Supporting emotionally resonant play

This post and discussion is for people who are interested in emotionally resonant experiences in their games. If that is not something you are interested in that is totally cool - no need to respond letting me know that is the case…

For those people who have had emotionally resonant experiences at the table, other than what you and the other players brought to the game yourselves (which I think would also include the trust you have in the other players, the safety you feel around them, and length of play with the same characters), what frameworks/systems/mechanics/chargen/etc. have you found useful to support you in having those sorts of experiences at the table?

A related question I would ask is: if there are frameworks/systems/mechanics/chargen/etc. that do this - do they universally have to be tightly integrated into the rest of the game as a whole?


Hmmm. I think if the system lets you customize your character and gain a real feeling of ownership over them, and the other characters in your group are similarly customized but mechanically distinct from you, that helps a lot.

That’s somewhat bread-and-butter for 5E / “OC” play, and I think most story games as well, but I figure it’s worth mentioning since that’s not the sort of game everyone plays here.

Beyond that, I would posit that while mechanics can definitely support “emotionally resonant” play (and it’s an interesting thing to discuss, don’t get me wrong), the emotions ultimately come from the aesthetic side—the adventure, its setting, its characters.

Could you give me some specific examples from your own emotionally resonant play experiences that were inspired by “the aesthetic side—the adventure, its setting, its characters”?

Well, I tell this story a lot, but I played a spontaneous freeform game with my friend once while we were on a walk around town. I decided I was a tomato gardener, he decided a storm ruined my tomatoes, I decided to swear revenge on the sky.

I climbed the highest mountain in the land and cursed and swore at the sky, only to be struck by lightning. I returned from my adventure feeling that my character had learned something important.

That’s a relatively small example—I’m not claiming it was very profound—but there was a certain weight to it that came entirely out of the narrative and, especially, the character I had come up with.

Another time I was playing a Human Paladin, Sebastian, in 5E D&D. I didn’t kill some kobolds because I decided Sebastian didn’t have the stomach for it. The other PCs (not the players) sharply criticized me for not dealing with the threat, and even suspected me of disloyalty, since all paladins in the setting were technically members of the local evil, imperial army.

Later, our party found ourselves walking down a long underground tunnel, and I saw my opportunity. I said, “You’re right. I’m not cut out for this.” dramatic pause “I’m not cut out to be a part of the Empire.” And in that conversation we not only resolved the doubts the other PCs were having about me, but developed my character and motivations as well.

I guess the point I’m trying to make—if I understand what you mean when you say “emotional resonance”—is that it’s more of an art than a science. You can design mechanical structures to support and encourage art, sure; that’s what creative writing workshops are, for example. But they can only be support, not substance.

I tend not to play or run systems with mechanics related to character emotional states, and largely focused on external challenge.

Yet… I find one particular kind of emotionally charged aspect of play often cones to the fore, especially as campaigns progress: morality and moral dilemma. Open ended, “sandbox” style adventure design, when done well with a focus on factions and the player characters as holding the balance of power offer opportunity for fairly serious discussion and decision making about righ/ and wrong, good and evil. I think its precisely that there’s no or little mechanical support for this sort of moral play that makes it so powerful – players know there’s no rules to make the hard decisons for them, and have to balance issues of risk, harm and reward (usually short term gain vs. long term harm to another faction or part of the setting) using the same tools they would in day to day life.

The only trick to this sort of play is creating plenty of situations without clear easy answers and enforcing the logical consequences of player decision on the game world, no matter what they are. Players soon learn that thier decisions matter and that the referee has no preferred morality. It can make for very tense decisions and very strong feelings at times.


I’ve done a lot of this kind of play, mostly with Burning Wheel, Trophy, and Hearts of Wulin. I’ve found that people can more easily engage emotionally when there’s a certain distance between them and the character, that bad behavior at a table in general is not okay, even if given expressed permission.

But if you have a mechanic, a machine, which helps generate the character’s response, well! That seems to be different. There’s just enough distance between your actions and those of the character that it’s okay to inhabit those actions, to feel them as if they were your own.

Burning Wheel’s Beliefs are great for this, as are Trophy’s backstabbing mechanics, but the one that takes the cake is Hearts of Wulin; the inner conflict roll there lets people do really stupid and irrational things because the psychological state of the character becomes a thing of play itself.

This combined with a good friendship between players seems to do the trick, from what I’ve seen.


So for me, when I think “emotionally resonant”, I think of empathy and understanding. In order for me to have an emotionally resonant experience I have to empathize and understand the person. This person might be the character I am portraying or it might be a character someone else is portraying.

What this means to me is that “things” that provide relatability and similarity and understanding to me are often things that will help me empathize, and thus will be more likely to generate an emotionally resonant experience.

One of the first things that comes to mind is Beliefs from Burning Wheel. To me, these are fantastic because they not only get the player to really think about what the character wants AND how to get it. But they also make it transparent and easy for other players to understand. That makes it so I can understand and empathize where that character is coming from even if it is something I don’t agree with personally.

In general I like mechanisms that cause the players to clearly state what they want. The more clearly they can communicate what they want, the easier it is for me to understand, and the more likely I will empathize with that character’s actions. This includes the case where I have to clearly state what I want for my character, thus making me think and understand my character’s actions, allowing me to better empathize with my character.


When I run this adventure I had an unexpected, overwhelmingly positive reception. The Graverobber's Guide: The Witch's List (an adventure)

One of the players said that it reminded them of playing Monkey Island (I’m not sure what that is)
Another one said that seeting the scene describing the colors and the smells (as it’s suggested at the end of the adventure) reaaly gave them a feel of the place
The tone of the adventure was charming and funny, nothing was there to kill you. They laughed out really loud whent they found out that the plant monster likes bad jokes, and were excited that the traps were friendly.

