Monday, 11 April 2022

I is for Insanity

Note: this was scheduled for Monday, April 11, but a server error delayed its posting.

Insanity in TTRPGs has a long history, appearing in 1e AD&D, as early as 1978. Typical of a game, Insanity is broadly portrayed in gross stereotypes at the table by individuals often not suffering from the condition, not close to someone with the condition, not educated on the condition, and certainly not a clinical psychiatrist capable of recognizing the condition.

This is not to say that Insanity should not be played at the table. In fact, I would go so far as to say what happens at my table is not your table and if I as a GM or player portray a mental illness unfairly or in gross stereotypes, too bad for you.

However, that does not mean the rules for insanity are not without criticism. In fact, most "rules," and the use of "rules" here are not strictures or adjudication play, yet more mechanics for developing the condition in game from an encounter or event.

Real world mental illness, or "insanity," is typically not a contracted condition, but types, such as PTSD, can develop over time. We must first remember these are games. And second, the portrayals of these mental illnesses will be grossly ham fisted and offensive to a few that are experiencing the conditions in their lives, managing them personally or with loved ones. At the table, this is a trust exercise to be sure. And the table is an important context.

Portraying a mental illness ham fisted and with gross stereotypes at a convention table is very different than portraying that such an illness at your home table. At a convention, the players may be meeting for the first time. The possibility that someone at the table has PTSD or a mania, e.g., kleptomania or pyromania, may be very, very real. At home, it is not an unfair consideration that everyone is likely aware of such things, though not always.

WFRP's Insanities are very much portrayals of gross stereotypes of clinical manias. And I love every one of them. Mechanically, these "insanities" are earned though injury and terror, some are the real world expressions of PTSD. Yet, I would not discourage any player from portraying them. However, I would give every consideration to a character earning an "insanity" for the player to chose from the provided list in consideration of themselves or another at the table, even to develop an expression not listed.

However, I would not eliminate the mechanic for some idealized view that "if we eliminate ham fisted and stereotyped game portrayals of mental illness, we can eliminate such behavior in the real world." Such a position is the same position that created the Satanic Panic of the 1980s. "The mechanics of Spellcraft and Demon Summoning in D&D are the real world instructions for the same." 

No, the real world doesn't work that way.

Posted by caffeinated at 12:13 PM in d10


Comment: Timothy S. Brannan at Tue, 12 Apr 3:29 PM

Generally speaking, I have never cared for any of the "insanity" rules of most games, Call of Cthulhu being the exception.

Most Game Masters don't know how to deal with and most players can't really play it.

Tim Brannan
The Other Side | A to Z of Conspiracy Theories

Comment: Tim the caffeinated grognard at Tue, 12 Apr 4:59 PM


I do agree and acknowledge the same. To broaden the examples: the GURPS advantage-disadvantage points scale can highlight the problem with having such systems, rules and setting alike.

Player: "I took Kleptomania as my disadvantage."
GM: "Ok."
... sessions later ...
GM: "The cheapest set of earrings lie on the side table. Each of you saw them worn by the hostess last night."
Players: "Ok."
GM to Player with Kleptomania: "Aren't you going to take it? Didn't you take Kleptomania as a disadvantage?"
Player: "Is it worth anything?"
GM: "I said they were cheap. No."
Player: "No."
GM: "I don't think that's how Kleptomania works. Make a Willpower Test."
Player: "I failed."
GM: "Your character cups the earrings from the table to pocket them. Make a Deception Test."
Player: "Wait, you're mind controlling my character! You can't do that! I said I didn't want them. My character doesn't take them!"
... dissolves into an argument ...

This is completely contrived, but we all know the anecdotal, and apocryphal, gaming stories just like that. But when it's done correctly, it is so much better as friction to the story being told. Wouldn't it have been more fun for the character to pass the Deception Test as the owner of the earrings walked in? Or failed?! I believe so.

Comment: Roger Brasslett at Wed, 27 Apr 8:14 PM

I was happy to choose/reroll/reverse dice my WFRP insanity. The idea of being the game’s drunk just held no enjoyment for me.

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