Using Disney’s “Frozen” to build sanity mechanics

On the surface, Frozen can’t quite compete with Disney classics like Aladdin and The Lion King: the songs aren’t as good, the story lacks epic punch and it’s all a bit twee at times. On the other hand, it has very strong, likeable characters, two women in the leads, an entirely non-conventional love story and enough emotional depth to make it interesting to adults. All of those things make Frozen add up to something more than the sum of its parts and it’s become a new Titanic: a staying-around widely-appealing juggernaut that you might end up seeing even if you have no desire to.

So if someone has dragged you along to Frozen and you’re drumming your fingers on the arm-rest, relax, I’ve got you covered. You can watch the movie as a clever demonstration of what’s called Schema Theory, a popular tool of modern psycho-analysis and you can then use your newfound understanding of that to add really interesting and realistic. Now, I’m not saying that Frozen was written with Schema Theory in mind: like a lot of good fiction, it keeps its metaphors general, so they have wide appeal. But Schema Therapy is a wide therapy, so it works.

(If you do want to watch the film first, I’ve avoided spoilers).

So one of our two protagonists is Elsa, a girl born with the power to create ice and snow and coldness (it borrows much from Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Snow Queen’). As a young girl, this power leads to Elsa injuring her younger sister Anna and the reaction of her parents causes Elsa to be taught to repress her power as much as possible. Eventually, however, she can’t repress any longer and lashes out. Then, fearing the damage this has done, she isolates herself from everyone else. The chief substance of the film is her younger sister’s journey to find her and resolve the issue, and I won’t spoil it any further, because that’s all we need.

Schema Theory is an expansion of cognitive theory of mind, which basically says that we tend to think things before we feel things, and it is the thoughts we have that actually transform or even malform our feelings before they reach our minds. You have a slice of cake and before you can even get the sensation of enjoying the cake it’s hit your thought of “I’m so fat and ugly” and a simple, unloaded event like a slice of cake becomes excruciating as emotions of guilt and shame explode without you noticing the thought even happened. Schema Theory simply expands on cognitive therapy by identifying key over-arching statements which govern our whole lives – they are the “schema” through which we view almost everything. Elsa’s Schema is “By my very nature, I’m a threat to those I love”.

Schema Theory also identifies three ways we as humans deal with our Schema. The first is Schema Surrender, where we give into what the Schema tells us, to excess and indulgence. The second is Schema Avoidance: we don’t ever want to have the schema’s thoughts triggered, so we remove ourselves from anything that might trigger it, sometimes subconsciously sabotaging ourselves as a result. The third reaction is Schema Overcompenation, where our obsession with never proving the Schema true causes us to act in the opposite direction as much as possible, such as over-achievers who are driven by a sense of their own failure.

Elsa begins the story with Schema Overcompensation. She becomes borderline OCD, as she uses rituals such as wearing gloves constantly to remind her to keep her powers in check. She takes no risks, she double checks everything and tries to make everything perfect and flawless. She also practices some Schema Avoidance in staying isolated from her sister as they grow up. However, events continue to push on Elsa until she encounters things she cannot control. She immediately snaps and switches to Schema Surrender. We all know this moment in monster transformation stories, it’s the bit where the persecuted decides if he is being treated like a monster, a monster he will be. Elsa’s Surrender is quite short, though (which is what’s nice about this movie, the reactions aren’t over the top) and she immediately reverts to Schema Avoidance, by running away.

As she climbs into the mountains, she sings a song about how, without anyone around, she can finally let her powers go and be herself. It’s a joyous song but also cut with sadness because it reflects how trapped she’s been but it’s also no solution. In fact what it is more surrender to her Schema: now alone, she can let the powers explode out, but because it’s only on the condition of being alone, it ends up just reinforcing the Schema. As indeed, all three methods do: they all work to confirm the Schema in our heads, because Schemas want to survive, and will do everything they can to do so.

