Ego Depletion
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Basic Information

In psychology, the concept of ego depletion is the idea that willpower and self-control are difficult and draining to manifest. Resisting temptation eats away at a limited mental resource which takes time to replenish. Once your ego is sufficiently depleted, you'll give way to temptation or coercion. This can even happen even if the original temptation is unrelated to the subsequent one. The straw that breaks the camel's back may be a tiny little thing, or it may be a huge "sin" that you'd normally never engage in if you weren't so sick and tired of having to say "no" all day.

Interesting studies and tests have been done on ego depletion, such as making people resist eating freshly baked cookies, and then giving them an impossibly hard math problem. Those who resisted the temptation of the delicious cookies gave up rather quickly on the math test. Control groups who either didn't know there were cookies, or were allowed to eat all they wanted, were able to work longer and harder on the math test.

Something similar would also seem to apply in combat fatigue, where men force to exhibit courage for prolonged periods under constant stress become mentally exhausted long before they become physically exhausted.



Game and Story Use

  • The obvious implication is that willpower tests and mental saving throws that are "roll-to-resist" are probably going at it "wrong". (Or at least, not simulating reality very well.)
    • If you take a second or subsequent saving throw in the same scene or day, it should have a penalty. This penalty should exist regardless of whether the first saving throw was successful or failed, and regardless of whether or not the two saves are at all related or caused by completely unrelated events.
    • Or better yet, perhaps what this tells us is that we should have a social hitpoints system.
      • (As you probably know, physical hitpoints are a number that gets eroded by attacks, losing a few points for a punch, and more for a gunshot or stab. When you reach 0 hit points you suffer a consequence, such being incapacitated or even death.)
      • Social hitpoints (or ego hitpoints or willpower hitpoints or whatever you want to call them) would get eroded by temptation, coercion, and fatigue. You'd lose a few points for having some small temptation or social pressure applied. You'd lose a lot more points if a mind-control power were aimed at you. Indeed, in such a system the only difference between mundane social pressure and a mind-numbing hypnotism spell would be the size of social damage die they used. When you reach 0 social hitpoints you suffer a consequence, such as running away or caving in to the pressure and doing something you normally wouldn't.
      • The scent of fresh Cookies would be like "temptation caltrops", doing a small amount of ego damage turn by turn over time to anyone nearby.
      • Something kinda similar exists in the Sanity Points of Call of Cthulhu and the Stability Pool of Trail of Cthulhu, with the consequence of getting to zero being insanity, but neither system's default rules use the same mechanical pool to model temptation, coercion or mind-control1
      • If you're thinking, "this all sounds really exploitable", congratulations. You've just figured out how con games, advertising, interrogation and torture work. Once you've implemented such a system, clever players will start trying to weaponize it. Two can play at that game.
      • The FATE RPG system includes a mental as well as a physical stress track, which could work for this (although usually at a more traumatic level).
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