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The Path of Madness: How to Play an Insane PC

Written by Nicholas - Published on August 28, 2009

Nicholas is the columnist in charge of Nerd Watching and part-time Expy wrangler. He also works as the community manager, so keep an eye out for him on RPG blogs and forums.

We can all agree that adventurers are a little crazy, right? They delve into some of the most dangerous places of their world. Why do they do it? Some for greed, some for a moral mission, some for just the thrill. They all have a reason, but it requires a touch of madness to live a life of near constant kill or be killed. Many of them have tragic histories. They train obsessively at one thing and even make deals with devils for power. So what if you embrace it and play someone who is a lot crazy?


Mad people have more fun!
Just make sure you don’t piss off
your friends and have fun at the expense of the game.
Picture by The Alieness

31 Different Flavors

This isn’t a startling revelation. I’ve seen lots of people play characters who are completely nuts, but they always do it the same way. Chaotic to the extreme, usually violent, saying and doing things for seemingly no reason. That gets boring and frustrating for the group very quickly. Beyond that, it is not very accurate! There are people in the world like that, but they are the most extreme cases. There is a broad spectrum of mental illness out there and interesting character options along the whole scale.

Guidelines

  • Mentally ill people are not always manic, as gamers tend to play them. Often they are low, depressed and even suicidal. Getting into three life or death fights a day? That sounds like someone with a death wish to me.
  • It’s tempting to just go “space aliens are invading my animal companion!” and get a laugh from the table. You’re crazy right? Madness can result in delusions, but it is not a typically a completely random affair. People who are remotely functional still have a logic. It may be a twisted logic or based on faulty assumptions, but there is a consistency to it.
  • They don’t know they are crazy and others likely don’t either. If you want your character to be playable, he must be functional. It might become clear over time that something is off, and things are often exaggerated for roleplay purposes, but that doesn’t mean your character goes around announcing it.

Sample Set

So you can see the guidelines in actions, I’ll provide some examples of characters who are a bit mad but are not just the manic, random-spouting crazy normally seen in games.

Dalton is an illusionist wizard. Over the course of his studies, he has seen master illusionist create phantasms that fool all senses, even displaying some level of autonomy. Questions plagued him during his schooling. What makes me more real than the illusions? How do I know I am not just an illusion, or the whole world around me is? If someone can make a permanent illusion that can fully interact with the environment, isn’t that more real than I am? He quests to advance the knowledge of just what it is to be real and how to be sure anything is.

Tyrus is an avenger of Melora. He destroys logging camps and mining operations and punishes those who occupy them. His peers think that he goes too far, causes too much destruction and kills those who were innocent peices in something much larger. But he enjoys his work, it makes him feel powerful to destroy the enemies of Melora. Isn’t that what his faith is supposed to do?

Alphen is a rogue who trained at a thieves guild and now works with an adventuring party as a scout and trap finder. A lifetime of hanging around backstabbers and looking for deadly traps has deeply affected him. He’s grown paranoid and anxious. He hardly sleeps and only in private places. He ritually checks door and window locks and any potential hiding places before relaxing. Even his party members are not beyond suspicion, he is always on guard for an eventual betrayal.

Ayzore is a fighter with strong faith to Pelor. After losing her husband and daughter to a fire, she was also drained of her will to live. Her faith and nature prevent her from committing suicide, but there are other ways. She signs on for any reckless and doomed cause. She stands in front of the group, drawing the enemies attacks and making the riskiest moves. She secretly looks forward to the day when something is too much for her and she can be reuinited with her family.

Have you played a character with a touch of madness? We’d love to hear about them in the comments.

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Written by Nicholas

Nick DiPetrillo is the original author behind the games Arete and Zombie Murder Mystery available at http://games.dungeonmastering.com

Nick is no longer active with DungeonMastering.com, however he is an accomplished writer and published his first game in 2009.

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Nicholas is the columnist in charge of Nerd Watching and part-time Expy wrangler. He also works as the community manager, so keep an eye out for him on RPG blogs and forums.

