Identifying and Handling Emotional Bleed at the Game Table
Salutations, nerds! Today we’re going to talk about emotional bleed. In the context of tabletop roleplaying games by this I mean when a character’s emotions get pretty intense and the player starts feeling them too. The first thing I want you to know is this isn’t a bad thing! You shouldn’t feel bad when this happens. It is perfectly normal and most roleplayers have a tale or two about this happening to them.
Complex RPG experiences
Did you know the human brain is hard wired for experiencing something read about in a book or watched in a movie as something happening to the audience rather than something watched happen to someone else as an impartial observer? It’s no wonder then that the same thing happens when adding another layer of participant agency to the experience.
If your RPG character experiences an intense situation and has complex feelings about it then echoes or even waves of those feelings in the player is a perfectly normal thing to have happen. It does however happen to some people more than others and with varying degrees of intensity. Part of the reason we play RPGs is to feel these extreme emotions vicariously. That’s awesome! But it becomes a problem when players stop being able to sort out the character’s feelings from their own.
When this happens it’s important to step away for a moment and try to take a step back from the situation. This is especially important if it’s a situation that floods your chest with rage whenever you think about the circumstances. Take the distance needed to quell this rage. Take the time between sessions to let yourself feel everything you need to feel in a thoughtful way. Come back and let the group know, “Hey, this is what’s bothering me, can we talk about this?”
Of course everybody wants their character to be right. Very few people go into a roleplaying situation with it in their head they are going to be in the wrong and you can usually tell fairly quickly when this is the case. It tends to be less infuriating.
At this point it starts feeling less like a fight between your character and theirs and more like a fight between you and the player. Here are a couple of red flags to look out for:
- Do the things being said between the characters sound more like things that should be being said between the players?
- Have sniping comments been made out of character about the topic as if you or the other person feels like you should just know the other person’s character was wrong?
- Is the person giving you angry body language when they aren’t speaking as their character?
It’s a good move then to stop and talk to each other. Communication is incredibly important and honestly the only way to resolve the situation. Take a step back and make sure you’ve found your calm about it — because it is just a game. It can feel very important and personal and it does matter but at the end of the day it is a game.
Remember you don’t have to agree on the situation. But find out what the other player needs in order to make this work. When you’re taking your time get an idea of what you need to make this work. Sometimes this means you’re going to have to metagame a solution but what is going on in character is less important than what is going on between the players.
Once in a while you’re going to come across another player who just doesn’t want to talk. At this point go to the Game Master. If it is the GM that’s a much stickier situation and you might be better off just leaving the group and finding a new one. There isn’t really a substitute for talking to each other. At a certain point it’s just unavoidable.
Have you ever been in a situation where you were riding your RPG character’s emotions way harder than you meant to? How did you handle it? Please let me know in the comments below or tweet me @Pyrosynthesis to tell me about it. And of course, stay nerdy!
*Featured image — In Dinner Party alliances between adventurers themselves get put to the test and interactions can certainly get packed with emotion. [Illustration by Kim Van Deun]