Jim Felli - Mind Flayers and Mental Anchors

Jim Felli - Mind Flayers and Mental Anchors

xthexlo     
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Mind Flayers

It's one of the most viscerally evocative monsters in gaming...and it is also a mental anchor.

If you're familiar with the Dungeons & Dragons bestiary, then you probably already have a mental image of the mind flayer: a lanky, perhaps slightly rubbery humanoid with a bulbous head, hateful eyes, and a half face that terminates in tentacles, draped in dark robes reminiscent of those reserved for ill-intentioned high priests. If you are like me, your mental image is probably also in black and white, simply because your first exposure to the creature was a black and white drawing by David C. Sutherland III in the 1977 AD&D Monster Manual. It's such a wicked creature. So very cool. So tacitly Lovecraftian.

The other day, I came across an artist's interpretation of a mind flayer I hadn't seen before. I was struck by how innovative it was: the creature was muscular and fit, it wielded a heavy sword, its robes were frayed and barbed, and it had a visible mouth. Moreover, the creature's mouth was not merely framed by tentacles, it actually extended into them, giving it a jagged and star-like appearance. It was so interesting, so different...

... and so not.

Don't get me wrong, it was still an iconic mind flayer, unmistakable as such and in full conformity with the Sutherland archetype. The deviations, intriguing as they were, were at the margin, in the details. They always are.

Why is that? I think it lies in our anchors.

Most of us tend to employ a mental heuristic called anchoring and adjustment when we make an assessment about an unknown quantity: we base our assessment on an initial reference point (the anchor) and our appraisal of the difference between the unknown quantity and that reference point (the adjustment). For example, if you want to estimate the time it will take to play a game that you've never played before, you'll likely anchor on the time it took you to play a similar game and then adjust that time upward or downward based on how much more or less complicated you believe the new game to be. The anchoring bias arises because we tend to overweight our initial piece of information when we make judgments. In cases of anchoring and adjustment, we typically fail to adequately adjust away from our anchors.

My conjecture is that there is a similar bias at work with all the nasties in our gaming bestiaries. Certainly, there are well-established archetypes and recognized phenotypes, and no one wants to be labeled as the person who "ruined the mind flayer" or "butchered the owlbear." But there is some anchoring going on as well, rooted, I suspect, in our "show and tell" approach to exposition. It goes like this: I want to publish a book/RPG/card game/etc. with a bunch of cool monsters in it, and I want to make it slick and pretty and worth your money, so I include some gorgeous art illustrating all the nasties to get you excited about the product. In doing so, I've encumbered you with not one, but two anchors: one visual, one conceptual. With each illustration, I've locked an image in your mind that inherently limits your ability to imagine a creature other than as I've depicted, despite any written description, no matter how inspired; with each written description, I've locked in your mind a creature's essential characteristics so that you are hard pressed to refine, let alone redefine, its capabilities based on any visual representation, no matter how imaginative. These are powerful anchors that limit our creativity to variations at the margin: it seems okay to give a mind flayer a fighter's physique, for example, but the tentacles are sacrosanct.

For my part, I've come to prefer "show or tell" over "show and tell" for exposition, especially for games designed to foster imaginative play. Show me the creature and let me make up a description for myself, or give me a description and let me conjure up my own image for the beast. Of course, the "or" is harder than the "and." It requires active engagement by the player. It requires an investment of time and mental energy. It also means that it may take longer to play the game and longer to appreciate it, something that some modern gamers won't tolerate. But you know what else it does? It obviates ever having to hear, "What the - that's not a mind flayer!"

Oh, really?

Let me ask you this: If you didn't already have that iconic image of a mind flayer in your head and just read a description of its intellect, intent, and abilities, what physical form would you have given it? And if you only saw an image of the thing, what abilities and intent would you ascribe it?

Jim "xthexlo" FelliFollow Jim Felli Follow Jim Felli Follow Jim Felli Message Jim Felli

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Jim was introduced to AD&D back in the mid-1970s. For a high school kid that grew up devouring comic books, Warren magazines, and Harryhausen films, AD&D was the epitome of the game he never knew he wanted. From his very first game, he was hooked on the magic of imaginative play.