 

 Comments

14 Responses to “The Path of Madness: How to Play an Insane PC”
  1. Thasmodious says:

    I played a fighter once who was quite off. He wanted to be a heroic Paladin, had joined an order, but it was immediately apparent to the others that he was slow and not all there. He believed his grandfather’s spirit resided in his flail (a family heirloom) and he often carried on conversations with it. Because he was a bit dim, he was unable to grasp the finer points of the life and responsibilities of a paladin, but still adheres to them as much as possible. He was a brutally efficient fighter, too, and thoroughly a good guy, even if he often did not understand the situation.

    In my upcoming Firefly game, one of the NPC members of the PC crew is a bit off. He’s a brilliant scientist and doctor but suffers from delusions and believes that Blue Sun is ran by aliens in human form and they are out to get him because he knows. He’s not manic about it or always howling at the sky, he seems perfectly normal except he occasionally does or says strange things, like checking anyone he works on for hidden gills (under the armpits) before he’ll treat them. In the presence of actual Blue Sun agents, however, he will likely go nuts, either full on fight or flight.

  2. GroovyTaxi says:

    I once played a priestess of Wee-Jaz (however you spell it) that was a bit mad. She was born with a twin sister, but she was cursed : her twin sister grew up to be a stunningly beautiful girl, while she was cursed to become the ugliest girl that had ever walked in her village. Her skin was all peeled and torn, her eyes were yellowish, and her facial traits were so altered she looked like a monster. Her entire village called her names, threw her rocks at sight and her parents tried to keep her hidden as much as possible.

    Then she met a priest of Nerull who told her he could break her curse. The priest dug a graveyard near the cursed girl’s hometown and asked her to help him in his quest of ”purging” the land. They caused dozens of deaths and everytime someone was sacrificed to the death god, part of the girl’s hideous appearance was gone. When the graveyard reached a hundred tombs, the girl had become exactly like her beautiful twin sister, while her twin sister had become a monster like she had been.

    Now that her quest of purging the land was complete, the priest of Nerull wanted to initiate the now beautiful girl to the dark arts. However, during the ritual, the girl became scared and refused to obey her mentor. The priest, furious, tried to kill her, but he ended up dying to her hands. Because she had killed her mentor, the curse went back to her and her right eye became yellowish and dead. She could shove her finger into it without feeling any pain.

    She then wandered off, met a priestess of Wee-Jaz and became a priestess of the goddess. She’s extremely disciplined, but she was a bit crazy at times : after all, she was alone for almost all her life. She was a bit paranoid when she saw people walking in the streets, but had absolutely no problems dealing with a corpse or any disgusting thing.

  3. Lu BU says:

    Once in a Scion game I played a Titan spawn of Cathulu. The party did not know and my playing type is leader so they always ask me to be leader in any game even this one. Man they wear surprised. The best part was another player asked for a file a business man had given use for our quest I said I put it in my clutter free filing system. He asked were that was and I pointed at the paper shredder. He gave me a look of sheer WTFness lol it still brings me laughs.

  4. ColoQ says:

    I’ve mentioned this character in past comments before.. But here goes: he is a whiny boisterous (think frat-boy) type guy. Grew up poor, Mother was a whore. He thinks his dad was a great and virtuous Bard/Palladin, (he wasn’t, and its obvious he is delusional here). As part of a tough life, he watched his first (and only so far) girlfriend get raped and beaten.

    Some basic tenets I use when I play him are: Attack before you get attacked. Corruption, and evil, whatever form it takes, is deceptive and needs to be eliminated, when even hinted at. All evils – even small ones (like being short changed, or being charged high prices – even just a couple coppers) need to go punished. Screw waiting… CHARGE!

    His party *HATES* this guy,and he doesn’t know why – He’s just being a good person.

  5. ValmarTheMad says:

    As the names suggests, one of my most favored and long-running characters was “Valmar The Mad, Huntsman of Cormyr”. I played him in a 2e campaign that stretched over 4yrs of real time, and he didn’t start out insane. The DM kept throwing us into Ravenloft, where Valmar was turned into a puppet and pulled apart, killed and resurrected numerous times, entombed alive in a vault with undead, haunted by the ghost of an innocent man who Valmar’d turned in for the bounty, infected by lycanthropy, and later mummy rot–among other things. Outside of Ravenloft, he was captured and tortured by a Thieves’ Guild for turning in their leader, and as an ex-slave of the Drow, he was occasionally pursued by by members of that race. So, all in all, he suffered greatly at various hands.

