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Ravenloft and Unknown Armies: Psychological Accuracy in Role-Playing Games part I July 21, 2009

Posted by symbolicgodzilla in entertainment, psychology, role playing games.
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Okay so I will start off with a dose of ultra-geekiness by discussing two different role playing games as well as psychology.

I have been running a campaign of Ravenloft for Dungeons and Dragons for about three years now and retooling the system as I went. The best thing I did was drop the Ravenloft fear, horror, and madness saves in favor of the sanity meter from Unknown Armies. I have often felt that sanity in role playing games was incredibly inaccurate or incredibly boring resulting in heroes that either don’t respond emotionally to the most difficult and disturbing experiences, have no problem hurting and killing innocent people, or are rendered unable to act in every situation because they are a quivering mess of neurosis.

In Unknown Armies every character has stimuli they react to and each character gets to pick 3:

  • Noble Stimulus – this is what makes the character act on his “better self.” Even villains have these. Maybe the psychotic serial killer likes to help people be freed from oppressionĀ  but it adds some nice dimension. It comes into play whenever the character is trying to help someone or be their “best self.”
  • Rage Stimulus – this is what the character hates and wants to destroy. Maybe he hates the bullies that teased him as a child and this comes into play whenever he is teased or maybe he hates lies and this helps him catch people in them. The key is it is an act of anger and destruction, not a thought out reasoned thing.
  • Fear Stimulus – this is what the character fears and needs to get away from. Maybe he’s afraid of spiders or maybe he’s afraid of looking like an idiot in front of his girlfriend but this comes into play when he is trying to avoid something or run away.

Of course, one person’s rage stimulus is another person’s fear stimulus. You might be afraid of spiders but maybe I just like to squish them. What this mechanic does nicely is it allows a dimension of character specific psychology to impact gameplay and promote the character acting like themselves. In other words, by playing in character and responding appropriately to the stimuli the character gets bonuses on his actions.

I’ve messed around a bit with how it functions in D20.

  • In the original Unknown Armies rolls are percentage based and a low roll is often better than a high roll. Using your stimuli lets you “flip” a number turning a failing 84 into a succesful 48.
  • In D20 I initially used it as a “reroll” so if a character rolls a 1 or fails a roll they can use the stimuli for a second chance provided they are acting in characer.
  • Later on in the same campaign I switched it to provide a +10 on any d20 rolls that was applied after the fact. For example, if a character is trying to jump a chasm as he runs from the spiders he is afraid of and he rolls a 10 but needsĀ  a 20 to succeed, he invokes the stimuli, gets the +10, and succeeds.

I don’t particularly care about any specific one though I noticed the last one had the most impact on player interest. Personally I’m more interested in encouraging players to make their characters act “more like themselves.” I like that the cowardly person who is scared of public speaking is encouraged to avoid the things they’re scared of and attack the things they hate. While it may not be the most realistic in terms of a simulation of physical reality (I don’t generally get a bonus to hurt domestic abusers, which would be my rage stimulus) I think it does encourage a psychological reality in which the characters respond more as characters in a story or as real people to events rather than as “video game characters without hearts.”


It’s been too long July 21, 2009

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It’s been too long but I’ve decided to revive this blog from its crypt and bring it out into the light!

Batman vs Superman? Again? July 29, 2008

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In a recent Least I Could Do comic strip Batman (who has been showing up in the recent strips for some unknown reason) acts childish and beats up Superman… hands down. And he always will (click the image to enlarge):

Batman Comics: Last Moment of my childhood July 14, 2008

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In today’s comic, from Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, the speaker remembers a harrowing experience from his youth:

I remember when Batman died for me. I love the old campy Adam West Batman film and show which really were what first turned me on to comic books. I also loved the dark Tim Burton movies and as I watched them started to see the potential for comic book heroes to be more interesting than just running around with laser vision. The problem was when Joel Schumacher took over Batman. As much as Batman Forever didn’t live up to the earlier potentials, Jim Carrey was a great Riddler and that pretty much carried that film. For me Batman died a little death in the hands of Joel Schumacher’s second outing Batman & Robin which earns the dubious honor of actually being one of the few movies that I have actually turned off and left unfinished. I sat through Ishtar. I sat through The Phantom Menace (though I was on a date with a cute girl which was the main reason I did that). I even sat through The Wash.

I usually have a good eye for picking movies, which is lucky, because it is quite hard for me to shrug off a horrid piece of filth once it is in my dvd player. I at least find enjoyment in campy cheesy films such as American Ninja or Dog Soldiers. So the moment when I couldn’t find any reason to continue watching Batman & Robin, starring my hero of heroes dressed in leather and psychological illness, I akin it to the death of childhood experienced in today’s comic. Christopher Nolan holds in his hands a chance to resurrect that innocence with the Dark Knight Returns. Maybe I’m getting my hopes up to high. I should stop reading the reviews.

Dark Knight is coming to town, like Santa Claus July 7, 2008

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As I have already purchased my tickets to see Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight in IMAX despite the long lead time, I decided it prudent to present a series of comics related to Batman, his friends, his foes, and other masked superheroes with mental issues. The first selection is from Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal (click the image to see the original page):

That evil Joker

If you’d like me to share one you know of, send a link to symbolicgodzilla@gmail.com.

