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I'm interested in playing a game which is based more on characters and their emotions, rather than physical accomplishments. A system that forces characters to do dumb things and generate drama while under stress.

For example, the game assumes a group of dungeon crawlers who are badass enough to defeat all the threats they come across, but have trouble dealing with each other. Like a character might be disturbed by the priest's necrophilia or the barbarian's brutality. Or a character with a greedy attribute might have to roll a dice to split the loot fairly. A racist character may have to roll a dice to prevent herself from insulting a diplomat. And the system would have a good way to decide what kind of reaction the character would have - a stressed out violent character is more likely to go berserk than to become depressed, and so on. But most systems put character thoughts off limits, leaving it to the player to decide.

To be more precise, I'm looking for something where the focus of the game is about players controlling their emotions or dealing with their companions' personalities. To take a mainstream example - the movie Avengers, where the characters are extremely powerful heroes who nearly destroy each other from their egos and disagreements.

One possibility is players are expected to take on mental weaknesses and personalities that conflict with companions as their characters become more powerful and gain experience. So someone could build a near invincible character like Hulk or Jean Grey's Phoenix but their powers make them lose control of their character at times. Or a medium powered, mentally 'dangerous' character like Iron Man or the Punisher. Something along the lines of "Be careful when you fight the monsters, lest you become one."

FATE does a decent job with Aspects, by giving FATE points to characters who give in to these weaknesses, but I'd like to look at something else.

Something like the various sanity systems comes close, but I'm expecting it to come into play for more mundane situations, not just unimagineable evil.

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Hi, Muz! I retagged your question as "game-recommendation," since my understand is you're looking for existing games with the features you specified. (Please undo my edit if I misunderstood your question.) –  Alex P Jan 31 at 17:48
Some of the oWoD games dabble in this with things like willpower rewards for playing to the character and rolls to overcome things like fear of fire for vampires. I know you are looking for more, but if you find nothing else you could use that as a basis for creating your own system. –  TimothyAWiseman Jan 31 at 18:07
@AlexP Thanks! I wrote this up on a tablet so I was struggling to find the right tags. –  Muz Feb 3 at 13:49
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As this is a game-recommendation question, please adhere to the FAQ, the rules for subjective questions as outlined in Good Subjective, Bad Subjective and our rules for game recommendations. All responses must cite actual experience or reference others' experiences!

8 Answers

up vote 12 down vote accepted

Unknown Armies may fit your requirements. The publisher's webpage for the game starts with this:

Unknown Armies is the roleplaying game of transcendental horror and furious action: Pulp Fiction meets Hellraiser.

Characters in UA have experienced a "triggering event" -- something... strange that they witnessed or had happen to them. Ruth Pechvogel went cave diving and found an upside-down Egyptian church, which she never was able to find again. Agnes Veuve saw "Mama Flo" protect a battered woman from her abusive husband; Flo beat the husband to death with a frying pan... after the husband blew Flo's brains out with a gun. Et cetera.

In addition to mundane humans, characters can be Avatars or Adepts. Avatars channel an archetype, such as "the mystic hermaphrodite," "the gambler," "the merchant," and so on. Adepts perform magick, and are completely obsessed with whatever their particular school covers. The schools of Adept magick vary wildly, from Entropomancy (chaos/luck) to Cliomancy (history) to Dipsomancy ("booze hounds") to Pornomancy (exactly what it says on the tin).

When it comes to emotions and stress, UA incorporates five different mental stresses:

  • Violence
  • The Unnatural
  • Helplessness
  • Isolation
  • Self

The mental stress system is basically a sanity system (one of the UA designers also worked on Call of Cthulhu), but the range of possible stresses is very expansive.

Stressful events can originate from almost any source, from NPCs to other PCs to yourself to even the environment. Events can have ratings of 1-10, increasing with severity. Characters can have up to 10 "hardened" notches in each stress, and up to 5 "failed" notches. When subjected to a stress with a rating higher than the number of hardened notches the character has in that stress, they roll their Mind attribute. Success adds a hardened notch, failure adds a failed notch. If you fail, you must also choose an adrenal response (fight, flight, or freeze) and stick to that response until the source of the stress is gone.

