I think about why I play and design roleplaying games, and when I clear all lesser reasons out of the way, I’m left with this:
I play RPGs to feel.
Am I connecting to my own feelings? I may be, but i think it goes deeper. When I am playing an RPG, I am connecting to what other people feel. It’s hard to accurately perceive one’s self, and almost as hard to perceive real people outside of oneself. It’s difficult to analyze the circumstances that you yourself occupy. I suspect that fiction makes the act of empathy easier but no less real. To create and inhabit fictional worlds and create these opportunities to safely but deeply see how another person might feel and deal with the world around them is a gift.
It may or may not be odd to think of empathy as a core by product of RPG play, but it’s where I’m at. It is totally possible to play a tabletop RPG in a way where empathy doesn’t enter your brain –you can run through the killing fields with your mind unfettered by empathy or compassion — but honestly I feel that such play is running away from what is great about RPG play.
Remember when you didn’t know the rules properly for whatever game you started with but you still managed for a few moments to imagine what this fictional person who you described with numbers and words on paper might experience? I can still remember being 11 years old and thinking to myself “how would this fighter feel if there were all these kobolds around and I had 1 hp?” What would I be doing? I’d run probably. I’d want to live and adventure another day. But what if I wasn’t me? What if honor demanded I stay my ground? What if my best friend was on the ground beside me? What then?
Though I don’t find myself in these “slay the demi-human” situations anymore, I appreciate those early exercises of wearing the shoes of fictional people. I don’t have much nostalgia for the content of the games of my youth, but those feelings I can access so easily. Joy, terror, triumph, delight, all readily accessed through the filters of fictional people. When I’m designing games now, several decades removed from those formative experiences, I still call back to those emotions when I’m stumped. How did I feel? Beyond any emotions, I felt connected. Yes, to a fictional person, but it shouldn’t take me to tell you that fiction is real in its way.
At your table and in your game design, how would it affect your experience if you viewed the prime output of RPG systems as emotions instead of outcomes? Could that deepen your experience with an RPG?