Emotional beats are a game feature that designers try to identify and maximise. I will try to explain what they are and then why they are important to Rolemaster.
Every roleplaying game I know goes through the following process.
- The GM sets to a challenge
- The players plan their reaction
- Dice get rolled
- GM describes the result
So that cycle could be a combat round as easily as a negotiation or hanging off a place balcony as the mortar crumbles under your grip.
The player is focused on the challenge as the GM describes it. Then focuses on their character and the options they character has. They make their rolls, while trying to get as many bonuses as they can and then they wait for the result.
The emotional beats start with anticipation as the challenge is described, then a level of anxiety is common if the right skill isn’t known or the character is forced into combat when they are weak. When it comes to the roll we have heightened anticipation while they await the result and then a sense of elation upon success, the resolution stage.
What professional game designers do is minimise the time delay between the dice roll and the completion of the resolution step. The reason is that the longer that time delay is the less the feeling of elation and importantly elation releases dopamine into the players blood. A game with a snappy skill/conflict resolution system is quite literally more addictive to play than a slower game.
Games with hit point attrition can still have fast emotional beats or rhythm. With each successive combat round the odds are changing and the risk to the character increasing which heightens anticipation and when victory is achieved the sense of elation is greater and that leaders to a bigger dopamine hit.
Looking at Rolemaster through the lens of emotional beats you can easily see how and why the ability to one hit a foe makes you feel so good. You instantly know if you have made a great attack roll and the likelihood that you have an E critical. You then roll 66 and you just know that it is curtains for the bad guy. What the GM eventually tells you is just a cherry on top, you already know the beastie or villain is dead meat. Instant resolution. instant elation and instant dopamine.
As a game designer there is a danger of ‘getting high off your own supply’ (I think that is a hip hip lyric from NWA but don’t quote me on that). You see a potential problem in the rules (anticipation), create a special rules to fix the rules and test it (moments of anxiety) and it works (elation and reward). The problem is that the temptation is to create endless rules and complications; as the simple act of adding them to the game makes the designer feel good.
One of the reasons the damage calculations from the size rules were unpopular, looking at it from an emotional rhythms point of view, is that it puts a delay into the resolution stage. Worst still it happens before the real resolution, the critical, can be calculated and resolved. If you are fighting something and size rules are reducing your attack size this is even worse as it is the wrong sort of anticipation. Positive anticipation is waiting to see if you have succeeded. Negative anticipation is expectation that things are getting worse. Having your E critical turned into a C is not something to look forward to.
In another part of the RMu rules we have spell casting going from 2 rounds prep to zero rounds of prep. This is great. Although there is technically less anticipation time the player still gets to cycle through what spell to cast, the spell casting roll and waiting to see if their spell worked and the effect it had. Without the prep delay the emotion rhythm is much faster.
Looking at skills, if RMu piles too many penalties on to the characters it is in danger of breaking the emotional cycle. By that I mean if failure is more common that successes then the anticipation is negative and the elation is diminished if it came from pure chance rather than your skillful play and choices.
I think the character creation time is another point at which the reward, getting to play, is too far from the start of the challenge. This is also an area where the playtesters and fans are quite vocal.
Game design by fans, for fans is not always a good idea if they lack the actual skills to pull off a great design.