Character Research: Mental Illness
You’ve got the set of d10s. You’ve got your books, green covers with the roses and really ostentatious gothic fonts on the front. Your Game Master becomes an Storyteller, and when you read through the books last week, the clan Malkavian jumped out at you. Playing a crazy vampire sounds awesome – and, since your ST agreed, you’ve set out to stat and build a bloodsucker with some kind of enormous mental affliction. So you pick schizophrenia because you want your dude to hear voices.
Woah, wait, back up.
Playing characters with flaws is awesome. It can provide a real depth to your play, to your character, and can prove to be a real learning experience – as long as you’re willing to do the research for it, of course.
I love Malkavians, from White Wolf’s Vampire: the Masquerade books. To me, they represent the intangible horror of both the setting and the physical embodiment of having to be an immortal monster that feeds on blood. So, when I show up to a game, complete with a Malk suffering from Cyclothymia, I hope that the derangement (shorthand for mental illness that the character suffers from) is treated with respect and can help build depth into the character. I certainly don’t want Trout VonFishy* to arrive with another Malk who’s built with Paranoid Schizophrenia – and believes that everything they’re doing is just a game, that can be explained through dice, rulebooks, and statistics.
While Vampire gets a bad rap sometimes, due to its overblown neo-gothic aesthetic and the fact that it translates well into a LARP (live-action roleplay), other systems suffer from the same ‘lazy flaw’ mentality, where a player can purchase a derangement for a decent power bump while still only paying lip service to the illness chosen. Savage Worlds, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and Seventh Sea are just a few that allow players to swap character flaws for extra points to spend on things that make the stats better, the points more extreme, or the mechanics more badass. And who doesn’t want that? Sometimes, you need the extra edge, or merit, or five points of background experience. Or sometimes you just want to stretch your wings and fly into a new type of character.
So go read something.
Why should you read something? Because – if you decide to be Trout VonFishy, not only will you theoretically drag down the game, you’ve opened up the potential to offend other players at the table (or the internet), and you’re missing out on a chance to learn something awesome and new. You’re willing to wade through pages and pages of (hopefully) well-illustrated source materials, replete with charts and diagrams and sidebars and formulas in order to play a game. Reading a few more pages won’t kill you.
You’re also going to want to make absolutely certain you’re not playing to a stereotype. If it’s something you’ve seen on a television show, or in a movie – you should likely scrap everything about that depiction of the illness you want to depict. Mass media likes to (and is practically required to) boil things down until they’re palatable and in easily digestible chunks. Serial killers don’t all suffer from schizophrenia. People who suffer from depression can, in fact, get out of bed. People who suffer from hypersexuality don’t have to have sex with every single tree, bush, or shrub they come in contact with.
Mental illness isn’t a walk in the park. So when you choose to exchange five points of benefit to give your character a flaw, please remember that there are people who live with the condition you’ve statistically enhanced your character with. And those people live with it every single day. PTSD, for instance, affects an estimated 7.8 percent of Americans. Schizophrenia affects somewhere between .5 and 1 percent of the populace. And that’s why you should go read something.
So here’s how to do that. Seven things to do, and you’re home free to play a character who is nuanced, can teach you something, and won’t piss off your friends.
First – think about what you want to do. If you want to play a barbarian from the great plains, perhaps picking agoraphobia isn’t the most sensible – unless your ST and the rest of your party are willing to roll with such a restricted character. Find an illness that works with the concept of the character, the party, and the game.
Second – think about why you want to do it. If you want to play someone with hypersexuality, ask yourself why. Is it going to add something to your barbarian, or is it just an excuse to act like a rake and attempt to seduce every NPC your character encounters? If it’s the former, move on to step three. If you’re just looking blow off steam with an illness that another human legitimately struggles with every day, perhaps you should go back to step one.
Third – do some initial research. Go breeze through Wikipedia articles about illness. Scroll to the bottom once you’re done, and go check out the related links. If you were originally considering manic-depression, you may find that cyclothymia fits your character better. Or perhaps someone with major depressive disorder who also suffers from manic episodes. Follow links, do some cursory searching, and you’ll have a better idea of what you’re in for than you did at the start.
Fourth – think about how it fits into the game. If you’re playing something hack-and-slash, Hemophobia may be funny, but not particularly useful. If you’re playing a high politics game, Intermittent explosive disorder may disrupt the balance of the alliances your party (and yourself) have carefully built up. Please, at this stage, talk to your ST or DM – as well as the other players in your game (if your setting allows, and you trust them not to metagame) to get a sense of how the illness you’ve chosen will fit with the party dynamic.
Fifth – Research. At this point, you’ve likely decided upon, discussed with your allies and your DM, and worked your character stats around the particular entry in wikipedia, or the DSM V, or Mayoclinic. So now’s the time to buckle down. Many disorders have support groups on the web. Many more have books that were written by people who suffered from the disorder that you’ve selected for your character. You’ll find books written by lovers, spouses, parents, and children of real, living, breathing (okay, some of them are dead) people who had the illness you’re looking in to. Go – dive in. Read about having manic episodes, or Fregoli delusion, or lacunar amnesia.
Sixth – Some more reading. So you’ve settled. You’re solid in your choice, and you’ve got a fairly decent understanding of what it means, and what treats it, and how it affects people. Do some more reading. It’s never quite as simple as you’d like it to be.
Seventh – Get in there and play your character. And by play, I mean ‘explore every situation in which your character’s illness actually is a setback and not just an experience sponge.’ Because you’ve chosen to bestow upon your character this burden – and now they have to live with it. And so do you. Now your character has that illness. Always. Not just when it’s convenient. If it’s Major depressive disorder, there will be days when Hrothgr just can’t get out of bed, even if the evil wizard is menacing the world. If it’s manic episodes, maybe Evangelie spends all her hard earned gold on something ridiculous, and frivolous – and doesn’t have anything left over for useful things like potions, or armour, or enchantments. The illness you’ve picked is not something you can switch on and off to make life easier for you. You picked this, remember?
I’m not saying that to be mean, of course, but do remember – you had the option to choose this. The people that live with these disorders do not. And that is why you’re doing steps one through six. Because while you may not think that anyone at your table suffers from the disorder you’ve cherry-picked for your barbarian, you don’t know. Medications, careful planning, and society’s dim view of people who suffer from such illnesses can encourage someone who has a mental illness to mask it.
And that’s why you research your flaws. Because it not only gives you a chance to learn, but it also avoids piling further stereotypes and stigma upon those people who may actually have to struggle with that flaw that you bought for five points to take eidetic memory and eat food. And if that isn’t enough of a reason, then I don’t know what is.
*For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, a Fishmalk is a Malkavian played to be silly, amusing, or otherwise ignoring the source material in favour of being wacky.
Q: How many Malkavians does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: A FISH!