The Human Heart: Engaging Emotions In RPG Design

Emotional storytelling in rpgs has always been an area of interest for us, both as players and designers. This year we were lucky enough to speak at Metatopia 2020 on the topic The Human Heart: Engaging Emotions in RPG Design. Here is the video of our panel, or for those who prefer to read, I’ve included an (approximate) transcript of our discussion below. There’s a lot in it (as I found when I tried to transcribe it!)

Hayley: Hi all, thank you for joining us today for this presentation, “The Human Heart: Engaging Emotions in RPG Design” at Metatopia Online 2020.

Before we get started, we’d like to begin by acknowledging the Traditional Owners of the land on which we are presenting this talk from today, the Gadigal and Wangal people of the Eora Nation and we pay our respects to Elders past, present and emerging.

Vee: For those of you who don’t know us yet, hello, I’m Vee Hendro, and this is Hayley Gordon, and we are from Storybrewers Roleplaying. We’ve been designing and self-publishing games for the past three and a half years, and we focus a lot of our game design on play experiences that are emotional and collaborative. Here are some of the games that we’ve made.

  • Alas for the Awful Sea, 
  • Good Society: A Jane Austen RPG, 
  • Good Society: An Expanded Acquaintance, which is a book of six expansions for Good Society.
  • And two one-shot games – Villagesong which is about village leadership inspired by pre-colonial Java, and Our Mundane Supernatural Life, which is about a day in the life of a supernatural person and their loved one.

Hayley: A lot of our focus has been on designing new systems with unique approaches to emotionally immersive play. And since our games tend to focus on drama and emotions, it’s no wonder we’ve spent some considerable time pondering how we can make games that better draw players into the emotional space of the game in a way that is also responsible and supportive – so in other words, “how can we make anguish and yearning an enjoyable experience?” So that’s what our talk is going to be on today! 

This talk is aimed at people who are looking at designing their own rpg, or more rpgs if you have, and it will be taking a designers perspective, what we can do as rpg designers to help create better emotional storytelling in our games.

Vee: But before we jump into it, a bit of housekeeping, just a couple of things:

  • First, we’ll be taking questions at the end of the talk, so if you have a substantial question please write it down and save it for the end [via the twitch chat]. We’ll be talking for about forty minutes so there will be ample time for questions afterwards. If there’s anything that we’re explaining which is unclear as we’re explaining it pop that in the chat and we’ll try to explain it better – but questions at the end.
  • Secondly, we’d like to take a moment to note that this talk is just our own thoughts and opinions on designing emotional games! We understand everyone designs differently and there is really no right way to do it, so in this talk we’re just sharing what has worked for us with the hope you’ll find it helpful or interesting.

Hayley: Today, we’re going to cover the following points: 

  • First, we’ll start with an introduction to the concept of emotional storytelling, and what we mean when we refer to feels first design
    Second, we’ll broadly outline some ethical considerations in engaging with this sort of design, and;
  • And third, and this will be most of the talk, we’ll take a closer look at some practical approaches we use as game designers when we are engaging in feels first design. We’ll be covering three tools, buy-in, player agency, and fictional levers. We’ll talk about what these are, how they help with emotional storytelling, how you might use them.

Vee: So to jump into that first point, emotional storytelling:

  • Our starting premise is that all RPGs engage our emotions. People relate to each other in terms of stories, always have and probably always will. Stories that are personal and emotionally compelling engage more of our brain and can even lead our body to respond physically, releasing cortisol in tense moments or dopamine during happy endings – this is what science tells us. We remember stories that engage us personally, better, and we are more likely to be transformed by them. So by the mere fact they are stories, all rpgs engage our emotions.
  • But roleplaying games are especially powerful because they actively engage participants in the act of storytelling, and as long as you aren’t playing a solo game, this active storytelling is done as part of a social interaction, adding another layer of engagement. And that’s why rpgs are a powerful force.
  • So, emotional storytelling is what is happening when we play games together and engage emotionally in the shared fiction. But what’s great about designing roleplaying games in particular, is that it is a unique narrative medium that allows us, as the designer, to modify both the way in which the story is shaped, and how the story is presented and received. Which leads us to this idea of feels first design.