If you have 5 failed notches, you automatically fail any Mind rolls for that stress (although if you have enough hardened notches, you're still hardened against the lower-rank stresses). The first time you reach 5 failed notches in any given stress, you gain a permanent mental aberration (eg: phobia, flashbacks). If you have 10 hardened notches in each of two stresses, or a total of 35 hardened notches between all five stresses, you become a sociopath. (Sociopaths cannot use their Passions, and Avatar characters suffering from sociopathy cannot use their Avatar skills.) Psychotherapy can reduce failed notches or hardened notches depending on your own Mind roll and the psychologist's skill roll (best-case is 3 notches for one session of therapy, but characters with 5 failed notches must spend at least 3 months in a mental institution first).

Examples of stressful events include (but are very much not limited to):

  • Getting attacked with a weapon (Violence 1)
  • Performing torture (Violence 6)
  • Seeing something which cannot logically exist (The Unnatural 2)
  • Speaking with a dead loved one (The Unnatural 7)
  • Fail at something when it is imperative that you succeed (Helplessness 3)
  • Watch someone you love die (Helplessness 8)
  • Get institutionalized by someone you trust (Isolation 4)
  • Be treated as a stranger by your friends (Isolation 9)
  • Do not act on an impulse from your Noble stimulus because it's "too dangerous" (Self 5)
  • Deliberately destroy everything you've risked your life to support (Self 10)

In addition to the stress tracks, characters each have three Passions and an Obsession. The Passions are Rage, Fear, and Nobility. A character's Fear passion is linked to one of the five mental stresses (above), and you make a stress test whenever you encounter your fear. Once per passion per session, a player may activate a passion (if the situation is appropriate) to increase his or her chances on a roll (either flip the digits of the roll, or reroll). The Noble passion must be used for selfless acts, the Rage passion must be used for aggressive acts, and the Fear passion must not be used for aggressive acts.

A character's Obsession is mostly roleplay fluff, but it also defines his or her Obsession Skill. Characters have a higher chance to succeed with their Obsession skill (you can always flip the digits of the roll).

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This is an excellently detailed answer! I feel like it could do with a 1-2 sentence summary of the basic premise of Unknown Armies to give these stats some context, though. –  Alex P Jan 31 at 19:56
@AlexP, It ended up more like 2 paragraphs than 2 sentences, but I hope it gives some context for the game. –  Brian S Jan 31 at 20:29
I like it, Brian! –  Alex P Jan 31 at 20:42
Thanks for the recommendation! The bit about the mental stresses seems just right, but I don't really like the flavor of the theme. Passion and Obsession seem to be a key part of the stress system, so it's a bit hard to copy only the mental stress bit to other games. I'll accept this answer once I check out the other recommendations :) –  Muz Feb 3 at 14:02
@Muz, Obsession is not linked with the mental stress system, it's simply another feature of UA that models a character's personality in some fashion. Passions are linked, but not very heavily: Fear is linked to one stress, and you roll against that stress when encountering your fear; and Passions cannot be used (to flip-flop a roll or reroll) while suffering from sociopathy. (The Self 5 event example deals with Noble, but it is just an example, not the only Self 5 event that's possible. The Self 8 example also references Noble, but those are the only two samples.) –  Brian S Feb 3 at 19:36
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There's quite a few games that do this, though it really depends on HOW you want to go about it:


Every character is defined by a huge list of passions - character traits with scores. The GM can force the players to roll against their own score to act against their dominant traits. Funny enough, being an extremist in traits tends to grow your knight faster by earning you more glory, so players are also interested in going that way as well. This is aimed at fitting the melodrama of Arthurian legend rather than reality, though it's a neat system for that. (There's also mechanics for going into a "Melancholy" where the knights emo out or completely flip out, but it's pretty genre-specific in concept.)

Shadow of Yesterday

Shadow of Yesterday uses "Keys" - a specific thing that gets XP for your character. You could have something like, "Honor-bound" and get XP when you get up and about defending your honor. The point when it becomes a catch is that you LOSE the Key if you DON'T defend your honor, and you can never get it again... So you find points when you start putting your character into bad choices because you're not ready to let go of the Key permanently. (Lady Blackbird, and later Marvel Heroic RPG also used derivative versions, but not quite as intense).


