in character but not out loud, and she is awarded a benny for her roleplaying. At a real table, this kind of thing would be much easier with some sort of prop.

Emoting (Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine)

Take an emotion. Let it radiate. Let your character be the vehicle through which that emotion expresses itself in the world.

Lastly, I want to talk about emoting in Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine by Jenna Moran. Emoting doesn’t require a physical space or a prop (although the rest of the game requires a lot of props in the form of cards and stationery); it’s just some new language you can use to do things you were probably already doing. It’s perhaps the simplest of the three rules I’ve mentioned here, but it’s also the one that has most profoundly affected the way I think about emotions in games.

Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine is delightful and strange and brilliant and almost impossible to explain in the context of other roleplaying games. It isn’t a game about adventures, although they can happen, so much as it is a game about life, including all the slow and quiet bits that are often overlooked by other roleplaying games. It’s a game where, sometimes, the most important thing you can do is let yourself be moved by what you’re experiencing and express your feelings to the world. So there are rules to help you do that.

Steven Universe hugging Pearl, from the episode
Pearl emotes grief. Steven emotes love and sympathy.

The rules in particular are for emoting, of consciously letting an emotion show. In the same way you can describe that your character is taking physical action or saying something, you can describe them emoting. Indeed, these might overlap. You could emote happiness by smiling, you could emote anger by describing how your character is kicking the wall, or you could emote shock and sympathy by saying something like “That’s awful, that’s so awful, is there anything I can do?”

But sometimes actions and words aren’t enough, or aren’t appropriate. Maybe other people around the table will misread your smile as being out of character. Maybe instead of kicking a wall, you’d rather your character was a bit understated. Or maybe the words you say could be made more impactful if you could express the emotion through the rest of your behaviour as well. Plus, no matter how much you think you know about how your character would behave with a specific emotion, there will probably be elements of an emotional affect that the characters and even the players won’t be familiar with: body language, voice, eyes, the way people think and act, etc.

So, in these situations, just say what feeling you’re emoting:

  • “I emote ‘happy’.”
  • “I emote anger.”
  • “I’m emoting sympathy and shock right now.”

It’s the player’s responsibility for conveying the emotion in whatever way it takes to get it across. That’s one of Chuubo‘s core rules on emoting: you have to let the other players know what you’re emoting. The other core rule is: you have to be honest. You can fake an (in-character) emotional reaction if you like, but if you do, it isn’t emoting and you shouldn’t say it is. As the book says “Emoting is for showing your character’s heart.”

It’s a simple idea, but a powerful one. It has given me permission, in any roleplaying game I’m in, when I have the spotlight and don’t know how to express my emotion through words and actions, just to say what I’m emoting. I don’t do it as much as I like, but I’m trying and I find it useful. Let me know if you find it useful too.


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