Hayley:

  • So, by our account feels first design is what you are doing as an rpg game designer to achieve better emotional storytelling in your game. It’s how you design your game to help players better engage and control the emotional flow of their play experience. 
  • So feels first design is an approach that encompasses not only creating emotional play but also making sure that is used in a responsible way. It’s about being deliberate as to the emotional space of your game. 

Vee: Before we delve into sort of the practical part of our talk, we wanted to first address some ethical considerations that are brought up when designing games with the specific intention of engaging player emotions. We strongly believe this is part of being responsible game designers. 

Hayley: So the first thing you need to do is to consider how your game effects players. And for us this really covers three areas.

  • Emotional intensity: how likely is your game to involve heightened emotions? Is it really scary? Is it really sad? How long are players likely to experience these emotions for.
  • Likelihood for bleed: Bleed is where the feelings of a player’s character carries over into their personal life, or the other way around. Games involving closer relationships and more character embodiment tend to evoke more bleed, but it can also depend on the design and content of the game.
  • Intensity of interpersonal relationships: So how intimate are the relationships between characters, and in particular the player characters? For example, are they lovers, are they family? How much stress is put on these relationships? So our game Good Society is basically a game that is focused on the drama of romance and of family which means the relationships between the characters are very intimate and intense.

You will need to consider each of these points in your game design – games that have more intensity, more intimate interpersonal relationships are going to need more supportive tools to deal with this. This is not just about safety tools, although those are important. In general, players need more control, more support, and more flexibility when these aspects are heightened. Depending on your game you might also need a debrief as well. 

Playtesting is a really important part of understanding how your game affects players, and gives you the data you need to calibrate your game well.

Vee: So we sort of mentioned building safety tools into your game. We won’t go on too long about this, because there is already a lot of information about safety tools out there and it would have been an entire talk. But suffice to say that we feel it is extremely important to address emotional risks proactively, and that means build safety tools into your game design. The more you understand about your own game and how it affects players (which you can do through playtesting), the more you’ll be able to understand the specific risks involved and build a bespoke solution for your game.

Hayley: So, for the rest of this talk, we’ll be going over three specific “tools” we use to connect our game design to better emotional play. It’s good to note here that these are just the tools we personally use, and there’s endless other approaches and ways to go about it. But these three tools are what we’ve found to be most effective in our own experience. 

Vee: So the three tools we’re going to talk about today:

  • Buy in
  • Player Agency, and
  • Fictional Levers 

We’re going to be talking about these tools separately, however of course they are all very interrelated. When you design we encourage you to think about each of these separately, but when you finish you will find that some mechanics of your game actually address all at the same time. It’s also a good way to look for gaps, maybe something is so strong as a fictional lever that it’s actually overriding player agency, or similar.

Let’s turn to the first tool, buy-in.

Hayley: So, starting with buy-in, buy-in is the emotional investment that players have in a game, demonstrated by the acceptance of, and willingness to, actively support and participate in the fiction and the story. It is the attachment that participants of your game have to the story and characters, and their vested interest in what happens next.

We consider buy-in to be a prerequisite condition for emotional storytelling, because without buying-in, participants of your game have little reason to engage emotionally. Players won’t care about the fiction, or may experience a mismatch between the fiction and their expectations of the fiction. Without sufficient buy-in, players basically aren’t ready to go on the emotional journey that your particular game provides.

Vee: So the question for this section is how do you help players buy into your game, and specially your game’s emotional space? From our experience, the two best ways we’ve found is a) informed consent and b) encourage player authorship in your game. So we’ll tackle each of these separately.

Informed consent is about players knowing what is coming up ahead in the game – what kind of content might appear and how it might appear in the game – and for them to say enthusiastically yes, I want to be a part of this. 

Hayley: From the perspective of a GM or player, often the first time they’re able to determine what kind of content may appear in a game is through a game blurb, or game overview. These are important for starting to set expectations I think. 

Vee: Yeah but you can also tell people about the kind of game they’re going to be playing through the game’s aesthetics, or your game materials and character creation process. 

