Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Emotional Resonance

Whether it is watching a movie, reading a book, playing a game, or in any other way interacting with a story, if the audience is willing to let themselves invest in the tale they can usually get a lot more out of it. Now, there is more to this than simply investing, the story needs to be set up for this investment to happen, but you'll find the difference between a good and a great story is that in a great story, you get your investment returned to you. This emotional investment is paid back to us by the characters in the story, but there is more to it than that. We resonate with certain characters. Find in them things we want to be, things we want to have, things we want to do, or just things we can relate closely with. This is often why different people will have different favorite characters. (Read more for more!)
Think about it. Whether you were in the Ninja Turtles, Power Rangers, Scooby Doo, or He-Man generation of kids (or further back), you probably had a favorite character that was different than your friends. For me, I grew up with the Ninja Turtles in the late 80s, where I found my favorite character was Raphael. Sure, Leonardo was cool, with the two swords and being a leader, but Raphael just spoke to me for some reason. I couldn't even fathom why my friend from down the street liked Donatello, or his brother loved Michelangelo. It just meant when we played that we could have all 4 (someone else always had to be Leo).

So, why am I talking about this on my RPG blog? Because this is true for our characters as well when we play games.  These characters, if we are prepared to invest, aren't just stat sheets and equipment lists. They can be a lot more. Also, since you are the one who is making them, they likely will resonate with you along the way. Their travails become yours, their successes are also yours. When they speak, you can feel their voice talking, and you can feel their point of view tugging at your own emotional chords. It can be a powerful thing, and you'll know the signs of someone doing it in a game you're in when they honestly claim that "I had no idea my character would do that."

Now, this isn't just something for the Players either. As the GM you have the job of setting things up so that if your players are investing into their characters, that they get the pay off that they're looking for. This is different than the kinds of investment I spoke about before, we're not talking about them helping you flesh out the game world so give them a cookie. Though, that will often happen here too. We're talking about emotional investment. They're putting the effort in to give their character a soul, to give it wants and dreams. Pay them back for that. Challenge them, give them obstacles, but also give them victory. Give them the emotional pay off for their investment, and see if you can draw everyone into the energy that that provides.

Trust me, you'll know it when you see it. There is a difference between Bob, playing his barbarian who kicks down doors and kills people with his axe; and Bob, playing his barbarian who attacks the Baron's castle to avenge the slight to his clan's honor. Yes, they both involve kicking down doors, and killing guys with axes. Yes, they can both claim the slight of honor as the reason for it. But there is a difference to the actual investment, and paying lip service to the character.

To be perfectly honest, true emotional investment is something I've only managed to do a handful of times in over 17 years of gaming. It is hard, and much like with those favorite characters on TV, the spark has to be there to help draw you in. Those characters though, they've been more memorable than any of my other characters. Their actions and impacts have lived on with the groups long since the game ended.

So, how about you? Has anyone ever drawn you completely in? Have you ever found yourself so immersed in a character's actions that you felt like you were just along for the ride? Let us know!


  1. As far as movies go, the first real character that 'resonated' with me (at least that I can remember) was Luke Skywalker from Star Wars. Yes, that's right- the whiny little farm boy. He wasn't the cool guy (i.e. Han Solo). Heck, he didn't even get the girl (good thing, in retrospect). He was fallible. He was far from invincible. But he was good hearted from the very first. He triumphed not because he was the best Jedi lightsaber duelist evarrr...but because he had a good heart, a strong will, a sense of right and wrong and a love for his friends and family. What's not to admire in that? As a GM, I've gotten to play Luke Skywalker as an NPC on many occasions, and its always a fun experience for me.

    As far as my own characters go, I know just what you mean- it doesn't happen with every one you make, but when you 'connect' it is a great feeling. Truth be told, since I'm usually the GM, I don't get a chance to be a player very often- and in those rare occasions when I did, there is only one character who really stands out for me- even today.

    Oh, and p.s. My favorite turtle was Leonardo ;)

  2. No love for Donnatello? He was my favorite in the cartoons because he spoke (mostly) intelligently and was really a driving force in most of the shows. And I think I resonated more with Darth Vader if that says anything.

    I think a lot of my characters resonate with me because I know my own formula. I develop a character that is primarily defensive to situations that happen around him (playing female chars has gone poorly). Usually my characters are specialist in one thing and are happy to do it not necessarily min/maxing, just focused on "This is what I do." So except in the case of a few characters (notably my current one) I purposely don't play the leader. I have characters that have done vastly different jobs, but they are almost always focused on only their part of the equation. I pretty often scare GMs by what seems to be lopsided reaction to things but it all has it's own internal harmony.