I see getting emotionally invested in a roleplaying session the same as getting emotionally invested in a movie or a book; the events that unfold affect me but it’s not a permanent influence, and the feeling drops to memory quite quickly. You can revisit the feeling by watching the movie or reading the book again but, although the feelings are the same, it’s never as intense as the first time. With an RPG you can remember what it felt like but you’ll never be able to really relive it again as that moment has passed, and all you can do is try to emulate it with a similar event.
In my experience, trying to force that feeling never works and always ends up feeling somewhat flat and unsatisfying. It’s always best to let games go their own way and, with some luck and good timing, similar moments may arise. This doesn’t just cover combat encounters – although most of the better moments I remember came about during a huge fight – but also those smaller moments of drama. Interpersonal experiences, such as betrayals and realisations of respect or love, solving puzzles, outwitting enemies or opponents. There are many moments when a RPG reaches an emotional climax, and the players and GM alike revel in the game as an interactive experience. It’s what makes tabletop roleplaying unique, these shared experiences.
There is a line I do not cross, however. Emotional involvement only goes so far and to take these incidents to heart, to take personal umbrage at defeats or gloat at defeated opponents outside of the game, is an absolute no-go area for me. I’ll have my moments of angry defeat or happy victory, but it’s all within the realms of the game. This applies to both physical and emotional defeat or victory; it can be just as bad to lose a battle of wits, or to fail at a puzzle, or to be betrayed by a friend, or to be outdone in matters of love. These emotional highs and lows should be kept within the game and not allowed to spill into real life. I also learned not to try to use the game as a way to exorcise personal demons or to take out my frustrations on players and GMs. There’s healthy emotional involvement and there’s unhealthy emotional involvement, and a game group will suffer if one player is depending on the weekly session to sort out personal problems. Each player knows their limits and where to draw the line and, even though it may upset others, each player should reserve the right to point out where emotions are running too high. Gamers gather at the gaming table for the same reason and when one player’s reasons dominate the sessions then everyone loses out.
I enjoy getting emotionally involved in games. I look back with fondness on many sessions and how they made me feel. There’s nothing wrong with it and it can be incredibly healthy and satisfying when you can look back and say, ‘I helped create that moment, that story, that drama the whole group was involved in’.
Many people admit to crying at the movies – what makes RPGs so different from that?
For the record, I’ve never cried during an RPG but, that said, I’ve never cried at the movies either. Well, I had a sniffle at the end of ‘The Return of the King’, but that was about it.