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Wisdom of the Masters: Emotional Exercise

This article was first broadcast in Episode One Hundred Forty-three on 25th November 2020.

Ryu: Okay, so what about when you’re annoyed.
Libby (annoyed): Book!
Ryu: Right, okay, I think I’m getting the hang of this. Hmm. Drunk. What are you like drunk? Do you get drunk? Hang on. Ostron!
Ostron: Speaking.
Ryu: Can you get me a fireball?
Libby (worried and angry): Book!
Ryu: No, not an actual fireball, the whiskey.
Lennon: Did someone say whiskey.
Ostron: Either that or Ryu wants me to set the annex on fire.
Ryu: No, no, I’m trying to get Libby drunk.
Lennon: Hm. See usually when someone says something that makes me think of questions I need, but definitely don’t want answers to, it’s Ostron, but here goes. What in Bog’s name are you trying to get Libby drunk for?
Ryu: I’m trying to get to know it better. See I found this thing called “emotional exercise” and it’s supposed to help you get to know someone better.
Lennon: Have you tried just talking to it?
Ryu: Really?
Libby: Book!
Ryu: I rest my case. Anyway, this can be useful in a lot of ways.
Ostron: Such as?
m

Among artists who draw comics and cartoons there’s an exercise usually known as the “emotion chart” or “expression practice”. Descended from animators’ model sheets, the chart typically has 25-30 boxes, each box marked with a different emotion (happiness, anger, confusion) or situation (drunk, ill). The artist picks a character they want to practice with and draws that character with an expression appropriate for each box. This helps the artist try out expressions they’ve not yet used in the story, or lets them work on finer details to better express similar but different emotions (e.g. irritation vs anger vs rage), and otherwise help them to improve their consistency by letting them pre-plan the expressions rather than improvising them on the fly every time.

While there’s plenty of artistically inclined players who could make use of these exercise sheets as-is, they can also be useful for those of us who would be hard-pressed to draw even kindergartener-quality works, because D&D players paint their characters during the game with words and actions, not with…er…well, paint.

Um, I do have a fair number of miniatures with-

Yes, yes, so do I, that’s beside the point right now. With a few modifications, we can use the same exercises to help us better define and understand our characters.

The first step is to get your hands on a chart; an image search on something like “expression exercise challenge” should give you a variety of charts (either blank or filled in) to start with. Rather than drawing the emotion, you can consider a few different questions: How would my character express this emotion? What would it take to make my character show this emotion? What variations can I make with this emotion? Sometimes you’ll need to go back and forth between the three to get a complete picture.

Consider how your character would express happiness; do they laugh and cheer? Buy a round for the tavern at their next stop? Or perhaps they just give a small, contented smile and carry on. What about anger? Some people bluster when angry, their thoughts scattered and speech stumbling; some blow up, some make threats, and some simply act on their anger, striking out at the source of their ire. Is your character’s wrath fiery or icy? Will they act immediately, calculate their revenge carefully, or just fume impotently?

In some cases, though, it’s not immediately obvious. Some characters just seem incompatible with certain emotions. It’s hard to envision a character being joyful if their entire existence has been pain and misery, while a laid-back, cheerful bard might similarly find rage an alien feeling, and the strict and stoic monk may never experience drunkenness, much less show it. In cases where an emotion seems to be completely foreign to a character, we use the second question: what would it take to make them show those emotions?

For a character who’s always prepared, ready to hit the ground running no matter what challenge is presented, what weirdness would they have to be confronted with to make them just stop in confusion and say “what the…?!”  For the gullible character who believes just about anything told them, what story is so implausible to prompt a look of open skepticism? For the rational and controlled character, what button needs to be pushed to enrage them beyond control? For the perpetual jester who laughs at everything, what tragedy prompts them to cry? What do the bravest ones fear? What do the most restrained applaud?

Sometimes the answers will come from backstory; old hatreds die hard, and nostalgia can sometimes prompt an unbidden smile. Sometimes previous adventures will provide the necessary motivation, the embarrassment of an indiscretion coming out, the sorrow over the death of a former ally. Sometimes you might just get inspiration; maybe you add a story to your background about secretly engineering a situation to confound a rival who never realized you were behind it, and that memory always prompts a look of smug satisfaction for your character. And sometimes you just have to look to the nigh impossible; if it takes attending a party in the world of My Little Pony to get your battle-hardened berserker barbarian to let loose a giddy giggle, then so be it.

Finally, not all emotions are equal, and very similar situations may provoke very different responses with just a little change. A character may express happiness for their own achievement with a small smile of satisfaction, while showing happiness for a friend’s achievement with a hearty clap on the back. An insult to yourself might be shrugged off while an insult to someone you respect may draw a sharp response. Play around with the situations and think of different ways an emotion might apply to get more mileage out of it. Disgust at a disgusting object is usually expressed differently than when expressed towards a person, or towards oneself.

Let’s look at this in practice; we’ll use “happy”, “sad”, “drunk”, “nervous”, and “scared”. Valen is a young officer of the guard; he is sober, serious, polite, and has a strong sense of self-discipline. For happiness, he’s fairly reserved for his own happiness, but will cheerfully celebrate the successes of his squad members with them. He will try to keep grief and sadness under control when it might affect the squad’s morale, but shows less reserve when circumstances make it more acceptable, such as at a funeral. He avoids strong drink; in the field, it could obviously lead to disastrous results, but even during downtime he fears that he might do something when drunk that would lose the respect of his subordinates (and worse, perhaps not even remember it). What it would take to make him take strong drink would be “orders from above” (perhaps at a diplomatic function) or subterfuge (i.e. someone spiked his drink). When drunk, he’d probably trend to more and more exaggerated stiffness and formality, in a desperate (and probably doomed) attempt to maintain dignity.

Day-to-day threats like brigands or orcs wouldn’t prompt either nervousness or fear; he’s dealt with them enough times to know how to deal with them, even if his group is at a disadvantage. Sea voyages, however, provoke nervousness from him; he either has to forgo his heavy armor, putting him at much greater risk if there’s an attack, or risk almost certain death by drowning should he be swept overboard. Gelatinous cubes, however, scare him. The texture is disgusting, and it combines the fear of drowning (or at least suffocation) with the added bonus of being digested at the same time.

In this character study, nervousness at sea came up during the game; the results for happiness and sadness followed from his established character and background, while the “scared” response came from taking a tangent from the fear of drowning. The results for drunkenness were made from whole cloth, but added a reasonable (but never before considered) fear of losing respect to the character.

None of this is necessary, of course. Many enjoy letting their character grow organically as the game progresses, improvising as each situation presents itself. But these explorations may suggest hidden facets to the character, or perhaps even create a desire to see a particular type of situation. But if you’re having trouble getting a feel for roleplaying your character or if you want to go in with a more comprehensive idea of how they’re going to behave, this exercise can help in jump-starting your roleplaying.

m
Libby (slow, sultry): Book.
Ryu: Okay…so apparently Libby is an…affectionate drunk.
Lennon: You actually gave it the whiskey?
Ryu: What does Ostron say when he blows up the workshop? Oh yeah, it was in the interests of fully understanding the problem.
Libby: Book.
Ostron: Well your problem at the moment is a beholder trying to give you a hug with no arms.
Ryu: I’m open to suggestions here!
Lennon: Maybe RaeRae can help? She’s good with animals… that might be applicable?
Ryu: Works for me. Hey! Libby! You might have ten of them, but my eyes are up here

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