Monday 12 September 2016

Inner Worlds #4: In My Power

Mia Sara in Legend, when she gets turned evil (but only for a bit).
Today, my series about the mind and the heart in role-playing games moves outside of things that reflect the real world and into the realm of that sci-fi/fantasy/horror staple: mind control. Some of this I wrote before, in the mail list discussion that made me write these essays in the first place.

Mind control is a thing that you see a lot in genre movies and TV, right.1  Mostly it's done to women, way more than the other way round, which is a whole level that deserves better than this post, so I'll just leave that out there.

Anyway. It only stands to reason that it'd happen in genre bound role-playing games, and it's a weird thing. Because in movies and TV, it's generally done by baddies. In role-playing games, however, these things just as often get put in the hands of player-protagonists, who are just as often the goodies.

OK, real world psychology first. People aren't, notwithstanding what people on internet forums seem to think, software you can program or hack. As I've no doubt said before, I think that one of the biggest and most pernicious myths of liberal discourse on that internet they have there is that you can argue people into changing; that somehow anyone can be brought round to your point of view by arguing enough. In fact, people only come round to your point of view when they are ready to.

I believe very strongly that a change in mind, which I'll frame as an enlightenment although it might be an opposite thing, which could be a religious or political conversion, or a profound spiritual experience, or falling in love, is an intersection between something inside ourselves and an external stimulus. A lot of psychological research has been done on what causes it, and a deal of literary research has been done on how it's described in narrative (and I know that because a teeny tiny bit of that research was by me), but in the end I think it's important to take away that what changes us, changes us because we were ready to be changed. We were ready. A thing inside us, a package of something explosive, needs to meet the thing in the world outside that will detonate it.


The psychological and literary model of this sort of movement that I worked with while I was writing my thesis in the 1990s goes like this:

1. A person has a state of personal struggle and doubt of some kind;
2. the person enters a state of crisis;
3. the person comes into contact with a stimulus which triggers a personal experience;
4. the person rebuilds themself around the thing.

Most people who go through this sort of experience have it once in their life. I have; about twenty years ago, and interestingly although I don't agree with anything of the experience I had back in 1994, I can't gainsay the effect it has had on my life. You can move on, but like any trauma (and good or bad, it's traumatic), it doesn't go away.

Some NRMs ("Cults") and other agencies (a big hi to all the people reading at GCHQ by the way) have allegedly found ways to initiate conversion experiences artificially by creating the distress/crisis/stimulus/reconstruction model through various kinds of social conditions. This isn't how it happens in movies. Yes, it's what we think of as "brainwashing" when we use it in a real-world context. Yes, it's unethical and cynical. But actually it takes weeks and months of social rewards and censures, the recasting of human relationships as carrot-and-stick stimuli.2

Of course, in role-playing games, you can skip all that and cut to the chase, because you have magic.
Number Six gets his head messed with in "A Change of Mind".
Dungeons & Dragons has had this since the start. You walk in on our friend Arg'sh the Goblin, sitting on his chest, minding his business until his shift ends and he can go back to see his kids. He looks up. Before he can do anything, you cast Charm Person. Poor Arg'sh now wants to be your friend. He shares his sandwiches with you. I mean you could have made pals with him properly, but you're in a hurry.

Now originally, the intention of D&D was such that the problematic nature of using magic like this was hidden beneath the fact that it wasn't for that sort of story.

The problems here came when D&D began to grow in depth as well as breadth. It is a long way from casting spells that make Goblins let you through their 10'x10' room and share their food to stuff like the Thrallherd Prestige Class (Expanded Psionics Handbook 3.5e)/Paragon Path (Psionic Power 4e), which is an advanced player character class based upon the theme of having mind-controlled slaves, including at least one who is permanently, completely under your power.

While the 4th edition Book of Vile Darkness calls that class out as quintessentially evil (one of the very few classes it does, actually), the game's studied post-third edition neutrality basically doesn't give you anything to go on other than it just being there. I know (personal anecdote) that there are gamers of 3rd edition D&D who play that class so they can have an imaginary sex slave (no one plays 4th edition apart from me, so I dunno about that version).

Having seen enough OSR and third-party d20 stuff to last me several lifetimes, I think it's fair to say that this is not a concern I am imagining here, or inflating.

And my stand is simply this: I don't want to enable this shit. I mean, yes, I am OK with you playing an evil character in D&D, and in fact even just using the signifier "evil" immediately recasts the way you play the character, and reminds you what you're doing, and it's not the game's fault that some people use it for icky purposes, but I don't want to enable this.

When the games master uses it on the players, or when the players use it on each other: that's a whole further level. I kind of would be inclined to say that it's a violation, and it's right out, only I've actually done it to players myself, only it was players I trusted and it was for the story and oh, sod it. I was out of order, OK. Anyway. I'll get back to this.

