A friend and I were talking about family memory. She asked, “But what if you don’t know anything about your family history? What if no one remembers?”
Her question years ago started my ideas about nomads within the Rootless world: they would be people who could travel throughout the Wild, relatively unharmed, despite not having memory of the land they moved in because they had self-knowledge, a memory of themselves, where they came from—not in the genealogical/historical sense, but in the “these things have shaped me sense.”
When I started designing character mechanics for the TTRPG, I became intrigued by this idea of character stats not based on skills i.e. “things we do”, but on self-identity or “who we are.” The better a player character knew themselves, the more defense they would have against the Wild and its assault. But I needed to turn this abstract idea into concrete stats and mechanics for the game. Luckily, I studied a lot of personality theories while working on my doctorate, and I mentally started flipping through them. I needed a theory that could be summarized quickly, turned into concrete mechanics, and be both relatable and easy to comprehend—which immediately eliminated most theories.
Internal Family Systems theory met all of those criteria. IFS is based on the established tradition of family systems theory, which says that families are like other biological systems: they want to establish and maintain homeostasis. In order to do this, each family member adopts a “role” within the family that helps keep the system moving smoothly, i.e. unchanging. If something might disrupt the system, every family member jumps into their role and prevents the disruption from having any lasting change or impact.
This model is applied a lot of time to families with abuse or addiction dynamics. Let’s say parent 1 is an alcoholic. Parent 1 drinks so much they lose their job. That could cause a lot of chaos and potential change in the system. Instead, every family member takes on their usual role.
Frequently, one family role is to play the scapegoat: no matter what happens, everyone will focus on the scapegoat as the problem. So Parent 1 might have just lost their job, but the family is going to yell at the Scapegoat for cutting class or not finishing their chores or whatever other “problem” can be identified. On the flip side, another family member might play the hero role: this person must be responsible and perfect at all times. That way the family can see all the good things the Hero does and ask, “Well, how messed up could our family really be? Look at how good they are. We’re fine.” There are other roles (the Mascot breaks up tension, often with humor; the Lost Child is the quiet one who never adds to the conflict or makes any demands), but every role exists to keep the family stable.
Internal Family Systems took this idea of a family system, with set roles, and applied it to individual people. It starts with the idea that all people are made up of different parts with different primary drives/reactions, e.g. part of us wants to yell at people who cross us, part of us wants everyone to be happy and calm, part of us wants to achieve and work hard, part of us wants to rebel, etc. These different parts of our personality are able to function together because they form an internal system similar to a family system; each part takes on a different role in the system, to help maintain homeostasis.
These different parts can adopt one of three primary roles: the managers, who try to keep everything “together” and going “correctly”; the exiles, the unacceptable/shameful/“bad” parts of ourself we try to hide/ignore/change; and the firefighters, who jump into action anytime an exiled part surfaces, e.g. when part of us feels shame, the firefighters might encourage us to avoid or push away those shameful feelings through behaviors like over-eating, risky behavior, angry outbursts, addictions, zoning out, really any strategy that hides that exile away.
This outline provided a starting place for character stats: the manager, the firefighter, and the exile. In a game sense, the firefighters sounded really similar to the “vice” mechanic from Blades in the Dark: you can tolerate so much stress, then you have to give into your vice to burn it all away. This got me thinking about these three parts of self as different ways of resisting stress and overcoming challenges in life.
I love games that make us balance risk vs. reward and short term consequences vs. long term consequences. What if each form of resistance had its own benefit and detriment? Like using the manager-self to resist consequences worked in the short run, but it burned you out in the long term? Using a firefighter came with immediate reward and immediate destruction. The exile would come with immediate cost but long term reward. After all, while letting a shameful part out might hurt in the short term, it can lead to better self-knowledge and self-acceptance.
This 3-part self mechanic seemed interesting, like it could force some risk-reward choices, but it didn’t seem like something that could replace stats.
That’s when I found the game Masks: the New Generation. Next post I’ll talk about how I took a little personality theory to the stats from Masks to develop the basis of “skills” for Rootless.
This blog is where I "think aloud" about the games I'm designing, with occasional pieces analyzing other games or game mechanics. Currently, the focus is on talking through my own design process rather than presenting a polished piece on game design.
I'm known for going on tangents. The only consistent thing in my life is that I spend most of it creating things: novels, games, graphics. I love taking apart how art and games work, then reconstructing my own version from the pieces. I'm also enough of a layout perfectionist to adore eraser shields.