Thursday, December 9, 2010

Psychology in Role Playing Games

Initially, I was thinking of writing about psychological trauma and how it could be reflected accurately in a game.  The natural progression of thoughts led me to think about psychological issues in RPGs overall.  Since insanity is a fundamental part of Call of Cthulhu, I think it exists outside the scope of this writing.  Thinking about fantasy games in particular, there are a couple different things I can say about psychological realism in Fantasy Roleplaying Games:
  • The only time I've ever had characters suffer long-term psychological effects as a result of adventuring was when I ran  Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay.  I don't remember the details of the 1e game I played in Arizona, but the 2e game I ran in California resulted in a Dwarven Shieldbreaker taking the Slayer Oath (technically not insanity per the rules, but come on!), one character suffering from crippling PTSD (Knives of Memory) and another driven to drink by it (Unquenchable Thirst (?)).
  • I couldn't find insanity rules in any of my 1st Edition AD&D books or my 2nd Edition RuneQuest books.  In fact, the only games where I can find any kind of player mental instability rules are Warhammer and games with edges and hindrances where you can get points for mental health issues.  Few of those games include rules for gaining instability.  It appears that you are perfectly capable of a lengthy career of violence and mayhem without any consequence to the character's long-term psyche.
  • Most fantasy RPGs make it very plain that the PCs are "not like everyone else."  Be it very blatant racism faced by non-human characters or even the simple fact that most citizens of a fantasy world live and die within a few miles of the place they were born, there is something that sets the characters apart from the rest of the world.  In games where it's epic destiny, you've got a simple explanation.  In a paradigm where there isn't a universal force controlling what we do, there must be something psychological that sends a character into a dark hole filled with green monsters.  No "normal" person would do that.
  • There tends to be a certain level of psychopathy within a majority of gaming groups.  How many gaming groups take prisoners?  How many groups would take prisoners in the FIRST room of the dungeon?
In response to the first, second, and fourth points, mental trauma and semi-realistic psychology rules should not be applied to every game.  A very positive, sunshiny game would not be well-served with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  There are also certain player groups that it should not be applied to.  If you are more into a crunchier hack-it-up game, why worry about the psychological state of your killing machine?  I know Ravenloft introduced Fear, Horror, Madness, and the Dark Powers checks to reflect the madness inherent in the Demiplane of Dread, but these rules rarely made it anywhere else in the system.

In the (soon-to-be) late and great Twilight: 2013 rules, they talk about about the fine line referees need to walk when it comes down to psychological issues.  Here's what Keith and Co. say about it:

We feel it only fair to warn the GM that morale rules
can be decidedly unpopular with some players. The most
common problem that players have with these rules is that
they deprotagonize PCs. In other words, players feel that their
characters are the stars of the story, and therefore should never
be subject to outside forces that dictate how they feel or react.
This is a fair complaint. We’ve included these rules for the sake
of drama and realism, but some players may not want this much
verisimilitude in their post-apocalyptic escapism.
This is a very important thing to keep in mind, since players play for different reasons and some of them don't deal with PC failure well.  The WFRP player who ended up with the Knives of Memory would get just as salty when the PTSD kicked in as he would when he would miss with an attack.  He was the kid who wanted to always succeed at every single thing he did.  The guy playing the Slayer and the guy with the drinking problem embraced the psychological damage that came hand-in-hand with letting all sorts of chaotic threats loose across the Empire (they failed miserably at Shadows over Bogenhafen and kept making all kinds of goof-ups during Death on the Reik).  They played a mix of self-loathing and unbridled desire to make things right that gave them a really insecure fanaticism that made for some really fun games.  That's because those guys EMBRACED the character madness, whereas the Knives guy did NOT enjoy his character being weakened in ANY way.  Different strokes for different folks.

Dealing with the third point, a world that is more fantastic than fantastic (I'm talking about YOU, Eberron) would probably have less in the way of PCs being "strange" for being adventurers.  Adventurers might be looked at more as the kids who got out of town with that really cool job that the rest of us envy.  Even something as mundane as my enlistment into the U.S. Army and heading off to Iraq and Afghanistan would get regular responses along the lines of "That's amazing, there's no way I can do that."  In a high-fantasy world like Eberron or Talislanta, I can see adventurers getting this kind of response.  In an adventurer-heavy part of the world, like most military towns in the real world, you would get even less special treatment.

In a lower fantasy world, you'll see a much harsher reaction to adventuring.  As much as Uncle Owen didn't want Luke Skywalker to go to the Academy with Biggs, most parents aren't going to want to have their kids head off into the big unknown.  Even something as mundane as being conscripted into the local liege's militia would be met with some degree of fear and reservation, let alone embarking on some damn fool quest into the Underdark.  In many of the old-school editions of RPGs, it was very easy to die at low level, so you'd realize that even as a 1st level character (compared to the 0-level masses) your chances of coming home are fairly slim.

What does this mean for my games?  Well, if I am playing an Eberron game using D&D 4th Edition, I don't think it means much of anything.  However, when I run my Lamentations of the Flame Princess game, I might introduce a few things.  I'll work on the system, but here are the concepts I'd like it to have:
  • There will be some kind of a reason the character left home.  I'll need to make a table to reflect this.  There can be positive reasons to adventure (an earnest selflessness, a dedication to a deity, etc.) and negative reasons (psychological trauma, loss of everything, etc.) and each will have some kind of minor in-game effect.
  • There will be some way to reflect the psychological damage that comes with exposure to the deep dark secrets of the world, be they the horror of what humanity can do to itself or the cosmic horror of what the universe can do to humanity.
  • I'm seeing Clerical Magic and Arcane Magic as being polar opposites, in both alignment and nature.  Raggi has already placed Magic-Users and Elves firmly in the Chaos camp, so I think it's a natural extension to make Clerical magic inherently Lawful.  What I want to avoid here is a Law v. Chaos conflict that is all-encompassing.  I think I'd like the alignment rules as they are evolving for me to reflect your understanding of the world--the chaotic beliefs of the cosmic magicians, the lawful beliefs of the dogmatic religions, or a more "non-committal" neutrality.
So, I think before I do anything with my campaign, I need to come up with the worldview.  The Sanity rules I come up with will all be relative to the worldview and how events can either challenge or shatter your worldview.

As always, I want to hear your thoughts.

Edit:  As you can see, Jeff Rients (from Jeff's Game Blog) corrected me.  There are insanity rules in AD&D's 1e DMG.   Still, it's pretty clear that it's incredibly rare that a player suffers from insanity outside of magical/psionic/mental attack.  One thing of note is that the DM is told to take over the character when the madness strikes, as "most players will not be willing to go so far."  I've only introduced madness into one of my games, but two out of three players embraced it wholeheartedly.