The Cell. Is it worse that J-Lo gets turned into a mindless sex slave
or that she has to be rescued by Vince Vaughan, of all people?

In both Green and Red Vampire, you have, among your menu of vampirey powers, Dominate (direct mind control) and Presence (making people want to love you). I think the whole thing I talked about last week where the powers damage your Humanity is the big mitigating factor there.

The other way of doing it is with the Blood Bond. That is, you drink a vampire's blood three times, you're theirs. You are trapped in a terrible co-dependent love for them. This can be weird, and it's explicitly something that can happen to players. An old friend of mine commented last week, reminding me of how one vampire faction in Green Vampire actually has a mechanic where everyone in a group has to share their blood and you determined how in thrall you were to each of your companions both randomly and secretly, and how in play this created all kinds of interesting and strange interactions because you were controlling someone whose feelings were out of control, and you had, if you realised, the opportunity to exploit the feelings of others, which is, I feel, in keeping with the whole personal horror thing.

It requires trust, though. 

A personal anecdote: at the end of one session of Red Vampire that I ran nearly ten years ago, my two vampire PCs, Wayne and Bianca, fell into the clutches of the Melissid hive-queen called the Madonna of the Wasps (a vampire who had a beehive where her lungs should be, and whose blood tasted of honey), and what could I do? So I had them both bound and Dominated and five minutes into the next session I had someone assassinate the vampire that controlled them and free them because I realised that taking away their agency like that was worse than a deus ex machina story element. I thought up something suitably creepy and not mind-rapey afterwards, but I learned my lesson. 
The character art I made of Wayne and Bianca.
I later re-used and adapted the characters in MSG™ because waste not, want not.
I mean, I've also had horror games where one of the PCs has fallen into the clutches of the baddies and I've taken them out of the room and said, look, your character's either dead or possessed, in which case, you'll sell the others out. What would you prefer? And you would not believe the speed at which one of my players has sold out the rest of the group more than once (including her husband), but that only works with people whom you trust absolutely implicitly, and outside of games like Paranoia, isn't something you can do a lot.

I think playing someone under a compulsion or control is OK as long as the player gets the call on what the compulsion is and what the compulsive force wants. So my player who in a Call of Cthulhu game got possessed by Yidhra and in a Cyberpunk game got neurally reprogrammed by a cult simply got told "if you want, you can work secretly for the baddies" and while some note-passing happened, in the end it was entirely up to her what she did and what the baddies wanted. And while some uncomfortable scenes happened, both worked for our group, because we're friends outside of the group, and we've known each other for years, and even so some decompression had to happen. Because the potential for abuse was right there.

And that potential for abuse, right... I think I'm going to have to talk about that next time. 

1For example, Just to show you how prevalent a theme this is, let's just walk across the room and look at the things on my DVD shelf.

OK, so. In classic Doctor Who, certain companions got hypnotised or whatever a lot - Tegan got robotised by a Terileptil and had an ancient snake god possess her, twice; Sarah-Jane got taken over by Eldrad and the Mandragora Helix; and nastiest of all, Peri had her mind erased and replaced with a capitalist slug-monster's (as a kid, that distressed the hell out of me).

In the movie Legend, Lili gets turned evil by a dancing mannequin in a nice dress. In The Prisoner, Number Six gets brainwashed into thinking he's been lobotomised/someone else/a cowboy. In the Aeon Flux cartoon series, people get given creepy artificial consciences that look like metal stick men, that climb in through their tummybuttons. In Hyperdrive, one of the main characters is a young woman who agreed to be turned into a cyborg slave so her student loans would be paid off. (back)

2Rev. Sun Myung Moon of the Unification Church ("Moonies") which was a Big Thing in the 70s and 80s and which got most of the accusations of brainwashing levelled at it, actually openly codified his main method of control: he called it "Love Bombing".

It works like this. You lavish affection on the new member or prospective member, bring them into the fold, make them welcome, part of the family, part of the community, all of that, give them gifts, meals, even a home. All the good feeling makes them receptive to you. They hear you. They take on board what you're saying on a basic level because you are being so lovely to them.

The moment they start asking an awkward question or take one single step out of line, all of that warmth is withdrawn, at a stroke. The immense psychological pressure that this puts on, beyond simple peer pressure, breaks nearly everyone subjected to it (partly because the ones targeted are picked because they're manipulable anyway, but that isn't the whole of it). Most people who actually stay in groups like this long term either stay because they've never had a problem, or, after a couple rounds of it, they've made an unconscious decision that fanaticism is better than exclusion.

This is actually what people mean when they mean "cult brainwashing" but in fact you see it in all sorts of groups, from political activists to mainstream evangelical churches (I can name at least two within five miles from where I'm sitting right now that are repeat offenders, and I've experienced it in its milder forms myself). Internet progressives, people who are supposedly about giving a fair shake to people who don't usually get one, are terrible for this. Terrible. (back)