By day, Jim works as a scientist; by night, he creates fantasy worlds and designs unique and quirky games. He is the owner and sole employee of Devious Weasel Games.

Jim is married to a wonderful woman, has three awesome kids, three unruly and enigmatic cats, and a goofy, loyal Newfie. He loves good food, single malt Islay scotch, and pretty much all dad jokes.

And math. He really likes math.

Jim Felli - Mind Flayers and Mental Anchors There Will Be Games
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Posted: 31 May 2018 23:36 by Da Bid Dabid #274396
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DCC does a pretty good job of show or tell.
Posted: 01 Jun 2018 04:28 by stoic #274402
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Deep! The epistemology of game design. I'm anchored.
Posted: 01 Jun 2018 05:55 by Jackwraith #274405
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Actually, the anchor that always stuck with me was the terminology. Gygax and Co. were often so literal that the technical term ("Magic-user") would overwhelm the colorful one ("Wizard", "Mage", "Sorceror") until the latter was given an actual definition. So, instead of "illithid", we were forever referring to the mauve-skinned (this was my first instance of reading the word "mauve", too) creature as a "mind flayer", which is what it literally did, both with its psionics and its tentacles as it ate your brain.

OTOH, I guess it's possible to see that term as the more colorful one, since the average D&D world citizen would probably consider "illithid" to be a technical term instead of what the thing actually did to you. But, then, why would they call it a "catoblepas" instead of "stone breather"? You could go round and round on this.

I confess to not being limited by my own anchor on many things; specifically in terms of mind flayers since Ed Greenwood's description of an alhoon in the Forgotten Realms. I was all: "Whoa! An illithid lich! So... they're like an actual race with different types... that can be undead... just like humans!" At that point, variations seemed appropriate to me.
Posted: 01 Jun 2018 06:42 by hotseatgames #274410
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Great piece, Jim!
Posted: 01 Jun 2018 09:03 by SuperflyTNT #274427
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+3 Cunnilingus

That’s pretty much his only power.
Posted: 01 Jun 2018 09:08 by wadenels #274429
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Many of the comments I've gotten about Shadows of Malice when people first see the game are about the artwork, or lack thereof depending on your perspective.

I like that the style leaves me to fill in the imagery. Was this a conscious show or tell decision?
Posted: 01 Jun 2018 09:24 by xthexlo #274431
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It was a conscious “show or tell” design choice. I decided to show the items, as they were unique in my mind, but let the players have fun imagining the monsters, as their infinite variations aligned so well with the theme of chaotic corruption.

As a sidenote, the drawings for the items in the game we’re originally intended to be placeholders — they were only included for a play test version and my intention was to commission final art. However, almost everyone who played the test version really like the “throwback feel” of the “basic and unpolished artwork,” and they urged me to keep it. So I did.
Posted: 02 Jun 2018 12:22 by Gary Sax #274529
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This reminds me of Magic Realm *mechanically.* Magic Realm takes a stock standard approach to orcs, goblins, etc etc but then does nothing the same as a D+D approach to them. It is a designed completely unanchored by D+D mechanically with almost exactly the same trappings.

That always gets to me because it makes me wonder how much creativity is sapped away from us because of how anchored we are to existing content, and, especially, how the high intensity of communication on the internet has made us even more anchored and wedded to existing IP and approaches.
Posted: 03 Jun 2018 09:08 by xthexlo #274554
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Gary Sax wrote:
That always gets to me because it makes me wonder how much creativity is sapped away from us because of how anchored we are to existing content, and, especially, how the high intensity of communication on the internet has made us even more anchored and wedded to existing IP and approaches.

I think that you’re absolutely correct. And it’s a slow and subtle sapping... the kind where you don’t realize it is happening unless you stop and think about it.

I think your comment about communication intensity and implied constant connection via the Internet allows us to put things like conformity and rules lawyering ahead of enjoyment. It also diminishes our capacity to enjoy new content. For example, I am not wed to the Star Wars canon nearly as much as some of my friends, so I enjoyed the movie Solo where as they felt angered and betrayed. This diminished capacity strikes me particularly hard in gaming when I hear things like: “that’s not how you play a cleric!” Bah! That cleric is a priest of Thor and will damn well rush into combat with a hammer when the spirit moves them!