As an example I was going to pull up this Star Wars: Force and Destiny RPG character sheet. When you pick up this character sheet, even before yous tart, the very first prominent section of the sheet, is this section which has your Soak Value, Wounds, Strain and Defense. So by picking up this character sheet you already know that there’s going to be combat, and that you’re going to be trying to stay alive in this game. So that gives you like a big picture of what you’re getting into.

Let’s look at another example of how a game might elicit informed consent. This example is Girl Underground, which is a game about a – it’s like Alice and Wonderlandy – about a curious girl in a wondrous world. Before the game starts, players come up with Manners that they want to challenge in the game and put these on index cards in the middle of the table — Manners are things like Young ladies must always be grateful for what they are given or Young ladies must always go by ‘she’. You can choose from a list, or make up your own Manners. This exercise lets players choose from the outset what challenging issues will appear in the game. They start the game informed and enthusiastic from the get-go because they picked them. 

From this, we can see how it is really important to be clear about the content and context of your game. When a group of people form shared expectations, that’s the first step to effectively telling an emotional story together. 

Hayley: I think the the other thing about informed consent is that many people think of it as a thing that happens at the beginning of the game, that you set and forget. For example, this is a horror game, there will be terrifying creatures in it, everyone on board with that? But actually, informed consent is broader than that, and needs to take place throughout gameplay, as the ability to withdraw consent is important. 

So for example, in our game Good Society, there is a phase at the beginning of the game called Collaboration, where players sort of “configure” their game ahead, and it asks questions like what is the tone, what do we want to see, what don’t we? To avoid this happening just once in the game and then being forgotten, it’s also reviewed every Upkeep Phase, meaning players revisit, discuss or amend their previous decisions at regular intervals. And it’s our experience that people do do this, this opportunity is important to them.

Vee: The other part of buy-in that we’ve found to be really helpful is this idea of Player Authorship. Player authorship is the degree to which players contribute to creating aspects of the fiction, be that things about their characters, the world, anything. It’s this the ability of players to contribute fiction both at the outset but also throughout the game creates that continuous buy-in that heightens emotional engagement. Adding fictional details, e.g. the dining table is covered in a red cloth, gives people the opportunity to highlight the things that interest them. And it also creates a stronger connection to those things, because they’re the ones who made them up in the first place. It’s sort of like, I birthed it so I have responsibility over it.

Hayley: Yeah, it’s worth thinking about  how to include opportunities for player authorship throughout your game. And the best way to do this is to make the tools for creating and contributing fiction clear, explicit, and easy to use. The most obvious example is a blank space on your character sheet right? But you only fill that in once. As designers, we need to think beyond that, to more continuous forms of input. 

Vee: So, an example we’ve got of that, in Fellowship there is a move called “Command Lore” that says:

“When someone asks something about your character or your people, tell them.
When you ask about another character or their people, they will tell you the answer.
When you ask about the Overlord, they alone may choose not to answer.”

So this set of three statements is a very clear, very obvious way of dividing player input and encouraging continuous buy-in. By having this written on the basic move sheet, it constantly reminds players that they can ask, and they can answer. Only the overlord can choose not to and be mysterious

Hayley: Next, we’ll move on to our second tool player agency.

Where buy-in is about understanding and contributing to the fiction, player agency is the actual ability of players to shape what happens next in the story. 

Player agency should not be confused with character agency – it doesn’t matter what the player’s characters can or cannot do, it’s about the players themselves. However the ability of a character to impact the story is usually a good yardstick for whether player agency itself exists. 

Vee: Player agency is a vital part of player safety and enjoyment. It creates better emotional storytelling because it puts the players in the driver’s seat, and by doing so let’s them be vulnerable and engage. Without it, players can feel powerless and like the story’s outcome is inevitable. With it, it creates a genuine ability to shape the story. 

So how do we establish player agency? There are two approaches we’ll talk about. This first is be aware about who decides, and B) support player choice. So these are the two things we’ll be talking about next.

Hayley: Yeah, so let’s start with that idea of who decides in your game and when. So you can analyse the contributions that you are asking for from the people playing your game. And look at when are decisions made and by who? And who do they affect? You need to be clear about this in your ruleset. When and how are decisions made about what happens next, and who gets to makes them?