My takeaway is that funny and charming details, bright and warm colors, smells, familiar elements like domestic or backyard animals, can grant a warm and cozy feeling to players

I think for me, focusing on an NSR context, I think the most important thing for emotionally resonant play is relationship stakes for the PCs (including, but not limited to, factions and other PCs). That means that the party members need to be invested in each other and, in some way, in the world around them (whether via factions, roots, relationships, etc.). The beauty of Beyond the Wall is that you create the relationships you have with the players and the rest of the village, but that you create multiple relationships and are surrounded by those relationships. I think some systems that try to do similar things suffer from having all the relationships be in-party relationships or from having too few relationships: fleshing out a world includes finding multiple types of relationships and connections. The Monsterhearts homeroom is a great example of creating a vibrant world with different types of relationships and potential relationships.


In terms of game affordances in addition to some of the things already mentioned (MH homeroom/strings and BW beliefs in particular) I find that mechanics that push the players to respond directly to a prompt or a question in scenes with emotional states.

The Firebrands framework is very good for this, as the mini games are often questions/prompts that go back and forth between players, and frequently have emotional stakes. Under Hollow Hills does this too, almost every move boils down to choices of questions players can ask each other (with the MC very much counting as a player). When taken in moments with emotional stakes, the answers, clarifying questions, subsequent conversation and developing scene has lead to emotionally resonant play for me.

Relatedly, the tight structure and scene prompts in Red Carnations on a Black Grave have a similar effect for me. Things that push my character into a space with emotional stakes and ask me to react, to build on what other players do and say work powerfully.

I think part of what makes this work, when it does, is that it drives players to particular emotional spaces while giving them an enormous amount of agency in how to respond to the stakes. That combination of restraint and agency, combined with stakes, has helped me get some places in games I wouldn’t have expected to before hand.

The hard part is getting buy in to the stakes, and this is where the set up stuff like homeroom and beliefs really help. Red Carnations does it with its pregen characters and opening questions that tie players into their characters and the historical moment. (Those cards really work magic).

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I agree with @GusL that you can have emotionally resonant moments in games that are not designed for that purpose. The longer the game goes on the more characters become real, the more they have beliefs, relationships etc.

Some techniques such as writing beliefs, making relationship webs, XP based on bonds, or shared character creation are essentially short cuts to that type of play… Of course these techniques require a certain player buy in to make work.

I think extended pre-written backstories like you see on Critical Role are also intended to facilitate this kind of play… But it seems like that technique isn’t as effective as the stuff coming out of story games. (The big emotional points in CR all still come later in the same way they might in a classic-play oriented campaign.)

For me I like some light mechanics to encourage character oriented play and “bleed” in the context of an otherwise OSR or Classic game.

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In my experience, no but yes :stuck_out_tongue:
No… as individual game elements can always be extracted from their systemic context and then somehow ported to other systems.
Yes… because the results are often less than ideal. The more something works in tandem with everything else in an organic and holistic way, the better results it will grant.
And the reverse if usually also true, like the one rule everyone always “forgets” to use, or the play-goal only one person at the table really wants to pursue, they either fade or get in the way… or work because something else somewhere else is actually doing the heavy lifting, and the new rule is then reinforcing that other thing.

There exist a whole unofficial category of rpgs that a now defunct italian forum used to affectionately call “GWEP” (Gut Wrenching Emo Porn) as they focused on eliciting a strong emotional response from the Players.
A few famous examples are:

  • My Life With Master
  • Montsegur 1244
  • Monsterhearts
  • Kagematsu
  • A flower for Mara
  • Previous Occupants
  • [trigger warning] Gang rape (it’s actually a thoughtful, victim-empowering, very controlled and safe play experience about a very dark topic… not a “fun game”, but a deeply emotional and eye opening experience carried through “play”)

Some are about negative emotions. Some are about positive ones. Some are about the emotions you either bring to the table, or the ones that the game makes you (more or less consciously) highlight.
And the mechanics in place are very different from game to game.

From what I could notice, one recurring element is the inherent “humanity” of every character involved, both PCs and NPCs.
Reduce a character to a bunch of numbers and a game function (usually an obstacle) and they will easily be dehumanised… and then whatever happens will be of little emotional impact.
But give them a name, a face, a few traits that somehow signal their humanity, their being people “like you”, and it will be much easier to feel something for them and what they do.

This is relatively easy to extract and transport to, say, a fantasy adventure game. One could even write a few procedures and rules to make it easier to do (during prep and or on the fly). It’s a structure explicitly present in Apocalypse World which I then expanded upon in Fantasy World.

It single handedly turned a “seek and destroy” mission into a wondrous journey. But then, is this element supported or smothered by the rest of the game system?

Another technique is to simply and directly ask questions about a PCs emotions, then use them to inform play.
What are you afraid could happen?
How do you feel about this thing? And why?
The trick being not to judge, but to challenge: say, the Paladin is committing casual genocide because it is rightful to do so for some religious/code reason… ask the Paladin how they feel about it, if they see it as genocide or not, and why.
Take the answers, and use them to test their convictions.
Is it still rightful in this case? And in this other case? What about now that someone else is doing it to you?
Dig, explore… what would you consider wrong? what line you would not cross?

Again, this is easier to do within a system that supports this kind of activity.
Most PbtA games use this technique within their “moves” to unearth what the Players (through their PCs) care about, in order to help both the GM and fellow Players to serve up stuff that will surely be interesting and engaging, if not specifically “emotional”.

These are the two top mechanics that come to my mind and that could be easily injected into most games.
Others are more entrenched in the overall structure of a specific game, so maybe are less useful to your query :slight_smile: