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!)
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.
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, 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.
(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 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.
(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.)
 I could not resist.
 Particularly in German.
 Or cop out by calling it an “advanced RPG” or whatever. That’s also an option I’ve seen done.
 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.”
 Because I’m totally not spoiling for a fight. Nooooooo.