    We were a pretty heavy role-playing focused group, yet no one was allowing all the various horrors affect any of their characters in any way. I guess stalwart adventurers are somehow wholly immune to the things they witness and experience.

    I was in college, and had been doing a project on mental illness, phobias in particular, so I was intrigued by the idea of RPing a character that developed issues as a result of his adventuring life.

    I began to load Valmar up with subtle signs that he wasn’t coping well with what had happened, and what–given his history–was still to come. At first they were insignificant–he wouldn’t take copper coins after one had ‘bitten’ him in the past (some FR creature, basically a mimic the size of a coin, can’t recall the name atm), he wouldn’t sit in chairs after a throne he’d sat on needled him with a poison dart, etc.–all small things.

    As the campaign continued, so did Valmar’s reactions to his experiences (he was getting points for them, right? Must be they were memorable).

    By the end of 4 years and 16 levels, he was pretty well gone. He became the ‘ward’ of the party–in particular the cleric of Selune–and she became both his mediator and advocate when he was too ‘off’ to make much sense to anyone outside the party.

    From his time as an adventurer, especially as a Huntsman (bounty hunter) infected with lycanthropy, he grew addicted to the thrill of the chase. Even after cured of the disease itself, and unable to shift, he would still ‘hunt’ rich locals. This mean chasing them through dark alleys before capturing them and leaving them strung up in a net. Usually they were left dangling from any pole or beam he could find, and usually it was the Cleric’s job to go make amends for Valmar’s nocturnal lunacy.

    Overall, he was fun to play. I never pushed him to the point where he (truly) annoyed the party or got them into real danger because of his actions, and because of his various issues, he was a plot device waiting to happen, so the DM loved him. Numerous adventures began as something that the DM rolled into one of Valmar’s incidents or phobias.

    After that, I played a Malkavian in V:tM, a power-mad full-conversion ‘borg in Rifts, and a neurotic combat mage in Shadowrun. Insane characters can be a fun diversion from your run-of-the-mill hero, but they need to be handled carefully by the GM and the player or else they can ruin everyone’s game. Still, from time to time, they’re worth playing.

    VtM

  6. DandDGuy says:

    “Boycotting 4th Ed” check this out I have my problems with it but, I am starting to turn on to 4th ED if I could afford the books.

    Take a look at this site

    http://www.lilith-ezine.com/articles/entertainment/Boycotting-4th-Edition-DnD.html

  7. TheLoneGunman says:

    I played a former Imperial Marine in a Star Wars game once that had developed multiple personality disorder to cope with the horrors he had engaged in. I had only developed the 2 personalities before the game disbanded, the dominant one was a brash, loud-mouthed, chain-smoking womanizer with a very loose moral code (he killed people because it was more convenient most of the time, took what he wanted, that sort of thing). The original personality was kind of the stereotypical grunt, thick Agmar drawl, fiercely loyal to the Emperor, etc. I think we were playing in the period after the Battle of Endor, but the original personality surfaced so rarely that he didn’t realize that the Emperor had died, not to mention the fact that he hallucinated that the rest of the party was his old squad. So, the alter ego was actually the “more sane” of the 2, even though he never really existed.

  8. DandDGuy says:

    That sounds Interesting TheLoneGunman, Were you planing on developing more personalities for that character if the game did not disband?

  9. Rob says:

    I am currently playing a Razorclaw Shifter Druid named Rhiannon in our D&D 3.5 game. She is somewhat delusional and not especially bright, but a bit of a spell-casting savant as well. Think River Tam from the TV show Firefly more than real life insanity.

    The trick to playing Rhiannon is to remember that while she will throw out the occasional apparent non-sequitur, she does have an internal logic that makes sense to her. To put it another way, one character remarked, “Should I be worried that Rhiannon is starting to make sense to me?”

    Interestingly, because I try to play up her high Wisdom/low Intelligence split, the other characters have started to ascribe almost supernatural oracular powers to her. Several times recently, the group has had to make a choice as to whether to follow the path advocated by the deeply logical Lawful Good Monk or the somewhat insane Chaotic Neutral Druid.

    More often than I would expect, they choose to follow their “wise woman.”

