Playing a Disability

October 10, 2012

Recently a player posted in a forum asking if they could bring a character into a boffer LARP with “Insanity Points” already on their sheet. There were many responses, some warning against using mental issues as a roleplaying crutch to gain attention and others discussing mechanics. I read through the responses, and none seem to really address what it means to actually portray this sort of character, which is fairly significant a topic for me, as you might guess from the themes of this blog. I posted in reply to it, and found I had a lot to say. It reignited my desire to write for this blog, so I cleaned it out and started from scratch. I also revisited my post to that thread. I felt like it was worth publishing my experiences.

See, I’ve spent about three years playing a character in my local Camarilla Club “Vampire: the Requiem” venue. He’s got a severe derangement on his sheet. No, seriously, Catatonic Schizophrenic. Badly. I spend much of my game stuck in repetitive motions, lost in thought, and listening intently to things both real and not. Let me tell you, it’s unusual for someone to interact with him unless they have a specific use for him. When he first showed up, the other characters were split on whether to shuffle him out of the way or off his post-mortal coil. I gather I am alive by a -slim- margin.

After three years, I’m retiring him, though. Unfortunately his derangement takes him out of being proactive with few exceptions, which I expected going in. What I did not expect was that no one would take advantage of or interact with in virtually any way with such a character. He seemed ripe for abuse with no willpower and remarkable knowledge and physical skill. But that isn’t what happened. People avoided him. He was seen as dangerous because of his violent moments, which were triggered by consistent and avoidable moments–but no one spent any time to figure these out. And despite his occasional moments of helpful clarity, difficulty understanding interactions with him meant many assumed he wasn’t intelligent or simply not aware. Neither were true at all.

It is frustrating, naturally, to create a character with a carefully crafted backstory, behaviors, and appearance, and have people avoid him like the plague. It is also does wonders to highlight the difficulties and prejudices peep with mental disabilities face every waking moment, being avoided because they are perceived as dangerous or, maybe worse, useless. I’ve gained a great amount of thankfulness that I am not this bad, that my little… “eccentricities” are little more than that on most days. I can now all too clearly imagine having all I would contribute dismissed due to a misperception and prejudice.

Another consideration in playing a character, beyond how people will react, is that doing it well is exhausting. I do it for four hours during one night a month, and I’m mentally and emotionally wipe afterward. I have no idea how people intend to, or manage, to play that for an entire weekend-long boffer LARP. I think I would fall apart if I tried to pay my Requiem character for more than six hours, tops. I’d go so far as to say playing such a severe disorder would actually be mentally unhealthy for me. Anyone who wants to role-play a mental disorder of any sort should seriously consider how draining it can, and should, be.

Less obvious disabilities can be easier, but are still trouble as often as not, though they can add dimension to a character. Only someone well-apt for such role-play should really take these on. Even a “simple” phobia that seems innocuous will be debilitating at just the wrong moment, and it takes a special role-player to really make that fulfilling rather than boring or tiresome–or flat out insulting.

Let me reenforce the caveat that mental disorders should never be “fun” or “amusing”–psychological handicaps are serious and challenging disabilities, and roleplaying them correctly for extended periods means research and understanding. I role-play a very serious disorder related to my own issues. The times I saw another portray it badly was insulting and angering to the point I left the session to cool off, rather than cause a scene. In retrospect, I should have just simply caused that scene, as schizotypal disorders are not funny, they are not endearing, and they do not provide great insight. If anything, they are distracting, painful, confusing, and alienating to an extreme. Talk about a role-play minefield.

However, when done correctly, I have to say they aren’t crutches. I’ve seen players use mental disorder as a quirk to gain attention. It’s annoying. Even more so when it works, and they get the role-play they wanted, and your honest portrayal leaves you cold. But it can be done well, and when done so it’s brilliant. I’ve seen great role-play of this sort portrayed, and like to imagine I do a solid job myself. One of my favorite characters is from a Changeling: the Lost game. The character is loud, angry, violent, and aggressive. He irritates all the other characters. He’s a problem no matter what. I refer to him not as a character, but a force of nature. Sometimes the game suffers because of how extremely overbearing his persona is.

-But-. This isn’t just a player’s excuse to be a pain. There are deep-rooted reasons for his behavior. It can be affected. The player clearly puts a great deal of energy, effort, and thought into everything he does. And frustrating as playing with him is, it is frustrating in a way that feels very natural, honest, and true to life. I don’t feel a persona, a mask that’s being used for a purpose or that’s just for fun. Rather, I really believe that character is who I see for those four hours, and I am always, as a player at least, eager to interact with that. My character is less amused.

