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Angst


Angst: Anxiety, anguish, neurotic fear; guilt, remorse.
—The Angst FAQ


"Angst is better than combat," I said the other day to my gamer friend and roommate. "See, with combat there's always a question of whether or not the characters will win. But there's never a question of whether or not the characters will feel angst."
She gave me a sour look. See, I'm somewhat notorious in my gaming group for a certain vampire-heavy D&D campaign in which the characters all earned more angst than they ever wanted. I hadn't planned the game that way, but over the course of several real-time years, the characters lost or alienated or endangered friends and loved ones, made bad decisions that had catastrophic game results, and engaged in bitter arguments and anguished soul-searching. At one point I even had to call around to make sure that, after a particularly catastrophic in-game character mistake, the players wanted to keep playing. They did, but the dark tone was set for good, and even now that that campaign is over and its sequel starting, the angst still lingers.
I've been on the receiving end of angst, too, though. One GM in our extended gaming group, Carlos, is an expert at dealing out angst. His Shadowrun campaign was an exercise in characters battering their heads against the power of the almighty megacorp, and in the end there were really only two ways to adapt: to accept the hopelessness of the greater cause and take satisfaction in small, isolated victories; or to give up all pretense to morality and become as ruthless and remorseless as the megacorp CEOs. We had both types of characters in the game.
Can angst be fun? Is it a good thing to use in an RPG, or does it detract from one of the joys of gaming—the joy of living in a simpler, less morally ambiguous world? I've gone back and forth on this question, and in the end I think it boils down to what kind of RPG you're running. In a game of high heroics, angst should be used sparingly, if at all. The cinematic James Bond seldom suffers angst. Epic fantasy heroes and superheroes don't usually suffer angst. Characters in a comic game should never suffer angst.
Angst is caused when a person makes a decision that has unpleasant consequences and leaves that person feeling guilty and remorseful. After a few such bad decisions, the angst-ridden person fears that any action s/he takes could end in disaster, a fear that can easily lead to a variety of dysfunctional adaptations: crippling inaction, hopelessness, anxiety attacks, reliance on alcohol or drugs to soften the guilt, etc. In fiction and in RPGs, angst can make a character deeper and more complex, but if it's never alleviated, it can also be terribly depressing.
For example, I'm a Buffy and Angel fan, and Angel, a classic angst-ridden vampire who regrets his evil past, is known to his friends as "broody-boy" for a reason. In fact, the series has taken several wry potshots at his angsty persona. He's not a fun-loving, partying guy. So is this something you'd want to inflict on your characters? Only if you're running a campaign that will thrive on a darker mood (the World of Darkness games, for example, specifically target this kind of angsty atmosphere.)
In an RPG, the GM can try to make the characters feel angst whenever they make a decision that, when followed through to its logical consquences, will ultimately cause harm to somebody else. For maximum angst, the harm should be caused to friends, family, or innocents. In general the harm should have been something the characters might have been able to foresee, had they thought about it it, but sometimes the angst can be caused by an unforeseen or unintended consequence of their actions. Since in my experience characters almost always make a few dubious decisions during an adventure cycle, it's relatively easy for a GM to lever those decisions into painful, angst-causing scenarios.
For example, the heroes take down a gangland boss and are asked for an interview by the local media. Deciding to enjoy some fame and maybe draw some more business to themselves, they grant the interview ... forgetting that by making their names known, other gang members can now target their family and friends for vengeance. Hey, there's a reason superheroes traditionally prefer secret identities! Other examples could be destroying the lab of a soulless scientist and accidentally releasing a virulent disease into the atmosphere ... killing a lycanthrope who in human form supported several small children who will now starve ... setting a booby trap for the villain that an innocent person walks into ... and so forth.
Note that I said the GM can try to make the characters feel angst. Some players don't want to roleplay guilt, and their characters soon become sociopaths, unable to feel the kinds of emotions others would (such as guilt). If this happens, the GM should talk to the player to find out why. Usually the player just doesn't want to roleplay out something as depressing as guilt, in which case the GM should decide whether or not to continue along the angsty vein or not. After all, roleplaying is about having fun, and some players just don't have fun dealing with shades of grey—especially if, for example, their real lives aren't all that great, or if they're suffering from clinical depression. In those cases, angsty RPGs might not be such a good idea for the gaming group.
If the GM wants to continue playing an angsty game, though, then some sort of penalty might be in order, such as reducing or docking experience points for poor roleplaying. But sometimes the player might not feel that the consequences were dire enough to cause feelings of angst in the character, in which case the GM should try to be fair, take notes, and remember the player's "angst threshold" for the next time.
Unless the players are true gluttons for punishment, GMs should avoid shoveling out too much angst in a campaign. Sometimes victories should just be victories, without any painful consequences. In addition, periodically characters should be given a chance to redeem themselves, perhaps by adopting the children made homeless by their actions, or giving money to a charity that will help those harmed by their decision. Characters should also be given second chances during an extended campaign. Thus, the character whose lover dies due to the character's bad decision may be cynical about falling in love a second time ... but when s/he does, the GM should let everything go well, so that the character's healing can finally begin.
Using angst well within a game can enrichen it, but it can also darken it. GMs should wield this tool with care, and be sure their players are willing to roleplay its sometimes painful effects all the way through.

originally written December 20, 2000

 

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