Tuesday, August 27, 2013
Insanity is a tricky aspect to handle in a game. On one end of the spectrum, you have those who love playing it like a Monty Python sketch on full throttle, and my memories of this approach range from players who've portrayed the bunny wabbit slipper Malkavians to those who think being an insanely ancient druid means talking to animals in cutesy voices and embracing the idea of comic relief. At the other end, you have those who push it to disturbing, psychopathic levels, which while less funny, aren't functionally that different in hindering rather than helping a game. I recall a recent Paladin that was portrayed as a guy who pretty much tried to decapitate anyone who lied, showed a hint of evil, or questioned his "righteousness". And there was the other player who spend almost thirty minutes of real time just staring at the rest of us, and finally when he was prodded to act in a scene, goes all out screaming obscenities - then stops to explain, "That's how madness really is" - before continuing his explosion of verbal rage.
I don't like that.
I don't like it when players think "accurate" is more important than "fun for everyone". I don't like it when players think "amusing for me" is more important than "amusing for everyone including me". Role-playing games are a social activity. And unless the game has a system geared to being antagonistic to each other (cause yes, there are such games) I dislike any player who tries to make a game session just a chance to mess everyone else up.
Given that, here are some suggestions on how to approach a not-quite sane character in your games - assuming you are someone like me who wants the game to still be fun for all.
Early note: I'm not writing a blog post that seeks to define insanity, or to do it "justice" in any way or form. This is not a post that tries to favor neurosis over psychosis or anything like that. Nor is this post attempting to belittle the true struggle some have with mental disability. This is merely a post suggesting how players and gms who want to have an insane character in their stories can approach it without making it less fun for everyone else in the game. Those who feel insanity or mental disability (and so forth) should never be in a game, feel free to not have them in your own games.
Even the Joker Can Make Sense
Take D.C. Comics' infamous villain, the Joker. Yes, he's psychotic in ways we can only dream of. One comic even described him as "constantly reinventing himself" or possibly being hypersane, in the sense that he's like that because he is aware he is a comic book character, hence nothing matters. None of them are really alive.
Now, that I can work with in a game. The character might sprout nonsense at times, or wear something outlandish, but when push comes to shove, the Joker still focuses on the goal. The joker still makes sense in what he does (only that "sense" tends to be something extremely questionable and unthinkable when viewed with our perspective.) but then acts in a way which still helps move the narrative along and allow other players to interact with him.
The Insane One Isn't Alone, Unless it is a Solo Game
A good guide is to keep the internal logic of insanity intact. Once the insane action goes way over the character's own sense of what makes sense, then its most likely leading to more disruptive displays than not. Yes, in the real world insanity is a serious issue and can make things difficult in real life. But in a fictional story, consider at least keeping it at a level that allows the game to still be fun for all who are part of it. Batman, for example, can be deemed to have his own share of insanities and yet for the paranoid, overly careful lone wolf he tends to be he still works well as part of the Justice League, even if many scenes are showing why he supposedly does not. The Doctor from Dr. Who on the other hand can have his moments of mania and one incarnation even suffered from a God-complex moment. But they were always shown to still rein in their "tendancies" to work with the rest of the team. Tip too much past being able to work with others, and you slide away from Punisher and slip more towards Dr. Doom where the neurosis start either making the character so antisocial it makes the other players prefer to NOT interact, or transforms the viable concept into a caricature just so the player still feels its "being fun."
Consider letting the GM keep you guessing
This works best for players who want the challenge of actually being "saddled" with the neurosis and not feel like they're in full control of it. In my games, I have offered to run the neurosis for the player, and while challenging, this has resulted in pretty awesome moments.
For example, one player wanted to have paranoia but didn't want to just come up with reasons to be paranoid. So here's what I did: Whenever his character was handling scenes away from other Player Characters, I would "color" the narrative to suggest the paranoia. Him learning another player left to buy supplies would be described as, "You learn that Anna for some reason you cannot fathom opted to leave without telling you. The last time you saw her, you noticed she broke eye contact very quickly. Did she really go to get supplies?" In a later scene, when Anna returned, the character confronted her about leaving and the rest of the team were telling him he's being a jerk. I slipped the player a note and it read: "You notice Anna glanced at James before James started complaining about your actions. Are they in this together?"
Given the games had systems to "check if she was lying" and the like, for those I stuck to my guns and always answered truthfully. Although to help push the paranoia, for that player such rolls were done behind a screen. Whenever they failed, I would alternate between truth and lies.
The player? He loved it. He loved not knowing for certain if he could trust them. The other players? They liked how they didn't feel he was just making stuff up. They liked how I sometimes gave a double meaning to a simple action. At some point, they even threw in some of their own "double meaning" actions to push the paranoia angles. It worked brilliantly.
In another game I ran (which was a Vampire the Masquerade game) the players were elders who had held fast to their unlife til the modern nights. Given how the rules required them to have some Humanity loss, which to explain to the non-Vampire gamers meant their characters had some level of mental degeneration, I opted to handle their derangements for them. One player had it simple: Sanguinary Animism. So whenever he fed, I would run a few scenes where he thought he was the victim, living part of the victim's life until he reasserted his mental dominance. The other, however, was the prime moment of awesome. The second player had a Venture who had risen high in the ranks of the Camarilla, with an eye for the Princedom. His Sire visited him nightly, offering advice and suggestions on how to take any rivals down. And after numerous game sessions, when he finally accomplished his goal, he called for a grand ceremony and asked the Ventrue to bear witness to his achievement. As he regaled to everyone how this was a huge step forward for the Ventrue Clan to solidify their hold on the city, he turned to his Sire to thank him for always believing in him. The crowd remained silent. He turned to the crowd, angered that they did not applaud his Sire, and slowly began to hear from the gathered their small whispered murmurs of how... the Sire was not there at all. In fact, the Sire had met a Final Death many centuries back.
He was, all the while, talking to himself. And saw that "self" as his Sire.
Have you seen the show, Hannibal, for example?
If yes, then you know what I mean.
If no, then I suggest you check it out. And you'll see how that would work really well.
Basically have any actual manifestations of the psychosis emerge when the character knows he is alone. Think less Gollum screaming at himself and more certain examples that would spoil certain movies if I mentioned them. Maybe the madness manifests only when he is alone. Or maybe the madness slips through when his defenses are lowered, and gain full control when he finally falls asleep. More Baltar. Less Mister Bean.
Always having clear and focused characters can be boring, I admit. But opting to play a less sane one just for kicks and not paying attention to how that ruins the fun for everyone else? That's just crazy. And its the kind of crazy that can get one kicked out of a gaming group.
So don't do that.