Monday, 21 September 2009

toolkit: projection

To project the deepest, darkest fears of a character into their world and to force them to deal with it is a time-honoured tactic of storytellers.  This is a point of no return for the character, forcing them into a crucible where they can either deal, suffer or curl up and die.  The character will not (and should not) be the same after this experience - it is a literal test of character.

To have this work, a character must have buttons to press.  One reason that Jaws was so effective was the character of protagonist Martin Brody, a man afraid of the water - home turf for a great white shark.  For him to be on a boat hunting a shark raises the stakes - when the Orca is sinking, it's a truly desperate situation for him.

Psychologists note projection of discomforting emotions, wishes or ideas onto others is a psychological defence mechanism.  In extreme cases, these issues may present a character confronting the event as either antisocial, paranoid, narcissistic or psychopathic which can colour their relationships with other characters or the society they are part of.

To adequately deal with the situation, a character must learn and use an apposite response.  This could be done by altruism, anticipating and handling it, humour, identifying with or adopting a persona or archetype, sublimating fears and hangups into positive change or keeping a lid on the problem to deal with it safely later.

Other endings are possible, ones where a character suffers to survive; from repression (hiding the issue) to rationalisation (justifying the wrongdoing) to reaction formation (behaving in the opposite way to the situation) to fantasy or denial of the situation's reality.  These alternatives have ramifications on the story and also on the audience itself.

The projection option is one that is easy to abuse and best saved as part of a transformative sequence or as a setup for a climax to a story.  Done well it can illuminate the character and provide fulfilment to the audience so it's worth doing groundwork on the character beforehand and looking at their options but also at how the situation may play out in context of the story.


  1. /agree that it's easy to abuse.

    Indeed it's this abuse that triggers the typical "Sandbox games are superior" reaction you see from a lot of people. Bad DM's use the crucible over, and over, and over because (for whatever reason) they can't (or won't) allow the players the freedom to explore different aspects of their own personal motivations.

    Unfortunately because it's the only mechanic that produces genuine character transformation it's something that you can never get totally away from.

    It's kind of like a Nuke - best used sparingly.

  2. I'm intrigued by your view the crucible is for some the only method of character development having played in a couple of games where it's the case. People can develop character without suffering trauma or their worst fears writ large.

    It's just finding a better way for people to use it.

    I'm not sure sandbox is the solution though as you're just changing the backdrop or running away from the problem in many cases. If players want a story-driven game and want more control over the stakes, they need to let the DM know!


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