Empathy and Emotions in an RPG

Even after the bomb, Empathy comes in handy

As a GM, I’m used to having to play multiple characters, each with their own motivations, histories and even varying levels of intellect.  Because of that, I have to attune myself to the character’s mindset.  I know GMs who can do this at the drop of a hat, which is amazing to me, since I end up having to take a second or two to tune-in and recalibrate.

I believe that Empathy is a key trait to develop as a GM.  The ability to put yourself into the emotional state of another, even if at an intellectual level, is a remarkably handy thing.  Not all people will act logically, after all.  Certain people may take a less tactically feasible action, for example, should a loved one be threatened.  People are remarkably diverse, and it is a challenge to every GM to make sure that his NPCs reflect the gamut of possibilities.

Way back, I mentioned that my games tend to become social dynamics puzzles.  What I failed to mention is that this applies even during actual combat.  Not everyone is capable of making sound tactical decisions on the field.  Some of my more astute players have discovered this, taking advantage of a villain’s motivations and emotions.

One memorable moment was in an old session of a HERO supers game where a villain was about to make his getaway after securing top-secret weapons technology.  The players, knowing that they had insufficient time to catch the foe instead went for one of the opponent’s teammates and known lover as a hostage… threatening to harm her if the villain attempted to get away.

While the heroic nature of that action is questionable, the effect was instant.  The villain faltered, suddenly forced to make a very difficult choice, one that bought the heroes enough time to get to him before he could decide with finality.


I suppose one thing I’ve come to realize is that I have a very strong sense of simulation when I run a game.  The world and its inhabitants are often rational, with differing thresholds on what constitutes an “acceptable” risk.  If anything it is one way to make sure that those who are irrational or callous stand out from the crowd.

Sometimes when I see a GM horror story where the GM has NPCs who act in a certain manner because of pure tactical advantage, I can’t help but wince.  By removing emotions from the equation, you take away some of the most fundamental tell-tale signs of a healthy human being, the ability to experience, acknowledge and capable of choosing to act upon emotions rather than pure cold logic.

3 thoughts on “Empathy and Emotions in an RPG

    1. Hey Grant!

      I’m in absolute agreement of your statement. One of the things that GMs really should learn to do is to pay attention to the players, and make sure that they’re having fun.

      Maybe it’s a weird habit of mine, but I do tend to run subconscious checks on my game while I run. “Hmm… this doesn’t seem to be engaging him. I should switch tactics.” or “Aha! Found something that will hook this guy in and make him participate more, let’s develop that further.” go through my head even while I’m running.

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