Saturday, March 4, 2017

Emotion Maps as Design Tools

Hi all!

I wanted to write a bit today about a technique I've been using for a long time now to design games and conceptualize sessions and campaigns (even if I'm not running, I know how I want my character to feel, or how to advise people who are running). The technique is what I call an "emotion map."

Emotion maps use word clouds to establish what emotions are the most important to put into a game, and what ones you want to avoid. I have a few different ones I've used - one for designing a game itself, one for session planning (for one-shots), and one for campaigns. I've put together some examples of them to walk you through!

The first thing I do is grab a piece of paper and pen (you could do this digitally, though!) and title whatever it is I'm working on. Here's the starting page for Turn.

Look at all that beautiful blank space.

A title is important because it reminds you of what you're looking for when you're stumped. You want to have a relatively big space to write on, because it gives some room to breathe or scratch stuff out if you need to.


Emotion maps are kind of like our solar system, where the words all have different sizes and go around a point just beside what we consider the center (our system circles a spot right off center of the sun). You can choose to put them closer or farther away based on importance as well as based on desired impact, or you can scatter them. I generally use the mapped out on importance with bigger things.

The words are intermixed to show that they can conflict and interfere with each other. You could list them or order them otherwise, but this visual representation works best for me and provides an organic representation of the emotions I want present in the game. (/ETA)

From here, I'll write in a few words in larger text. Let's start with four!

Companionship, conflicted, desire, hopeful.
The words here are the most prominent emotions. I want the characters in Turn to feel these things during the game the most. The words don't have to be consistent (verbs, nouns, adverbs, adjectives, whatever), they just have to mean something and relate to emotions.

The words I chose are companionship, conflicted, desire, and hopeful. You can see how these things would tie into a game like Turn, which is about shapeshifters in small towns struggling between their two identities, wanting to satisfy the needs of both, in need of support from their fellow shapeshifters, and looking forward to finding balance. Right?

More words! In smaller text! Use one more than the prominent emotions, to create some interference.

Hunger, wonder, rejection, isolation, trust.
These are secondary emotions. These leap off of other emotions or are in deeper and less often found, but are still vital to the story. They're smaller than the prominent emotions in size to show their lessened influence, but big enough to start interfering with the others. The words are hunger, wonder, rejection, isolation, and trust. For Turn, PCs might experience love or greed, or just actual human or animal needs. They could also marvel at the abilities they use and gain, but be denied from the societies they live within - leaving them alone. That's why they need to rely on their fellow shifters.

Final words! Smallest! Now use two more than the first (so six!), to make the sheet like a minefield.

Satisfaction, confidence, powerlessness, fear, pain, loneliness.
These are avoided emotions. They are the emotions that can come from the experiences in the game that I want to have happen less, or not at all! They are the smallest because they can't be forgotten but you don't want to be reminded of what they really are until you look, because you don't want to seek them out. The words are satisfaction, confidence, powerlessness, fear, pain, and loneliness.

Turn is about shapeshifters with significant power, so they shouldn't ever feel like there's nothing they can do. But, they shouldn't ever feel like everything is done, or feel secure that they have everything under control. I don't want players to struggle and feel like they're in a bad state, and as much as there will be times when they are alone, I don't want them without companionship (callback to the prominent emotions!) or someone to turn to (hey, trust!), components (from my translation) that when lacking produce loneliness.

Here are the notes I made on the sheet to give some context to the map:

Notes! I made them!
These notes are for a full game (obvs), but the point is that they'll grow over time. You can expand the emotion map, adjust it as time goes on, and so on. You can also use the avoided emotions as reference for threats in the game - how do you have something bad happen without making someone afraid? These also will influence the core elements of my design.

The number of words is important because of where it places emphasis. You only have a few core emotions to focus on as the big ones, or else you'll get exhausted trying to fill in every experience from just a top-level build. You have more of the secondary emotions so that there's room to grow into them as the game develops. And you have even more avoided emotions to really highlight this is what I want to avoid, this is what will go away from the point of my game - when you know what you don't want to do, it helps show what you do want to do.

