Guest post: Matt Pennington on drugs, roleplay and validation.

Matt Pennington of Profound Decisions is prone to posting wisdom in Facebook comment, and it has mildly irritated me in the past that the transient nature of comments means that wisdom is lost. He did it again today, and I’ve asked if I can post it here. All that follows is his words, verbatim.

“We did plan to do drugs for Empire – and we still may – but they ended up falling through the design gaps which was a shame. I think there are some fascinating things to say about LRP drugs – to do with ideas around the powers of auto-suggestion/self-hypnosis.

Basically there is a simple argument against lammied drugs in a LRP game that says “why bother with the lammy – people can just roleplay it”. Now of course with most lammied drugs in Maelstrom – the only effects were roleplaying ones – there’s nothing left once you say “just roleplay it”. From a purely gamist perspective Maelstrom drugs were the perfect example of something that could not – under any circumstance work. You pay me to obtain a piece of plastic that says “pretend you’re high”… There’s nothing stopping you pretending you’re high without the bit of plastic – and the plastic says “pretend you are having an enjoyable experience you are not actually having”. Any game effects were always negative for your character pretty much – it shouldn’t work – it shouldn’t sell.

And yet they did sell – in droves. We produced quite literally tens of thousands of them – 36809 to be precise…

For me the effects of the drugs lammies work on at least three levels.

Firstly the card has a liberating/self-validating effect. Roleplaying is inherently silly – we pretend we are goblins in a field casting spells at each other. It’s plainly ridiculous. Pretending you are high and ham acting it out takes the silly to a whole new level. So most folk find that inherently difficult to do. We want to do it – it’ll be fun – but we feel to silly. It’s like you’re fourteen and at the school disco. You want to ask the girl to dance… but you’re socially inhibited.

The card removes the inhibition – now I’m not personally invested in the decision to act the fool – because the card has removed that decision for me. It validates the choice by handing the responsibility for acting in that way to an external authority. Anyone who has studied the sceptic literature on stage-hypnosis may see parallels between the processes here.

See wikipedia for a basic primer of the ideas that stage hypnosis is basically bollox – that the people are simply choosing to have fun pratting around on stage because the hypnotist has removed the social inhibition that would otherwise make that impossible.

The next two effects are even more fascinating. My personal experiences is as someone who has never taken a single recreational drug of any kind ever. I’ve never been high – but I’ve also never been drunk – or even inebriated. But I’ve observed a simple and easy to replicate experience – that alcohol provides what economists call a “positive externality” ( Basically I have more fun when people around me are drinking…

We’re a profoundly social species – we’re pick up on the social cues of our fellow animals and we respond and reflect those cues. Mobs form because once half a dozen people think having a riot is a good idea – most people around them are swept up in the euphoria of the situation. When people around us are happy, we pick up on it and it makes us feel better. Of course there are exceptions – but we’re talking about the way the group respond to the groups’ actions – in this context individual responses are somewhat irrelevant.

It’s not just positive emotions. When I was teenager I experimented with seances. I got pretty bored – because nothing happened – so I started pushing the glass. There is a lot to say just about that – but the interesting bit is what happened one week when we asked the “spirit” if it was “at rest” and I decided to push the glass over to no. Immediately the room went cold – even the cat was spooked. We continued for a couple of questions and then we stopped because we were too frightened to continue. And what was absolutely fascinating to me was that I was absolutely terrified. I was as petrified as everyone else in the room – even though I knew with 100% certainty that it was me pushing the glass and faking the whole thing. I was terrified because I’m a human being and I’m designed/supposed to be scared when surrounded by human beings who are scared – it’s a survival trait in case they know something I don’t.

So if you imagine a group of characters taking a Maelstrom drug – and then acting out being high – or whatever with each other. Firstly we would expect some stage-hypnosis effects where individuals compete with each other to be the most over-the-top – and that’s fun for the participants for the same reason it’s fun for people hamming it up on the hypnotists stage. But the second thing we might expect is a sympathetic group response – I know I’m faking it – but my mood empathy doesn’t know that everyone else is faking it. They’re having a great time… so that feedbacks on my mood also. It might be a stupid bit of plastic – but now I’m getting an actual high from it – from the feedback of the response of the people around me.

The final level of effect is even simpler. There’s plenty of research to show that if you smile – it makes you feel better. In effect there are autosuggestion effects that take place where – if you act out feeling something – your body responds by making you feel that thing. It’s like our body has some kind of positive feedback mechanism designed to enhance and promote these feelings. Again that’s not surprising from an evolutionary point of view – I would *expect* a positive feedback mechanism to support the generation of states like fear – if a lion appears in front of you, it’s not a lot of use if it takes you fifteen minutes to get really afraid of it – the response needs to be powerful and quick if it’s to be any use.

So the lammy provides the validation – the ref ruling says “you should have fun pretending to be high and not feel silly about it”. Then autosuggestion, placebo and the group provides us with a feedback mechanism that actually makes that fun. I’m not for one moment suggesting that the drugs were as effective as real world narcotics obviously – that would be silly – but I think the successes of the drugs in Maelstrom indicate that they were more effective than giving someone a lammy that said “Now you feel high” had any right to be.

Validation is a very powerful concept in LRP. We often talk about “NPC validation” – the need that players have for an NPC to tell them “You should definitely do that”. I used to think of NPC validation as the great evil of LRP – something to try and dismantle at any price – but I’ve come to see validation as a more general principle. The whole game, the setting, the rules, the refs, the other players, *everything* works together to validate the behaviour of the players. Some things provide more powerful validation than others. A ref is more powerful than a lammy – a lammy is more powerful than a rule in a rulebook – and so on. And actually the need for NPC validation is a problem – if the difficulty in providing it gets in the way of players having a good time. But validation by itself is a great thing – what matters is that players roleplay and have fun – anything that encourages them to do that is a good thing. If validation helps – well fuck I’d walk round the site and personally validate every Empire player on the field’s actions.”

Comments are closed.

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: