Saturday, October 3, 2015

Insanity in Horror and Lovecraftian RPGs

A friend who I don't know if they want to be tagged was discussing mental illness and insanity mechanics in RPGs with Lovecraftian themes on G+, and I wanted to share my original response, and kind of give some more thoughts.

I honestly think that part of the experience of trauma and disconnection with reality that is represented by insanity mechanics in games is a combination of personal suffering brought on by the exposure to a greater existence and comprehension skewed by denial.

I don't know if any of you have experienced real life paranoia or psychotic experiences. It is, from personal experience, completely terrifying. When it happened to me, I had to cope with the things that I knew for sure were not real only because of how unreal they were, and then the things that I could not tell if they were real because how very real they could be. I imagine that the true horror of Lovecraftian exposure would be that the things that definitely could not be real are actually definitely real, and knowing that, and feeling as though you cannot trust your own mind to tell the difference between what you see as "normal" or even "unusual" is now corrupted by the extreme and phantasmagoric. When the unreality is the new reality, what then is truly real?

For me, the experience of paranoia and psychosis may definitely have been unique to me, so I don't mean to speak for everyone.

It was the oddest thing. I have some idea of what triggered the paranoia to seep in, but it's not entirely clear. What I do know is that I woke up after a series of nightmares and found that the mere idea of walking outside the house was nearly impossible to grasp. I knew, I just knew that if I walked outside and, I knew would happen, someone would see me, and they would burst into flames. It's completely irrational. It defies all logic and is impossible. But I knew it. It was true, and I was so frightened. It was even deeper than that, in that I knew people could hear what I was thinking. I could see in their minds what they thought of me, and how vile a creature I was. When I looked in the mirror I did not look like what I previously had thought I looked like, and until the episode ended, I couldn't tell what was real and what I just knew.

The hallucinations I experienced were sometimes silly and simple. My cats talked to me and told me about games they wanted to design and screenplays they wanted to write. Others were not as good, like the movement out of the corner of my eye that became a car crashing into the side of my vehicle while I was driving. Others, they were unbelievable and I denied them, because they were things I knew couldn't be real, but god, they felt real.

When I played Black Stars Rise, one of the breaks that was given to me was a card with a man of shadows who followed me. I laughed when I got it, because I knew that man. For literally my entire life, I have had experiences that lasted long periods of time when the shadow man followed me. He never hurt me, he never did anything to me, but he was there. Watching. It was something that was so startlingly real that I could perfectly imagine it in-game, and it made me think a lot about how we translate real-life phenomena into games.

It can or may be very easy for someone with good mental health or less extreme mental health issues to portray mental illness in a character and portray something like mental illness in a character. For me, when I am having a bad time of it, even something like receiving the paranoia or hallucinations cards in Eldrich Horror makes me anxious, and watching other players portray characters who are "insane" or "mad" can be very difficult.

Working to comprehend the differences between natural chemical imbalances, trauma-induced chemical imbalances, and otherworldly trauma mental impacts is something that I think needs to be worked on. Some games have approached it (one in particular, Lovecraftesque, I consulted on), and others have chosen to avoid it altogether, and I'm not condemning any specific game or way of handling it.

However, we really do need to understand that part of what is experienced in Lovecraftian RPGs is trauma. It is not simply the otherworldly experience, or the defiance of reality. While I agree with myself in my original statement up near the top, I honestly don't think that encompasses the entire experience. Traumatic events in RPGs are often either dismissed or responded to with extremes, like flashbacks or violent outbursts. While those things can be response to trauma, they are not the only response to trauma. Sometimes it results in having triggers, where certain things cause an emotional response - anything from anxiety, to a panic attack, to a physiological response, to rage, to violence. I personally discourage people from playing characters who respond to trauma with extreme responses unless they are willing to play it respectfully. I don't like to see players doing the comedy crazy. If you play a mentally ill character, it should not be for laughs, because those are _real people_ you are mocking. And that is my only real problem with insanity mechanics: they separate us from understanding the differences between the impacts of otherworldly exposure.

Here are the three ways of portraying characters in horror or Lovecraftian RPGs with complicated mental and/or emotional states that I think make sense:

Characters who start out as having a mental illness or mental difference: these are characters who have depression or bipolar disorder or obsessive compulsive disorder or even autism. Their behavior may seem abnormal to other characters and that's okay, if you're playing it with respect it can add a lot to the story, because, like in my case, how would I know whether what I was seeing is a hallucination or a delusion or if it was actually real? Is the obsession with researching and cataloging unnatural events really influence by an unnatural power, or is it a natural compulsion? These are things you can explore, but I definitely advise doing at least a little bit of research before you do it, or taking the time to think about how you would feel if someone had these issues was there.

Characters who have experienced trauma and as a result have mental or emotional response: these are characters who, whether in the course of game or as part of their background have had a traumatic experience either directly related or indirectly related to the horrific subjects at hand. This is a point that is extremely delicate. Post-traumatic stress can be represented in so many different ways, and there are a few important things to think about. One, you need to make sure that it ties together. The behavior is not necessarily logical, but you don't want someone who was kidnapped by a cult to have panic attacks because they are in open spaces, unless you have more detailed justification. There are certain words or experiences that might trigger someone's issues with PTSD or trauma, like with victims of sexual assault, but that trauma can present in multiple ways: shutting down and not responding, panicking, emotional response (crying or distress), or in some cases, yes, violence. The final response is not nearly as common as we see represented. Trauma responses are something that definitely have their place in horror and Lovecraftian games, but they should be handled with care. You never know who shares the table, and who you might hurt. 

Finally, characters who experience otherworldly trauma: these characters, in my opinion, are somewhat different than the previous category because they have a different type of experience that actually may be stacked on top of typical trauma. The otherworldly trauma is kind of like a combination of the previous two, where you experience something so unreal, so disconnected from your reality, that you now question your very existence, and it consumes you. This is the kind of thing where a character might see into the void, and when they return, they are no longer the same. Maybe their behavior will be unusual, or they respond irrationally to normal stimuli, but they are not "crazy" nor have they experienced what we normally would explain as "trauma", because it's not a natural trauma. It is something that they may not be able to explain or even understand themselves. This also needs to be treated carefully because it can infringe upon both of the other types of character behavior and representation. Be mindful of what natural responses to trauma and mental illness people have, and try to show yours as different. Perhaps they do have hallucinations, but because they have seen the reality of the void, they don't react as though they are troubled by them because they are confused and it is unnatural, but instead they have a reaction of discontent and frustration - less "Is this real? What do I do?" and more "Why do you plague me? I wish you weren't real."

This is not a perfect way to do it, I know. I think it's just one of the ways to look at the situation and a way that people can think in more detail about the themes we work with in horror and especially things like Lovecraftian fiction in games. If you choose to play a character who has been scarred by their experiences, think very carefully about how you're doing it, why you're doing it, and how best you can represent it without making other people feel like you're treating them like a joke or like something to be feared. Even the mad have feelings, and darkness only gets darker when you lose trust in those around you.

This post was supported by the community on