No wonder Achilles sometimes wet the bed ...

No wonder Achilles sometimes wet the bed …

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is now a well-accepted aspect of modern soldiering, and it seems to be now recognized that earlier disorders of soldiers such as shell shock that might once have been described as cowardice or weakness were in fact manifestations of the same condition. I did not know, however, that there are accounts from ancient times of this phenomenon occurring amongst soldiers from very different types of warfare, and it isn’t the case that PTSD is a function only of modern warfare. Today I discovered an article describing symptoms of PTSD in Assyrian warriors, from Iraq between 1300 and 600 BC, which were taken from cuneiform tablets. Apparently the Assyrians had a form of military service, with military age males spending one of every three years of their service in combat, and the Assyrians kept extensive documentation of both their campaigns and their medical practice. The article, published in the journal Early Science and Medicine, reports on symptoms of PTSD (especially seeing ghosts and nightmares) taken from some of these tablets. It also gives a bit of detail about Assyrian medical practice, and the importance of diagnosis to Assyrian doctors. The article is a bit jumbled up and confusing, but it makes the case that PTSD is not just associated with modern, extremely lethal soldiering, but is associated in the case of these ancient warriors with fear of death, the sight of colleagues dying, and also the fear of slow death from injury.

The findings themselves aren’t groundbreaking, but I am interested in the general finding of PTSD in ancient soldiers and its documentation. As role-players, we often play warriors engaged in quite brutal old-fashioned combat, often engaged with horrible things from beyond the grave, but in the older games there is no mechanism for the gradual erosion of confidence and strength that constant terror of this kind might cause – indeed, the classic model of gaining XP from experience suggests that our soldiers only gain in strength from continued exposure to slaughter and near death (or, in many cases, death and resurrection!) Of course some of the more modern games have mechanisms for insanity and humanity loss, but these are generally primarily triggered by exposure to sinister magic and beasts from beyond, not from the “mundane” horrors of seeing your friends dismembered, clubbed to death, burnt alive or eaten by zombies. Upon reflection it seems obvious that this would tend to wear one down, and it appears that published accounts from people who did a lot of stabbing, smashing and clubbing to death support the idea that it is a disturbing and sometimes enervating experience.

Some of the symptoms are also quite profound: blindness or deafness, sudden weakness, and loss of sleep. It’s easy to imagine that in a classic D&D setting the inability to sleep would be crippling for a wizard. Inserting some kind of simple mechanic for PTSD from continued battlefield exposure – perhaps ramping it up for multiple back to back battles – would lead to a quite interesting change in play style and get people rethinking battlefield strategies, especially if even “mundane” combat could bring it about, and if it was related more to the length of exposure than the intensity. Players would reconsider frontal assault tactics if there was the possibility that their wizard would suddenly freak out and decide to blow himself up … or their cleric became a shivering wreck incapable of healing them.

I guess we have a tendency to think about psychological health of our characters only in terms of their exposure to hideous dark secrets from beyond the veil. We imagine ourselves as heroes whose basic psychology and morality can only be tempered with by the gods and dark magics. Apparently, and not really surprisingly, the reality is rather different. It would be interesting to see how the tone and style of classic fantasy play would change if it were modified to make the psychology, as well as physiology, of its heroes vulnerable to the slings and arrows of their horde of enemies…

Advertisements