Playing with Transderivational Search: day dreams and Roleplaying Games

You have the first turn in a game of Fiasco and you want to establish a scene. You look around you to consider how your character is connected to the other protagonists in the story given what the index cards on the table say. Who are you and what are you doing on this first scene?

You are the MC in an Apocalypse World campaign and it’s the first session. Four players have created characters and have exchanged a considerable amount of Hx with each other. Can you imagine what may have happened so far and what probably is the present situation? What questions do you want to know the answer to? As you all move into the fiction, to which character(s) do you turn first?

You’re playing in a Fate one-shot with pre-made characters. As the session begins, you take a moment to read through the aspects of your protagonist. How do you imagine this person that has this particular set of characteristics? Meshed together, what do they tell you about him? Can one be compelled to lead you into another?

You’ve gone through the Oracles for a quick session of In A Wicked Age and have decided upon a character. After forms and particular strengths have also been defined, what do you feel should be in your character’s best interest? What may be your place amongst all of this, can you imagine it?

You’re playing Spider-Man in a challenging action scene of Marvel Heroic Roleplaying and are running low on plot points. You read through your distinctions and try to imagine which of them may hinder your hero given the situation that has been described so far by the Watcher and what other heroes are doing. What does Spider-Man do, implying what distinction and how can you describe it?

Art for Eclipse Phase by Silver Saaramael

I'm going to go on a bit of a deep dive through some weird concepts that may have nothing to do with role-playing, but in my personal experience I feel like they do. So perhaps by the end of this article you may be able to tell me if it has any relevance to you. Cool? Cool.

Transderivational search (TDS) is a term used in psychology and cybernetics to describe a search that is being conducted for a fuzzy match across a broad field. Instead of looking for exact matches, it searches for a possible meaning or a possible match between experiences or mental representations. It is thus an integral part of processing language, and of attaching meaning to communication.

Here is a classical visual example. What do you see here?

classic Rorschach test

Common textual examples are something like:

“When she said she loved you, in which direction did her eye went to?”

leading a person to imagine something in their memory, or something like:

“Penny-wise and pound the table dance to the beat of a different drummer.”

using ambiguity that may trigger TDS in order to reconcile the discrepancies between expected and actual utterances in sequence.

Art for Mage: the Ascension by Leif Jones

As a process of internal focus characterised by a lack of certainty and an openness to answers, TDS is sometimes associated with a brief state of trance, more with adults than with children. Moving from external to internal perceptions, a trance is a state of profound abstraction or absorption. The process of TDS can move a person From Outside to Inside, into a trance, and then From Inside to Outside, returning to physical perceptions with some possible answer.

Being a human mental process, not all people have the same level of proficiency with TDS, nor the same susceptibility to the trance it may induce. One thing is the activity which may elicit TDS, another is the process itself and still another is the trance that may or may not be associated with it. For example, when we look at that Rorschach test above, we may choose to resist the urge to TDS by forcing ourselves to apply some other logical process, maybe by dividing the image into quadrants, analysing each in order and comparing them one-by-one, step-by step, something that your average computer could do. However, such a process would not give us any single correct answer because there simply isn’t one.

Sometimes, we can recognise in ourselves a moment when we space out, day dream or go into a slight trance. We may feel able to consciously let ourselves slip into that state and we may even associate it with our need to think of something more creatively or to let our mind wander in order to find some solution or deeper meaning. If any of this sounds familiar, you probably can think of several occasions when you have gone through the process of TDS and the mild trance that it induces.

Art for Lords of Gossamer and Shadow by Jason Rainville

In the context of tabletop Roleplaying Games (RPGs), TDS is one of the reasons why there is a distinction between tabletop and computer RPGs, for this process is naturally related to the unique richness of human interactions. The more decisive language is in your gaming sessions, the deeper and more frequent will be the transderivational searches that take place in them and, therefore, you will need to keep a firmer grasp on the rules of the game in order to easily pull yourself into and out of trance.

This even relates to a particular quote from Viola Spolin’s “Improvisation for the Theatre”:

Ingenuity and inventiveness appear to meet any crises the game presents, for it is understood during playing that a player is free to reach the game’s objective in any style he chooses. As long as he abides by the rules of the game, he may swing, stand on his head, or fly through the air. In fact, any unusual or extraordinary way of playing is loved and applauded by his fellow players.

From my own experience, I feel that the “rules of the game” are like a meeting point for everyone around the table, with many paths and trails that we may take to wander away from it. If everyone follows some good solid rules, they not only ask questions that may lead us into a TDSing trance, but they also establish procedures that bring us out of it, again and again.

Art for Eclipse Phase by Jeff Simpson

If we resist the need to perform a TDS, we may end up looking for a perfect solution where there really isn’t one. Like if you gave me a vivid description of a tavern to make me imagine my place in it and, instead, I ask you exactly how many people are in this space and start drawing squares in a map. Maybe I don’t feel comfortable with the TDS mental process and/or I feel too vulnerable with the risk of spacing out.

On the other hand, we can also plunge head first into a TDS with no idea of when we will come out of the trance that it may induce. Like, three hours have passed and I’m still singing drunken songs on top of an empty barrel with no idea of where the other characters are or what game we were supposed to be playing.

The more decisive language is in your gaming sessions, the deeper and more frequent will be the transderivational searches that take place in them

It is also possible to not think of TDS as some part of the group’s dynamic and consider how a person can go through the process and enter a trance without  interacting with anyone. This can be done, for example, by flipping through the book or drawing artwork during the session. A person can even talk himself or herself into a TDSing trance if all that is being communicated is exposition with close to zero interactivity.

In my experience, in these cases where a person enters a trance without keeping enough momentum to get out, the experience can be a bit jarring when circumstances force the person to snap out of it, maybe because of some social interruption or because the session is played until the very last second possible and everybody has to just get up and leave. This can be so abrupt that some people may go through the week day dreaming about what happened or could have happened.

Virtual Adept by Leif Jones

Finally, there is also the possibility of stepping away from the whole idea of playing through a story created with other people. Maybe we just want to hand over all narrative control to a single person while the rest of us day dream for as long as possible. In that case, this person needs to stand above the rules of the game, avoid getting into a TDSing trance during the session and aim to provoke that trance in the players as a way to control the conversation. For this person to avoid having to TDS during the session, the story should be well prepared before hand and any possible underlying connection between it and the player characters should be ignored. To provoke TDS in the players, this level of preparation should also aim to maintain an aura of credibility that makes them look for a deeper meaning and try to resolve any ambiguities. Usually, large complex RPGs with big beautiful TDS-provoking books also help in convincing people to just let one person take care of the game.

Art for 13th Age by Lee Moyer and Aaron McConnell

Anyway, I don’t think that playing with deep and frequent TDSs to move in and out of trance anchored to Spolin’s “rules of the game” can be done just alone within your group. I believe it has to grow out of a real conversation where each person may help the other go through the process and its possible trance. It also places responsibility on good game design, one that does not leave the players lingering on an empty trance caused by a lack of proper tools or by ambiguous instructions.

I’d like to invite everyone to follow the rabbit hole that starts with the wikipedia article on transderivational search. Maybe I’m wrong and it has nothing to do with RPGs, or maybe it has but it’s just a name for something too generic and theoretical. For me personally, the concept resonates with several situations that I’ve experienced and being aware of this mental process helps me understand why some things sometimes flow more naturally and others don’t. How about you? Please let me know.

Art for Legend of the Five Rings by Alayna Lemmer
Ricardo Tavares

Ricardo Tavares

I love tabletop RPGs, want to see them grow and therefore do a lot of work for the Portuguese role-playing community. And also publish my own games.