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Playing Mind Games: The Peanut Butter Conundrum

August 28, 2010

Limit Your Players for Their Own Good

For DMsI want to take some time to respond to an e-mail question I’ve seen a lot of lately: “why would any sane player keep coming back to one of your games you overbearing, abusive tyrant?” That’s a great question. What is my secret to running a great game that keeps the players coming back for more? The answer is: psychology. Understanding psychology, how people think and behave and why they do the things that they do, is an integral part of being a good Dungeon Master.

For example, the CIA has done a number of studies on how people form attachments to inanimate objects and personify things when they are feeling threatened or isolated and this can be used to control behavior. In a D&D game, the players become attached to their characters because the character represents their projection of themselves into the fantasy world. The character sheet and the miniature figure are inanimate objects that come to represent the character itself and the player forms a deep attachment to these objects.

That keen understanding is why I keep a paper shredder handy and use only plastic miniatures. Metal miniatures are harder to damage, melt at much higher temperatures, and can damage a microwave.

Psychology also teaches us that people want to maximize positive experiences and avoid negative ones. While it will come as no surprise that I tend to behave in irrational, frightening, and unpredictable ways at the smallest of annoyances, I also make sure to be extremely polite, cordial, and grateful the moment a player does something I want them to do. The vast difference between the way I behave when I am annoyed and when I am pleased encourages people to keep me happy.

The most important psychological tool in my aresenal, however, comes from understanding that people in group situations are far more likely to unite against adversity than to run away from it. By presenting myself as a terrifying, nigh unbeatable enemy, I cause the party to unite against me. With each game, each loss, each molten plastic death, they simply become firmer in their resolve to defeat me. Great villains make great heroes, as they say. So they keep coming back to fight an impossible fight, week after week. But, thanks to my paper shredder, microwave, and behavior that could be charitably described as terrifyingly bipolar, they are too afraid to question me and thus they will never win. It is a perfect psychological cage made of crushed spirits, abject terror, group obligation, and false hope.

I’m not suggesting that every DM should adopt this strategy. I’m something of an expert and it is possible to push the fear, the enmity, and the unification too far in one direction. Too much fear and enmity, and the party flees forever. Too much unification and false hope, and the part unites against you in a much more real way (in a flagrant example of extreme metagaming). Even with my expertise, I’ve had incidents involving expensive property damage and at least one hospitalization. But DMing is a labor of love and I’m willing to make these sacrifices.

However, there are many less risky ways to use a little psychological warfare against your players. Or, if you are so inclined, to use a little psychological trickery to improve your game. In this article, I’m here to discuss how the psychology of decision making can actually hurt your players’ enjoyment of the game and why you need to be able to say ‘no’ sometimes.

Limiting Choices and Forbidding Options

Every DM eventually runs into the question of whether or not it is okay to restrict the players’ freedom in character generation. This question might arise because of a DM’s personal preferences, because of the story, or for the sake of convenience.

For example, I don’t like science fiction and steampunk elements in my fantasy game. There’s nothing wrong with liking them, of course, but they break my immersion in the setting. So, I do not run Eberron games and I do not allow warforged characters or psionic characters in my games out of personal preference.

In a recent campaign I ran, the story focused primarily on the differences between elementals, immortals, and mortals. In order to create the proper atmosphere, I had to exaggerate the qualities that made immortals and elementals different from each other and from mortal beings. Unfortunately, the result rendered genasi and devas inappropriate options for PCs.  This is an example of a story restriction.

As a matter of convenience, I try to make sure that the PCs can work together as a team. I also like to make sure they have common ground and common values. Thus, I forbid evil alignments and I tell the players that they must come from the same general region or location. This also has story implications.

Whatever the reason, though, there are always some players who will balk at such restrictions. And there are more than a few DMs out there who will tell me that I am running the game wrong. Dungeons and Dragons, 4th Edition certainly seems to go to great lengths to convince the DM to give the players as much freedom as possible.

But, psychologically speaking, too much freedom and too many options can be bad things. In fact, allowing too much freedom can actually cause your players to be less satisfied with their characters and the game they are playing. This is a result of something I call The Peanut Butter Conundrum.

The Peanut Butter Conundrum

I was reminded of The Peanut Butter Conundrum a few weeks ago when I watched my players generate characters for an upcoming campaign. It was something I had been aware of for a long time in a vague sort of way and I had coined the name years ago before I really knew exactly what I was talking about. Ultimately, an excellent book by Barry Scwartz called “The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less” helped me put it into words. While he doesn’t discuss peanut butter much in the book, he does start out with an anecdote about shopping for jeans that echoes my own peanut butter experiences quite closely. He also has fancy scientific studies and evidence and credentials. If you’re interested in the Peanut Butter Conundrum outside of the scope of role-playing games, or if you just want to see that I’m not just blowing smoke, you should check it out. I’m definitely going to be summarizing some of his main points, so I want to give credit where credit is due.

If you go into a supermarket to buy some peanut butter, you will discover that picking peanut butter is not as simple as it used to be. Apart from choosing a brand, you’ll need to select either crunchy or smooth peanut butter. You can buy it salted, unsalted. You can buy low salt or low sodium, and I’m not even sure how those differ. You can get it all natural. You can get it with low oil. You can even get peanut butter already mixed with jelly for ease of sandwich preparation. Of course, if you want a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, we have to discuss jelly choices and bread options as well. The gods help you if want to buy hot cocoa. Did you know it comes in vanilla now? Vanilla-flavored chocolate violates some sort of chemical law, doesn’t it?

It may seem like a wonderful thing to be blessed with so many options for every little thing. But it can quickly become overwhelming and the availability of too many options can actually keep you from enjoying the choices you make.

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