I’ve always found it humorous when GMing has been described as playing “a thousand faces.” What we tend to ignore is that all those faces—ideally—have an emotion behind them. It’s one thing to verbally state the emotional state of an NPC but quite another to express that emotion directly.

Now, fair warning, we’re venturing in the territory of method acting, if you will. For some GMs that may be a deal-breaker, but for most of us I suspect we’re willing to find new ways to express emotional variety.

Building a Mystery

For each individual GM the emotional variety of our NPCs is drawn upon real-world experiences. There’s no way around it; expressing an emotion that you don’t have first hand experience with is, at best, challenging. Now, that’s not a negative—quite the opposite—drawing upon your prior experiences is taking what you already know and incorporating it into your game. One potential issue for each of us is that the impetus of our emotional base differs. While I can describe my own, it will be different for each GM. So consider each of these as examples; draw your own parallels and incorporate as applicable.

Love: Perhaps the easiest emotion to convey it’s also the one we’re the most likely to hesitate to express. I mean, think of the mix of genders at your table: do you really want to be laying yourself bare and having your NPCs express their love? If so, kudos to you! This is a difficult place to find yourself in but one that typically has an emotion that we can easily relate to as we’ve all experienced love.

Anger: Also an easy one, there’s no dearth of anger for us to use as GMs. Just don’t go too hard on the guys, okay? ;)

Sorrow: Sadly, this one is also an easy one to draw upon: we all have areas of our life that are filled with regret or sorrow. Speaking for myself, the death of my father resonates as a particularly painful memory that I can draw upon for a sorrowful NPC. This is a difficult one for me, riding the line between expressing the emotion and actually being caught up in the emotion; even typing this sentence makes me feel remorseful and reflective. In your life there is no doubt an equally powerful emotion that you can draw upon to express an NPC’s sorrow.

Joy: When expressing joy I draw upon positive emotions that I associate in my life. Traditionally, emotions such as my marriage, the birth of my first child, etc. Not only is it easy to draw upon this emotion and convey it realistically, it also does wonders for improving your mood! I know it sounds all touchy-feely, but the aspect of conveying joy via an NPC just improves my mood. Playing a positive, joyful NPC, lifts my spirits. Conversely, when the PCs take advantage of the NPC—and this happens a lot in my games for some reason—it really pisses me off! Here’s a positive element in the game that the PCs are deriding or making fun of and, by virtue of this methodology, it is difficult for you not to take it personally. In essence, try to draw upon your emotional experiences but distance yourself enough to be objective and not take it personally. Attacks upon characters, for whatever reason, aren’t attacks upon you.

Fear: For any of us this should be an easy emotion to tap into. We all have our fears—even failure at the gaming table may be one!—so drawing upon this should be readily available when expressing through your NPCs. The important concept of conveying fear isn’t that the others must share the fear, only that you feel and express it. Thusly, the NPC expresses the fear; your PCs have to interpret the genesis of that fear. Also, there are mechanical subtexts that can help enhance a character’s fear. I guarantee that a paladin in full plate feels a bit of fear when staring down a rust monster!

Know Thy Self

In the end, it comes down to personal preference. You can simply say that the NPC expresses his sorrow at having to inform you of a grave event or you can tap those internal emotions and role-play out the encounter, drawing internally upon those emotions. To an extent it makes you vulnerable, but in reality your players (ideally) are doing many of the same things, so within the social contract of the game you’re not putting yourself too far on the line.

Sometimes putting ourselves out there, bare—and revealing an incredibly hairy chest—is what’s required to raise the game for everyone else around us.

Any insight to share with how you express emotions within your own games? Share with us below!

About  Don Mappin

For nearly 30 years RPGs have been a staple of Don’s life — so that means he’s pretty old. Author of a dozen RPG books, Don has worked with companies such as ICE, Last Unicorn Games, Decipher, and AEG. He now spends his time working in IT management, enjoying his family and two children, or gaming.



4 Responses to Gaming With Emotion

  1. One thing I tend to do is using emotions as an inspiration for describing an environment. How would a block in a fantasy town look if I used despair as an inspiration compared to if I used kindness? Hostility, tranquility, loneliness, hope, acceptance … there are a lot of emotions that can be shown through the landscape.

  2. If it’s a key NPC, I’ve probably spent some time trying to put myself in his/her mindset, emotions included. I try to consider the reality of his/her/its situation and how that would make me feel, then go from there. (Oddly, I typically have more empathy for characters than real people. Probably because I’m an asshole. ;p)

    For “Tavern Keeper B” or “Random Business Major in the Computer Lab” type roles, if I show much emotion it’ll typically be a bit more over-the-top/overtly.

    I’ve also had good luck using contrast to highlight NPC emotional temperments. “This Innkeeper is pretty much the opposite of the last one. His movements are exaggerated and he’s quite boisterous.” When I talk as the boisterous innkeeper, I’m loud, guffawing, and gesticulating like a fool. I like to sell things with my whole body. You’ve got more than words at your disposal.

  3. This is really a a thoughtful piece. I would say that even though you preface this by saying this might only appeal to GMs who “act out” their NPCs, I think there is a lot here for those of us who aren’t actors at the table. I think choosing the right words can be a key way to convey many of the emotions you are talking about. Using sorrow, especially, has been an effective way to plant a hook in an adventure (do they PCs help because they feel an obligation?).

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