You'll notice in the final sheet that there are not just good emotions as prominent, nor are there only bad emotions as avoided.

Not all bad, not all good.
It's important to know that in long term games, you'll have good stuff and bad stuff, and when designing a game, you have to factor in all of those possibilities and figure out the big thing: if your players are going to have a negative experience - and they will! - what kind do you want it to be?

I also have in the following gifs the pages of the one-shot session of Shadowrun: Anarchy I conceptualized, and a three-session long-play of Monsterhearts.

Shadowrun: Anarchy Session - Prominent: Excitement, pressured, powerful, motivation.
Secondary: Vindication, amusement, failure, anxiety (should have had 5).
Avoided: Frustrated, anger, disappointment, boredom, lost, vengeful.
Giphy Link
As noted in the gif and caption, I missed one in the secondary emotions, but I think the point still sits! This has a similar structure of fewer prominent emotions to more avoided emotions. The reasoning for this is that in a shorter game like a one-shot, you only have time to hit a few emotional peaks on purpose, but the secondary emotions might come in along with them or be good to throw in as additional bites. But you really want to avoid the emotions you focus on avoiding.

Here are my notes on the one-shot:

One-shot notes!
I noted here that this kind of structure is for one shots or single sessions, if you don't plan out full campaigns or play an episodic game. It also has notes about having fewer positive emotions on it - if you look at the list, almost all of the avoided emotions are negative. This is totally okay! There are still some negative emotions in the secondary and prominent ones, but the point here is that hey, it's a one shot of a bombastic game, and I super don't want my players to get bummed out or bored.

The final Shadowrun: Anarchy one-shot emotion map:

Next, I did one of my more complicated emotion maps that I've used for both plotting game stuff, but also fiction! It's for a three-session Monsterhearts game.

This one is very complicated! giphy link

I'll summarize each one of these real quick -

Session 1:
Prominent - mistrust, curiosity, panic.
Secondary - suspicion, frustration.
Avoided - safety.

Session 2:
Prominent - comfort, pain, wonder.
Secondary - confidence, understanding.
Avoided - happiness.

Session 3:
Prominent - resolve, assurance, trust.
Secondary - gratitude, obsession.
Avoided - hopeful.

I feel terrible for the players in this game, honestly. Anyway, as you can see, there are some varying emotions all through the sessions, some that reflect off of each other, and some that conflict. This is good! You don't want the same emotions every session, though you can have them evolve (no safety to finding comfort to building trust and having gratitude, suspicion to understanding to obsession).

My notes on the Monsterhearts emotion map:

In the Monsterhearts sessions, you have more prominent emotions and fewer avoided ones! Why change this? First off, you're working with a full arc of story - this isn't encompassing a potential of many stories or a single run in a one-shot, it's a story told to complete emotional arcs for PCs. You could do something like this for a single session of Monsterhearts or similar games if you intend to go through a full experience, but if it's a piece of time instead of a range, it's not as useful.

I also think that it depends on the type of game. Shadowrun, for example, can have emotion in it, but it typically has fewer, focused emotions. Monsterhearts is a game about teenagers and sex and horror, so it runs the whole range of complicated emotions, especially in long play. And you want to welcome all sorts of emotions - it is less common to say "Oh, I don't want the ghoul to feel that right now" because you really want to see what happens when a ghoul feels, say, absolution, or joy!

The final Monsterhearts long-play emotion map:

I am really bad at sizes of words. I'll work on it. :)
You can go inside out, or outside in, with how many words you use. Just be super cognizant of what you're saying with that construction!


  • Too many prominent emotions can wear people out in shorter games.
  • Fewer overarching prominent emotions for designing full games is better because you can't predict every session.
  • If the game is super emotionally intense, go wild with the desired emotions, but make sure to avoid emotions that really spoil the essence of the game.

I hope you find the emotion map technique useful! It's been really valuable for me as a designer, as a creator in general, and as a player. I think it looks at games from the perspective that matters to me as a designer and player, where things feel. I might not be super great at math or anything, but I know feelings pretty damn well.

Have fun!

giphy link

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