A Psychological Dissection of Adventuring

Let's start with a hypothetical...

The world is one not so dissimilar from ours...we live our lives in the daily grind, going to school or work, paying bills and taxes, doing our shopping, going out with friends. It's not a bad life, because it's the safe life we've chosen for ourselves.

Let's imagine this world, the one like ours...has few or no cars. Few or no bridges. Few or no guns. Few or no actual roads. Now things are quite different, even if we have all the other modern advancements.

In this world, the quickest way to riches and fame is to venture outside your city or town, and traverse the wilds between settlements, plunder abandoned towns, go beneath the surface of the earth and find the most valuable of things.

To go alone is tantamount to suicide, so you find others. Likely, you happen upon them. They're strangers. Perhaps desperate, perhaps dangerous, strangers. People you have no acquaintance with, who you are about to trust with your life...

This is ridiculous to me. Not because I don't feel you can jump into situations that require yout o trust the person next to you with your life. I know those situations exist. Military personnel cope with that every day.

What is ridiculous to me is that nobody seems to roleplay this. Sure, there might be some "cut glances" while the old man at the tavern tells his newly-assembled dupes his story, but I've rarely seen players (and I'm not saying I'm above this, trust me) interject the psychological hardship that trusting strangers...often strangers of different races/obvious moral outlook/etc...with their lives.

This would be very hard for me, especially if...let's say...I've never met an elf before. What if I'm a yokel that's always heard that the faerie folk were baby-eating monsters, and that elves were just another form of faerie? Am I going to want to sleep with this thing guarding my back? The same could be true of dwarves if I've heard they're drunks, or a halfling will rob you blind, or gnomes have carnal relations with badgers? Those things would likely take you out of your comfort zone.

It's been my experience that most players will just fall into the "Well, here we are!" camp and act as if they were assigned to the group. This might be for ease of gameplay. Hell, it might be an artifact of the groups I've played with, but I want to know why. Is it a side-effect of it being part of a game? Or even it being part of the social gathering. We trust our friends, so why not trust our friends' character?

You've been on the road now for a few days. Your clothes and some of your gear are soaked through. Some of your food was spoiled because it got wet, and you find yourself running a little light on it. Thankfully, one of your group knows how to hunt. In fact, she should have been done and back about 30 minutes ago, according to "the plan."

Just as you rise and are about to tell your other companions that you're going to go find her, a scream issues from a stand of trees nearby, and she bursts from the underbrush, just to be cut down a second later by a tomahawk come whizzing out of the branches. Before you know it, the woods birth a group of grizzled looking savages, all carrying jagged blades and howling for blood as they charge your group...

These are the second and third things I believe would affect our intrepid adventurers: danger and death. The first, depending on magnitude and frequency, could be coped with marginally well. However, submission to continuous violence can have disastrous effects on ones psyche.

Now, I'm not a psychologist, but from what little I do know, I can surmise that continuous bouts of violence can lead to such psychoses as:
Isolationism - Perhaps due to distancing so as to "keep the others safe" when the one affected feels that either they attract the danger or they just don't want to get close in case of one's death, so as to avoid guilt or shame.
Dependency - On one's companions, perhaps feeling that without them, they have no hope of survival, or maybe just to feel safe. More dangerously, however, is dependency on the violence itself. This might be categorized differently, like I said, I'm not versed in the subject. In this case, however, the sufferer feels a need for the danger for one reason or another. Maybe simply to keep the group together.
Hero Complex - Not sure what this is called, but the victim will put themselves needlessly in harm's way simply to fulfill a need to protect those around them, which they perceive as weak. In extreme cases, those suffering from this complex might even create the situations they crave..by attracting enemies to their position, etc.
Explosive Rage Disorder or Intermittent Rage Disorder - The violence causes stressors that trigger violent outbursts in the individual, sometimes having the individual black out, giving rise to even more dangerous situations.

These are just a few of the things that combat can do to a person, and that's not even touching many of the varied symptoms of PTS. Struggle for life and death is traumatic, both physically and mentally, and even moreso (in some cases) is the act of causing or witnessing death.

Many who have served in the Armed Forces who do not wish to talk about their experiences choose not to share due to how much death they encountered when they were at war. This is because even the mention of death can send some people into near-hysterics. Death is a trauma that exacts its toll unlike any other, for it is all-too-often grisly, or brutal, or painful to those who witness it, and can cause quite a few mental problems for those witnessing it, including amnesia, in addition to all those listed before.

Many miles had brought you to this crone, her tattooed, wrinkled skin blending with the tattered, age-stained trappings of her house. Your companion lay stretched before the old lady on a small cot, and the witch had spread what looked and smelled like ground mustard and dill over your companion before beginning to chant and sway above your dead companion.

The corpse was beginning to turn due to travel in the sun, but the old lady gave you better than average odds that your companion could be saved. You had hesitantly agreed to the rite and provided what she needed, though it cost your band most of your take from the last plunder.

With a few rasping hisses, the old lady collapses on the floor, panting, just as your companion rises, as if from a nightmare, clammy and breathing hard. The corpse pallor slowly drains as she and you take in what just happened...

