Friday, 9 September 2016

Inner Worlds #3: Mind and Body

sian: now 20% less empathic.
So this week I've been dealing with how you model the inner life of a character in a role-playing game, and I've talked about issues of right and wrong and come to no conclusion whatsoever, and I've talked about social interactions and how they get complex, with slightly more conclusion, and now it's time for mental health and trauma.

Oh my, this is complicated. In the last couple years, trauma has become a thing that people talk about far more than ever; people who have PTSD have become far more forthcoming about having it, and there's basically a battleground in academic circles centred around the idea of having content warnings on things because, oh, I don't even know1.

Anyway, traditionally, RPGs are not so good with dealing with trauma and psychological illness.
Edition 4 and Edition 5.6. Fourth edition had a bunch of historical setting stuff that later editions didn't. 

You can't talk about this, of course, without talking about Call of Cthulhu. Now, Call of Cthulhu is a game that I spent a lot of time playing, and it was the first game writing by me that I had accepted by a publisher, I think2. It's based upon the work of Lovecraft, as you know, who was a visionary early twentieth century horror and science fiction writer obsessed with seafood, miscegenation, and God wanting to eat you. And yeah, Lovecraft changed the fantasy genre, and yeah, ideas galore, but holy crap the racism and holy crap the phobia of marine fauna and then the whole thing about "madness".

Actually, while Lovecraft's racism was extreme even its own day – he even reckoned Hitler had the right idea3 – and while his well-documented phobia of marine fauna was kind of unique and irrevocably transformed how alien monsters would be seen in genre fiction, the one place where he was a man of his time was how he framed psychiatric illness. As in, like most people back then, he reckoned either you were sane or you weren't. In Lovecraft, if you were sane and you read books that shattered your view of the universe or you bumped in to horrible impossible monsters, you went "mad". Sandy Petersen's seminal game Call of Cthulhu, which is the reason most people who like Lovecraft have heard of him in the first place has what was when it came out a groundbreaking mechanic to simulate it.

OK, so you had a Sanity stat. It was a number, ranging at character creation from 15 to 90. When you came into contact with something traumatic and horrible – seeing a dead body, reading a book of evil magic, witnessing a creature that Should Not Be – you roll percentile dice, and if you roll higher than your Sanity score, you lose points directly from your Sanity score, and if you roll lower, you might lose points anyway if what you've witnessed is horrible enough, but at any rate not as many. If you lost enough points in one go, you "went insane" for a bit and probably needed treatment; if you lost all of your points, your character went irrevocably "mad" and could no longer be played by you.

This worked for a horror game, because it meant that the more horrible things you saw, the shakier you got. Some things were so horrible, like Great Cthulhu himself, a far cry from his status as cuddly toy, that you could potentially have your mind blasted into the void forever just from seeing them. If you recovered from a bout of insanity, you might still have a phobia, which again is in keeping with Lovecraft and co, whose stories are replete with people who can't bring themselves to ever open a cupboard again or whatever.

But that's not really how real trauma works. It's not how real mental illness works. Yes, just on game terms alone it's a great, fun system and seriously it works like a dream if you treat it with the slightest bit of sensitivity and lightness of touch but the fact is that it replicates the experience of a sort of story that is actually quite troubling to approach.

Later editions of the game have made revisions to the Sanity system in an attempt to present mental illness and trauma in a more nuanced, sensitive way, but I don't think it works all that well, inasmuch as it throws into sharp relief the problems the original version had, and just as complex social systems add extra layers of complexity beyond what you bargained for, the layers of nuance added to the Sanity rules make for more complications. More problems.

