Getting Outside the Emotional Box

4 minute read

Excited and sad faces

The Box

When I first started playing Dungeons & Dragons in junior high school, it was mind-blowing just to be able to take on the role of a Corum (yes, I was that unoriginal) a sword-wielding fighter who took on orks and skeletons. Leveling up and making Corum increasingly powerful was very gratifying. At a time in my life when not all that much made sense, D&D gave me the ability to confront and overcome challenges using my knowledge of the game, my wits, and the assistance of my friends. That was all I needed from Corum.

As I moved into adulthood, the lens through which I viewed RPG characters changed. It wasn’t anything conscious, but as the range of emotions I was allowed to express in my daily life became constrained, I found myself increasingly interested in exploring the inner lives of the characters I played.

Being an adult means you can do what you want, at least in theory. In practice, you have more options, more directions you can take your life. But your emotional life narrows. Adulthood is almost by definition about controlling your emotions. If you want to be in a committed relationship, or to be a parent, you have to place the needs of others equal to your own needs, and often in front of your own. You have to compromise. You have to think before you act, and generally avoid undue risk.

Most of your time as an adult is spent at work. You can’t get too happy or too sad. You can’t indulge your whims. You can only be passionate within a proscribed range. Everyone’s resumes include the mandatory “I’m passionate about mobile marketing/microservices/IoT/whatever,” blather, but that’s not real passion. That’s professional interest. That’s marketing.


Real passion is a soul on fire, a driving urge to explore the galaxy, unrequited love, the searing pain of being unable to extract vengeance for the death of your father. Tabletop RPGs provide a space to explore those kinds of wild, unreasonable emotions. We can climb into personalities that are unstable, erratic, dangerous – in a way that’s far more visceral and engaging than watching an actor dodging bullets onscreen.

You could call this escapism, and to some observers that’s what roleplaying is all about. By journeying to imaginary lands and engaging in fanciful adventures, we’re running away from our humdrum lives of TPS reports and pointy-haired bosses. Perhaps that’s true. But I think there’s much more to it.

In tabletop roleplaying you can inhabit a character of your own creation. It can be a character very much like you, or radically different. It can be a character you’d like to be, or one who makes terrible choices. You can explore without fear, and perhaps in some small way broaden your own emotional horizons.

An Example

Gunnar Sykes, my most recent and most long-lived player character, is a Hired Gun from a Star Wars: Edge of Rebellion campaign. He is the PC I am most drawn to in large part because I have spent so much time thinking about what motivates him, and attempting to invoke that inner emotional drive in the game.

Gunnar has built a measure of infamy across the Outer Rim, by way of a handful of high-profile exploits that started with his abrupt departure from the Stormtrooper Corps and led to rescues, heists, and other dazzling heroics. But what he really craves is to be part of a team. His colleagues are malcontents and criminals, but they have his back. There is no ideology, no showy honor in them. But they have saved him many times over, and he has done the same for them.

He has sacrificed to save his sister from an Imperial prison. He has endured her shame at the criminal he has become. And he has sacrificed that she might become a Rebel operative, even as he remains suspicious of that cause. Gunnar is a criminal who values his friends more than laws or even most ethical concerns. He has done very bad things. He is in some ways like me and in some ways far removed from my personality. And exploring this character has made our Star Wars campaign engaging on two levels, because as the swashbuckling unfolds, I’m always thinking of how Gunnar perceives what is going on around him and how that informs his decisions.

Beyond the Box

In interviews actors sometimes reveal the emotional connections they make with the characters they portray. They often speak of employing empathy as a means of discovering and inhabiting those characters. I’m not sure if roleplaying has made me more empathetic, but I do know that dreaming up a new character and exploring their emotions gets me outside the emotional box I inhabit most of the time. For that I am thankful.

Image Credit

Photo via Good Free Photos.