On Mechanics and Rational & Emotional Brains

For my third post on Horror Week, I’ll get deeper into something we’ve only been talking about on the surface: the twin steams of rational & emotional output. Role-playing games are thing we do to craft story or celebrate an idea or IP or to enjoy triumph — all things that are emotional at their core. The rules themselves tend to be expressed and executed as a series of rational actions — do this, then this, then if X do Y, etc. — but we feel emotional beats based on what we’re doing together at the table — holy shit I’m scared, man I’m frustrated, yay I won.

These are intertwined. Hell, let’s go with a visual. (Warning: this post will be light on examples, because it’s pretty long as-is. As a result, I’m not sure if it will make sense to people who aren’t me. Please comment with questions!)

Map of mechanical & emotional beats

On the Rational Brain side, we see the linear expression of the game. There’s some exposition & interaction, then we get to a point where decision mechanics like a roll come into play. You do the pre-roll analysis & fiddling, then you roll, then you do post-roll fiddling & interpretation. Once you’re got that processed, you’re back into exposition & interaction influenced by those steps, until a decision mechanic comes back into play.

Like I said, linear. That’s how our books tend to express the rules (when they don’t suck). That’s how we tell the stories about our games. But our brains don’t work in discrete chunks, which is actually part of why we love playing these games. Different forms of game, from telling stories to playing with dice, blend together to one stream of emotional beats. We feel the vastness of our games. They contain multitudes.[1]

On the Emotional Brain side, we have the emotional beats we’re feeling at that moment. They’re all simple (though if you explain them with a rational context, as we often do, they sound complex; that’s a lie), things like: excitement, fear, anger, satisfaction, hope, dread, triumph, defeat, boredom, confusion, irritation, intrigue, superiority, and so on. If you can express it in one word[2], it’s simple enough to be an emotional beat.

The emotional beats in exposition are all about the table dynamic. Whatever was going on in the fiction as we’re experiencing it, as well as the social dynamic at the table, will feed into the next piece of the rational flow: the mechanics. But unlike our rational participation, the emotional beats don’t stop when a new one starts. It lingers, blending with the beats that are about to happen. That’s why on my chart it looks like a cascade with the gradient — blending, baby!

When designing a game, you may have an intended series of emotional beats you want out of the game, especially with those that surround your mechanics. Like, for a Alien-style horror game, I want the game to support & produce beats like fear, dread, isolation, triumph, regret, hope, and so on. For most of these, I’ll rely on the GM & table to produce, but I need to make sure my mechanics don’t trash that.

Going into the first Roll box, the players will still be riding on whatever emotional beat they’re feeling. That’s awesome! That’s what makes the game go! (And why playstorming is sometimes too quick to detect such subtleties.)

If your goal is to prolong an emotional beat throughout your mechanical iteration, for each of the Roll boxes you want to either:

  • Have that part of your game produce a compatible emotional beat
    (like handing the baton in a relay race to another strong runner)
  • Have that part of the game produce a neutral emotional beat
    (which so far I’ve found to be nearly impossible)
  • Have it be as short as possible, so whatever emotional beat it produces does not overwrite the emotional beat from the exposition & interaction
    (so that it’s only a small bump in the road, and if the previous beat was strong enough it’ll only mildly slow down)
  • Have it use more natural language than math
    (which allows the continued injection of a prior beat)
  • Have it incorporate a significant tactile component
    (which contacts our emotional brains on a deeper level than just words or numbers. Great example: Dread.)

If one of those Roll boxes has a tendency to output a toxic emotional beat, one that ruins the flow of the game, then either the mechanic is wrong in general or wrong for the game you’re playing. My comment yesterday about Gumshoe being wrong for horror is because I have seen & have heard others talk about how in the post-roll analysis, the Roll C box, regret is a common output regardless of success or failure. (Not that that’s how people talk about it. They say things like “Yeah, I really hate it when wasted points on a roll that succeeded without them.” or other natural language bits.)

Why GURPS was great for horror back in the day was because the Roll A box was both short & used natural language: “Jumping the the fire escape? Roll Acrobatics!” There were no decisions beyond that. Roll B was quick, just roll 3d6, add them, and see if they’re equal/under your skill (plus or minus some modifier, which I generally never said, so people would do some math to say “…made by 3” or “fuck, missed by 2”). Roll C was also super short, because the mechanical-to-fiction output was just binary: did you succeed? did you fail? Bam

Now, ideally Roll C will create a spike of new emotional output — triumph or dread in the case of a binary output in a horror game. That new emotional beat, mixed with the emotional beat from the Expo In part, ideally get merged together to give you something to ride on in Expo Out. When those emotional beats clash, or when the new emotional beat triggers something rather unintended, then you have a problem.

Granted, most of the time, this is a table issue, not a mechanic design issue. But if the problem is repeated often enough, it’s likely that the mechanics need looking at to see if there’s a way to reduce how often the wrong beat is produced.[3]

(Incidentally, when we say “a good GM can save a bad game,” this is what we’re talking about. A good GM can push emotional beats during mechanical parts by continuing interactions, and can work to shorten mechanic parts that are particularly toxic to a desired emotion. Ever see someone just hand wave a rule because it gets in the way of excitement and action? Yeah, that. Ever see a shift in engagement techniques in Expo Out to cover for a limp feeling during the Roll boxes? Exactly.)