Also, and this is the really tough bit, by adding more realistic rules for trauma you find yourself in the unenviable position of suddenly gamifying things you shouldn't want to gamify. It leaves the game open to you working out how many Sanity points you might lose from real traumas that might have happened to people you know. At least the original version duplicated (admittedly problematic) pulp fiction "madness". You start creating stats for your friends' PTSD, on the other hand, and it can't end well.
I always liked the Patrick Nagel-inspired art on this edition.
Mike Pondsmith's Cyberpunk games (in their first two iterations) also modelled mental health, but this was, in keeping with themes of the game which were largely ignored by the fanbase, related to the effect of technology on human socialisation.

Set in a future that's datewise already here, Cyberpunk had you as rebels, troubleshooters and outsiders in a future where you could plug your brain into the Net and have parts of your body replaced with futuristic prosthetics, like cyborg arms and eyes. The game had a simple system where you knocked decimal points from your Empathy stat (the one you used to understand or socialise with people) for every cybernetic implant you had.

The lower your Empathy got, the harder it got to deal, eventually, at Empathy 0, resulting in cyberpsychosis, where you had no ability to relate to people at all and no regard for life, and you lost your character. While the specifics of this are very much a sci-fi conceit, I'm personally of the opinion that this was more prophetic than people give it credit for (witness the absolute disregard for human feeling displayed by people of all political persuasions on Twitter. That's right: I said it. Twitter induces cyberpsychosis).

The very first edition of Cyberpunk also has a neat system for simulating how hard it is for an average person to shoot someone the first few times they pick up a gun, which I think Mike Pondsmith never really gets enough credit for. It's one of the great unfollowed threads of role-playing game design.

White Wolf's Wraith: The Oblivion, in which you play restless ghosts trapped in a half world reminiscent of Hellraiser or Jacob's Ladder, takes a really interesting approach to psychological discomfort. In Wraith you are literally opposed to the dark side of your own soul, an independent being of unharnessed id that exists to damn you to a hell of your own making. What's even more interesting (and admittedly dangerous) is that this creature, the Shadow, is controlled by one of the other players, who whispers temptations to your character and tries to get your character to ruin their own life. And you have one too.

The simple fact of this being a second character means that you don't use this as much as you think you will, but it requires a lot of trust between you and the friends you choose to play the game with. The mechanics are complex but essentially the Shadow can drive you under certain circumstances into a sort of Jungian Hell scenario, which you need to solve or be dragged further into the abyss. Again, lose to the Shadow too many times and you risk being dragged into darkness and losing your character altogether.

I like the metaphorical force of this. It's intense and it's definitely not for everyone, but I like how it turns internal conflict into psychodrama. Also, by using metaphors for trauma, internal pain, whatever, it avoids directly tackling these things literally. Still, the fact that the game suggests using safewords to avoid going places you really shouldn't go suggests that they know what you can get into.

I think in the end that psychological distress is one of those things you have to think hard about before you tackle it in any way other than the most shallow. Metaphors are good; sensitivity is best. Tackling it can be cathartic, powerful. It can also be something that, if you're not careful, hurt people, and in a game, an entertainment, that’s something you should always try to avoid.

1Seriously, I have literally no idea why it is such a big deal to put a content warning on your course material/game/whatever. For one, it's like ten seconds of your time. For another, the BBC have been doing this for years with the nine o'clock watershed and the whole "viewers are advised that some scenes might offend" thing they do in front of some shows and movies. Another thing, it's an academic course, it's not like spoilers are a problem. And another thing, it is the opposite of censorship! You still say what you were going to, just that this time, everyone knows roughly what you were going to say and can make an informed decision, and for crying out loud, even if you think the sort of people who ask for trigger warnings are overly entitled snowflake crybabies, it protects you because if they know there's going to be discussion of sexual assault/ violence/ abuse/ racism/ slavery/ misogyny/ whatever, and they still show up and sit through your class and get their PTSD kick in, they can't blame you. You did your part, and they made the informed decision. Why wouldn't you do this? "We didn't use to" is not an adequate argument against anything, and yet it's what all the arguments against seem to boil down to. (back)

