About a year ago, as a consequence of discovering Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering, a roleplaying colleague of mine posed the following question:
“I have the most fun when my character is ________?”
At the time my reply was
“I have the most fun when my character is immersed in a variety of emotive, challenging and heroic situations e.g. Courageously overcoming fear to battle against impossible odds, forging friendships with loyal companions through shared ordeals, risking life and limb to do the right thing when circumstances are against you etc
I guess I want to feel that I am in a heroic story and that I am being challenged as I would be if I was there. I want to struggle, I want highs and lows, I want to succeed and to fail and ultimately to triumph. The more immersed in this I am the better.
Relationships with other PCs and NPCs are important to me because it is generally through such attachments that I get the emotional kick I am looking for. I want to care about them. I want to fear for their safety and agonise over decisions that I make that will affect them. I am easily engaged in plots that revolve around helping/saving these characters and the more I have emotionally invested in them the greater the purpose I feel in what I am doing.”
Some time later I found this post by Moyra Turkington at Sin Aesthetics that describes it pretty well also:
I know Catharsis to be my primary goal: It is the place that the intense connection to the character is formed, in which I feel, simultaneously, the character’s emotional state, my own emotional state, my character’s inner workings, my own inner workings and my empathy for the character. Catharsis will make me physically weep when my character’s lover dies in her arms even if she does not shed a tear, because while I feel her emotional state as acutely as she does, I am feeling it vicariously. I am immersed in who she is, but I am not her. The feeling of exaltation or relief is something I can validate. An intense, cathartic immersion experience can leave me feeling a little high in an emotionally-induced endorphin way.