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.