And of course not everyone can make every decision, but players need to have the overall feeling that they have a significant say in setting the course of the story. We’re all constantly contributing, constantly collaborating, the question is do players feel they have the influence they need during the game.

So our viewpoint is that it’s positive to make this explicit. And there’s lots of ways you can do this.

Vee: One example of this is in our game Good Society. In that game you have a currency called resolve tokens. You can use these tokens to change events of the game, so for example you could overturn a carriage, or reveal a secret. However if the use of that token would harm or compel another player’s character to do something or say something, you offer that token to them – and they can accept or reject. So I can be like “Hayley can I overhear your conversation?” or least Lady Darlington’s conversation, and you can choose whether to accept that, you can make that choice. So, everyone is empowered to make decisions about what happens next, but players whose characters are involved are also empowered to refuse them.

Hayley: Yeah, but there is an even more obvious and commonly used example of demarcating player agency that we see in games all the time – taking turns. The game Alienor is a really clear example of this – the players take turns, but it still feels like it’s part of one flowing narrative. It’s clear when a player has agency to say what happens next – it happens on their turn. – Yeah I love that game.

So let’s talk now about how you can support player choice, which is actually a very important part of player agency. So particularly for emotional storytelling, player agency is best exercised when players feel comfortable and confident making choices. Without enough support in the game agency can be useless or just difficult and unpleasant – so it kind of defeats the purpose of including agency in the first place.

One option to achieve this is to allow players to decide when they want to choose – for example in Good Society, it’s up to the players when they would like to play a resolve token. But this has an inherent problem, some players will naturally exercise this less than others and this will give them less control over the story. This is ok to an extent, but you do want these players to contribute.

The other option is more like taking turns, and that is to force players to step up to the plate. If that’s the option your game will use, if you’re going to give every body a time when they have to say something, you need to make sure that players are going to feel comfortable and confident when they need to exercise their agency. 

Vee: How can you do this? You need to make sure players have something to hang their hat on, whether it’s the desires of their character, or prompts that help them know what is happening, or something else. Basically anything that makes them go, “hey I know the thrust this is driving towards”, or “I have a basis on which to make my decision.” Secondly, they need to understand how their choices are going to affect the game. This is about making it clear how this moment is part of the greater whole, and how any mechanics they engage might engaged based on their decision. So both those things are really important in supporting that player, and empowering that player action.

Hayley: The Hour Between Dog and Wolf, which is a game about an investigator and serial killer going toe to toe, is a good example of this. To take their turn, the player first gets a prompt from the framing table, they then choose a scene type from the list, and set a scene goal. This is a simple step by step process, each choice feels small but by the time you get the scene you have a very good idea of what’s going on. And the scene types themselves provide cues as to what the scene explores, giving players even more to jump off.

Now obviously you need to strike a balance here – there can’t be too many choices or it becomes too hard to make decisions. But providing that  support for players when the game calls on them to do so is really important in allowing players to exercise agency.

Vee: Yeah. One of my favourite tricks for this is to have a back up list of suggested things – for when people are struggling with player input – say asking a question and they can’t think of what to ask next. Having a back up table so they can refer to that and say oh look there are three options here I’ll just pick up. So just being able to give them the information for that.

Alright, let’s finish off this section on player agency, here are some additional points to consider: 

Hayley: What about mystery or surprise? I personally don’t think this is a huge excuse to abandon agency, I’m surprised all the time in games where I also felt heard about the way the story was going. And I feel much more emotionally engaged in that surprise when I feel like I’m complicit in the story surrounding it rather than having it thrust upon me.

Vee: And the other one is what about games that operate by intentionally removing agency? I think this is ok if players understand that and give informed consent –  see point a). But you need to have big warning signs if you are going to do this. It has to be deliberate and well thought out feature of your game, not just an accident. So that’s player agency.

Vee: Finally, the last tool we’re talking about today is fictional levers. These are fiction facing mechanics that players can use to create an emotional experience. A very simple example are the bonds that commonly appear in PbtA playbooks that form relationships between the PCs.

