Wednesday, August 12, 2009

PC Madness

I'd like to talk about madness in live games (both tabletop and LARP). And fortunately, not only do I want to talk about it, but someone asked me to. So I don't feel too silly.

In most games, insanity comes in one of two ways. Either statistical or freeform.

Freeform insanities are the most common. That's when you just take a trait like "paranoid" and play it however seems reasonable. There's nothing particularly wrong with that, and good players can do it well. However, it does have two draw backs. The first is that many players won't do it well, and the second is that it doesn't have a strong connection to the game world, which means it may interfere with rather than help the gameplay.

Statistical insanity is used by games that "specialize" in insanity in a desperate attempt to wedge insanity into the core gameplay. The biggest example is the Cthulhu game, and the other Cthulhu game, and that other Cthulhu game, you know the one. I suppose we could mention this Cthulhu game too, and that one if we feel a bit mad.

This legislated statistical insanity allows for the rules to dictate an insane reaction. For example, you might be forced to run in fear, or gibber for 2d10 turns, or whatever. They also give the GM a clear indicator if he wants to play unreliable narrator. Low-sanity characters can see things in an unusual manner or, if the GM is a poor GM, see random crap, whatever he pulls from the hat.

Statistical sanity is also often linked to other game performance. For example, you might have to have a certain minimum or maximum sanity to perform a certain spell.

I do not like either of these approaches. The first has no structure to serve as a foundation for a game, and the second is a good foundation but is not terribly good at actually making the players feel their characters are insane.

I've experimented with character insanity in many ways. It's not an easy thing to work into a game properly, which is probably why nobody does. I have not discovered a way to base a game entirely on madness. It either makes it impossible for the players to act coherently OR it requires a huge amount of GM effort.

But I have figured out how to integrate madness into many other kinds of games.

Let me show you how I do it.

The basic idea is simple: reward the players for being insane.

The specifics are more complicated than that, so let me explain a bit more.

In Bastard Jedi, madness was a big part of the game. However, it was couched in such a way that I don't think any of the players figured out until several weeks into the game that they were going insane. Or even that it was possible.

The mechanic was very simple. Everyone had a few emotional axes, such as humility vs arrogance and harmony vs anger. They have a score in that axis, such as a +2 or a -1. At any time, they can act suitably whatever and receive a number of extra dice equal to their rating. So someone with a -1 anger could gain a die by acting harmonious or lose a die by acting angry.

Very simple, and an obvious, clear path to falling and rising, right?

Nnnnnnno, not really. The mechanics are simple, but the resulting dynamic has several layers because it screws with the player's head a bit. As a clear example, after a player has gotten used to relying on being humble when they need a few dice, you find something fascinating: the player character has developed a rather serious self-esteem problem. Even when the player doesn't need dice, he's in the habit of being humble, legitimized by the idea that he has to be "ready" to pull the humble out at any moment.

Humility... that's a light side trait, though, right?

No, I never said that. You can fall to humility. I don't know if you noticed, but you just did.

This "lead-in" trick works exceptionally well and on all kinds of players. Even shy or socially inept players have an easy enough time bending the short distance required to express a simple emotion, and it becomes second nature remarkably fast. Lead-ins aren't suitable for one-shots, but for anything that runs over a few months, the technique can be used at will. The players will happily wander into full-blown insanity without any explicit help from you, without even a list of insanities.

Depending on the situation, the players may instead draw BACK from full-blown insanity. But they know it's there, and that immerses them very deeply in both their character and the game world.

I can't guarantee its efficacy for other GMs, but it's always worked spectacularly for me, and I'm a fairly "hands off" GM.


The other method I've used with somewhat less success (but still more than Cthulhu or Cthulhu. Or even Cthulhu!) is the sanity tradeoff.

For example, if you get superpowers, you get insanities to go with them.

The key to this is that your insanity is directly entangled with your superpower, either as an obvious social result or as a psychological source of power. This means you need a wider variety of subtler insanities. There's no Axis of Insanity where you randomly roll to see if you're gibbering or running in terror this round.

For example, if you gain the ability of flight, then you can take one of two insanities. One is that you can't fly unless you are feeling a specific emotion, such as detachment or panic. (One of them, not either of them.) In this situation, the insanity powers your ability.

"That's not insanity!"

Ssssshhh... you don't start insane. You go insane.

The other option is to have an insanity that is a clear result of the ability to fly - the social result. For example, feeling "above it all". This is also not an insanity, it's just being snooty. While the insanity-powered ability is mandated by the need to fly, the ability-result insanity has to have a different mechanic. I generally use "active tokens". When I think the player is acting his mental difficulties out, I give him the token. When I think he isn't, I take it away. As long as he has the token, he can use the ability. This works okay with 3-4 players, but some other method is almost certainly possible, and it could certainly use some refinement.

The player characters are rapidly (depending on your timescale) given additional abilities either powered by the same insanity or resulting in the same insanity. Unfortunately, it also means that the player has to go further into the mindset.

What was once powered by a simple feeling of detachment is now much more powerful but must be powered by a feeling of profound isolation and uncaring. It becomes necessary to actually do acts that show how detached you are. In the beginning you might have refused to give a beggar change. Now you must sweep past him without even seeing him. Your friends want your help? Well, if you turn them down, you'll be able to use your power for the rest of the day...

Any otherwise normal (if slightly peculiar) mental states can be blown up into full-blown insanity if you let the players grow into it.

This method seems less efficient, but I haven't given it nearly as much polish or playtesting, so take it for what it's worth.


Notice that in both methods I never give explicit instructions. There is no "you must run around screaming now", no "oh, you see a giant purple iguana flying around your head". I just let the players take things to an insane extreme. You might think this limits the kinds of insanities you'll end up with, but that's not the case. Players are quite creative and will usually come up with much more convincing insanities than your rule book.

Basically, my philosophy is that true insanity comes from within.

Have any of you used these techniques? I've used them in games large and small, but I'd love to hear your thoughts.


Ellipsis said...

I haven't played with either of the mechanics you bring up, but they do sound fun, and I like them in principal. I suppose it's fairly similar to some of the Houses of the Blooded mechanics - if I have a character trait where I tend to stab people in the back, I get extra dice when I do so, which encourages me to always look for opportunities to do so.

I have definitely played with a fair amount of freeform insanity, though. The best example was a cleric of an obscure deity who heard voices in his head - sometimes it was the voice of his deity speaking to him, and sometimes it was just him being crazy. The GM started playing along with this feature and would occasionally pass him pieces of paper letting him know what the voice in his head was saying (without specifying if it was actually the deity speaking or not). That was fun, especially when the seeming gibberish turned out to be prescience.

Craig Perko said...

Well, it should be mentioned that the forms of insanity that are usually included in games cause a lot of friction between players, because players use their interactions to show that they are insane. The Houses of Blood example shows how a regimented, pre-defined insanity will often cause excessive in-party problems.

With the techniques I suggest, you can still have a fairly coherent group, although, obviously, the team doesn't run like clockwork.

The GM-passing-you-letters story is similar to my experiences running high-insanity games. But it just requires too much GM work, especially for more than three players. (The "Can't Play Riggers in Shadowrun" problem.)