So now we understand Schema Theory so well thanks to the wonder of Frozen, how do we apply it? A lot of sanity mechanics in RPGs use similar kinds of concepts – Call of Cthulhu and Unknown Armies have small chips which whittle us away, but also big breaks that drive us off the rails. Plenty of modern RPGs have belief statements and the like. So it all fits in pretty easily. You can adapt existing mechanics, or simply add these in, but here’s my take:

Give every player a Schema (or perhaps let them take one as a Flaw.) They should sum it up as a statement, written as widely as possible so they can apply it to everything they do. It’s a great way to help roleplaying even just like that. Now, the player chooses which of the three methods they use to deal with their Schema. For the most part, Avoidance or Overcompensation work well, because we’re used to Surrender being the “limit break” one, and because Surrender often impedes adventuring, but Surrender can work as a standard (for example, your belief could be that you are made only for killing, so you wander the wilderness fighting monsters). Also, you’re going to want a number associated with the belief. If you want your game to be all about people falling off the wagon, make it something easy to fail, maybe 60-70%, if you want less focus on that, set it around 90%. You’ll have to figure out how to model that in your particular system, I’m using percentages because they’re clear and easy.

Now, every time something threatens the Schema or how you deal with it, you make a roll on that number. So Elsa’s method is “Control everything” so as soon as there are lots of things she can’t control, she starts rolling. Our barbarian with the “I’m a killer, nothing else” Schema Surrender starts rolling as soon as he hits civilisation and has to talk to people. If you pass the roll, you stay with your method – Elsa stays in control, our barbarian starts a fist fight and gets thrown in jail. But even if you pass, you weaken that number. Drop it down by 5% or so. The Schema is still just as strong, it’s just you’re running out of emotional strength by trying to hold the Schema in place. You could also model this with a drop of Willpower or some other mechanic, as long as that is also tied to the Schema rolls.

Eventually, as your ability to hold onto your method gets lower and lower, you will inevitably fail the roll. At this point, you dramatically switch dealing methods. In Elsa’s case, she flips to Schema Surrender. In our barbarian’s case, he flips to perhaps Avoidance (“Chained in a jail is all that is fit for a monster like me”) or Schema Overcompensation (“I shall become a monk and relinquish the blade forever”). This status is rarely stable, so reset the Schema to maybe half its original value. Eventually, they’ll crash again, and flip back to how they started, or something similar. And then reset the value to its original value.

Remember that value is simply how well the character can hold to his method. You might like to weaken it with each flip too, as some people descend into purge/binge cycles on a roller-coaster schedule. Or you might strengthen it with each flip, so the character becomes more and more resolute about their dealing method…but however high it starts, they will still wear it away over time as they run out of emotional strength.

You can add mechanics for rebuilding that strength through enriching activities, but it is still strength in maintaining a dysfunctional approach to life. Building in mechanics to lessen the hold of the Schema will have to do with how you like your rules for getting rid of Flaws. Another possibility is simply modifying the extremeness of the actions taken, to lessen the impact of the Schema. Elsa stops trying to control everything, but remains very focused on detail, until she flips out and has to take a big time out from other people. Our barbarian takes power from his gift of killing and does it often and then occasionally grows melancholy and too soaked in blood. This also allows you to differ between minor and major Flaws, if your system does that – by playing around with how much the Schema controls behaviour (somewhat/greatly/entirely) but also how much the subsequent behaviour affects the character, their lives and those around them (just a quirk/hindering/dangerous/deadly). As above, you may also tune these to your genre and the focus of your stories.

And there you have it. Works in any system, and now you can all go mad and run up the mountain sometimes.


Why We Don’t Read the Comments

Once upon a time there were people who – seriously – thought the internet would be a bastion of communication and that comments under works and articles would lead to a powerful new field of discourse. Recently, this idea has surfaced again, as has the suggestion that “don’t read the comments” is somehow a statement of tolerance, as if to suggest that by not reading them we are accepting the idea that they are going to be full of hate, and we’re okay with that. It’s not that we’re okay with it, but that there’s no other way it can be, and it’s got nothing to do with how polite we are so much as the limits on human communication capabilities.