Hayley: And I like to refer to them as levers, because you can pull on them, but you don’t have to. Maybe I don’t care who my old flame marries right, maybe my entire life is dependent on it. It depends how hard players want to pull that lever. You might even have heard people say this during play “oh, you pulled on that really hard”, “I pulled on our old flame relationship really hard during that scene”.

And the idea of the lever is important, because it shows that the mechanic creates an opportunity, not a set story. This goes towards the idea of agency which we talked about earlier.

Vee: Fictional levers help with good emotional storytelling by engaging the “care factor”. They are things that make you care where you might otherwise not care. And, they create things to care about where there were none before. So if you take an example if you will of the Jane Austen novel Pride and Prejudice. Do I, a bystander, care if Jane Bennet marries Charles Bingley? Probably not. But if I’m the sister of Jane or Charles – suddenly I care a lot and will do things like walk to Netherfield through the mud or write very snide letters. Levers create opportunities to engage, they create the opportunities to care.

Hayley: Fictional levers I think are basically infinite in their scope and possibility. So this is where the viewpoint of the creator really comes into account, there’s no right way to do this, we can only speak from our personal experience. So if you will allow us to speak from personal experience, we’ve found that the most emotional levers in rpgs either revolve around connection and intimacy, or hard decisions.

So let’s start by talking a bit about connection and intimacy. This is very intuitive, the closer we are to someone or something, the more we care about it. And nowadays we’re seeing this in most games, I think we’re moving away from the adventuring party in a strange land who just met in a tavern and don’t know each other.  And we know this is a great way to ratchet up the stakes – defending a foreign town from dark magic is not as emotional as defending your hometown right?

Where I think we still struggle is the idea that connection and intimacy is about relationships yes, but it’s also about inviting those relationships to become impactful in the story, to mess shit up so to speak. So charged relationships.

This means people who want things from each other, even better if they want different things from each other. Love, revenge, forgiveness, a loan, a secret, there’s infinite things people could want from each other. When people want different things from each other, you have a charged relationship. Charged relationships will naturally want to shift and change, they take you through the emotional rollercoaster until eventually those wants are fulfilled or rejected.

Vee: A lot of the time we do this better with non-player characters than we actually do with player characters. We tell GMs a lot of the time that non-player characters should want things from player characters because that’s plot, right? But we sometimes don’t give enough attention to the way it works between player characters. Oftentimes, there’s not enough support for that area of the game.

A great example of where player character relationships are considered explicitly is in Before the Storm, a game about an impending battle, which has something called disagreements. During character creation, each character picks another whose strong belief they disagree with, and write down what about it upsets them so much – so they disagree. During the game you can raise disagreements to earn points that influence the final battle. Characters also know juicy secrets about each other, which are revealed during the game, and fundamentally challenge those character’s beliefs. It’s very explicit part of the game.

Hayley: So let’s talk about hard decisions. And again, as game designers again we intuitively know how important hard decisions are. In games with GMs, we tell them to make the characters choose. And quite a few games recently also have this idea of the “devil’s bargain”. I think the reason we love it is that it’s emotionally poignant – having to choose between two things that are important. Choosing already creates a sense of responsibility, of agency, that draws in players even further. However the hard decision doesn’t need to be the GMs domain only, we can actually build it into our games. 

Vee: One way to do this is at a character level by providing vehicles for characters to build obligations, beliefs and desires. These are often set up in the beginning of the game and expand from there. 

An example of that is the hardholder in Apocalypse World – they have an obligation to their holding, they have ambitions for its future, and they have the power, the agency, to have to choose how they handle these things in play. How they will grow their holding, what their holding will become. That’s built in right at the start.

Hayley: Yeah, and you can do this even more explicitly, and I think a good example of this is the Janus playbook from Masks – so they are torn between their mundane and super hero obligations, and the playbook makes the expectations on them very clear. The important thing is from a game design perspective, even if the conflicts are set up in the beginning, you need mechanics that will help them arise in play, its not just set and forget. So in the Janus playbook there is a move you roll when time passes that creates new problems with your mundane obligations, and that keeps bringing those back to you so it really hits home.

