Insane in the Membrane

When I first started following APs, I began with a CoC game of Horror on the Orient Express, and earlier this summer I watched Encounter Roleplay do a video stream of the same campaign on Twitch. Both showed how horribly things can go downhill as people encounter the horrors and insanity of the game. Other podcasts, like Happy Jacks, have complained about the failures of running the Malkavians in Vampire games. Insanity, it seems, is problematic.

This got me thinking about ways to play insane characters. I am not a psychologist, nor do I want to go into the scientific studies. What I want to do is just think about how to have fun when we play.

In listening to these success and failures, I have come to a simple conclusion—one we probably all know. When you play insanity to your advantage it's often an excuse to be chaotic, and this creates chaos not just in the game, but in the group too. However, embracing the insanity can still be valuable for dramatic purposes. How can we square that circle?

Step 1. The Trigger
The first step is to establish a Trigger. That's the thing that drives the insanity. It sets off a neurotic response due to its association with some sort of trauma undergone by the character, maybe recently, or maybe in the distant past. A Trigger establishes a rule that says “When the Trigger occurs, I act like this.” By restricting your actions to their Triggers, you avoid the problem of random chaotic actions.

Step 2: The Response
The next step is to establish your character's Responses to these Triggers. There may be one or more than one of these. They may even be rolled randomly off a little list while playing. Most Responses will be neurotic effects such as anxiety, flashbacks or sheer panic (some of you power players or tacticians may prefer adding violence into the mix; to each their own). But regardless of its chosen outcome or effect, a good Trigger and Response will limit abuse by both the player and the GM, while adding dramatic opportunities for characterization.
Ideally, the Response should be tied to the original traumatic scene or event (which itself is represented or re-stimulated by the Trigger). This doesn't mean it should always result in a negative outcome, but it should be a sort of “throwback” that reminds you of the original traumatic event. When you encounter your Trigger and act out your Response, everyone at the table learns more about your character's inner history, and the story gets much deeper.

Example: Suppose your character is an ex-space solider who had a horrifying experience in a malfunctioning airlock. This historical crisis establishes a neurotic condition (trigger/response). Let's say the character now gets anxious in tight spaces and panics in a spacesuit. This allows the character to play with little or no difficulty throughout most of a session. But of course there will come a time when he has to wear a spacesuit, and maybe it'll be a matter of life and death. The tension undergone by the character at that point will add a powerful new dimension to the emotional impact of the scene.

The key to making insanity work in an RPG is to keep track of your Triggers, and give them logical Responses.

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