So it can be so fantastic, but game masters and players should be aware that this oughtn’t be a common thing and be very cautious adding any such disabilities (Derangements, Insanities, Negative Traits, whatever your system calls them) to a sheet. Consider how serious you can portray for the duration of your event and how deep you want to go. A phobia might be easier to handle than anger fugues, which in turn might be more playable than stress-induced catatonic behavior; but even that allows leeway. A simple fear of the dark can be just quirky–until all hell breaks loose and your group is forced to abandon the cabins for the moonlit forest. Then it gets “interesting”. Depending on the player and their compatriots, such a moment can result in fulfilling role-play, or be frustrating enough to other everyone that it pulls them out of the moment.

Naturally, ever game master has to make their own call on the topic. A less serious game might consider such things to be equally fair game for amusement (“Toon”, for example, might take it to, predictably, cartoonish extremes), but even that should be done so that the illness adds to gameplay and isn’t just a gag. I think it’s best if a player and game master really study the signs, symptoms, and details of these issues and really get to know how it will affect a character. Before bringing my Requiem character in, I had a discussion about it with my ST, talking about my goals, my understanding, and how he would behave (I literally walked into game with the minimum possible Willpower). This discussion is necessary, I feel, to prevent mental disability from becoming a crutch or a joke. And knowing what the illness you want to play looks like and does can often lend a lot of weight to your desire to get it on your sheet when your game master asks about it.

One thing I can’t emphasize enough is that a disability should -never- be a template item! Had my Requiem character not been allowed in with his issues, I had another background for him with a completely different persona planned. No illness exists in a vacuum of only its direct effects–it filters into your whole life. It can heavily alter your world view, and can be so deeply pervasive in one’s mindset to an extent you don’t realize until you apply it to everything. A simple phobia of rain, for instance, as something that seems benign, could have a lot of day to day effects. Imagine being deeply, truly afraid of rain–you might always carry wet weather gear, even on a sunny day. In a pre-Doppler Radar setting, this might be especially true. Clouds would seem incredibly ominous and an over-cast day would be nerve-wracking. A leaky roof could be stomach churning, and making certain it got fixed the next sunny day might me compulsive. Imagine a few rainy days and the effect on having a job. Something only sounding like thunder might cause a moment of panic. A sudden splash of water could cause traumatic flashbacks. Even a “just” phobia can be far reaching (It is important to distinguish the differences amongst an aversion, server aversion, slight phobia, and sever phobia).

-This- is true psychological disability, and it has an ugly face. If you’re up to it, I applaud the desire to attempt this role-play and think it can be an amazing experience to do, to see, and to interact with. But it has to be handled with care, ventured into cautiously, and examined deeply during character creation. You can learn so much from this, and discover things about your fellow people that might never have known otherwise. I think if you feel like you’re willing to really grab this, and get inside and out of it, you’ll experience some of the most intense role-play of your life.

One last note, if you’re feeling intimidated or simply not sure you can manage an actual disability (I know I covered mental illness here, but physical disability should be examined in just the same way), then allow me to suggest that quirks are -so- much easier to work with and can be a lot more fun (meaning, at all) while still immediately (or not, if you’re feeling sneaky) intriguing! A quirk can be as essential or defining in other players’ minds as these strong, persona-encompassing character traits, and each are great additions. The latter, I feel, essentially or you’ve just got stats and some gimmicks, and that isn’t role-play. But with a strong character, a quirk can be like that dash of salt in something otherwise solid, but bland.

As an example, in many parts of White Wolf’s “World of Darkness” a religiously devout character is fairly unique (not so much in Requiem, but often so in Masquerade, Mage, and Changeling). A person who always wears a mask, though a bit tired a cliché, can twitch someone’s natural curiosity. Never speaking above a whisper (also a bit done and a bit goth) creates a specific feel. Laughing while nervous (though an inappropriate laughter response is an actual condition!) It’s interesting when someone has specific physical behaviors as well, such as avoiding the use of their left hand or walking a specific way, a particular method of turning their head-those all subtly “make” a persona come to life. Often, with the real craft of character building, it’s the little things that make a character big.

So you can go outside of physical or mental disability to make a character really stand out, and you can side step a lot of effort that can be  draining in every way in doing so. I still think you should be working on your role-play if you want it as fulfilling as possible, but disability is a -lot- of work that you might just frankly not want to deal with. So add these little bits of flavor when they fit the character and fill out missing pieces, but don’t just add personality kibble. We all want our character to be unique, but I caution against “Special Snowflake” characters; if everyone is a snowflake, the game just gets snowed in. Don’t let that keep you from trying something different, but be different because your character is just that solid–make them different because it is who they are, not what they do.

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One Response to “Playing a Disability”

  1. […] previous character was a type study of a much more aggressive form of my own issues as discussed in this previous blog […]

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