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The Play's the Thing

The Error of the Moon

by David Goodner
Jun 24,2004


The Error of the Moon

By David Goodner

"It is the very error of the moon,
She comes more near the earth than she was wont,
And makes men mad." --William Shakespeare (Othello: act 5, sc. 2)

That's right, kiddies. This time out, we're talking about Lunacy. Psychosis. Madness.

In literature, film, and drama, madness is a powerful device. The insane are sometimes frightening, sometimes comical, and often believed to have insights that escape those bound by rational thought.

And where popular culture goes, gaming follows. So characters afflicted with madness in one form or another have been around for a long time. They can be exciting, interesting, compelling, frightening... or really annoying. All too often, the ones I've encountered fall into the last category. Players use "my character is insane" as an excuse to be disruptive, or just lack the comedic or dramatic skills to pull off what could otherwise be a fun character.

Seeing it done wrong many times, and right a very shining few, has led me to try my hand at playing a few characters with varying degrees of insanity, and to think quite a bit about what works and what doesn't.

My two best example characters are Cordelia Hawkwood, and Piper.

Cordie was a Hawkwood noble in a Fading Suns game, but her father engaged in illegal experimentation on her in the womb to produce psychic powers. In Fading Suns, all psychics have a Stigmata, some manifestation of their power that they have trouble hiding. Cordie's was that she constantly heard voices - not whispering secrets in her ear or telling her everyone was a demon - just talking. She was a telepath, and she believed the problem was that she could never quite shut off her telepathy, so she was bombarded by the psychobabble of everyone around her. (As it turned out, she was wrong, because Larry is a cool GM)

Piper was my attempt to play the loony toon Malkavian character in a VLARP and have it be really good. He wore a funny hat and a beat up jacket covered in buttons with clever slogans on them. He never talked, only pantomimed, and played a flute rather badly (a skill I possess in real life). What made him fun was that his lunacy was all a sham. He really was a Malkavian, but his actual derangement was that he went into catatonic withdrawal under stress. Acting like a harmless clown was the consummate defense. Everyone underestimated him.

Both of these went over pretty well. I've had a few others go... not so well, but they were either altered pretty soon or retired mercifully. And I've seen many more.

So, tell me about your mother... er... I mean, let's begin:

First, a brief disclaimer: I am not a psychologist, psychiatrist, or any other form of mental health professional. I have taken exactly one psychology course, and that was a long time ago. So this is not going to be particularly accurate in a scholarly sense. I'm not planning to discuss much real psychology, though. What we're talking about here is "Literary Madness," insanity as it is portrayed in literature, movies, etc...

Freud said wherever psychology went, literature would have gotten there first, so we've got dibs.

What's Your Damage?

The first thing to determine if you're going to play a crazy character is why your character is crazy in the first place. In the real world, insanity tends to rise from maltreatment in childhood, severe stress, and/or an imbalance of chemicals in the brain leading to "mis-processing" of sensory information. Once you've opened the door to fantasy and science fiction, there can be many more reasons, though.

This is the simplest step, but should not be taken too lightly. If you're playing a truly insane character, instead of one who just has a few quirks, then whatever drove him over the edge is a, if not the, defining thing in his life. Hamlet was driven mad (or perhaps not) by the awful truth revealed to him by the ghost of his father. Jesus and his apostles fairly regularly cast demons out of people who we would probably now diagnose as having Multiple Personality Disorder. Hanibal Lector... actually, I don't know what was up with Hanibal Lector. Those movies creep me the hell out.

If you're playing a realistic game, the cause of your character's madness will help determine its type. The ever popular Multiple Personality Disorder (unless there have been exciting new discoveries since the last time I browsed a work on psychology) arises in people who were profoundly traumatized as children, and lost all ability to trust anyone around them. Schizophrenia is the result of brain-chemical imbalance, and tends to run in families. Sociopath (or maybe they're calling it something else these days. Narcissistic personality disorder? Something like that) is usually the result of childhood abuse.

In a fantastic game, all bets are off. Demonic possession, alien experimentation, gypsy curses, almost anything goes.

