Angst: Anxiety, anguish, neurotic fear; guilt, remorse.
—The Angst FAQ
“Angst is better than combat,” I said the other day to my gamer friend. “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 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 Shadowrun campaign I played 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? 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.
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.
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
Image Source: Fairy Tales of India, 1892