Emotional Resonance

I’ve been throwing around this term lately on Twitter, “emotional resonance.” To start the post off, here’s what I said:

Current hypothesis (and future blog post): pacing mechanics without a place to slot emotional resonance fall apart. Math alone cannot solve.

{hours later}

Emotional resonance = people really (reliably) want to play the “talky” part of an RPG.

As I said yesterday, I needed to talk the idea out in order to figure out what I really meant, and it hooks back into my comments on Adventure Games & Story Games. To do the thing I really hate, I’m going to start my definition with a negative: Emotional Resonance is NOT just emo bullshit.

It’s the part of a game, any game (hell, any media), that make us want to talk about it after we’re done. I want to talk about how amazing Inception is — and it blew me away — because of the emotional resonance I felt for it. But I also love talking about Crank; not because it’s a deep movie with meaning or shit like that, but because the pacing of the movie and the insane action makes me want to geek on it. It’s the same with a game — we need a place to slot in our excitment, interest, nerditry, emo bullshit, whatever it is we’re looking to get out of the game.

I’ve been making games with scene-level pacing mechanics for a few years now, very few of them any good[1]. That’s because I was too focused on modeling an arc or creating cause-effect chains. There was a little bit when Mythender had this, and every time I playtested it I hated the game. I felt nothing.

Know Thyself’s scene setup involved, roughly:

  • Play a card from your hand. (And the cards were fucking cool. For the cards, check out this link.)
  • Frame a scene for the single PC (was a one-PC/multiple-GM game) using an element of that card. It doesn’t matter what, you’re in a fucking insane psychedelic dream.
  • Uh, build to a conflict, please.
  • Resolve this conflict by playing high-card.
  • Wash, rinse, repeat
  • Every three scenes, whichever side won more (PC or GMs) got to define a thing about the PC’s real life.

So, we were kinda interested in the PC’s real life, since the premise of the game was that they were going back in time and self-inducing amnesia in order to change their past. But no one really gave a fuck about the dream scenes, even though winning/losing those are what drove getting to define stuff about the PC. Not giving a fuck = no emotional resonance.

Today, I know I went wrong with the scene setup. The scene setup couldn’t just be random. Nor can it be 100% driven by mechanical choices. Early on in Gun n Fuck, which has a similarly adversarial one-PC/many-GMs setup, the math & random set pieces drove scene choices. As long as the PC had enough of his core stat, Adrenaline, he could keep doing action scenes. When it fell down, he needed to do a scene with his girlfriend. But because there was no reason to deviate from these choices, they didn’t inspire. The game felt bland. Yes, in the heat of the action scenes we were having fun, but I don’t think anyone really cared about the game later. I know I didn’t.

I also know why I went wrong, and that’s probably the most important lesson. See, when you’re playtesting a game with friends, they might cut you some slack on this front accidentally. They’re distracted by analyzing the game, rather than feeling anything about it, so emotional resonance doesn’t happen right away. Thus, their comments are more about structure than about whether it really works. Or, they’ll slot their emotional resonance onto you, as the friend they’re helping out, rather than on the game. So it still doesn’t work, but it looks like it does. That was my problem with Know Thyself, a problem I wasn’t able to recognize in time.

This is also why I think many older games from our tribe don’t work as well unless played via oral tradition. (Learned from the designer or from someone who played with the designer, etc.) They’re tightly-wound and don’t have an obvious place to slot in your excitement or interest that folks are used to.

When I playstormed Gun n Fuck last Tuesday night, I took a step back, explained the procedure, played one of the GMs, and watched the faces of people. We went through twice around the table (for six scenes), and while the scene-choosing mechanic was a little busted, I could tell that there was some excitement sparking when starting a scene off. I saw that being carried into the scene, making the game work.

