If psychological warfare is about really getting to your players and their characters and putting them on edge, the best way to do that is to understand them. Not only will having a deeper understanding of the player characters help you cultivate your players engagement with the game, but it’ll make things more fun for you as you watch both PCs and players grow. So for my final post of psychological warfare month, I want to talk about listening, analysis, and prediction.
I should include a caveat about my gaming experiences. I run two gaming groups, one of which contains some people I’ve been playing with for years, but most of my players are new to rpgs, that is they’ve been playing for less than a year. I love having long conversations with them about their characters’ motivations, but sometimes it can be hard to articulate those motivations, or to reconcile them with behaviour. For example, my friend Matt (of Headshots from the Heart fame) is finding it hard to reconcile his desire to go all Cloud Strife on every enemy he encounters with his character’s heroic intentions. In some situations, his character wants X but he wants Y, and he can’t have both. I love those choices, but they can be a real challenge for players because in pursuing what they want it can mean compromising the character they want to have.We don’t always know what we want, which is why I do my best to understand their characters and help them negotiate these nuances (and exploit them for my personal gain). Unsurprisingly, there are three key strategies to this.
Always listen to the choices the players make. Those choices speak louder than any background they’ve written or story they’ve told. It’s one thing to tell a story about how your character is a hero, but another thing entirely to perform heroic actions in game. This does more than help you figure out how to tug them in a direction or create hard choices. I find that most of the time when players are dissatisfied with their PC it’s because their choices aren’t the ones they envisioned their character making. No PC survives contact with play unscathed, but sometimes the dissonance can be pretty severe, and as a player it can be hard to reconcile those choices. If you’re attentive, you can work with them to find a vision of their character that gets them what they want in play.
Knowing the kinds of choices and the reasons for them is just one step. the next is to make sense of that. I always have two pictures of every PC in my head, the one articulated by the background and story told by the PC, and the one shaped by the choices the player makes in game. The consistency between these varies, but it helps me understand where they’re coming from and why they might do things. I joke about psychoanalyzing people’s characters, but it’s a decent way to think about it. I imagine a lot of hypotheticals, I talk with players about their character’s motivations, and encourage them to reconcile those motivations with actions they’ve taken in-game. These conversations usually start with “It’s interesting that your character did X in virtue of consideration Y” or “I always thought of your character as X, but now I have to rethink them.” There’s never a need to be hostile about it. Intentionally putting people at ease is still psychological warfare.
This is the big one.Once you’ve done enough analysis, you can start predicting what people are going to do. If you can do it reliably for a player or a PC, it’s a great way of funneling them, making them intrigued, or encouraging their participation. For me, it’s also the final piece of the GM mystique, when you really did know they were going to do it all along, just like the magician who knew you’d look left when you should be looking right. Having a strong idea of what players will do next can help me setup interesting chains of situations and have them go off, or understand the outcomes of hard choices before they do, so I’m better prepared for what comes next. The best thing about players is that they’ll still surprise you. For me, those are the best times.
So that’s psychological warfare month. How to mess with people, how to scare them, and how to listen to them. The most important thing I think I can say to close it out is that I do all these things openly. I’m not giving away trade secrets. They know I’m paying close attention to their choices and using them to draw conclusions, that I’m bothering their space and pushing them to explore their boundaries. They also know that if asked to stop, I stop. I don’t torment characters, most players will do that themselves given the opportunity, I just work to create real feelings of dread, tension, mystery and uncertainty, and get to enjoy the magician’s mystique while I’m at it. If you roll this way, let me know in the comments. If you don’t, I’m just as interested in hearing how you manage elements like mystery and horror, because you’ve definitely got something to teach me.