Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Gaslighting, Agency, and Continuity

                I was thinking today about continuity. My initial thoughts were not, initially, in the narrative sense of continuity, but in the sense of our frame of existence. Aside from memories and physical evidence, we have no way of verifying if events in the past actually happened. Normally, this isn’t a concern, memory and physical evidence is more than enough. Those facts change when it comes to games.

                When a game starts, players typically have a back-story for their character and then the GM sets the scene. Back-stories represent an individual character’s memories of the past and the current scene is, in effect, the present. As play progresses, especially if the GM improvises, individual scenes lose some details, the degree of which depends on the group’s memories. I’ve lost notes before and the names or descriptions of NPCs change as I’m forced to improvise the local bartender again.

                A tactic I’ve used in horror or suspense gaming is something called Gaslighting. Now, in the real world, this is a pretty horrible thing to do to someone. In the context of a game, it can help put the players on edge, something I think good horror roleplaying needs. As an aside, there is a very fine line when using tactics like this on your players. I would never condone, for example, using spiders to scare an extremely arachnophobic player. Horror roleplaying is fun in the same way a horror movie is fun. The players want to be scared, but there is a breach of trust if you use information you know about your players to upset them. Nevertheless, I digress.

                Gaslighting, to put it simply, is subtle manipulation of information in order to have people question their senses and their memory. The players are entirely reliant on the GM for information about the game world, barring any notes they take. Take the local bartender I mentioned earlier, for example. If I say in one scene that the bartender’s name is Rachel and in then, in the next session mention Rory the bartender that can either be a mistake in continuity or deliberate. If the players are a particular location looking for clues, or something similar, changing small details can serve to heighten the tension. If I mention a brass bell on a blue ribbon, and then later, describe the ribbon as black, this can throw players off. If you use this tactic, use it subtly and sparingly. Using it too much robs the players of their agency. For that matter, using it at all robs the players of agency in a small way.

                When you change information intentionally, your players cannot act on information previously given. If I say that a room has a door on the left, right, and center players choose a course of action based on that information. If I change that detail by removing the center door, this invalidates an option that the players might have picked. This violation of player agency can, if done right, put your players on edge. Their memories and the physical reality of the world don’t match up. Do it too much and it’s more annoying than anything else.  

                Now, I brought up back-story before for a reason. I wouldn’t recommend directly contradicting or changing anything in a player’s back-story. They put in the effort to bring material to your table, even if they’re the only one informed by it. By altering it, you are again, violating both the trust of your players and their agency. As GM, you are allowed a certain degree of editorial control of the content of the material your players bring to the table, but that is something you work out with the player, hopefully before the first session even starts. 

A way to manipulate the information your players bring to the table without cheapening their efforts is to change the context. Work with the material the players include in their back-stories to create narrative twists and turns. Don’t contradict any facts your players create, but write material to cast those facts in a different light. 

In terms of campaign structure, you can use manipulation of facts as the basis of a game. Completely invalidating the advice I gave earlier, separate your player’s back-stories into discrete events. Sort these events into two categories, factual and non-factual. With these details, you create a horror or investigative plot in which the mystery is the character’s own back-stories. With this set-up, you are not only engaging with the materials your players create, but also making it the focus of the game. I wouldn’t spring this kind of game on your players, make sure their okay with it first, possibly by trying some other tricks involving back-story first.

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