A kind woman once talked me off a bridge. Another time, I saw language in the sky. The green field at Glastonbury witnessed me trouser-less one morning; turns out it wasn’t just the acid.
Psychosis tends to be a diagnosis of exclusion: it’s when there’s no evident cause that you need to be worried. We all get it and we all have a vested interest in pretending it’s not happening.
We laugh madness off or use it to scare one another – me included, I’m afraid. If dramatizations of mental illness make you uncomfortable, look away now.
Links between madness and creativity are fairly well documented (Plato, Freud, Sheldon Cooper), as indeed are those between play and art (D.W. Winnicott). If this sounds a bit poncey, it probably is. Put simply, I like games – RPGs most of all.
The idea was to port some of the Tarot-resolution rules from Psychosis: Ship of Fools (Charles Ryan & John Fletcher, 1993) into an adaptation of one of my favourite novels – The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (Angela Carter, 1972).
Players in Psychosis try to discover the truth behind their hallucinations by interacting with them; in Angela Carter’s novel, humanity is hallucinating because Dr Hoffman has eroded the divisions between time and space, symbols and objects, dreams and reality.
I chose to complicate matters by including some of the ‘move’ structure from another game I’m struggling to write:-
What does this mean?
Read meanings from the cards
on the table.
(Conduct numerical challenges.)
Why is it happening?
Frame scenes from the pictures on the cards.
(Take the story in a new direction.)
How do we fix this?
Negotiate outcomes with the players around you.*
(Import systems from other games.)
* Imaginary trumps Symbolic trumps Real trumps Imaginary.
These do not (quite) correspond to the map of human consciousness pioneered by French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Now, I did try reading some Jacques Lacan: the words kept getting in the way. I kind of like him for this – because, you see, language does not describe reality. Nope, not even the beautiful symmetries of mathematics. Not yet, anyway.
Nobody wants to hear this waffle, so you have to encode it into the systems of the game. I found that the designers of Psychosis – bless you, Charles Ryan, bless you, John Fletcher – had in large part already done this by tying in-game hallucinations to the Tarot deck. Angela Carter, meanwhile, had unpicked some of the connections between unconscious desire and the structures of mythology.
I started by calling the game ‘Heresiarch’ but I’m not sure I want to play a game called Heresiarch. So I called it Infernal Desire Machines. The infernal desire machines in Carter’s novel are based in part on the art of Hans Bellmer.
By gracious design of the London Indie RPG Meetup Group I was able to playtest a fragmentary version of the game. They do this sort of thing out of the kindness of their hearts; either that or as part of some nefarious design to replace the heads of state with the heads of Sesame Street characters. I have visions of Boris Johnson as a power-gaming Big Bird. Try not to hold this against me.
Three’s a Crowd
Ed played Sarah, a violent woman tormented by the loss of her lover. Sarah’s conscious choice was about creating permanence: an ever-changing environment had swallowed her one true love and she needed to compensate for this. The other players around the table chose guilt as her unconscious desire; given that Dr Hoffman’s seismic generators had given her the means to create her own reality, was she really to blame for her own isolation?
Ed, a comedian and born improviser, really got stuck into Sarah. He chose ‘Judgement’ as his major arcana & placed high-scoring Wands into his trace – ie face-up in front of him. These cards expressed how he came across to other people and could be applied throughout the game.
David played Leon, a wonderful counterbalance to Sarah. He’d handled similar issues in a different fashion: everyone had vanished from his world, his wife and kids, his workmates, the people on the street – no-one but he remained. He’d achieved consistency at the expense of company. We chose social anxiety as his unconscious desire. Something in him had shut down when the world got too complicated.
David conveyed Leon’s character through card-play; ‘Death’ was on the table, as was the King of Wands, but the rest of his cards remained close to his chest – just like his feelings. There were a lot of Wands in the air by this point, a lot of implied violence. The encounter between Sarah and Leon proved to be the game’s defining moment.
Anita played Abigail, choosing ‘The Star’ as her major arcana. Anita seemed to understand from the off – way better than I did – that this was a game about characters coming to terms with unexpressed feelings. Abigail had an Eve complex, manifesting as a pregnant woman with a star in her belly. We chatted about this as players and decided we didn’t want abortion to feature as a theme in the story.
