Four types of psychological depth

With regard to the kind of indie RPG that is unsuited to long 'campaigns' - think of My Life with Master, The Mountain Witch or Polaris - I have often heard people say that this does not appeal to them, because they need several sessions in order to 'get into' their character, and thus long campaigns to fully enjoy roleplaying him or her. Every time I heard this, I thought of the cardboard characters I had played in my longest games and the powerful, deep characters I had played in short, narrativist indie games, and I dismissed these complaints. This was foolish. Instead, I should have wondered whether there are not different types of characterisation, different ways to give a character what I might call 'psychological depth'; and different playing styles and games that allow us to create this kind of depth.

I will now present four types of psychological depth. This typology is probably not perfect; it is almost certainly not complete. But perhaps it can serve as a starting point for discussion.

A. Choice made difficult by internal tension

The character must make a choice between two or more options all of which she would like to make, but because of different kinds of reason. For instance, a mother who loves both her honour and her children must choose between the two (Medea); a boy must choose between fighting for his country or caring for his old mother (Sartre's famous example). We get to learn the character because we see her in a situation in which she must show which of her important drives is the strongest one. We get to learn the character because we see her in a situation in which she must decide who she really is.

This kind of psychological depth is exactly what the majority of current narrativist designs give us. Sorcerer, Dogs in the Vineyard, The Mountain Witch: all of them are designed to provoke this kind of choice. It is especially suited to shorter games, as the tensions within the character tend to resolve themselves. (But think of The Shadow of Yesterday: its system of buying-off and buying keys is a way of resolving and setting of new tensions.) Play is often dramatic; the characters larger than life, 'literary' characters, bigger and sharper versions of ourselves. We may feel for them, but we could not be them, and we probably do not love them.

B. Changes through external experiences

The character experiences things that cannot possibly leave her unchanged. A child watches her mother die? A curious librarian researching a bizarre cult almost comes face to face with Cthulhu himself and goes half mad. We get to learn the character not because of the choices the character makes, but because of learning of the powerful experiences she has had. We now know the person as 'the girl who watched her mother die', and will understand everything else she does in the light of this knowledge of her psyche. By knowing her history, we understand the current workings of her mind.

This type of psychological depth would be catered to by games involving (1) relatively long campaigns, and (2) a system that somehow encourages players to play their characters with a regard to previous experience. A game like Call of Cthulhu, with its sanity statistic, comes into mind, although it is relatively one-dimensional in this respect. One could use the fallout-techniques of Dogs in the Vineyard to achieve something much like this. Note how this type of psychological depth is not facilitated by The Shadow of Yesterday, where keys vanish without a trace.

C. Moments of openness

The character open her soul to you, as it were, in a moment of friendship, love and therefore vulnerability. It is the RPG equivalent of a late night conversation with a good friend, in which you speak of fears, hopes and desires that remained hidden for years. We get to learn the character because she drops the walls that always guard adult personalities, and allows us a chance to see her as she really is. We get to learn the character at the very moment she makes it possible for us to love her with all her faults and weaknesses (all love implies the possibility of pain).

The game that immediately comes to mind is Breaking the Ice, with its brilliant mechanics that force the characters into revealing their vulnerability, thus becoming more like us than any epic character could ever be. It is also the kind of psychological depth that my playtests make me believe Shades can offer its players. My Life with Master is an interesting case: it has strong elements of A and C and combines them by making the conflicting forces in the minion's psyche all types of vulnerability (Weariness, Self-Loathing, Love).

D. Lengthy observation

The character slowly reveals herself to us because we observe her for a long time. She makes no particularly revealing choices; she has no harrowing experiences that scar her forever after; and she does not open herself to us in a moment of love and vulnerability. Instead, we just get to know her by seeing how she reacts in many different situations; and although we may feel that we do not really know her inner thoughts and counsels, there is nevertheless an important sense in which we know her well. Make no mistake: this is the way we know most people in real life.

Interestingly, designing for this kind of psychological depth involves the following two things: (1) the system should facilitate long games, (2) the system should not facilitate A, B or C too much. Why not? Well - A, B and C will tend to interfere with D, by tempting us to interpret the characters actions in the light of the insights they have given us. That doesn't mean that D can't be combined with A, B or C, but the others need to be restrained in order to let this one flourish.

This kind of psychological depth, then, might be most easily achievable by games such as Dungeons and Dragons, GURPS, World of Darkness, and Das Schwarze Auge, all of which offer long games without too much focus on existential choices, life-changing experiences or moments of openness. I find this counterintuitive, but pleasing.


