We have a lot of jokes around the table for my L5R game about how it is basically a teen drama show. Sure, we have the politics and combat you expect in a L5R game, but in this generation in particular the in character relationships are getting tense, and entertaining. Today I want to talk about that, and how that impacts my approach to the game as a GM.
When Emotion Gets Involved
I've seen a lot of people defend a lot of things that happen at the table, and being flippant about it, by waving it off as "pretendy funtime games" and while remembering that your table top game is a game is important, it doesn't cover how serious things can get around the table. I try to boil it down to this: you're playing a game, but your relationships with the people around the table is more than that, and is also where things can get complicated.
This is especially true when emotions are involved for the characters. Believe it or not, but one of the best ways to teach your brain that there's a strong emotional attachment to some fictional thing (one that matters in the real world) is to pretend to have one for 3-6 hours every week or so. The brain's not the best at telling the difference between fantasy and reality when emotions get involved.
As a player, and especially as a GM you need to be aware of this. It can be really cute when two people at the table start to get close in real life following up on a connection made in character. It's an entirely different matter when that relationship starts to get dashed against the rocks repeatedly because of actions that happen in the game. It's even worse when someone starts to feel uncomfortable with the group or game as a whole because the emotional turmoil the game brings up.
Maintaining A Healthy Divide
Emotional investment in your game is a great thing. Don't get me wrong. However, as a GM you should take the extra steps to ensure that everyone is cool with how things are going out of character - especially when things are getting rough. Don't count on someone to recognize when they're emotionally compromised, or to jump forward and tell you if the investment is strong. Seek them out, talk in private, and make sure they're cool with things. Talk about where they want things to go. Make sure they know you need them to come to you the second they're not ok with things.
Do all this away from the table and one on one. No one wants to take away from the fun of the game, and many people won't talk about what's going on when the whole group is around. Give them the chance to do it in private. Let them know they can e-mail or write for you if that's easier. Just make sure that line of communication is there.
Oh, and this should go without saying, but keep whatever they tell you private. Nothing will make someone not want to share more than the group finding out the game is being changed because they had an adverse response to it.
If Everyone Is Safe, Use It
Once you know the players are good and safe, use that emotional connection. Use it to up the emotional tension and drama in the game. Use it to bring more life to the game. Challenge it. Threaten it. Tug on it. Let it do work. It will pull others further into the game, and that makes everything better.
As the tension goes up you'll find it really goes up with the emotional investment. IC stress and strain will hit the group harder and feel more real. It's not a bad thing. Just be aware of it.
After Care Required
With emotions involved, the need for tension breaks is even more important. The players will need quiet moments to cap off moments of high tension. They'll need a chance to recharge their batteries. This is needed anyhow, but when emotions are in play it is even more important. Otherwise you risk burning your players out.
Not To Fear
I want to be clear. Emotional investment from players and characters is not something to fear as a GM. It makes your game better. However, it does mean you have a bit more responsibility. Fortunately, like so much in this hobby of ours, the more you put in the even more you get back out.