Vee: You’re not limited to playbooks in how you do this, you can embed choices into the fabric of your game. Burning Wheel for example has beliefs that are constantly being tested and changing. And there are games that explicitly force you to choose in the fiction. In the game we’re making at the moment – Villagesong, in most turns of that game you draw a card and the first thing is you have to choose, you have to make a decision in the fiction. So in this card, it says “do you journey the dangerous path to commune with a past ancestor, or do you gift this chance to another leader, why?” so that’s a decision that is inbuilt into the game. That’s your turn, it is the game.

A few more points that’d we’d like to make about fictional levers before we wrap up. You can scale these concepts for the emotional landscape of your game. So in cozy games, smaller choices have larger impacts. In gritty, or heroic games the stakes need to feel a lot higher. So scale your fictional levers so the emotional landscape of the game.

Hayley: And to connect some of what we talked about so far, buy-in is actually very important to the effectiveness of fictional levers, so it needs to feel natural for players to engage – to reach for the lever right? And it’s not going to feel natural unless players have a hand in forming those levers or the context around them in the first place.

Vee: Alright

Hayley: Yeah, so that’s basically what we wanted to talk about today, so sort of in summary – emotional storytelling is awesome, it’s a huge reason why I play rpgs. But it’s also fraught because emotions are fraught and we’re all emotional creatures. It’s important to take a proactive and responsible approach to the way you treat emotional engagement in your game. But it’s also good to support that kind of roleplaying and help people enter into that space as well.

Vee: So these are the tools we’ve spoken about today

  • Buy-in
  • Player Agency, and
  • Fictional Levers

We’ll take questions now until the end of the hour. So if you have questions you can pop them in the chat, but we will scroll back up the chat.

Question: Do you all have any thoughts on engaging emotions in conjunction with metagame – like dread or star crossed with its real life tension?

Vee: I’m all for those, I think those are great. That’s a really good example of how you use mechanics to enhance the emotional engagement of your game. Because it’s putting you in a similar space of mind. In both those games, when you’re pulling that block it’s hard not to have that physical reaction because your heart is racing. And the game is using that automatic response to tie into the thing, so I think they’re great.

Hayley: I guess my view is that things like pulling out a block from a jenga tower creates tension in real life, but tension is also experienced in real life by the mere fact you’re having a conversation – that’s a bit abstract, but – these tools they just bring out the natural tension that exists in the moment of an emotional engaged conversation and make it tactile. That might be a bit abstract but I think it’s true.

Vee: There’s a bit of a chicken and egg there. But I agree in those games you probably have that charged story already and then the mechanics just enhance that.

Question: When you make these games do you take any consideration into the closeness between the players themselves in real life, or do you just assume you can’t control that and leave it to safety tools, etc.?

Vee: I think we do think about both, we consider our games in both lights and make sure we design to the lowest standard-

Hayley: You mean we design for strangers, because the thing is we want a game where people can be emotionally invested even if they’re strangers – that is what we design for. And I don’t think in any of our games we’ve ever designed for or required a pre-existing relationship – even to the point of making them accessible for online play – so we’re not even presuming they’re in the same room. And I think that’s important because no matter the context we want people to feel comfortable and able to engage.

Vee: What we do think about is when people are comfortable, do they have enough to take that further, and what would be good for those groups as well.

Question: How do you view the interaction of thematic relevance as a tool for improving buy-in. For example a game about overcoming fascism or stopping plague is likely to get more buy-in due to current events.

Hayley: I think theme is important in buy-in, some themes people can identify with right away because they’re universal or currently relevant. Theme can help shortcut buy-in e.g. Jane Austen rpg puts people in the right milieu in their head. It doesn’t mean we can stop there, there’s still a lot of work to do. But the themes that are less obvious you actually have to do more work to encourage buy-in – I think Alas for the Awful Sea was a really good example of that for us because it’s not immediately clear what the space of the game is and we had to work really hard to help people engage with that.

Vee: And neither of those is better or worse, it’s just about where’s the best bang for your buck as a designer.

Hayley: It just tells you what the problem is you need to solve for right?

Question: How do you approach the consideration that players will sometimes want to damage relationships between characters? Should this be encouraged equally as choices that enhance relationships? And how can you prevent negative bleed that can come from mechanics that reward players for conflict between each other?

