Wednesday, 23 October 2013

A Little bit of Housekeeping

First up, I'd like to point out the tabs at the top of the page. Yesterday I set up a new one to go alongside the Further Reading page as a resource listing Games that feature madness either mechanically or thematically. I intend to keep adding to both these lists and will gladly take suggestions for titles I've missed. The games page doesn't have links because primarily because choosing a definitive resource on each title seems somewhat too subjective, but again I'd be willing to put something in if enough people shout.

Secondly, it's in the further reading tab, but if you found my take on Depression Quest interesting then you might also like this take by The Orts. I don't agree with everything it says, especially the slight anti-psychiatry stance that seems to push the, in my mind false, dichotomy between treating mental distress as illness and treating it as a part of your inviolable self. But it does say a lot of stuff that I agree with, and that I would say myself, and it does so more eloquently and more academically than I'm capable of.

Thirdly, the latest issue of the as-always excellent Memory Insufficient is on Disability and Games History. Of the three essays two are primarily focused on issues of mental health, while the third encompasses it in its overview of disability as a concept, and so the issue will be of particular interest to anyone who reads this blog. A couple of confessions: editor Zoya Street's article on sanity rules in D&D does reference this blog, and I did intend to write a piece for this issue but couldn't get an angle I was happy with sorted out in time for the deadline.

(I was planning on taking a look at how the merit and flaw system popularised in the World of Darkness games deals with disability by both quantifying it but also systematically compensating for it by allowing players to buy unrelated bonuses but I didn't get much father than 'that's really quite reductive' which is pretty un-interesting really, because roleplaying rules literally are attempts to reduce complex realities into a system.)

I have a few brief responses to the articles in the issue which I'll lay out here. I though it was interesting that in general all the essays worked within a conceptual framework in which the DSM and psychiatry are essentially synonymous. This is a common position and a useful shorthand, especially for some of the points being made about medicalization and normativity but, as I discussed here, I think things are more complicated than that and I sometimes worry that this shorthand can become a self-limiting axiom. I don't think this impacts on what the articles have to say in any significant sense, and I may also be reading it in wrongly, but I think as a critical position it might be worth bearing in mind.

I have to admit that I've never played with the rules from Unearthed Arcana, so as far as I was aware the only sanity system in D&D was that developed for Ravenloft. I will have to read into it some more. In some ways that just goes to show how large D&D is as an entity, as well as the scope of its ambition as a system. (Are there any sanity rules for the explicitly universal systems like GURPS or Rifts/Palladium? There must be, although I've only ever read the core rulebooks for either of those.)

Zoya Street's take on D&D is probably harsher than mine, I was quite pleased to be described as 'even-handed' as I sometimes worry I get too polemical, but I suppose my problem is that I've always thought D&D to be self-evidently a terrible system. That's not to say I don't enjoy it as a game, just that in some ways that enjoyment was hard won and involved a lot of ignoring the really stupid bits. The article also reminded me of the tribalism in RPG circles, where people are wedded not only to systems, but to the primacy of those systems' representational models.

D&D, and AD&D especially, is never going to describe anything realistically, or allow you to play or explore any concepts in a realistic manner, because as a project it is about imposing the D&D mathematical model onto those concepts and not the other way around. While this is not to say that it shouldn't be called out for doing so, which is something Street does very well, I suppose my position is that it can only be understood in the light of this dynamic. One day James Wallis will finally publish FRUP and I'll be able to point at it and go 'look, this is what you have done - this is the world your slavish rules-lawyering has implied.' Until then you'll just have to take my word for it.

And finally, I recently wrote a piece for The Ontological Geek about horror in roleplaying games. I looked at where horror is located and how game systems, including sanity systems, can mediate and generate that horror. It isn't strictly about mental illness but I hope that my rule-happy readers will find it interesting. The Ontological Geek is running a horror month at the minute and I heartily recommend having a look at what is coming out of that.


  1. This is a great response, thank you! I honestly don't know where I personally stand on the tribal divides that come out on the piece, and it's interesting to hear more about the depth and significance of those divides.

    L. Rhodes tweeted that it's fun to go through the piece and replace 'D&D' (or 'DMG') with 'DSM' and I'm definitely curious about those parallels. I don't think it's something I could explore very well myself, because I don't have enough background in these issues. But especially with so much talk around games being good at representing systems (e.g. that Merrit Kopas piece is getting a lot of traction) it would be interesting to draw out what happens when abstract systemic representations don't do what we might want them to -- be that in games or in diagnostic guides.

    Having said that, I don't think it's always about accuracy of representation. There seemed to be a conflict in the sources about the nature of what we're even trying to model. D&D seems to be built for assessing capacity to fight, whereas some players seem to want to model interesting psychological journeys. In that sense it reminded me of my own difficulty navigating the mental health system in the UK and the US. e.g. the NHS is built for getting you back to work and not much more than that.

    Again, I don't think I'm the best person to properly explore that parallel, but it's something I'd love to learn more about one day.

  2. It's a funny one, because we (me, here, included) tend to use tribalism in a slightly pejorative sense, but actually it's driven by social and economic factors. Buying a new set of rules and then learning them can be costly in both time and money, and requires the consensus of the whole group who may all have different aims for the game. That's where I think the tension you identified in the sources emerges, as people start to want to do more with a world they may have invested years in or which they can't functionally leave, but utilising the unsuitable toolbox that governs that world.

    I think the comparison between the DSM and D&D is an apt one too, they are both characterised by a rigid and essentialist worldview that places category above individual. Similarly, both attempt to cope with nuance by complicating their models and adding exceptions rather than stripping them back to first principles.

    And thanks for replying, and for the great article (and issue) in the first place.