  1. Hey Victor,

    I disagree with you about The Shadow of Yesterday not facilitating B): When you buy off a key, it's still a part of the character's history, and the buy-off is the change in her character.

    Especially if you use the points you get from the buy-off to take a new key, like I did in our game when I gave Helouise the Key of the House.

    Also, I'm not entirely sure D) is the form of psychological depth you get in the traditional games. From my experience with D&D and DSA, it's not. We know exactly what responses we get from certain characters, but it's not because they're well-developed over time, but because they're caricatures.

  2. Hi Jasper,

    What you say about The Shadow of Yesterday is true, of course. But the reason I don't want to say that the game actually facilitates B is that nothing in the rules makes it more likely that bought-off keys remain important in play. They may continue to come up; the character's past may inform our current judgement; but this is not because the rules help this to happen.

    As for D, you are right again. So we would have to add something: the game system should (1) encourage lots of different situations to occur, and (2) discourage stereotypes. I do think that many people play the games I mentioned that way; although I can see how you could doubt this. D&D played as a dungeon crawling game evidently does not fulfill the first criterion; and I suppose any game that uses personality traits or strong racial stereotypes fails to fulfill the second. Nevertheless, I think D is easier to get with D&D than with Breaking the Ice, The Mountain Witch or even The Shadow of Yesterday. Would you agree with that?

  3. If you put it that way, sure. But like you said, I doubt a lot of people play D&D or DSA that way.

    However, I did mean "caricatures" instead of "stereotypes": I'm talking about flat, two-dimensional characterization here. A dwarf may behave like the stereotypical dwarf, but that's not necessarily so. However, after we've observed him for a while, we know exactly how he behaves in certain situations.

    It's like Homer in the Simpsons. We know what he'll say when he sees a donut: "Mmmm... Doh-nut..."

    That's two-dimensional characterization. The character is familiar, we know him, but it's not psychological depth.

    And I'm not sure you can design a game that doesn't allow for these caricatures without doing your A, B, or C. In order to make a game system that actually facilitates D, it shouldn't allow for this sort of caricature. I don't think that's possible.

  4. Well, it should discourage caricatures, at least. I'll think about ways to actually do that.

  5. Victor, I just realized my problem with D.

    A, B, and C lead to 3-dimensional characterization. They not only let us know the character, they make sure there is psychological depth there. D doesn't do this. Observing the character doesn't necessarily make it less shallow.

  6. So I'm trying to think about D, and Star Trek TNG keeps popping in my head. At first glance, that show seems to fulfill what your describing--we know the characters because we watch them week after week, and there's no dramatic change episode to episode or (debatibly) season to season.

    But then I think about it more it and realize that A, B, and C still happen within the show. The characters face tough choices, experience dramaic external situations, and have moments of openness. There aren't dramatic changes in the characters show to show, like we see in Dogs or The Mountain Witch, but nonetheless they experience the same sort of siuations.

    What I'm tempted to say, which we could debate, is that we only know the characters because of these moments and choices. That would mean D was really an illusion. D is really just low-intensity A, B, & C.

    I'm trying to think of an example to support this, and the best I can come up with off the top of my head is that Asian nurse on ST TNG. She has a decent amount of screen time, but we never really get a good sense of who she is. But she's a bad example, as most of the time she's just a prop.

    Looking over this post, I'm think I'm just elaborating on what Jasper said. What do you think?

  7. I meant to post to this back when this first came up since the post is very clever and articulates some stuff I've been thinking about recently, but it looks like Tim said what I was going to.

    I think that he's dead on: while A, B, and C are three (possibly synergistic) ways of demonstrating character depth, D is something else altogether. The time component is important, it provides context.

    That is, A, B, and C are powerful (at least to some degree) in that they contrast with the expected.

    So, character choices are made difficult by internal tension, and that tension is hightened if we've had chances to see the two opposing sides when they are unopposed. Medea's situation is more powerful if it is demonstrated beforehand that she loves her children and her honor. Often we just say that she does as part of setup, but that violates the 'show, don't tell' thing.

    Changes through external experiences can happen in the short-term in the same way that internal tension can: declare how you are now (tell, don't show), have a major experience, then declare how you are after it (again, tell don't show; MLwM endgame fits here, I think). But having time to really show the old way, and really show the new way is, I think, a powerful thing.

    Interestingly, moments of openness are the only one of these three that I do not feel is intimately tied to time. These are powerful in-and-of-themselves in roleplaying just as they are in real life. (Consider that time when you met someone, hit it off, and your first conversation was one of those late-night open ones.)

    This is all rambly, so I'll shut up now. But I do think there's a lot of interesting stuff here.



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