First Review of Dark Knight Returns I’ve Found June 26, 2008

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Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers has managed to see a copy of the Dark Knight Returns and, from how he describes, we should expect it to be closer to your classic Christopher Nolan movie than Batman Begins. To me, the only thing missing from Batman Begins were the twists you get from his other films such as Insomnia, The Prestige, or Memento. I have no plans to spoil any of those with a literary analysis at this point but this summer’s return of Batman may change that and give me a newfound interest in Nolan’s work. Click here to read the review of the film.

Monster movies + scientific advancement + Ridley Scott + a new Dinosaur Comic June 26, 2008

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I used to be convinced of something very similar to what T-Rex is on about in today’s Dinosaur Comic- if only more creatures of darkness donated themselves to science maybe we would have a better world. We could use the powers of the Creature from the Black Lagoon to enhance undersea exploration. We could replace our nuclear power plants with giant Godzilla monsters kept happily penned in on a reservation where we’d only need them to spew their atomic breath into some sort of container every so often. But to keep their menace our monsters need to be kept at a distance and always misunderstood, otherwise they lose their value.

It’d be like Monster Island, without the violence. Here’s the comic (click to enlarge):

Dinosaur Comics Monsters!

The problem with such a scientific refuge is that inevitably the monsters would fight, as has been proven by such fine documentaries as Frankenstein vs. the Wolfman, Godzilla vs. Mothra, and Alien vs. Predator.

Incidentally, Ridley Scott has been quoted as saying that he won’t have an Alien 5 because Alien vs Predator reminds him too much of Jason vs. Freddy, which makes a certain kind of sense. Now that they are battling it out with each other, these alien monstrosities have lost a certain amount of the fear they used to generate from the silver screen. Of course, I played the AVP video game and kept getting killed easily despite playing as an alien so that really killed the “scare factor” of the franchise for me first. Plus, simply the fact of learning too much about how the aliens germinate and spread across space has removed the fear of the unknown that they represented. They’re no longer this incomprehensible alien predator, they’ve become one more space monster to fight. Aliens (the second alien movie) realized this and made it much more of an action movie.

So our monsters, our werewolves, our Godzillas, our aliens need to stay out of the light and need to stay mysterious or they lose the power they represent to us and they cease to reflect our fears. In the light of overexposure, they become cheesy jokes.

A new beverage for happiness June 13, 2008

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Today I felt sad so I sprayed some whip cream into a cup and doused it with Coca-Cola. They say Coca-Cola doesn’t have healing powers but I felt better afterwards.

The end

Religion vs Behavior – which came first? June 10, 2008

Posted by symbolicgodzilla in psychology, religion.
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Well depending on your religious or non-religious beliefs, this question seems pretty cut and dried:

  • If you believe in a creator, the God(s)(esses) created whatever does the behavior
  • If you don’t, man came up with the idea of religion

Over at Cafe Philos, Paul posted a blog questioning how religion impacts the behavior of the individual. He seems to come to a conclusion primarily favoring the idea that individuals interpret religion to justify their behavior, which is something I would not necessarily disagree with. He also acknowledges how the idea is incredibly complex.

Likely the relationship between behavior and religion lies strongly in the idea of confirmation bias, the idea that the human brain will usually interpret new information in a way consistent with their existing belief systems. So if a man inclined to believe that he shouldn’t be forced to pay his debts finds a religion that agrees with this viewpoint, he is more likely to take to that religion than one that encourages exact payment of all money owed. Or, in a more personal example, when an ex-girlfriend of mine decided it was over, she found it comforting that God also confirmed this by speaking to her from the tree in her front yard.

Of course, the religions we are raised with certainly color our own interpretation of events. My slight Catholic background likely causes me to look at religious matters as black and white: either you accept this particular aspect of your faith as true or you don’t, you can’t be unsure. I often find myself arguing with Christians that they aren’t truly Christians since they don’t believe in Jesus Christ dying for their sins.

One could argue that Buddha had such a confirmation bias when he founded Buddhism… the story of Buddha involves him rejecting the established faith of Hinduism till he finds a belief system that he could follow.

Ultimately, we probably choose our religion and our religion chooses us in a complicated chicken-egg sort of cycle that ends with us believing in whatever gives us the most comfort – be it the familiar we were raised with or the radical that allows to think of ourselves as agents of change. What do you think?

The Origins of Humanity’s Superheroes + A Softer World Comic June 9, 2008

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Horne and Comeau’s A Softer World photo-comic recently posted a strip involving the origins of our heroes (click on the image to enlarge):

A Softer World Hero Origins

According to Joseph Campbell and other social anthropologists, the heroes of a culture often reflect the values of a culture. Yet so often our heroes, even as far back as ancient Greece, reflect the orphaning expressed in this strip: Batman, Theseus, Luke Skywalker, even Oedipus Rex. Why is it that humanity requires its heroes to be separated so violently from the family unit? Is it a flaw in the species, a need for adversity, or something deeper? Even Ben Franklin, famed American cultural icon, has separation from his family as an integral part of his “myth.”