Friday, October 11, 2013

The Necessity of Emotional Distance - Anger

Anger. Rage. Resentment. Bitterness. Seething hatred. Righteous indignation. That burning sensation you get in your gut when you have to deal with that person, thing or place that really makes you want to get up and stop them. Anger is a great motivating tool but it can also be a negative and unpleasant emotion that can play on the mind and distract you from your other tasks. It can also cause people to do nasty and irrational things to the source of their anger which can cause it to turn into guilt later on or stir up ill will with others who don't share the same anger.

No wonder a lot of players don't really tap into it. Sure, they talk about how they want to get rid of so-and-so but that's normally due to irritation, wounded pride (weaker forms of anger) or simply a desire to engage with the plot and follow it to its natural conclusion. It's very rare that players let themselves get angry. It's rarer that a Storyteller really tries to make them angry. And it's a rare player group indeed who can cope with displays of anger between player characters or from the Storyteller without taking it personally.

After all, as a species we are hardwired to react to angry faces (especially male angry faces) which means that if a friend turns on us with an angry flash in their eye we are likely to feel a surge of adrenaline. On an instinctive level, we'll take it personally more often than not. Haven't you ever been in a room where two other people are angry with each other and even though it has nothing to do with you, even though you knew you were on good terms with both of them, you felt uncomfortable and worried about getting stuck in the crossfire?

Yeah, that's generally the feeling you'll get at the very least when anger is introduced at the gaming table.

But doesn't it also break immersion when PCs chase an enemy around the globe even though they harbor him only intellectual ill will? Isn't it sad when you have to kill off an NPC, perhaps at the start of the campaign, and know that you can't - or shouldn't - engage their anger and thus you make the whole thing a hollow experience? Doesn't it suck when you have to bite back that surge of righteous indignation when another PC steps on your toes and instead act all cool, calm and collected even though your PC is meant to be an angry fellow?

For some people, nope. Not at all. It's quite all right, thank you very much.

And that's cool.

For others, yes, it is a shame. They would like to play around in the emotional sandbox. They would like a richer faux lived experience. They want a safe place where they can examine themes of vengeance and hatred.

So what do you do if you're in the latter group?

There are a few things that can make anger more 'okay' and one of which is to create a safe zone where anger can be felt and expressed in-character rather than out-of-character. One of the best ways of doing this is to acknowledge that angry feelings WILL bleed through. Don't think you're immune to it. Don't think your pals are so self-assured that they are immune to it. Do that and you're doomed from the start. You need to pay attention to your feelings for any evidence it's transferring onto the players and always assume that the other player, as a player, is affected by it.

It's called 'classical conditioning'. If a person or object is paired with an unpleasant situation often enough, that unpleasantness is associated with the person or object. It's not a wilful thing. It's not a decision. It's an instinctive knee-jerk reaction.

So counter it. Set the scene beforehand. Be upfront with the other players or Storyteller that you want to play around with anger. When something is about to flip your PC's trigger, let people know. Even a simple "Boy, my character is going to be so cross" can set the scene and prepare other people for it. The happy tone and smile on your face as you say it will reassure you that this is something that is affecting your character rather than you and that you're happy for the opportunity. This can help reinforce to the other players on a subconscious level that you are a happy, friendly person and that this is just a game.

(As an aside: Do not, and I repeat, do not use this scene setting as an excuse make passive aggressive threats about your character 'getting back' at the other PCs in some awful way. Most people who do that are actually trying to scare the other PC into doing something differently - which is something other players don't appreciate. A good warning sign is if you phrase things as a guarantee: "I'm going to kill your character," and "My character will find out, whatever you do," is a threat as, in truth, you have no idea what will happen when the dice get involved. "Just a heads up, but if you actually go through with it and my character finds out, she will try and kill you," is a warning between players.)

For Storytellers, you have more flexibility as even if you shock the players by jumping straight into angry NPC mode and slamming your hands on the desk, you are going to be breaking out of Angry-Face often enough to reassure them that you're not the one angry. If a player is feeling uncomfortable, they're likely to ask you for descriptions or rules calls or anything else that'll make you break character briefly and drop into your normal voice - thus proving that everything's okay. It also helps that you have other NPCs and scenes to describe so they don't have to watch you brood, complain or get angry for an entire session while an angry PC might be angry the whole time.

For those worried about having to break character to do this, don't be. The grand majority of games I've seen have had players drop character several times during even the most tightly focused games to make requests (pass the dice), offer things (coffee, anyone?), clarify rules and even point out movie references or crack the occasional joke. A quick line here and there out-of-character won't destroy anything. It'll reduce the tension between players but not between characters and that borrowed tension can still enrich the experience.

Soon after the angry display, players should make a point to break character with something uplifting and socially bonding. The player of the angry PC could, for example, smile around the table and offer folks a coffee or some chips. If there was an altercation between PCs, the players should say something nice about the situation. "I like how...." "Man, your PC really put the fear of God into mine." "Nice fight! You put me on the back foot with...."

If your PC got really angry about how stupid a situation was or complained about how worthless an NPC is, then it's also nice to say something out-of-character that's nice about the situation to the Storyteller so they know that it's not a Player Complaint but a PC Complaint.

If it really is a Player Complaint, then you should try airing it as a player, even if only as a constructive criticism.

So what do you guys think? Experienced much anger in roleplaying games? Figured out a way to make it work? Or just avoided it altogether?

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