Work with me here.

For the main chunk of our one-million-years-ish of being humans, we existed in relatively small tribal groups, like less than a hundred. Our communication abilities were designed to work in our tribe, and anyone who was outside our tribe and over the hill was anathema. Not only did we not talk to them, but we were able to see them as the Other so much we could crack their heads open with stones and dance on the pink goo within. And with sound reason: they said things we couldn’t understand like river runs fast all year when we knew river froze solid every year, duh, dude, do you even weather?

Even as we built up written language and increased travel and communication our cultures have remained fairly insular in so far as what words mean. There is only so far we can stretch our mind to be able to communicate with other people. We can imagine how someone might come to a certain viewpoint, but not fast enough to talk to them. We agree on the meaning of lots of words but we just can’t always work across cultures. Different words mean different things to different people, even if they are both using English. Indeed, sometimes we deliberately changed the meanings of words to raise up cultural and political barriers.

And the thing is, we tend to see culture first before we see content. Before we can evaluate if river runs quickly all year we ask ourselves, did people from south say that, or someone we can trust? It’s an instinctual thing and it runs into the kind of words we use, making those words mean different things and make our underlying beliefs shift.

And over the history of humanity only two things have really challenged this idea. The first is the printing press, the second the internet. Gutenberg’s press appeared in the 15th century but it wasn’t until like the 18th century – in the age of enlightenment – that books were travelling all over the world and people were reading things completely outside their culture. And that’s right about the time people started burning books, too. Because they encountered views that broke their minds and were better off being destroyed.

The internet has in many ways encountered the same problem. The sudden rise of total communication has forced us to encounter minds we simply aren’t evolved to easily comprehend, let alone communicate with. Some of them we consider so anathema we want to take out of circulation. Others we simply block from our community or our exposure. I’m not saying blocking people on Twitter is the same as burning a book, but I do think they are driven by the same sensation, by people encountering thoughts so poisonous to them they had to be shut away, and the reason those thoughts are so poisonous is they come from a completely different culture.

To some people, gay sex is what happens when sailors rape people, because that’s what they were taught in their culture. And unless they educate themselves, they’ll always have that context. To find a milder example, the shouting match I had on facebook the other day was because people could see something as being racially insensitive but didn’t recognize it as racism because to them, racism meant shouting about killing all the Jews. To put it another way: almost all arguments on the internet are definitional arguments, all that changes is how long it takes you to realize this.

But in a comments thread you can’t sit down with each person and work out where your cultural word definition issues are occurring, because they don’t allow for that. And we do not have the mental capacity to constantly adjust for cultures we can’t see while having the kind of conversations that take place on comment threads. The thing about the internet is everyone is in there, and they all come from different valleys, so the odds of having any kind of useful, productive, interesting conversation are infinitesimally small, because nobody is speaking the same language. Whereas in real life, we have throughout our lives created natural villages of shared values and common social, political, economic and educational understandings that mean we rarely have to adjust our language at all.

And it’s this phenomenon that has made the world seem so much more divided since the net arrived. As much as we believe in universal fraternity of our species, we’ve spent our entire evolutionary history living in tiny valleys and not having the ability (regardless of how much we might want to) to talk to people in the next valley. The net throws all these people together, and in the Babel, all we can do is talk in memes and try to rally around flags as much as possible, to get our valleys back. It’s interesting how political they’ve become – it was the same way with the enlightenment, and may be a feature of humanity too.

I’m not saying we can’t talk on the internet, or that it won’t bring people together. Indeed, what it can do is help you see people who live in your valley even though you’re millions of miles apart. But it is important to understand the limitations of the medium, and how it differs from real life. There are a lot of weird weird valleys out there and you’re just not going to be able to understand how they talk, and they won’t be able to understand you. And there is limited value in exposing your mind to that, in an arena that isn’t helping cross-valley communication.