[Note – I’m going to start paraphrasing our answers slightly at this point as there was a lot of questions]

Hayley: Damaging relationships is part and parcel with the drama genre – e.g. Good Society – but the important thing is that the players themselves don’t feel a part of it. The characters might be tearing each other down, but the players have to feel completely comfortable and safe and in control.

Vee: The difference is feeling like all players are on the same team – other players can be part of your character’s misfortunates, but that’s not about tearing down, it’s always a collaborative approach. You’re going to need to be prepared for the possible outcome where negative bleed does occur. If that’s your design space you’ll need to think about solutions for that, from breaks, to de-escalation mechanics, to check-ins, etc.

Hayley: Informed consent! When entering the game, players should be able to choose if they want destructive and intense relationships in their game or not, and how those relationships might end. It’s either for people to embrace moments knowing they know in the very general sense where the story is going overall.

Question: What challenges and opportunity are posed by using a randomised mechanic like a die-roll in the emotional play space?

Vee: Die rolls are great because they have a tactile tension and resolution.

Hayley: We operate in a very emotional play space and we are moving away from randomness as a way of resolving things. Randomness is introducing things we still use, but resolving things/ success fail less so. The reason for that is around agency, we want people to feel like they’re in control of their own story and can drive it where they want to drive it.

Vee: I agree, I like more control as a player so you can drive towards the space you want. However random resolution could definitely work! It’s a design challenge.

Hayley: It can be done by! Probably not by us. It’s a balance between tension and control.

Question: Can you please discuss the difference in emotional impact playing online vs in person.

Vee: We play a lot online because we live in Australia. Personally I don’t find an emotional difference – both are good vehicles for storytelling.

Hayley: If anything, people are more intense online because they’re more focused on the story than the social element of being around the table – but that might just be my experience. But however, I think how comfortable and how safe a particular group of people playing together are is more important.

Vee: Atmospheric games like ten candles though are often better in person, but apart from those both are good.

Question: How important is creating the right mechanics to tie in with the emotional story you want to make next, or is it a close secondary?

Both: It’s very important!

Hayley: We constantly and consistently aim to do this, a key goal in our design (no matter whether we succeed or fail.) We’ll often think of the emotional outcome we want, and then backwards work to the mechanic behind that.

Vee: It’s the part of our game design that takes the longest, understanding the emotional space and optimising for it. It takes a long time. Lots of playtesting.

Question: How does the epistolary section of Good Society specifically interact with the players emotional states?

Vee: It’s good for three things. Reflecting on your character’s own emotions and experiences and editorialising it, revealing secrets, and then a great way to plan what’s happening next providing informed consent going into the next phase of the game about what might be happen.

Hayley: You also take turns, every play has the agency to drive the story in this section.

Question: Game moments that ask for specific emotional responses via random output or a list of choices, how can you help keep/establish buy-in for more narrow choices that might create an emotional mismatch.

Vee: It’s about accurately making a list that is likely to hit a high percentage of use cases – what’s the likelihood the thing on the list is a thing I want. To make a good list like that is about understanding the emotional space of your game, and what are the most likely thing – also with the right degree of specificity.

Hayley: The list needs to allow people to put what their character is already or potentially feeling into a solid or concrete selection – it can’t create the feeling, but it can cause people to make existing feeling explicit.

Vee: You can also have a catch all just in case.

[We go into rapid fire being short on time]

Question: What do you think the pros and cons are between in character authorship and meta-authorship? Are there things they are better suited for?

Hayley: They perform different functions. Player level input is more about being a participant in the wider story and an overall sense of investment in that story and the story of other players, where as in character input tends to be more immediate, it’s more like reaching for the lever and pulling it.

Question: When making a game that uses moves how do you balance these so they feel distinct from one another? Have you ever cut moves or split them into two because they were too overlapping or broad?

Hayley: Yes, this is really about playtesting. Moves are levers, when do people reach for them and do they feel satisfied when they do?

Vee: Let’s actually wrap up now! That’s us! Check out other panels! Enjoy Metatopia! Thank you for your time.

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