Feb 11, 2014

A Theory of 1d4 Emotions

Now that science has quantitatively determined we humans have only four emotions, it behooves us gamers to turn it into a mechanic.  First, let us assume this fact holds true for demi-humans in addition to your average human.  Second, allow us to consider the factors that cause emotional reactions.  Third, we must construct the hallowed table.  First step, check.  Second step, not-so-check.  Uh, hold on.  What causes happiness or sadness?  How about the cause of fear or disgust?

For the purpose of my Labyrinth Lord game I will assert the following:  Happiness is how we feel when we get what we want.  Sadness is how we feel when we don't get what we want.  Surprise/Scared is when we get something very unexpected.  Anger is when that unwanted something may harm us.

Yes, yes, I know it's over simplistic and you're probably wanting to jump all over my theory.  But wait, it's not a theory, it's just a game mechanic.  So, let me roll with it a minute, ok?  In the table below I've arranged four emotions on a scale.  Given these definitions and scale descriptors, anytime a character meets a sentient being in-game, the GM can have a basic idea of what that beings wants.  If the characters somehow manage to facilitate the being getting what it wants, they are likely to please the being and get a "Happy" reaction.  If the characters don't facilitate the being getting what it wants, it's more likely to be move "up" the scale away from "Happy".  Furthermore, if the being construes the characters somehow as a threat, they are even more likely to move further away from "Happy" and at a faster rate, too.

There are certain universals that come into play.  Physical threats, for example, or sudden loud shouting will cause nearly any sentient being to move "up" the scale towards "Angry/Disgusted".  However, the cause doesn't have to be physical or verbal.  Cultural differences, for example, may account for "Disgust" and if a being has an unusual desire, characters may unwittingly impact that being's perceived ability to achieve its desire.

1d4 - Reaction Emotion
1 - Happy
2 - Sad
3 - Surprised/Scared
4 - Angry/Disgusted

But wait, that doesn't give us the stretch needed.  We need a greater interval to accommodate different potential modifiers.  We need a multiple of four without employing multiple die (no bell curves toward a specific emotion - let's not get that complicated, ok?), so how about 1d8?

1d8 - Reaction Emotion
1/2 - Happy
3/4 - Sad
5/6 - Surprised/Scared
7/8 - Angry/Disgusted

Nah, not enough stretch.  Let's bump to the next platonic solid with a number of faces that happens to be a multiple of four:  1d12.

1d12 - Reaction Emotion
1/2/3 - Happy
4/5/6 - Sad
7/8/9 - Surprised/Scared
10/11/12 - Angry/Disgusted

Now we're cooking!  The GM can simply apply modifiers to interactions.  If the players somehow either give or make the being think it may get what it wants, the modifier may be a -3 or -4 to the being's reaction roll.  If they deliver something significant that the being wants, the modifier could be beefed up to -6 or so.  Conversely, if the players, unwittingly or not, somehow deprive a being of something it wants, simply flip the sign.  Or if the being somehow supposes that the players will deprive it of what it wants the GM could apply a positive modifier depending on the significance of both the desire and the player's actions.

I bet some of you are ready to argue about the order of my scale.  Specifically, that "Sad" seems kind of out of place on the road from "Happy" to "Surprised/Scared".  First of all, I'm just having fun stretching an article way past it thesis.  Second, even though it sounds funny, if we get past the strong emotive connotations with "Sad" and start thinking of synonymous terms such as "out of sorts", "wistful", and "pensive" it's a little more feasible.  At least enough for me to want to try it out, anyway.  Oh, here's a link to the article, by the way, if you'd like to read it yourself.

What's that?  You're still here?  Well, let me get another beer and we'll take this absurdity to the next level.  By "level" I'm kind of giving it away.  Yeah, you guessed it:  Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.  All of you teachers and psychologists out there are now groaning because you're likely sick of hearing about Maslowe and his hierarchy.  What's that?  You're not.  Ok, then, let us move on.

In a paper titled "A Theory of Human Motivation" published in 1943, Abraham Maslow organized basic human needs into categories by priority.  In most textbooks it's organized into a pyramid with the most basic and necessary needs underneath those that are less critical.  Hold on, my mouth is getting dry from all this talking, I'm going to grab a beer.

Ah, that's much better.  Where was I, oh yeah:  The most basic needs are physiological.  You know, things like being able to breathe and eat and sleep and have sex.  I'm sure that you and I would argue that gaming goes there, too, but let's save that for another evening, shall we?  Next up on the pyramid is safety needs.  This includes concepts such as financial safety via a job, personal health and property.  Once safety needs are satisfied, the next type of need is to feel loved or a sense of belonging.  This category includes family and friends.  Next up the ladder is the concept of esteem.  This is exactly as it sounds, self-esteem, social standing, confidence, and respect from others.  Finally, at the tippy top of mount everest is a point to which every human aspires, even if they can't conceive of it in Maslow's terms.  This pinnacle of achievement is self-actualization.  Interestingly, Maslow characterized this category with "creativity", "morality", and "spontaneity", among other characteristics.

Enough academics.  Let's talk game.  Because there are five categories in Maslow's hierarchy and they are already organized by priority (thanks, Abraham), let us simply apply proportional number as a modifier.  It would look like this:

Modifier ~ Need Category
+/-1 ~ Self-actualization
+/-2 ~ Esteem
+/-3 ~ Love/belonging
+/-4 ~ Safety
+/-5 ~ Physiological

So, you could use the Need Category table to quickly determine the modifier for the Reaction Emotion table.  For example, suppose an NPC is in danger of being killed by a sword-wielding orc (not me, I would never do such a thing... well maybe to a Kender), but the Player Characters stop the threat.  Since living is a "Physiological" need, the GM would apply a -5 modifier to the Reaction Emotion table.  In such a case the NPC would have a 2/3 chance of reacting with joy, a 1/4 chance of reacting in a pensive manner, and a low 1/12 chance of reacting in surprised fear.  That seems reasonable.

The opposite would hold true as well.  If the Player Characters threaten to attack an NPC, physical harm is a "Physiological" need, and so the GM would apply a +5 modifier to the Reaction Emotion table.  The probabilities above would hold true for the other end of the scale, e.g., 2/3 for anger, 1/4 for surprised, and 1/12 for a sad reaction.

If the Player Characters were affecting a less important need, the modifier would be less.  For example, if the Player Characters threatened a close friend, the modifier would be +3.  If the Player Characters belittle a NPC, the  modifier may just be a +2.  And so on.  I think you get the point.

My goodness.  Where has the time gone?  I can't believe you've hung with me this far.  We've made it past the murky swamps of Time Magazine articles, into the shadowed tomb of psychology, and past the parching plains of my embarrassing prose.  Thanks for being a companionable fellow-adventurer, Constant Reader.  See you at the Inn.


  1. Plus "agony" when you step on a d4.

    I hate those things.

    1. Coltraps indeed. I let my daughter play with my dice and have stepped on my fair share of d4s in the early morning hours. Ouch.

  2. So actually, that "only 4 emotions" study is referring to a classification of facial expressions in the first fractional second, and they agree that there are still six if you let the emotion run a second or so. Time magazine as usual dumbs down the headline.

    Also, I find behaviors rather than emotions to be a more reliable thing to determine in an encounter. The other guy can be happy because he's glad to see you or because he sees you as easy pickings and tasty eating.

    1. ... and Maslow's "theory" isn't considered valid by most psychologists anymore, either. The entire post was parody,


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