Besides telling you how your character is insane, knowing the root cause will tell you how he might be returned to sanity if that's your goal. Real mental maladies can often be treated with drugs and therapy. Demonic possession is a little trickier sometimes.

Of course, you might not want your character cured at all. But even so, knowing the source of his madness will help you play him. A crazy Seer touched by the elfshot will have certain motifs you can play out.

Accounts of Madness

After the cause comes the effect. As I said before, this article is not going to be particularly scholarly. I'm going to just divide up various insanities into broad categories and discuss the play effects of each.

Neurosis - phobias, minor quirks, general weirdness. Neurotic characters are generally not dangerously violent. They instead have certain inhibitions in social situations. One of the coolest examples in modern culture is the TV detective Monk, who is the OCD poster boy. He has an incredible fear of grime and disorder. Other than that, he's fine. But "that" makes him a basket case.

Almost all people have a little bit of neurosis. Playing a character with more can be fun. It's usually more for comic effect than as a serious hindrance or a major source of drama.

A little unfairly, I'm also going to lump in stuff like manic-depression here - perfectly normal traits magnified out of proportion. The "real" effects are a lot different, of course, but in play they tend to have a similar effect on character dynamics. A manic depressive character will have trouble dealing with the world, but won't really be considered Insane (with a capital "I"), just kind of weird.

Psychosis - getting into scary territory here. The world, as interpreted by a Psychotic's senses, is different than the real world. He might hear voices that aren't there, or see things differently than they really are. Don Quixote, tilting at windmills, could be described as a psychotic. (albeit a pretty harmless one).

This delusional madness is incredibly compelling for literature. The characters are interesting to observe and interact with. It's a challenge to figure out the psychotic's frame of reference so you can understand what he's saying. Throw in just a hint of fantasy, and it gets really fun. Maybe he really does see ghosts or faeries.

You can play this one just about any way you want. The delusions can be funny, poignant, mysterious, or scary.

Sociopath - (I believe this term has fallen out of vogue these days, but I like it, so I'm using it anyway). The sociopath is, mostly, perfectly sane except for one little thing: a lack of compassion. He might act nice, warm, and caring, but in reality the only person he cares about is himself. He is probably very smart (stupid sociopaths are usually just called bullies). This makes him all the more dangerous, because there is nothing he won't do if he thinks it will get him what he wants.

Sociopaths are dangerous characters. In the right game, they'd be fine. (In a lot of games, everyone's a sociopath, of course. In which case this advice is irrelevant). But most of the games I've played in had an informal social contract that said the PCs were all on the same "side." They might not like each other much, but they'd cooperate at least a little bit - and instances of player vs. player conflict would be limited. A sociopath changes all that. Played properly, he really has no loyalty at all to the group, and no conscience or code of honor to stop him from knifing another PC in the back if he thinks he can get away with it. And worse yet, he'd do it without any foreshadowing to warn the other player. While that's perfectly realistic, it's not very nice for what is otherwise a friendly social activity.

Multiple Personality Disorder - A much more rare disorder in real life than in literature, MPD means just what it says: one brain holds multiple, distinct personalities. They might all know each other, or they might not. Generally (probably more in literature than in real life) one personality is fairly "normal." and the others are more aberrant. They might be expressions of different aspects of the core personality, or totally unrelated constructs. Some of them might not even be human.

MPD can be a lot of fun to play. If nothing else, there's variety. I haven't yet had the chance to play my MPD superheroine, Reliquary. Her power absorbs the consciousness of anyone who dies within a few yards of her, so her mind is host to several personalities - some of which are quite strong-willed. I'm really looking forward to the opportunity some day.

Autism - not really an insanity, but worth mentioning here. Autistics have difficulty relating to the outside world, using language, and accepting change. There is a broad spectrum of Autistic disorders. Characters on the low end are just somewhat eccentric. But on the far end, things get exciting. An Autistic Savant could be an interesting character, if you can keep him playable. It would be a good idea to have another player helping you out as your character's caregiver.