Hero Wars, then Hero Quest has a neat system where your personality traits are rated as much as your skill in a sword. And, like your skill in a sword, they can be used in conflicts. You can also use them to add bonuses to a different skill ("Courageous adds a bonus to this battle!") or use an opponent's against them ("He's Brash, I'm using it to add to my 'Tricky Tactics' roll to lead him into a trap"). The GM can easily set up entire conflicts where it's you against your own emotional traits if the situation fits. (FATE would later use their invoke/tag system in much the same way).


Poison'd primarily has players making stress/bad decisions through a combination of having competing Ambitions and the Bargain mechanics.

When you make a Bargain with any other character, you end up holding power over each other - you can choose, at any time, to one-time drop a dice penalty on a roll for them if you feel they're not living up to their end of the bargain. So a lot of play ends up being engineering situations, taking advantage of them to give yourself better bargaining power, or being stuck in a bargain and trying to figure out if it's worth breaking.

Mouse Guard/Torchbearer

These games both have "conditions" (Lady Blackbird also had them first, but didn't tie them deeply with mechanics), which include "Angry", "Tired", "Afraid" that produce mechanical penalties. Both use these instead of hitpoints or other setups to track damage - the long term build up of conditions makes your missions harder and harder, and you have to balance taking time to rest up against the need to hurry.

The Drifter's Escape, Dog Eat Dog, Polaris, Thou Art But a Warrior

These games all rely on a form of bargaining, which ends up putting the player in the situation of either agreeing to doing something they don't like or potentially losing something that matters a lot to them. Although this is a broad sort of system set up, these always end up at some point pushing players into having characters make bad decisions eventually - the crux of play is which bad decisions do you end up being able to live with vs. finding yourself really regretting them?

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Thanks for the great recommendations! I've skimmed through them. I'm personally not so much looking for incentives for the players following their characters' emotions/personalities, but more where the character fights against those emotions. –  Muz Feb 3 at 14:46
+1 For Pendragon; great system and the traits work well. –  Rob Feb 3 at 16:46
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I suspect you could get the flavor you want with one of the Cortex Plus variants from Margaret Weis Productions. They've been used to model several TV series/genres like Smallville (Cortex Plus Drama), Firefly and Leverage (Cortex Plus Action), as well as superhero gaming (Cortex Plus Heroic [as Marvel Heroic Roleplaying]). Any of these system variants has elements that you can use to set up the kind of game you're describing.

For example, in Marvel Heroic in addition to physical, each character can suffer Emotional and Mental "stress" (i.e. damage), and too much of it "stresses them out", which takes them out of the immediate action scene in a manner narrated to be consistent with the damage and to be amusing/interesting/in-character. (There are probably better examples from Drama for what you're after, but most of my experience is with Heroic, so I'll stick with what I know best.)

Specifically, you'll probably want to grab a copy of the Cortex Plus Hackers Guide, which describes the basic mechanics of the various systems, as well as giving some examples of how to "hack" a variant to represent the kind of play you're interested in.

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There are several games in the vaguely-defined "indie RPG" category that aim in the direction you appear to want a game to aim. I can suggest a few, but any such list is necessarily not exhaustive since there are already so many; you're not alone in your desire for a game that pulls the characters' emotions into the game part of "roleplaying game"! To suit the rules of this site I'm not going to try to give you a list; instead, I'll mention two that I think are good examples of the type of game you appear to be looking for.

There are a few games that are not open-ended, so they're less a "system" and more a self-contained game. I will mention one example to demonstrate the existence of such games:

  • A Penny For My Thoughts puts the most important of your character's decisions into the hands of other players, by letting them generate a shortlist of actions that you have to choose between after the situation has been built up to a critical turning point. This is elegantly self-moderated because they're competing for a reward you give to the player whose option you chose, so they tend to compete to come up with something interesting, but also something you'll want to choose. In my experience, this ends up giving you extremely interesting insights into your character's personality that you wouldn't have come up with by yourself, as you struggle to understand their personality in light of the hard choices you learn they have already made.