  10. TheCerpent says:

    I don’t often make insane characters, but I was once persuaded to play in a V:tM game. Well, I’d wanted to play a Malkavian, and I had just the perfect idea for it. The character in question was sired by a Malkavian artist; this particular sire specialized in sculpture, but he felt that his childer should be his greatest masterpieces, and he would dedicate a sculpture to them.

    The sculpture for my character would look like a solid, smooth, stainless steel ball. Impossible to see any mark or seam on it, yet when you pressed on it in the correct spots, it would swing open, and reveal interlocking gears, with teeth like sawblades. The gears would be caked in what appeared to be blood and gore, with some sort of twisted order placed within them.

    How this translated into his personality was a Malkavian who was chillingly sane and rational. He would act very carefully, and study a situation fully before moving onward. He was fully aware of what bloodline he came from, and he knew he had to have some sort of insanity from it. He had no idea what it could be, but he expected that he was Megalomaniacal; after all, he did love to have control over the aspects of business around him. Plus, the additional power of being able to steal the memories and knowledges of those he drank from (Sanguinary Animism) would certainly help him in his ascendancy to power. Now, if he could only keep this megalomania secret from everyone else…

  11. ivory_tusk says:

    I never tried to delve to deep into that realm but one of my PC’s did, going so far that everytime he slept he had a different personality, each with it’s own set of Psychological issues,
    1: being terrified of small females(children included)
    2: one that couldn’t had to say yes to anything that required a yes or no answer
    3: one that could not answer a question for himself so he asked someone(the personality that always said yes)
    4: one with gender confusion issues

    and a few others I was so confused after a while i didnt know what to do with him…her…whatever it was.

  12. Ambrose says:

    My favorite insane PC was one I played in a game where the theme eventually became “Power Corrupts.” All the PC’s were drastically different in terms of morality and motivation, but were forced to live together in their own microstate. I ran with the cognitive dissonance angle(The King and his Lieutenant were both PC’s, Neutral Good and Neutral Evil, and no one understood how they worked so well together) and played a swashbuckler/wizard with depersonalization disorder and hallucinations, appearing alternately extremely nihilisitic and self-concerned or becoming zealous and indignant in the presence of certain denizens of the city, depending on how much sleep he got. Eventually the Majordomo of the city noticed started to sneak stimulants into his food to keep him awake as much as possible, so he wouldn’t expose the Majordomo’s embezzlement. That was a fun quest.

  13. Harrison says:

    A fun way of making a character seem off, mentally ill, is altering one or more of their senses to an extreme degree. And making it so that they were ALWAYS this way will cause them to appear completely mad when others attempt to describe something to them, or vice-versa. For instance, a more subtle approach is making your character see everything in shades of grey. They do not know what colors are and can not identify anything dependent on color. As well, any words that refer to color, they might ascribe to other traits the object or creature has. After first battling a purple worm for instance, they may claim that the local barkeep is quite purple, a word which they assumed meant large and intimidating. I don’t know, that’s my contribution anyway! Hope someone uses something like that!

  14. Haze says:

    My character, Haze, is a geomancer. Due to his reclusive life as a druid, he doesn’t quite “get” simple human interaction even though he is (in fact) human. The more his drifts set in, the more he looses his sense of being a human and more of a spawn of nature.
    I play Haze by basically being adrift from reality. The only thing that matters to him is if he serves nature with utmost responsibility. His companions are not much more than companion pack animals in his mind, but he doesn’t assert dominance due to the fact his reclusive life has made him passive in nature. Around other PC’s and NPC’s he appears to be a hodge-podge mix of animal, monster and myth with the mind of a creature who could think of them as little more or less in a predator/prey relationship. However, he still views himself as a creature of goodness due to the fact that he’s helping nature and not hindering it although he has absolutely no real respect for a person of law or authority just because. (Neutral good)
    RP traits/tips
    -Seclusive to self/Only puts in input to the team when asked
    -Nature is more interesting than most other things
    -Money is of no value
    -Found eating small animals (cats/rats/etc)
    -Talks to his companion animal more than the other team members.
    -Speaks with a raspy, hiss-like voice
    -Finds certain things funny others wouldn’t (loss of all money, losing something special, etc)
    -Sleep in trees
    -Take dominance during nature/survival instances harshly.

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