This is how I judge a horror game — not on whether it has monsters in it, because that’s easy, but on if it pushes & outputs reliably the right emotional beats or gets out of the way[4] or the table crafting those beats. (Granted, I judge the former stronger than the latter, but I’ll take what I can get.)

Tomorrow, I’ll tell you why many sanity systems fail in this regard.[5]

– Ryan

(This is a really dense idea, and I feel like I just scrapped the iceberg on a massive topic. But hopefully it’s a reasonable enough start.)

[1] I could not resist.

[2] Particularly in German.

[3] Or cop out by calling it an “advanced RPG” or whatever. That’s also an option I’ve seen done.

[4] By the way, having short Roll A/B/C boxes is typically what we mean by saying “The system got out of the way of our fun.”

[5] Because I’m totally not spoiling for a fight. Nooooooo.


18 Responses to On Mechanics and Rational & Emotional Brains

  1. First, for what it’s worth, this post totally makes sense to me. The visual was very helpful. I’m definitely looking forward to tomorrow’s post on sanity, as I’ve had a stray thought or two about it recently.

    I had a couple of questions.

    Is the intent to provoke _an_ emotional beat or a specific emotional beat (maybe one of several)?
    Is there a way to design rules with this in mind?
    This concept of beats is something you’ve posted about before (unless I’m mistaken). What other systems take this into consideration?

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      1) Depends on the designer’s goal

      2) Dear god, yes.

      3) Every single one at least unintentionally does.

      – Ryan

    • Interesting. I’ll have to look for the beats the next time I play something (hopefully tonight). It’s a connection I hadn’t made yet. Cool thing to think about.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Totally! When I started seeing them, my mind was blown.

      And yeah, my responses are going to be terse for the next little bit. Busy day.

      – Ryan

  2. EZ says:

    I think I see what you mean about worrying about burying the lead. But this is a great intro to beats.

    I look forward to more unpacking of this idea. I’m aware of beats, but this is a great analysis. AND your brief Alien example is opening up new lines of thought.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Yeah, the lede is pretty buried here. But what’s here is more like the rough outline of an analysis rather than a finished product. I could probably write a 15K word treatise on the subject.

      Not that anyone would pay me for it. :D

      – Ryan

  3. Alphastream says:

    I really like how you explained this. It really makes me ponder how that works, and both how to design differently and how to DM differently.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Thank you! I’m probably going to use this as a basis for future conversation on game design and on running & playing games, expanding these ideas further until I’ve run out of stuff to say. :D

      – Ryan

    • Carl Klutzke says:

      So you’ll be talking about it indefinitely then. Good, I look forward to it.

  4. Kit says:

    This puts me in mind of Daniel’s post on presenting emergent play.

    What he’s talking about doing there is making clear in the text and layout the interaction between the procedural steps and the emotional and intuitive steps. I think, as much as anything, the merit from his post is in pointing out that if you write your text that way, you’ll spot the disconnects and the lies. Even if you don’t publish the text that way, you should, at some point, do that with your game for your own debugging.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      I’d forgotten he wrote about that.

      And now that I’m looking it over, I have to wonder how much of that comes from his & my conversations over the years. Because it reads like something I have said a lot, but that should come as no surprise.

      – Ryan

    • Kit says:

      Fundamentally, I love the idea of explicitly acknowledging that there are things you do and things you think at any moment in the game (game design is mind control, all that), and using methodologies that help you check that those are in sync as you design.

      The software dev in me sees it like unit testing the mechanics. Given this procedural step as input, do I get the output I should?

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Unit testing is nice in theory, and I say that as a software engineer too, but you can’t really unit test mechanics absent emotional beats.

      Or, well, you can. And discover mechanics that tested well turn out to be weak sauce in actual play. Don’t trust unit testing. :) Unit testing is good for testing the math of something, but remember that the math will fuck you.

      – Ryan

    • Kit says:

      Oh, no, what I’m saying is that you test against the emotional output—that is, precisely not absent emotional beats. It’s obviously not real unit testing, but it’s metaphorically like it.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Ah, yeah. The software dev in me wants to call that something more like “use case” rather than a unit test, but yeah, totally.

      – Ryan

    • Carl Klutzke says:

      The testing you are talking about is usability testing. That’s where, instead of testing to ensure the implementation matches the design requirements, you have the users test to make sure you implemented the right requirements. Those requirements include the user’s emotional experience.

    • Kit says:

      Carl, you’re right. That’s a better fit. Because, at that stage of development, you know you’ve implemented something, you just need to know what it actually is.

      And now I feel like I’ve beaten this metaphor to death.

  5. Martin says:

    Hell yeah. That makes a lot of sense and gives me a better tool to analyze why several rules just ‘feel wrong’ for me. So thanks!

    Made me think of playing a Huckster in Deadlands, where you actually play poker against the Demons (GM) to make them do magic for you. Very cool way to link the excitment and tension of a poker game with the barley controlable power of magic. It totally gives you the emotional beat of doing something risky and dangerous which could either give you awesome power or horribly backfire – a feeling that most (traditional) implementations of magic in RPGs lack.