    It's a game with a fixed beginning and ending though. I think you'd enjoy it based on your question, but it won't serve you for an ongoing campaign like you're describing. I mention it because it will show you that such games exist, their mechanics are fun, and give you a name as a starting point that you can use to research similar games from. I also mention it in case you simply haven't ever considered that closed-end games might exist before, in case your request for one that works like that is motivated by just not knowing alternative game structures exist.

There are also more open-ended games in this vein. One exemplar I'll name you, just to demonstrate their existence and again give you a starting point for further investigation:

  • Hero's Banner is a more open-ended game that focuses laser-sharp on the internal struggles of the character rather than whether or not they succeed at tasks. I have not personally played it, so I'm going to quote you a micro-review of someone who has and avows that it does the emotion-centric gameplay you're asking after:

    This slim, attractive book may be the perfect gateway drug into focused, new-style RPGs for fans of old-school fantasy... but that's not why it's a great gift. Hero's Banner is a great gift because it focuses on the melodramatic side of the Knights of the Round Table, where passions, honor and bloodlines get everyone all worked up as much as a good battle does. Indeed, you could very nearly take all the rules in this volume and bolt them onto a system you're already playing. But what are those rules, you ask? Simple - build your character, give him three incredibly important and valuable things, and then, over a series of die rolls (and yes, the actual roleplaying that goes with them), force him to sacrifice one. Then tell the story of the end of his life, and create a new character who idolizes him, thereby creating a multigenerational epic. Hero's Banner does come with a few pages of setting, and as sketchy as it is, it supports the kind of tightly meshed personal conflict the game thrives on. And the cover art is worth half the cost of the book on its own.

Hopefully these two games have shown you that yes, the kind of game you're looking for exists. I don't know for certain that either of these games will be the game that satisfies your desires, because there are so many games out there, and until you're more familiar with the range, you won't be able to even ask a more specific question that we could answer with the exact right game. I hope I've given you enough that you can start researching though, and find the game that suits you well. In the process, I hope you end up enjoying some games you might never have known about!

To proceed with your reseach, I suggest googling these two games, and reading some forum threads, blog posts, and reviews that turn up. Other games will probably get mentioned in those, which will give you more things to read about. It's not a quick solution to your request, but form personal experience I know it's an extremely rewarding process—I have discovered a wealth of wonderful games by starting just like you did, with a vague idea of what I want that's not in the games I already knew, hearing by chance about a game that sounds like it's more like what I want, and beginning a long process of reading up on it and games like it that I unearthed along the way.

I hope you much joy in your search!

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I have similar tastes, looking for drama in my gaming and placing emotional pursuits over practical ones. I have played a lot of games looking for something like this, and have two recommendations, in ascending order - that is, the highest recommendation comes last.


This full-conversion of the Apocalypse World engine into the world of supernatural teen romance does a great job modeling various types of that genre. I have used it to great effect as a drop-in replacement for Buffy, given that my group is more interested in the relationships than the latex monsters.

Many of the moves in this game consume or produce Strings. Strings are a currency that represent emotional power. Strings are what help model the drama of BtVS.


Hillfolk is the name of the game, but it's really just the first setting presented for the DramaSystem. In this game, which comes with many settings and is easily adapted to almost anything you could want, the whole emphasis is on emotional interactions. The system itself is all about the seeking and granting or rejecting of emotional concessions - between the PCs.

The system encourages players to grant concessions they may not particularly have wanted to make by giving them points for doing so. The system allows spending those points to insert your character into scenes or remove him from them, or force a character to make a concession or to resist such a compulsion.