I guess it all makes me wonder... do the anchors set down by fancy illustrations, detailed text, rigid rules, demanded conformity, etc. serve the role of outsourcing imagination because we haven’t the time or desire to allow our own to work their magic? Or do they serve a more insidious, perhaps unintended, role: to neuter our imaginations and, in so doing, foster our hunger for ever more new and marginally variant products and content?
Posted: 03 Jun 2018 09:47 by hotseatgames #274555
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It reminds me of the double edged sword of game design. If you don’t play a lot of other games, you might come up with unique concepts that haven’t been done before. But you also might make rookie mistakes that have been solved many times over in prior works.
Posted: 03 Jun 2018 09:56 by Gary Sax #274557
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Agree with your post, Jim.

The example of D+D is actually a good one if you think about the Gygax era. That era was a really fucked up, weird, and super creative one for D+D. Look how bizarre some of those scenario books and monsters were! Very original! All of that stuff has been sanded off D+D for the most part---even late era D+D weirdness is gone like Spelljammer or whatever. I've heard wonderful things about D+D 5th edition mechanically, but it is interesting to think how it went from whimsical and a bit subversive to set in stone canon over the past 30 years and what that means about it.
Posted: 03 Jun 2018 10:17 by xthexlo #274561
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Gary Sax wrote:
...whimsical and a bit subversive...

OMG! I never realized it until I saw your words: that is exactly what I’m after!

Y’know where it shows that I thanked you in the post box? Can you add “x1,000” as part of my handle?
Posted: 03 Jun 2018 10:21 by xthexlo #274562
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hotseatgames wrote:
It reminds me of the double edged sword of game design. If you don’t play a lot of other games, you might come up with unique concepts that haven’t been done before. But you also might make rookie mistakes that have been solved many times over in prior works.

I agree, Mark. But I do have one question? Are they really “mistakes” or have we just been trained to label them as such? Especially if one believes that real mistakes are rectified in play testing.
Posted: 03 Jun 2018 10:39 by Jackwraith #274563
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This sounds like it's treading dangerously close to that "elegance" concept in design, where rules that might give character or storytelling potential (think Wiz-War or anything by Games Workshop) compete with those that make... you know... sense (think most things by Knizia or other Euro designs.) The magic trick is always finding the happy medium. I think you did a great job with Zimby Mojo, Jim. There's a lot of "flavor" rules to absorb (mostly in the ritual cards) for new players, but the base mechanics of the movement and conjoined play in the first half are pretty elegant. I think Eric Lang did a similar thing with Chaos in the Old World, in which there's a lot to remember in terms of different powers, cards, and unit abilities that are all fairly dripping with GWFB theme, but the underlying structure of the game is quite straightforward in its execution.

I think "whimsical and a bit subversive" may describe Jervis Johnson's entire existence.
Posted: 03 Jun 2018 11:06 by Colorcrayons #274566
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Gary Sax wrote:
Agree with your post, Jim.

The example of D+D is actually a good one if you think about the Gygax era. That era was a really fucked up, weird, and super creative one for D+D. Look how bizarre some of those scenario books and monsters were! Very original! All of that stuff has been sanded off D+D for the most part---even late era D+D weirdness is gone like Spelljammer or whatever. I've heard wonderful things about D+D 5th edition mechanically, but it is interesting to think how it went from whimsical and a bit subversive to set in stone canon over the past 30 years and what that means about it.

I'm using your quote as a platform, Gary.

D&D was not the only system that had such great creativity. A lot of stuff from that era had just an obscene amount of originality of concept.

Some of the more well known examples would be the realms of chaos books from GW, or Rogue Trader itself. A lot of now unknown publications are also worthy of not if only for expanding on the work of others to create truly unique and interesting adventure modules.

But the mechanics in order to play these wondrous things were pants at the time. D100 mutation tables, etc. Just crap. But we endured them not because we knew any better about mechanical design, but because we wanted to immerse ourselves in those great bits of creativity.

