RPG Player Decisions: Emotional vs. Rational

Designing, RPG

I’ve been reading a lot of psychology books lately that talk about things like cognitive biases and the differences between the emotional and rational parts of human brains. It has crystallized an RPG design idea that I think is worth articulating: When RPG players make decisions for their characters, they want to have the character do the artistically appropriate thing as decided by the emotional part of the player’s brain, but also be able to rationalize that decision in terms of the mechanics with the rational part of the player’s brain. (This is really just a specific case of the way most people make most decisions). I think this is an important part of making the fiction matter in RPGs.

Ryan Macklin gave an example of this principle breaking down on his blog today. When one choice is obviously mechanically better then the rational part of the player’s brain will feel obligated to pick the most mechanically advantageous option, even if the emotional part of the brain thinks its an unsatisfying one. In my opinion, this kind of breakdown usually manifests as either one-note characters (if the player follows the obligation) or a reduced emotional connection to the game (since the the player is using emotional energy to deny the obligation and play the character “right”).

My current thinking about the best way to avoid this trap is to have different decisions map to mechanical options that are difficult to compare quantitatively but still have easily articulated mechanical upsides, such as a “do well now” vs. “get a resource that will let me do well later” decision. If the rational part of the brain can identify a good reason for the choice it won’t feel an urge to override an emotional choice, and won’t worry too much about determining if its the “best” choice as long as it’s a good one. So, for example, if a decision between combat and conversation is the choice between doing well or doing poorly, the rational part of the brain has an obvious preference, but if the decision maps to “do well now” and “do well later”, then the rational part of the brain can be comfortable with either choice because they can both be rationalized as valuable things.

I’m not sure this thought is fully formed yet, but I wanted to get it out there. It also requires players to be emotionally engaged enough with the fiction to make those emotional decisions. If they’re not, they might end up stuck in analysis paralysis if it’s hard to decide on a mechanical choice. I’ve tried to cook some of my thinking on this topic into the dice mechanics in Final Hour of a Storied Age, but I’m not 100% confident they’re the best they can be.

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