by Wanderer Werewolf
©2010 Wanderer Werewolf

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   As one year draws to a close, another begins. The passing of a year, an age, a torch, a bequest… in all its forms, it is one thing:
   Change. Difference. Alteration.
   Most game settings have at least a few transformations scattered about the landscape. Shadowrun and its magic, Underground with its genetic engineering, Dragonstar with its semi-robotic ‘soulmechs’—the list goes on and on. For that matter, rare indeed is the gamer or author that hasn’t made at least one ‘turning into my character’ tale. The sheer intrigue, the excitement of becoming what you dream of being… it’s a heady feeling. Almost an infatuation.
   But there’s a pattern to this, as with most things. This pattern will be familiar to anyone that’s ever gone to grief counseling—but I’m getting ahead of myself. Psychologist Dai Williams breaks the process of adapting to change—any change, good or bad—down into five stages:

1. Initial Shock: “What the… ?”

   This is the first stage, starting right after the Event. Your brain is desperately trying to wrap itself around something it wasn’t expecting, and has no pre-made coping mechanisms for. So it takes a step back for 1-2 months.
   For positive events (like becoming your dream-self), this is the stage of excitement. It’s Christmas, Hannukah, Kwanzaa and a hundred birthdays all rolled into one! It’s great, it’s terrific, you can’t believe it!
   For negative events (such as curses, being turned into something you find disgusting, etc.), this is the stage of numbness. You’re in shock; it’s like the whole thing is some kind of weird dream. It’s… you just can’t believe it.

2. Provisional Adjustment: “I can handle this…”

   This stage is something of an ‘Indian Summer’ in the process. Your brain isn’t ready to deal with the negatives of your new situation—so it doesn’t. It closes its eyes, covers its ears, and makes up its mind that the bad stuff isn’t there… or at least isn’t so bad… for 1-2 months.
   For positive events, this is the honeymoon stage. You’re different! It’s exactly what you always wanted! You love it! “I’ve got a tail—how cool is that?” You love anything and everything about your new self. You want to try everything that’s different and new, and see what it’s like.
   For negative events, this is the stage of minimizing (“This isn’t so bad…”) or denial (“I’m going to wake up any minute now…”). Most people in this stage try to soldier on, pretending that they’re ‘fine’ (yeah, F.I.N.E., or Fouled-up, Insecure, Neurotic, and Emotional). Which, when you run up against mental limitations (Beast’s lowered IQ in La Belle et La Bete), physical limitations (the non-anthro dog transformation in Dogsbody), or social limitations (the invisible girl on Buffy), can be a real problem. Which brings us to…

3. Inner Contradictions: “That’s… not right…”

   At this stage, the two types of event approach unity; positive or negative, this is when your brain starts realizing it has to deal with the realities of your situation… and it doesn’t know how. This can range from discovering what it’s like to have a mating season to realizing that people treat you differently now that you’re a talking hamster. Over the course of less than two months (as the stages accelerate), you begin to doubt everything you used to know. You doubt yourself. And as you sink into confusion and depression, you reach…

4. Inner Crisis: “What do I do now!?”

   It’s come to a head here. You have to come to terms with what’s changed in your life. You can’t ignore it anymore… it’s time to admit that having paws instead of hands is limiting. It’s time to face the fact that people don’t treat talking rats with much respect.
   And it’s time to decide where you’re going from here. This stage is immediate, visceral, and completely unavoidable. This is the scariest stage of all. This is the moment when the mind has to stop what it was doing and pick something else. How your character acts here not only grows out of the previous stages, but determines what happens next.

5. Re-construction and recovery

   At least, that’s Williams’ label for this stage… but the name isn’t necessarily accurate. Not everyone comes out the other side of a transformation (of any sort) intact, or even ‘working’. If they can’t let go of what went before, the character could end up ‘stuck’ at the crisis point, tormented… or even kill themselves. Of such moments are the great tragedies made.
   But let’s assume they avoid those two paths. Once they’ve let go of their preconceived ideas, they could settle in to ‘partial recovery’. This is where those characters wind up that still do what they used to… but with allowances for their own differences. The ladies’ man turned into a hyena-morph remains the same, but aims for a different crowd; the engineer turned into a rat develops tools to match his new size.
   And there’s nothing wrong with that. If this is where the character stops, that’s where they stop. They’ve found a way to go on. And if they’re not completely happy with their lives… well, they’re ‘happy enough’.
   But beyond ‘partial recovery’, if they can reach for it, the characters find the final stage.
   Acceptance. Instead of minimizing or simply ‘allowing for’ the change, the character accepts it. They come to grips with the fact that they’re not who and what they were—they’re something else, someone else, and they have a whole new life in front of them. It’s time for them to find out what the ‘new them’ is really like, and decide where the ‘new them’ fits. And then… then they can be happy.
   (n.b.: This last possibility is extremely rare for negative changes, true. Most negative changes top out at ‘partial recovery’. But people—and characters—can surprise you.)
   Now, of course, this last stage is the hardest one to put a timetable on. It could be 1-2 months, or 1-2 years… or longer. This stage happens at the character’s pace, and rushing it (like delaying it) is not a good idea. Which can really complicate matters if another trauma—of any sort—occurs in the meantime.
   Now, again, these guidelines to incorporating trauma aren’t for everyone. You can get by just fine without. But consider:

   Of course, there are a lot more ways to go here… ‘transformed character’ backstories certainly take on more meaning when you realize that you’re following the ‘stages of grief’ pattern. In a real sense, you’re grieving for yourself—the closest person in the world to you. Perhaps the character even has a ‘grave’ to his former self… or not.
   Everyone’s different, after all.
   And with that, we reach the end of my first RKD of 2010. (I think I missed my rendezvous with Rama.) Here’s wishing you and yours a most joyous New Year, and many positive changes in the year ahead!

   Next time, we’ll be looking at community size and design. Nomadic communities are completely different from our Roman-esque grid plan, and it’s time we knew what that means. See you next time, in the Red King’s Dream!

Dear Readers:
   One Lucius Appaloosius (who isn’t just horsing around) has reported to me of two minor errors in last issue’s discussion of culture. As they’re quite valid criticisms, I thought I’d correct them here.
   1. In the opening paragraphs of the article, I identified
pysanky as Russian. While they do exist in Russia, they are more properly a Ukrainian tradition, a fact I seem to have omitted from the article. Mea culpa, I’m afraid.
   2. In the brief discussion of bagpipes under ‘cultural stereotyping’, I made a misleading comment about bagpipes originating in Ireland. While that was indeed the link by which they came to Scotland, any implication of an Irish invention was in error; bagpipes trace back to Greece by some accounts, while the addition of the wind bag to the multiple bone pipes—
tibia utricularis—is generally credited to the Romans.
   (n.b.: The earliest secular reference to bagpipes is Greek, in Aristophanes’
The Acharnians, a critique echoed by many who do not care for bagpipes: “You pipers who are here from Thebes, with bone pipes blow the posterior of a dog.” 400 BC, and already a music critic…)
   My thanks to Lucius for the corrections; and my apologies to you, dear readers, for the error.

Yours in some slight embarassment,
The well-schooled,

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