Developmental Delay - AKA Mental Retardation. Also not really insanity, but it could be interesting. Lenny, from Of Mice and Men is a classic literary example. His vast physical power was made tragic and monstrous by his feeblemindedness.

Alien - The last "not really insane" type, and in fact the last one I'm going to define right now. Alien characters are perfectly sane for their species, but have a different outlook than normal humans. A classic example from the ancient days of gaming (the 80's) is the Kender: a race of short, cute little people utterly without fear, and with uncontrollable curiosity.

North by Northwest

Ok, you know the "Why" and the "How," so it's time for the "What." Once you've figured out your character's derangement, you have to put it into practice.

Broadly, there are two ways to play an insane character: seriously, or humorously. There is also a third way: disruptively, but most people who play that way will argue vociferously that they're actually playing one of the other two, and the other players are just mean ole' jerks with no appreciation for good roleplaying.

Played for laughs - Insane characters are funny. Just think about Daffy Duck, particularly in his early, kidna freaky incarnation. They're wild and unpredictable. The problem is, they're hard to bring off. "Dying is easy, comedy is hard," as they say. I've seen more disruptive loony characters than I have ones I really wanted to share a game with. The most common symptom is that the kook constantly annoys the other PCs with his childish behavior, random outbursts, or whatever - then when the other players are fed up, the kook's player falls back on the "I was just playing my character" defense.

To pull this character off, you've got to walk a narrow line. Too little, and he's not really the character you want. Too much, and he's messing up everyone else's fun. My friend Chris gave me the following advice while we were discussing this: "remember, your job is to amuse the rest of the players, not yourself." Obviously, that doesn't mean you shouldn't be amused, but your goal is to be comic relief, not comic torture.

I think the trick is to work your portrayal so the character is a little "off" most of the time, and just goes spilling over the edge into complete lunacy every once in a while. Then you try to time those outbursts (maybe one in a long session) for times when they'll make the game more dramatic or more fun, rather than just when they'll be the most disruptive to everyone. And be ready for cues from the other players that you need to rope it in a little.

Unless you're really playing an adversarial game, you probably don't want to ruin the other PCs plans, just to make them more... interesting. So the classic Malkavian with a cream pie probably shouldn't really throw it at the Prince. But he should keep edging toward it, maybe pick it up and weigh it in his hands once. But one of the other PCs is ready to smoothly take it away.

Serious portrayal of insanity is probably harder, in some ways. But once you get the basics down, at least comedic timing isn't as much of an issue. An insane character played seriously is more dramatic. He has a built-in struggle he has to face above and beyond what everyone else does. Almost by definition, he's struggling to make sense of an insane world.

The challenge for the player is to figure out how the character's aberrant psychology interacts with the world around him. Someone with schizophrenic delusions constructs an elaborate fantasy world that could be completely alien, or might be only subtly different than the real world. Someone with multiple personalities has a reason for being that way. Something besides random chance might trigger the changes. Certain personalities would emerge in response to certain needs.

You don't need to base your portrayal on textbook psychology. (If you're a psychologist, go for it, though. That could be cool) Literature is a much better guide. Rather than responding to misfiring neurons or chemicals, your character's madness can respond to narrative necessity. The strange and terrible insights of the mad, while not very realistic, are very literary.

That basic advice holds for any of the concepts I've presented here. You want to keep two factors roughly in balance, your character's psychology (be it insane or alien, or just a little odd) and the needs of the game. Where they conflict, in general the needs of the game win. Fortunately, the game doesn't need a whole lot. If you're not actively dragging it down, you're probably doing fine.

Working with the GM would be a good idea. Something so terrible that it drove your character mad is probably worth working into the back story. A paranoid delusion about alien abductions that just happens to coincide with an illegal government operation could be fun.

And even though we're talking serious here, don't be afraid of a little humor once in a while, if it fits your character.


Well, that's all the time we have kiddies. This column covered material I've talked about previously. Indeed, a lot of this series seems to be.

Next on the hit parade will be one of two things: Comic Relief, or the dreaded Cross-Gender Character. See you then.

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