There are lots of character tropes in media, literature and pop culture, and LARP writing takes full advantage of these tropes to quickly sketch characters and convey meaning to players. It is probably not surprising that we occasionally write crazy characters. By crazy, I mean any number of different things, from chaotic-neutral, to homicidal maniac, to acid fueled manic-depressive, to particularly strong blue and orange moralities. What I don’t mean is silly. Characters who don’t take things seriously, or are part of a tongue in cheek game that are meant to make light of things are a whole different post. What I’m going to talk about in this post is about a serious crazy that often reflects real life struggles.
I’m quite torn by crazy characters. They can be incredibly eye opening and rewarding to play. Liberation from normal obligations of rationality is one great power of games. The opportunity to consider vastly different viewpoints, to get under skin of someone so different from you can really make you appreciate where/when you live, and who you surround yourself with. They can also be flat and lacking in real substance, too caught up in the shtick of acting crazy. Poorly managed, they can be disrespectful to people who face mental challenges in their daily life. And crazy characters are often cop outs imho.
Playing characters dealing with PTSD, depression, etc can be powerful experiences that build empathy. Interacting with these characters can normalize experiences that too many people suffer from in silence and isolation. I can and do attest to learning things about myself, none-the-least is identifying effective (and not so effective) coping mechanisms for my own challenges from interacting with and playing characters facing these issues.
As writers we have to be careful writing crazy characters though. We can’t let the adjective “crazy” alone bear the weight of creating a compelling character. Just as depression does not define the whole person, it shouldn’t define the whole character. Characters that fall somewhere along one of the many spectrums that could be used to measure crazy can be especially challenging to attach non-crazy aspects to like a healthy and fulfilling relationship or a successful career. Of course it is patently ridiculous to imply that someone cannot be all of these things. But when you only have two pages to convey a compelling, internally consistent character that can be quickly absorbed by a player who has few common experiences with the character, it can be quite a daunting task.
But doing so is important for two reasons. The first is for the sake of your game. Sticking a random crazy character in doesn’t add as much as you think it does. If you don’t devote just as much time (or more since it can be harder) to integrating the character, they will be just a novelty for your other characters to interact with for 2 minutes and then wander off. You might as well have made them an NPC, or a sign on the wall.
The second is a matter of respect. The same way that we shouldn’t write silly games that have a Hitler character, or make racist jokes to fill up space, we shouldn’t write characters that do a disrespect to or marginalize the struggles that people face. Sure, in games we have to simplify things, collapse dimensions, kludge stuff for game balance, etc, but we need to do it without turning crazy characters into simple (and possibly offensive) caricatures. And if you can’t manage that, don’t put those characters in your game. I’m not saying we can’t engage with dark, heavy or challenging topics. Gaming can be an important avenue to demystify these topics and allow us to have dialogues we wouldn’t otherwise be able to engage with. We just need to do so in a respectful manner. Treat topics with the weight they deserve.
One of the worst thing that a writer can do to these characters and the players who play them is not warn the player. Don’t write characters who are crazy and then just let the player think it is normal. It is heartbreaking as a player to learn after investing so much time and energy into a character that they are actually crazy and you can’t do anything about it. If you must make someone irrevocably crazy, warn the player so they can mentally prepare.
The easiest way to address this is to tell the player up front that the character is crazy in a particular manner. This is especially important with characters that are significantly detached from the world they live in. Characters who have visions or hallucinations, or are convinced that something patently untrue in the play world is actually true (ie: Aliens exist, they are a god, etc). The “Definitive Guide” to LARP writing, an amazing advice guide on LARP writing from MIT, recommends putting it on the character sheet. I agree that this is a good thing to do, but I think there is a better solution to this kind of crazy.
If your game can support it, I advocate for making crazy into not crazy. What’s the harm in aliens actually being real? It can provide more plot for your game, and surprises for the other characters when the aliens actually show up. What’s the harm in the character actually being a god? It can be a powerful jumping off point for a richer backstory for the character and your world, and provide unexpected hooks for other characters.
I know that not all games can take that. Serious games can devolve into ridiculousness if it happens too often, or if it is implemented poorly – which just brings us back to a previous problem of not showing “crazy” the respect it deserves. But, games are already based on a suspension of disbelief. Making the “crazy” one into the Cassandra character can cast a whole new light on situations and encounters and make players rethink everything they thought they knew half way through game. And I can tell you from personal experience that the vindication it all provides to the “crazy” character is immensely satisfying.
So, if crazy is going to feature in your game, take the time to do it properly. Pay it the respect it deserves by putting in the effort to make your character(s) believable and compelling, above and beyond (maybe in spite of) the crazy. Think long and hard about it if you aren’t planning on warning the player about the fact that their character is fundamentally unhinged. And if your game is a genre that can support it, consider making crazy into Cassandra instead.