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Thanks! Hillfolk seems a bit too complex to set up. By the time you've created your characters, you have a solid setting and characters, and might as well freeform. The mechanics themselves don't look intriguing, more RP conflict resolution than generating drama. But I just skimmed what I could find of it, so correct me if I misunderstood it. Monsterhearts does match what I'm looking for in philosophy, just not theme. I'll probably give it a purchase once I find someone to play it with :) –  Muz Feb 3 at 20:36
@Muz - you are correct, Hillfolk takes some time to set up. But certainly no more than character creation for many other games, and in the end you have a solid basis for generating drama and tons of story fuel. The difference between it and freeform, though, is the drama point economy that encourages players to make concessions in exchange for more power later - much like the Fate point economy in those games. But I'm glad one of my suggestions worked for you! –  gomad Feb 3 at 22:59
It might help to look at Hillfolk's drama point system as simulating a character's willpower. Some modern psychological research suggests people really do have a limited amount of willpower to expend, although the exact model is different from Hillfolk's. –  Alan De Smet Feb 4 at 22:37
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I don't know of any systems that really do something like this, but your question reminds me of the basic mechanics of Dread.

This game doesn't really have a randomizer, per se: instead, it uses a Jenga set. Essentially, you put up a Jenga tower in the middle of the table, and whenever a character wants to do something challenging, the DM ("Host" in Dread terminology) can ask the player to take a turn of Jenga. You can decline, but then you fail, or the Host might let you take back the action and consider another path. If you accept and succeed, the player succeeds. If the tower collapses, then whoever was responsible... well, let's just say there's a reason the game is called Dread.

I could see modifying this to your needs, using a Jenga tower to represent the party's general state of mind. Note that I have not playtested this. If a character wants to do something that should put psychological stress on that character (or refrain from doing something when THAT should put stress on the character), name a stressful impulse ("anger", "racism", "insecurity", etc) and ask the player to pull a block. If the player succeeds, so does the character, but the tension rises: the next player to pull a block will have a harder time of it. If the player declines, then either the action fails or the character must take it back and avoid the impulse: do something different that won't cause that kind of stress. If the player pulls but the tower collapses, the character must act on the impulse: they may choose exactly how they do this, but it should be something that everyone observing the character would recognize, and in general it should cause a serious setback for the task at hand.

Once the tower collapses, rebuild it. The character who cracked has gotten his catharsis, and the other party members have steeled themselves as they resolved the problem, so things return to relative stability... for a time. As the DM, you could also rule that the tower should be rebuilt at other times. Maybe the characters accomplish a major goal, and it gives them a nice recharge. Or an NPC does something to break the tension: something comparable to what a PC who collapsed the tower might have done. Or you knocked down the tower by mistake, so the players lucked out and get a bit of a break.

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It's not a great fit, but you might look to The Dying Earth RPG's "resistences" to arrogance, avarice, indolcence, gourmandism, pettifoggery, and rakishness (matching themes in Vance's fiction). Other characters, PC or NPC, can prey on weaknesses to those areas to mechanically push a character into actions they would rationally refuse. The system was made more generic in Skulduggery.

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Rapture is hands-down the best Horror system i've ever used or played in. Initially designed to implement classic sci-fi horror movies into a game experience, it is very versatile and able to model any horror game even a heroic one with relative ease. The system is based around the idea of a sci-fi game, but I modified it to be used in fantasy very easily - change a few skill names around and voila - you are there. It is rules-lite but not airy-fairy, it supports heavy play and mechanically complex fight scenes in a way that had people new to RPG's picking it up in seconds.

Better than that, the system book is chock full of horror-running advice, from how to handle monsters and build tension right up to the best way to handle a 'monster inside the party' sort of detective mystery slasher flick. I have genuinely scared people in this system, and so have others - I recommend it for any fan of horror, and especially if you like the tension in films like Alien or the high-octane horror of stuff like Starship Troopers or Night of the Living Dead - and yes, unlike many game systems, Rapture does zombies really well.

The game has a relatively simple roll mechanic, and certain actions or situations (basically up to the GM) can cause characters to accumulate bonuses to fight or flight actions that are negatives to any non-flight/fight actions. That leaves the player choosing mechanically to run or fight more often, as those actions are far more likely to succeed given the bonus/malus placed on their die pools. Additionally, as a game goes on, the players tend to start taking damage to stats and losing allied NPCs, which further limits their mechanical options and models the 'desperation' of a worsening situation through the mechanical options their character has available to them. I like it because it doesn't remove player agency, while still limiting player options as the game moves through the stages of your classic cult-horror movie (investigation, worsening situation, realization, fight, catharsis).

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