2An adventure called "Sufficient Unto the Day" in Worlds of Cthulhu vol.3, if you're interested, which had stuff in it that meant I got referenced in the Cthulhu Mythos Encyclopedia, for what that's worth. By the time it had come out, though, I'd done half a dozen World of Darkness books, easy. (back)

3OK, look, here's something Lovecraft wrote about Hitler. I think his own words are enough for you to make your mind up with:
As for the Nazis-of their crudeness there be no dispute, yet in many ways the impartial analyst cannot help feeling a certain sympathy for some phases of their position. They are fighting, in their naive & narrow way, a certain widespread & insidious mood of recent years which certainly spells potential decadence for the western world-& one can't help respecting that however ugly & even dangerous some of them may appear to be. Hitler is no Mussolini-but I'm damned if the poor chap isnt profoundly sincere & patriotic, it is to his credit rather than otherwise that doesn't subscribe to the windy flatulence of the idealistic "liberals" whose policies lead only to chaos & collapse.
Lovecraft, Collected Letters #621
Make of that what you will. (back)


  1. The only thing I'd argue is that CoC is the way most people hear about Lovecraft. Other than that, this article is greatr!

    1. Thank you :)

      Regarding Lovecraft, I think things are different now, but back in the 1980s, I do think that this was the case a lot more.

    2. I should clarify that. I mean that in the pre-interweb 80s Lovecraft was really obscure, and, even before Re-Animator and From Beyond, neither of which were particularly widely known movies, Call of Cthulhu really was the first introduction to Lovecraft for loads of people, and maybe even the introduction of it into the popular consciousness, and I think that the fact that the schema of outer gods, great old ones and such, and the depictions of Cthulhu, Nyarlathotep and whatever that are most prevalent in the popular consciousness are the ones that reflect the (sometimes painfully literalist) ones in the first few editions of CoC speaks volumes. So while now it's probably true that most people have heard of Lovecraft by other means, if it weren't for CoC 36 years ago, the opportunity to have heard of him might not be there.

    3. The first collection of Lovecraft selected stories in Penguin Modern Classics is called Call of Cthulhu and other stories. The selected stories by Vintage is titled the same. By comparison, the two major collections published by Voyager in the eighties were entitled 'At the Mountains of Madness' etc, and 'The Haunter of the Dark' etc.
      I think that may be significant.

      (That said, I'm told that in the seventies and eighties Lovecraft was much read among the sort of French intellectuals who are a big thing in radical left-wing English departments, and (apart from Lovecraft) only read other French intellectuals of the sort who are a big thing in radical left-wing English departments.)

  2. Oh gods I hate cyberpunk settings that have an empathy mechanic like that. Cyberphobic cyberpunk. What's the point, really? On the larger issue of mental health, it's a touchy subject because there is so much fear and loathing wrapped up in it. I once played a post-apoc character in a zombie setting who had traumatic mutism. People were absolutely terrified by her. It made other players so uncomfortable that I had to resolve (and cure) her mutism much sooner than I intended. It amuses the hell out of me that people are so willing in RP to confront dragons, demons, elder gods, etc., but are absolutely horrified at the very idea of inner demons.

    1. But then, Cyberpunk and transhumanism are kind of opposites: even Neuromancer is basically technophobic (Molly stopping her face being touched for fear of fingerprints on her artificial eyes/renting her body as a sex doll/having razors under hee fingernails are supposed to present her as exquisitely fucked up). So I mean (and I know your opinions on transhumanism are very different to mine) the proposition "technology dehumanises you and that's a bad thing" might not be your jam but it's definitely representative of an important strand of the fiction, one that Mike Pondsmith dug on wholly.

      (That doesn't mean you're wrong to hate it, although my point in Twitter stands.)

      And yes, these metaphorical outer demons are much easier amd much less uncomfortable for people in general to cope with than inner ones, which is why the Sanity mechanic in CoC is so simple, and why the Shadow in Wraith is so great, because it allows very, very dark, troubling things to be dealt with through metaphor (with the right group).


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