The fantastic, as a whole, is a marvelous and reality-twisting thing, and seeing someone brought back from the dead, in my opinion at least, is even more mind-warping than any other magic or miracle one can see.

Many things, in a natural state, cannot exist...or shouldn't, at any rate. Seeing one of these phenomena, be it a goblin or even the sweetening of tea without the means to do so outside of "magic" can affect the minds of those that witness such things. Someone who is affected by this might become delusional, believing that some magic or another will make everything easier, or even that they, themselves, have the ability to conjure forth such things. Then, there's the chance that fear and paranoia grips them and they either withdraw from the world in order to avoid magic/the fantastic, or they seek to destroy anything and everything associated with it.

Resurrection, reincarnation, and other magics that bring one back from the grave have a slightly different category in my mind. This is a far more serious, fearful, and potentially damaging event than simply seeing light spring forth from someone's hand.

Here, you have the potential for mass hysteria, stemming from those revived, those witnessing it, and those performing the rites to make it happen. One might understand that it is the will of the gods/the might of magic/the power of belief that has performed this miracle, but those involved inevitably have to consider what it was they witnessed. Paranoia might spring up within the arisen person...is it really them at all? A facsimile? Do they now share their body with whatever it was revived them? Have they lost a part of themselves in the process?

Certainly, those others involved will suffer the same thoughts. The one that performed the rite might pay a terrible toll in the form of sanity or their soul as they reach to the very limits of what magic can perform. The formerly deceased's compatriots might question all the things that the arisen has, also. It's a traumatizing event, and one that I think needs more consideration.

I realize this has been slightly rambly, and that perhaps the narrative is unnecessary, but I just wanted to give a picture of what I mean. Some context to what I was discussing, perhaps to allow you, my reader to slip into character and determine just how it is you would feel in those situations.

Racism/xenophobia, the stress of adventuring and the unknown, the realization that magic makes reality a tenuous thing, and of course...death. All these things, I feel are glossed over far too much in gaming, and I would like to remedy that, at least in my games.

The question, then, is how? I would like it to reflect in roleplay more than anything, but perhaps Sanity rules aren't such a stretch in most games, seeing what the average PC has to deal with, in any game. I realize most of my blogging is d20/3.x-centric, but even in Vampire, or Marvel Super Heroes or any other game, should the fantastic not be mundane.

Sorry for the (extremely) long post.


Anonymous said...

Excellent post dude. I think all your points are valid in the context of "we're not in Kansas anymore". The characters from the old D&D cartoon should be pretty traumatized.

Adventurers / PCs on the other hand hail from a world where life can be hard. Death by monsters happen, one could compare it to a vehicle accident in our world.

Ressurection & magic, while fantastic to us, is also something that happens in a fantasy setting, and while it may be uncommon to the average peasant, it still is part of that reality.

As a beginning adventurer, I could totally see someone playing up the "tourist-y" act of Ooohs and Ahhs of seeing new vistas and witnessing amazing events. Trauma would definitely come into play at this point, and could be good for rp moments and charatcer development. The psychoses you list seem pretty accurate to me, but you could research the psychology of the 1st American explorers & settlers, as well as the soldiers from the civil war. The world back then would more closely resemble a fantasy setting (minus the magic of course).

But at the same time, you could compare adventurers to our professional athletes. They've trained themselves, physically and/or mentally to be able to step out beyond the walls and safety of their city or go beyond the borders of their villages. They're expecting to have run-ins with beasts and bandits and know full well that it can be a life & death struggle out in the bush.

So, I could see how a group or relative strangers could start out with a few words of courtesy and set out to do what they've all trained to do. That's their bond that goes beyond their class or race, they're Adventurers. Think of the movie Conan the Barbarian, Conan finds Subatai and they team up, eventually joining with Valeria when they all were breaking into the same place, so I can see that happening in D&D adventures since it's for their mutual benefit to do so.

Now, anyone who lacks that "professionalism" could find themselves left behind in the bush or unable to find others to party with because of that reputation, and can go back to cleaning the stables.

BTW, the narrative bits were awesome.


Buddy Richards said...

Always good to hear from you around here, Josh!

I can definitely see where you're coming from, but what you're saying (and a few others in my game group and out, that I have talked to) isn't really what I picture a 1st level adventurer being.

Yes, there must be a certain level of tolerance (for your party,) courage to face the dangers you've heard of, etc., and some of your group might know how to handle the tools of their trade through training, military experience, or what have you.

I've heard from more than one soldier, however, that training and experience are two vastly different things. I liken the difference as that between someone who has been through modern military training, compared with those poor kids who were sent out with rifle and helmet to fight tanks in WWI. Nobody briefed them, they didn't know their enemy until they engaged, they weren't told about barbed wire hazards...they were pretty much sent to the meat grinder.

I imagine a lot of low-level adventurers to be just that...not necessarily being sent out to their deaths, but most just don't know what's out there.

A rebellious teen can choose to adventure just as easily as an ex-soldier, but only one of them would be bet on to survive more than a day or two.

I guess I'm saying I see more precedence for the green adventurer. I like the idea of normal men and women going out and carving a path through the darkness. This is where I'm coming from, and it seems to be a stance that's hotly debated, not now, mind you, but on the net, in game groups, etc.