And that’s why we say: don’t read the comments. Except on my blog, of course.



There Is No Apocalypse: The Quick and Dirty Pacific Rim RPG

Righto. Much like There Is No Spoon, this is all about d6s. 1-3 is a fail, 4-6 is a success, and generating successes is what it’s all about.

Unlike There Is No Spoon, sixes explode (count the success and re-roll, keep rolling if you keep getting sixes), because this shit is OFF THE HOOK.

Make up your character by picking a name. Just a name. That gets you one die.

Pick someone around the table. They make up your co-pilot, and your relationship to them. That gets you another die.

Here’s the thing: do not make up anything else about your character yet. Keep it VERY VERY VAGUE. If you have an idea, keep it a secret. Maybe pick a nationality at most. One tiny thing if you need to hang your performance on it. A quick surface attribute like “Cocky” or “Russian”.

Now, pick something cool and unique about your Jaeger, like “Third Arm” or “Nuclear Engine”. That gets you another die. Your co-pilot also gets to name another cool thing, for another die.


Raleigh Beckett, Golden Boy d6 + Mako Mori, Dutiful Student, d6 in Gypsy Danger – Nuclear Heart d6 + Strong Where It Counts d6.

Neural Handshake is complete. You’re ready to fight.

Now, here’s the thing. When you’re fighting, you only get to roll two dice, max. Since you don’t know much about your PCs to start with, these dice will come from your Jaeger most of the time. Problem is, kaiju roll as many dice as their Category. Category threes are common in these end times, and fours are not unheard of. That sucks for you. Better bring a boat. Adding a cool detail like that can get you an extra die for one roll. So is adding a thing about your surface personality, like “Driven” or “Cocky”. But here’s hurting: every time you do it, the GM can do it next round too, like It was Hiding Behind the Skyscraper or Now It Can Spit Acid.

So, basically? You’re dead. We all are.

No. Didn’t you hear? We’re cancelling the apocalypse!

You want more dice, though, you have to earn them. And the way to do that is go into the Drift. You have to look your co-pilot in the eye and reveal the truth. You want a die, point to your co-pilot and have them ask you a question. A deep, hard-core, painful question about who you are and where you come from. Then you have a choice. You can hide from the answer, lose yourself in the pain and go Drift-crazy. Bad luck for you. Kaiju gets a free shot.

Or you can answer the question and face your pain. And then you find out something about who your character is. And now you get a third die. The third die can be something about you (“Revenging My Fallen Family”) or something we didn’t know about your Jaeger until now (“Sword Arm”) or a new move you just decided to do (“Cook The Sucker On Your Jets”).

Want the fourth die for another upgrade? You have to ask your co-pilot your own question.

The more questions you ask, the more dice you get. One per round maximum, of course. And if it’s not a deep confession of inner pain, it doesn’t count. You have to make your fellow players weep if you want that die. Your co-pilot can help though. She wants that die to keep her alive, so she should cut deep, help you dig down into the pain. These dice last until the end of the combat. Next combat you’re gonna need new issues. After a while, you’ll need new characters. Keep it short and punchy.

Sounds easy? Well no it ain’t because damage is done in dice too. Attacks are roll and compare. If you get more successes than the kaiju, it loses dice equal to the difference. If it gets more? You lose dice too. Your Jaeger is gonna lose an arm or have its reactor shut down or power cut. To keep up you’re going to constantly need new tricks – coolant to vent, chest guns. fist rockets. But to get them, you have to Drift. So you better be ready to face your fears. If you want to win, you have to believe not just in yourself, but in each other.

Optional Rules: If you want to do non-Jaeger scenes/characters just shift the Jaeger rules to exterior parts of your character like Mathematical Genius or Major Player in the Kaiju Black Market. Pick a name – but nothing else. If you want to hand your biologist friend an extra die to go drifting with a kaiju, we need to know how bad the school bullying was. Who made you cry and why your parents didn’t care.

Now get out there and save humanity.