Sunday, 16 May 2010

Emotional attachment

Emotions… to some extent, everybody’s got them. They’re those uncontrollable rampant things that get hold of your sensible, rational decisions and shake them up until you do something stupid.

But where do they come from? How can we role play them in a believable way?

We’ve all been there, something happens to our character (either a PC or NPC) that should evoke a strong emotional reaction and it just doesn’t seem to happen. We know, on a logical level, that Geoff is scared of the lurching beast with glowing eyes that that is dragging its way towards him. It’s obvious, and not only because he failed his Courage check.  However, as you sit there, happily chomping down on unspecified potato snacks while brushing the crumbs on your jeans to pick up the dice and roll for initiative, you’re not worried. It’s just a Type3 Gromlit with only 12 hit points after all…  There’s a disconnect between the player and the character.

So what can we do about that? How do we ‘get into character’ and really play our way into the scene? Well, we can look at the way emotions actually work and see if we can figure it out from there.

Emotions and feelings work differently from rational thought. You don’t think: “this makes me angry” and therefore get angry. You’re angry already. In fact, you’re pissed off before you even realize that you’re getting angry.

This happens due to the way the brain processes information. Imagine, if you will, what happens to Geoff. He’s walking along in the woods near the tomb of eternal suffering, whistling a little ditty and rummaging through his backpack for a second level Rune of Triangulation when suddenly he’s confronted by the aforementioned Gromlit. The Gromlit is horrible, ugly and seriously aggressive. It comes barrelling out of the trees in front of him with a face like a bucket full of razorblades.  The ambient light bounces off the Gromlit and into Geoff’s eyes. This information is handed over to his brain to deal with:

Eyeballs: “Here – got some updated visual data for you, boss”

The brain takes this and one part of it tries to make sense of the data. It passes it through filters, breaks down the colours, identifies shapes, constructs mental models of the universe and updates the image of the world in Geoff’s head. Then Geoff’s brain identifies the objects he can see and skims back through his memories to make sense of them. Then his conscious mind identifies the Gromlit as a logical threat. This might take a moment, even as long as a few seconds.

However, this isn’t what makes Geoff scared. Geoff is scared before he’s identified the Gomlit. Why? Because there’s another, more straight forward part of the brain that also received the signal from the eyeballs:

Eyeballs: “Here – got some updated visual data for you, boss”

This part of the brain reacts on an instinctive level and sees the tell tale signs of a threat without really understanding what that threat is. (This is why sometimes you’ll jump half out of your skin, only to realize that what you saw was, in fact, just a shadow) This part of the brain doesn’t tell the conscious mind that there is a threat, I mean, what would it say?

“Ah – boss? Something scary is happening!”
“Don’t know!”
“Right – let me just finish modelling this and find out shall I?”
“Oh, right, ok”

However, what it does do is tell the body to be ready. It shouts to the body:

“Get yourself in shape – this is about to get messy! Push out some adrenaline! Get that heart rate up! We’re too heavy! Get those bowels evacuated! Shut down digestion control and bring all the muscles online! Quickly, Quickly, Quickly! Let’s move like we got a purpose people!”

Your body doesn’t question these commands, like a well trained SWAT team your body re-configures itself into “Fight of Flight” mode. Of course, whenever your body does something, it feeds back information to the brain to let you know:

Heart: “I’m up to 150 bpm – ready for action!”
Adrenaline gland: “1cc clear! Next batch ready in 0.5 seconds”
Bladder: “Ready to go! Just give me the word!”

You conscious mind picks up these signals very quickly and thinks:

 “Oh, crap – something’s up!”

A moment later, your conscious mind catches up and joins the party. It takes the feeling of fear (that has been reported by your body) and associates it with the threat posed by the Gromlit. Now, not only is Geoff aware that he’s scared, but also that the source of this fear. His conscious mind can then propose a solution.

“Hit it with the hammer!”

And Geoff rolls for initiative¹.

The essence of this is thus: Fear is not something that happens at a mental level. You are not scared because you know you are in danger. Fear is something that happens at a physical level. You are scared because your body has gone into “Oh Crap!” mode.

This is the disconnect that happens between characters and the players that play them. Because emotions are rooted in the body, they are hard to manufacture on demand. Even when you know your character is scared – it’s hard to be scared on her behalf.

However it’s possible to provoke the body into triggering some of these responses. Horror movies rely on being able to build tensions to evoke a feeling of fear. You can do this yourself, internally (the way method actors might do) or you can allow the environment to do it for you, like telling ghost stories in the dark.

If you are a player (or a GM playing an important NPC) try consciously applying physical symptoms to help evoke mood. For example: When player a character that is nervous and scared, tense your stomach muscles, breathe shallow breaths from the back of your throat an maybe tense your forearms and tremble your fingers. Obviously, you don’t need to do this in an obvious way that other players can see (you don’t want them thinking you’ve got a twitch). You’ll be surprised how easy it is to trick your mind into thinking something’s up. Suddenly you’ll actually feel a little nervous. Use this to play the character. It can affect the way you talk, your mannerisms and subconscious body language.

Admittedly this is a subtle kind of technique that can be hard to achieve when in a large or boisterous group of players. In a smaller group this kind of detail can really add internal depth to NPCs which is turn beings a dynamic tension and intensity to the game. As a player, I’d suggest trying just for your own benefit and to help you really get into your character in times of tension.

This isn’t just limited to the emotion of fear, of course. It’s just that fear is one of the easier emotions to pin down. You an try the same kind of thing with love, anger, depression, joy and a host of other more subtle emotive responses. The trick is to think carefully about the emotion and see what effect there is on your body. Then find ways of evoking a similar physical response on demand. Hence, hinting to your brain that it’s time for that emotion.

¹      Essentially, this roll for initiative is a measure of how quickly Geoff’s brain can get through the process and be ready to react in a sensible way to the threat. If he rolls badly (or just happens to be a bit of a klutz) then the Gromlit might be on top of him before he manages to gather his limbs together and point them in the right direction.

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