Wednesday, 12 April 2017

A Theory of Psychic Geography

I was reading an article in a magazine earlier today while waiting to see the doctor. It was about a particular village in Northumberland and spending a weekend there on holiday. Not massively edifying on its face, but it fascinated me because the author unwittingly postulated a theory of psychic geography that I really enjoyed thinking about. 

The basic observation is this: if you are in a certain place (e.g. a village in Northumberland) you get a view of the world which is filtered through the location and its inhabitants. Spend some time there and you end up seeing the world from the perspective of that village. This does not mean you adopt the political and social attitudes and/or prejudices of the people living there. Rather, it means you begin to understand geography, time, space, and so forth, in the way they understand it. The city begins to feel far away. The weather begins to take on epic importance. The nearby forest begins to spook you. And so forth. 

This, I think, is the source of the psychic wrench that you get whenever you come back home from a holiday. You got used to viewing things from a different perspective while you were wherever you were staying. Now you have to shift it back to the one of your home. 

It only takes a little bit of imagination to construct a world dominated by principles of psychic geography.

Think about this: even in a fairly homogeneous part of the world like the Northumberland countryside and its villages, there is in fact quite a lot of variation. There are the chocolate-box villages full of holiday cottages and gastropubs for the tourists. There are the actual real lived-in villages, which mix slices of society in strange ways (lawyers, accountants, actuaries living in the bigger and older houses, from which they commute to their city-based workplaces every day; agricultural workers and handymen living in the newer and typically pokier developments). There are the really off-the-beaten-track places (often just a single street, full of inbred types who squint at newcomers). There are the no-frills farming villages which haven't been at all gentrified because they are a bit far to commute to the nearest city. There are the newbuild ticky-tacky villages (a bunch of new houses plonked somewhere vaguely nearby a bigger town where "first time buyers" are supposed to live). And there are the barrack villages where the families of RAF officers are domiciled. Somebody could come up with a more detailed taxonomy than this, but you get my point.

All of these different village-types have different atmospheres and attitudes, and it isn't hard to imagine that if you spent a few days living in an RAF officer village you would come to adjust your perception of the world in a certain way that would be somewhat different from how you would adjust your perception of the world after a few days living in a no-frills farming village. This is because geography, time and space mean different things in those different contexts.

Imagine, then, a world in which after you spent a few days in a place you actually slipped into a different plane - imagine that psychic geography was actually real. Imagine if moving from village to village, town to town, city to city and so on meant moving between psychic filters which changed the way reality is perceived and hence the stuff of reality itself. In village A, the nearby forest is haunted, and the nearby city is 100 miles away because the people in the village almost never go there. But in village B, on the other side of the forest, the nearby city is only 10 miles away because the people trade with it quite a bit. And in village C, which is inside the forest, the forest is completely benign but the outside world of open fields and skies is full of foreboding. 

As the PCs move between these locations, psychic geography does not shift immediately, but, let's say, after d3+1 days; if they spend d3+1 days in village A the forest, when they travel through it, will be a place of danger, thronged with ghosts. But if they make it to village B and stay there a couple of day,s the nature of the forest itself will change and their journey out will be pleasant. When they get to village C they rest another few days and suddenly the city, which seemed once so far, is now close at hand. As the PCs build up local knowledge about their surrounding psychic geography, they can of course use it tactically. (Need to see a sage in the city very quickly? Go to village B and hang out there for a weekend. Suddenly the city is altogether closer than it was!)


  1. Utterly fascinating and much food for thought. Thanks!

  2. Very interesting take. Especially interesting if the PCs are not native to this plane and aren't aware of the effect.

    Almost feels like an unreliable narrator in the DM. "What?? The city is right there? The guys on the last village said it was a months journey away!" And as this builds they either think all the villagers are stupid or you are messing with then hard.

    Great stuff!

  3. changing perspectives from place to place is something that has been studied and demonstrated by geographers. your take on it is and interesting way to apply the sense of place in game mechanics so players also understand the game world, interesting. . .

  4. Useful ideas there. Thank you.

  5. I've always wanted to do a game where the world's a patchwork of realities full of all different rules, and all the PCs carry little bits of their own world with them so they can apply its rules wherever they go. Changes costing more or less depending on their size, duration, etc. Classes are fragments of worlds in which everything works like they do.

  6. I found this from a topic at the Eberron forum at The Piazza.

    Apparently your Psychic Geography concept is very close to something in Eberron called the Traveller's Curse and your logic is a way to expand on how the canon works in Eberron's continent of Xen'Drik.

    Thanks for posting this.