The key, for this game, was to not base the choice of scene on math, or on whatever bullshit arc I was trying to force. The PC and whichever GM has that turn each made a silent, simultaneous choice:

The PC can: show a red die (this is going to be an action scene), white die (this is going to be a scene about chasing my obsession), or empty hand (this is going to be a moment when I’m going to just re-juice myself because I’m way, way low on adrenaline). And there’s a reason mechanically do to all those things, but…

The GM can: show a red die (this shit’s going to be hostile straight-away) or a white die (this is going to be cagey and defended).  (The empty hand isn’t an option.) And the GM’s job is to show a different color die than the PC, or show a red die if they PC’s going to show nothing.

That scene’s framing and advantage go toward the side that won the showdown, though the choices the PC and GM made are still true. The third or fourth round, Justin Smith, playing the PC, showed a red die when I showed white. He swore, and then grinned. Right then, I could tell he cared a tiny but about that moment. Right there, I had figured out an injection point for emotional resonance.

Primetime Adventures does it with the scene framing questions, especially when you frame that scene’s central question or conflict, getting others excited about either outcome. Fiasco does it when you decide whether you’re framing or resolving a scene, involving everyone else to do the other on your behalf. Excitement and interest are key. You cannot make a high-level pacing mechanic too tactical or too prescribed. This is why you need to weakly model narrative arcs in such story games — to give everyone room to express their excitement & interest. When you do that, other people at the table pick up on that and bring their own in.

That’s emotional resonance. It’ll vary from person to person, which is why not every story gamer like every story game[2]. But it’s utterly crucial, and at this point I’m pretty sure it has to exist at the point of scene-framing in such games.

– Ryan

[1] A rare few of you have Know Thyself, my ashcan from 2007, which is a shitty game. Three years later, I have a great understanding as to why it doesn’t work and how to make it. And maybe I will.

[2] blah blah blah target audience blah blah blah


5 Responses to Emotional Resonance

  1. Rob Donoghue says:


    Ok, so this is not necessarily a problem within the specific context. Excitement is a valid form of emotional resonance, and more, I suspect it’s the most important kind in a game like GNF. But it’s one you need to be very careful of drawing conclusions from. Where you call an injection point, I’m seeing a straight slot-machine response. That’s not a bad thing: chance, risk and inconsistent rewards make games compelling, even addictive, but I am not sure it is the beast you think you are chasing.

    -Rob D.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      Excitement & interest take on many forms. That’s why I brought up the PTA & Fiasco elements — not ones about risk, but about moment-creation and about forms of involvement. Because GnF has an adversarial element (not unlike Dirty Secrets), that slotting will have a different form, yeah.

      The beast I’m chasing right now is that energy at the start of a scene, created by people caring about that scene for whatever reason.

      – Ryan

  2. Rob Donoghue says:

    But the reason matters a lot, and has concrete impacts on what works and what doesn’t.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      Could you give some examples? I’d like to see where you’re coming from.

      – Ryan

    • Rob Donoghue says:

      Ok, so to use a simple example, let’s take three players at the beginning of a fight scene against, I dunno, ninjas who are threatening the family goat. All three players are genuinely excited.

      Anne is excited because the dice are hitting the table. This is a fight scene. She loves the risks and the actions and the powers and all game-ey stuff.

      Bob is excited because he’s really invested in that goat. That goat is important to him. It’s been an interesting part of his play and he’s really invested in the fate of the goat.

      Charlie is excited because ninjas are totally fucking metal.

      That’s going to be a good scene right there. Everyone’s engaged and ready to go. But understanding why each player is excited will help make it a great scene, because it changes what you need to deliver for them. Charlie doesn’t give a crap if the goat’s fate rests on a choice he makes. Bob’s not looking for a tactical challenge. Anne doesn’t give a shit about smoke bombs. But rotate those elements one person to the left, and WHAM, explosion of awesome. And all of this becomes even more important when you wonder how to make the NEXT scene compelling.

      -Rob D.

      PS – And this is why I say I think this is not a problem within the specific context of GNF. Straight system adrenaline rewards seem like the purpose of the game. Greater nuance of excitement might just not be fruitful in this case.