Archive for November 12th, 2009


Better RPGs through hypnosis?

I studied hypnosis in my previous life as a neuroscience grad student, and experimented with the eyes-shut guided visualization technique (related to hypnosis) at the start of some of the D&D sessions I ran in ’05, both in my home game and for the Keep on the Borderlands game I did at DexCon. By the time Gen Con rolled around that summer I’d already decided it didn’t add enough to be worth the self-conscious moment of getting everyone to close their eyes while I did a little boxed-text kind of spiel.

The act of roleplaying is its own set of skills for evoking & maintaining an imagined reality, and it’s different enough from hypnosis that the two techniques don’t really stack. Playing even the most DM-dominant game of trad D&D is more collaborative than standard hypnosis, and engages much more of the conscious mind & less of the unconscious than the mutual hypnosis induction stuff Charles Tart et al. were doing in their own weird corner of the early ’70s.

One technique I didn’t try but might work is wearing a mask when you DM. It’s well-established that there’s a strong authority effect in hypnosis. An induction from a grad student doesn’t work as well as one from a professor, and a doctor is better yet. You can probably break that down into a few different aspects. One is psychological in the ordinary sense; as kids everyone is trained to submit to the will of an authority figure. Another is self-confidence; I never got much of anywhere trying to do inductions with my fellow students because I was acutely aware that I’d just taken the same weekend-long course they had, and that there is no secret to hypnosis; it’s all Great and Terrible Oz stuff. Doctors, however, are trained to believe they have god-like powers over the life & death of others, and their faith in their own abilities is infectious. Wearing a mask might bolster your own confidence in your authority.

Another reason people are more “hypnotizable” when they think it’s a doctor hypnotizing them is that it sets up an expectation, which is huge in hypnosis. A famous anecdote tells about an undergrad research assistant charged with playing a phonograph induction for an intro psych class and then scoring how the students responded to a battery of suggestions. He found out that he’d accidentally grabbed the wrong record when he dropped the needle and yodeling came out. Bravely, he soldiered on with the experiment but flagged the data for later analysis. As near as they could tell, it hadn’t mattered at all. What the hypnotist said wasn’t nearly as important as the fact that the students expected to be hypnotized. The more props you have, the better you can set up expectations. A doctor’s coat, a stethoscope, a clipboard all have powerful mojo, and I bet you’d get lots of extra juice if you gave the subjects a placebo injection and made them wear a drafty gown.

That raises an open question, which is whether it’d be better to play with a DM who put a lot of effort into adding hypnotic techniques into the game. My guess is that it might be more vivid, but also more shading toward hysteria. I asked Ron Edward about all this back in the day and he said he’d encountered a D&D group that went past immersion & into psychodrama, with guys crying at most every session; he felt like they were whipping themselves into something like self-hypnosis. I’m not sure he & I were talking about the same things, which is in part because it’s hard to define hypnosis (it used to happen when Anton Mesmer passed glass rods over you, and if you taught that intro psych class that everyone knows you can’t use your left hand when you’re hypnotized, that’s what they’ll do after you play the yodeling record). Keep in mind that the main groups of people who really seem to get mileage out of hypnosis are pick-up artists, salespeople, and psychotherapists (and these days at least I’d say the latter tend to be the shadier kind; diagnoses like dissociative identity disorder are, IMO, very easily created by the process of using hypnosis to investigate them).

Plus, I think a DM who conceptualizes what they’re doing as hypnosis is going to have problems with authority. That’s not because they’ll actually wield undue power over the minds of the players. Consent is essential to hypnosis. Likewise, you can’t force someone to roleplay; it only works with someone who’s on board with entering a fantasy. But being a good DM involves more listening, and less staying in charge, then being Svengali. A good RPG experience is as mutual as good sex, and people who are really into being doms are usually lousy lovers.

(reposted from a NY Red Box thread that goes lots of other interesting places too).

Past Adventures of the Mule

November 2009

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