Risk and Emotional Investment

September 22, 2011

There’s a few different conversations going on that tie into an interesting idea: Where are people investing their emotions and willing to accept “risk” in play?

For the sake of this discussion, I’m defining risk as:

1) Something that can change in play, without a predefined outcome
2) That theoretically any of the players can affect, not just a GM


Who is my character? What are they capable of (morally, emotionally)?

Pretty much the core of Narrativist play, risk in character means your character, as who they are, what their limits are, is at risk- you don’t know who they’ll turn out to be- you play to find out.

The idea of the character changing and evolving in unexpected ways ranges from classic Joseph Campbell to more pop folks like Dan Harmon’s formula.

For some folks, though, this is really scary. They have their character and they don’t want the edges poked at, don’t want to have to ask dangerous questions that may leave them looking at the character differently.

Obviously, this ties in a lot to being able to both emotionally identify with the character and being open to being surprised by the character as well.

I think a common problem for organizing Narrativist play hinges on this- Nar play is pretty easy as far as techniques go, but difficult if we’re talking about a group with bad social dynamics and trust issues.

Players used to GMs screwing them over, learn to never open up for emotional change, or worse yet, never invest in a character in play- you may see a 20 page backstory about a character, but nothing in play because opening up invites change and there’s no trust that anyone is going to support you in this exploration of character. (see “Where it goes wrong” further down)


What will happen to these NPCs? What will happen to this place? This organization/group/culture?

There’s tons of games that aim to do this, at least superficially.

The problem is that in a lot of play, you find out that a) the setting isn’t actually meaningfully changing, or b) control of that change lies only in the GM’s hands or a metaplot dictated by adventure modules.

Assuming you get past that, then a lot of groups find great fun in this – this is where players shape the world and find the world reflects the deeds of their characters- the places hold memories, and history, the NPCs have relationships to the PCs.

Both Simulationist and Narrativists enjoy risk here. Mostly, this is the area where people confuse the two as being “about story” in that vague way. Fictional Positioning plays a generally big role here as well.


Did I choose the right tactics? Did I convey that character well?

This risk is the emotional esteem of playing with other people- how well did you perform in the moment to moment.

While this is pretty much always in play for everyone, it is, by itself with nothing else, a minimal requirement for any investment in play. While being the minimum, that doesn’t mean it’s the weakest- social approval and personal esteem are powerful.

Performance investment exists on a dial – highly competitive Gamism and many LARPs rely on high performance investment, while most “silly” or “Beer & Pretzels” games have a lower requirement.

This is an observation, not a judgment of value, here. Or, for the less bright among you: I’m not saying this is any worse, lesser than, or “not real roleplaying”.

I think a lot of groups find themselves navigating muddy waters here – both in how much investment is expected of players AND how performance should be judged. Here’s where we see a lot of “Well, are they good roleplayers?” with “good” meaning anything from portraying a character well, to coming up with good solutions for puzzles.

Where it goes wrong

Where performance level investment is a problem is when it’s a symptom of being unable to get any other kind of satisfying play.

Notably, this usually shows up with players who aren’t getting the Creative Agenda they want. Being unable to have influence/control in the things you want to have in the game, means you’re left being excited that you managed to make a nice speech, or set up a power combo, or roll a 20…

You’re getting the best you can get from this, and that’s effectively where we start seeing “20 minutes of fun in 4 hours of play”.

It’s a clear symptom when you find players unable to go for any other type of emotional investment even if it’s what they say repeatedly they want.

I remember an L5R game where a player set himself up in a moral crisis (both what he said he wanted before play, and what he did in play) and when he was presented with choices, literally ran out of the room, angry. Instead of seeing me leaving the door open for his choices, he only saw it as an Illusionist “trap” – he couldn’t read where I was going (because I wasn’t aiming to go anywhere) and he totally freaked out.

Emotionally investing in risking his character, was too much – not because of any personal failure on his part as a person, but because the years of gaming had trained him that anything beyond performance was effectively a set up for an asshole GM.

The ability to create fiction or imaginary events AND enjoy them requires trusting enough to put some emotional investment into play- and having that hampered by the expectation of getting “hit” all the time, AKA “Abused Gamer Syndrome”, is basically what Ron Edwards was speaking about with the Brain Damage discussion.

What do I do with this?

When you sit down to start a game, really think about these questions and talk about them as a group:

– What does “good play” look like for this game?
– What’s at risk here? Are we excited about that? Is that the right game for us?
– Do we know the roles and expectations of the GM, the players and the general style of the game? See: Same Page Tool

For most of the folks I play with, this is like a 10 minute conversation when we’re figuring out what games we want to play – it’s like picking out a meal or what movie to go watch.

I know a lot of groups freak out about these kinds of questions/discussions, because they expect them to be some kind of massive multi-hour “discussion”(argument) which only leaves everyone feeling resentful.

For those folks, all I’ve got is recommended reading: Roots of the Big Problems and A Way Out.

ETA: Ron Edward’s recent essay on Setting & Emergent Stories is really worth reading here.

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