On mental anchors, I think it helps when society lacks cynicism. We've gotten quite cynical in the last 40 years, for good reason. Remove cynicism and you have a gateway to accept new creative ideas.
Posted: 03 Jun 2018 11:41 by hotseatgames #274569
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xthexlo wrote:
hotseatgames wrote:
It reminds me of the double edged sword of game design. If you don’t play a lot of other games, you might come up with unique concepts that haven’t been done before. But you also might make rookie mistakes that have been solved many times over in prior works.

I agree, Mark. But I do have one question? Are they really “mistakes” or have we just been trained to label them as such? Especially if one believes that real mistakes are rectified in play testing.

Sure, as long as play testing catches them. As you well know, it's extremely difficult to catch it all. Play testing is a nightmare. I know I have seen the following play out many times, in many games.. "oh, this problem? You should have done it like they did it in Game X." and just doing that makes the game so much better.

I remember showing things to Richard Launius, and inside of 2 minutes he would make some observation that had never occurred to me, and suddenly my game was better. :)
Posted: 03 Jun 2018 12:09 by xthexlo #274571
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You have a good point, Mark. And a valid one. But I still want to make a distinction: drawing upon the experience of others to improve a game (as you did) is one thing; demanding that a game somehow mimic another to be successful (e.g., band wagoning) is another. I subscribe to the former; I despise the latter.
Posted: 04 Jun 2018 07:02 by MattDP #274628
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Colorcrayons wrote:
I'm using your quote as a platform, Gary.

D&D was not the only system that had such great creativity. A lot of stuff from that era had just an obscene amount of originality of concept.

Some of the more well known examples would be the realms of chaos books from GW, or Rogue Trader itself. A lot of now unknown publications are also worthy of not if only for expanding on the work of others to create truly unique and interesting adventure modules.

But the mechanics in order to play these wondrous things were pants at the time. D100 mutation tables, etc. Just crap. But we endured them not because we knew any better about mechanical design, but because we wanted to immerse ourselves in those great bits of creativity.

On mental anchors, I think it helps when society lacks cynicism. We've gotten quite cynical in the last 40 years, for good reason. Remove cynicism and you have a gateway to accept new creative ideas.

Thank you is not enough for this post. It needs quoting in full and a comment to say that it feels quite brilliantly insightful.

I wonder if we'll ever manage to meet theme and mechanics in the sweet spot for both.
Posted: 04 Jun 2018 07:04 by MattDP #274629
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hotseatgames wrote:
Sure, as long as play testing catches them. As you well know, it's extremely difficult to catch it all. Play testing is a nightmare. I know I have seen the following play out many times, in many games.. "oh, this problem? You should have done it like they did it in Game X." and just doing that makes the game so much better.

I was chatting to a designer at the weekend who said just the opposite. He had a bunch of stuff in his game that he felt was a bit unbalanced, but various different playtesters kept telling him to keep it in because it was so much fun, nevertheless.

Sometimes the flaws in a game are just what make it memorable.
Posted: 04 Jun 2018 07:36 by hotseatgames #274637
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MattDP wrote:
Sometimes the flaws in a game are just what make it memorable.

That's why I always put tons of flaws in my games.
Posted: 04 Jun 2018 07:42 by Jackwraith #274639
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hotseatgames wrote:
MattDP wrote:
Sometimes the flaws in a game are just what make it memorable.

That's why I always put tons of flaws in my games.

Gemstone Appraisal: The Game.
Posted: 04 Jun 2018 11:33 by Colorcrayons #274657
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MattDP wrote:
.
I wonder if we'll ever manage to meet theme and mechanics in the sweet spot for both.

I think some games come close, IMO.

Wiz-War lacks the visual flair (magical three stooges) it needs to find this balance perfectly (and almost had it if you look at the art work for the never released chessex stuff) to augment the "tell" that the cards give for each memorable game.
FFG didnt know how to recognize the soul of the magical three stooges game, and in their usual production hubris decided to attempt to make it more serious to be accepted by the BGG euro crowd. Still, even their version came close enough to be about right.

I think survive, in any incarnation, does a good job of coming close too.

Dune, likewise.

But oddly enough, these are also games that came from the era of enormous creativity and risk taking in game design/production.
I don't know if such is related, but worth noting.