Anita used ‘The Star’ to frame a beautiful scene in which wires connected lights in the sky to a radio in the pub where Sarah and Leon were meeting for the first time. This, of course, contravened the basis of the paradigms they had erected to protect themselves from the cracks in the time and space equation. Abigail was interested in resolving more than her own issues.
The Ambassador of Nowhere
I’d been not-quite-playing the ambassador of the Doctor all this time, using ‘The Hierophant’ to represent the ceremony of his position, and the King of Pentacles (in his trace) to reflect his intellectual justification of the Doctor’s position:-
First theory of Phenomenal Dynamics:
The universe has no fixed substratum of fixed substances and its only reality lies in its phenomena.
Second theory of Phenomenal Dynamics:
Only change is invariable.
Third theory of Phenomenal Dynamics:
The difference between a symbol and an object is quantitative, not qualitative.
He’d only been there as an obstacle for the characters to rub up against if needed, and the players had more than enough going on between them. His presence was felt only as one of the characters supported one of the statements above, whereupon they received another card (up to a maximum of five).
I’m afraid I can’t quite remember the order in which everything occurred… which seems appropriate somehow. Cards were burned in challenges and in the framing or augmenting of scenes, but we ended up with an interchangeable pool of cards in the centre of the table to reflect the interrelationship between the characters:-
Ten of Wands = Abigail arriving with difficult news about the instability of the world.
Knight of Wands = absence, flight, emigration; Sarah threatening Leon with a lampstand and barring the door on Abigail’s entrance.
King of Wands = Leon’s missing wife and kids, but also the sense of his stability and protection.
Page of Cups = painful memories taking shape; an image of Sarah’s lost love walking into Leon.
Queen of Cups = the gift of a vision; Abigail’s activity feeding her dream.
Three of Swords = the three characters divided by a similar sense of loss; which in turn was resolved by:-
Three of Cups = the three characters coming together in joy and merriment; Leon handing Abigail a pint.
The Lovers = yeah, I know it’s kinda hokey but Sarah and Leon got together at the end by allowing Abigail to help them. The card just sprung from the deck at the opportune moment.
After the Fall
What is nostalgia for a lost love if not a form of emotional cowardice? We move on by moving through. Thanks to Ed, David and Anita for showing me this.
Feedback after the session indicated that the players had fun interacting with the unreliability of their own perceptions, but that the game’s systems lacked focus.
Ed was dead right about the larger part of my cobbled-together playbook being bumf; bits and pieces of Angela Carter’s novel were there to foreshadow a scenario I wasn’t running. David said the Symbolic (suits/challenges) and the Imaginary (scenes/hallucinations) morphed into one another. Again, spot on. I found I was getting in the way by trying to shoehorn game systems into the flow of the narrative, so I backed off and let the cards dictate play.
Anita agreed that the group’s concentration on the Imaginary element of the game was due to their being story-gamers; she’d held the game together really, and without her it would likely have flown off in all directions. A game running for a group of more traditional roleplayers might focus more on the Symbolic – contests, challenges and trump suits. I quite like a bit of argy-bargy myself but for some reason I prefer losing to winning. (Paging Dr Freud!)
Running my own game is new to me. I’ve found story-gamers, and the people at Indiemeet in particular, to be extremely supportive. Maybe it’s the collective way they form their narratives; maybe they’re blessed by generosity of spirit.
Two other games were playtested at the Playstorm I attended – ‘Truth and Lies’ (Stephanie Jackson), which, unfortunately, I didn’t get to play, and a game by David Morrison in which one person played the inspector, or magistrate, and the rest suspects giving evidence in a crime. After each question & response, the questioner chose one thing that was true about the deposition given by each player, and one thing that was false. The more we went round the table the more we couldn’t stop laughing: a lot of fun.
A theme had developed over the course of the Playstorm – one about the power and paucity of human perceptions. You might say the same about roleplaying in general.
I’m not sure what’s next for Infernal Desire Machines. There are several possibilities:-
a) Run the game again at a future Indiemeet.
b) Run the game for a more traditional group of roleplayers, with a view to sharpening up the game systems.
c) Divorce the game from Angela Carter’s novel and apply it to new stories and settings, such as Ubik by Philip K Dick.
d) Divorce the game from any kind of setting and use it as a parachute system in narratives that require players to hallucinate.
e) Increase the dosage.