Sunday, October 5, 2014

Sociopathic Characters in Larps

There was a discussion recently about the portrayal of Sociopathic Characters in larps. The discussion brought about an intense and very well thought out discussion into what the term "Sociopath" means, what the myths and facts are, it's appropriateness in larps, and it's portrayal. I wanted to share my thoughts on the subject, as I think I have a somewhat unique view on the matter.

For the record, the term "Sociopath" is not recognized in most diagnostic circles. The correct term for it is Antisocial Personality Disorder. The disorder is part of a cluster of personality disorders that are often referred to as "Dramatic" or "Emotional" that is marked with a form of egocentrism, where the person suffering from the disorder is unable to put themselves in someone else's position. They perceive the world only through their own mindset and needs. With Narcissism, there is a sense of grandiose thinking of oneself, and a lack of empathy for others, Histrionic have a sense of being the center of attention and will act out in unusual and often excessive ways to seek out that attention, Borderline patients have a black and white view on things, which leads to erratic relationships with others as well as themselves.

Antisocial Personality disorder is, in short, the lack of empathy for other people. There's a degree of narcissism, but not to the same degree as it's own disorder. Those who suffer from ASPD are prone to lying, or manipulation. Many people in the field talk of ASPD sufferers as 'putting on a mask' to get what they need out of the situation. This makes them difficult to treat because 1) most therapies involve building a rapport that they can't bridge most of the time, 2) They will often put on a mask to give the therapist what they want to see and hear and 3) most of those suffering from ASPD can't admit there is something wrong with them. Not won't, but can't. Personality Disorders are a systemic problem with the way that a person perceives themselves and the world around them.

In my time as an intern for a psych ward, I ran into one person who I would consider to have ASPD. They were emotionally cold, had a high opinion of themselves and a low opinion of others, they insulted everyone and lashed out verbally when resisted. It was the lack of caring that they were hurting the other patients that made it so difficult, and it almost became our job to mitigate the damage he was doing to the other patients. They were 14, which put them legally into Conduct Disorder, but the signs were there. This person could not care or be made to care about anyone else but themselves.

It should be noted that this is describing those who are suffering from severe conditions and are not able to function in normal settings. Those who suffer from ASPD and are functioning tend to have a very strong sense of Ethics. They don't act out because they know that it is looked down upon by society and that will be detrimental to them. Unfortunately, Ethics are something that is learned and cultivated, making it difficult for individuals with the disorder to develop.

In fiction, we've seen varying forms of Sociopaths. The grand high example of them all is Hannibal Lector, in both the Anthony Hopkins and Mads Mikkelsen interpretations. Genius Savant with a magnetic personality, charm, and zero empathy for the lives of others. He kills people because they offend him, and their only worth is as food. A Heroic example of a Sociopath is Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock Holmes. While many interpretations of Holmes have him as a socially inept savant, but they've played it up to having being unable to understand the position of others, making his need to solve cases (and his methods of solving them) as a means of solving problems.

His counterpart Moriarty, played by Andrew Scott, mimics this and takes it even further by giving him no compunction to kill people just to taunt Sherlock. Watching these two interact is actually a compelling look at two different people suffering from the same disorder. Sherlock has something of an ethical core, while Moriarty will and can act in a callous and seemingly impulsive manner.

There was a mention of Jayne Cobb from Firefly, played by Adam Baldwin, as being a Sociopath. He is always looking out for himself, willing to harm and sell out others for his needs. I don't think he's a sociopath, though. There are moments throughout the show where he legitimately cares about others. When Kaylee is in the med center holding on to life, he's outside cradling himself worried. He sends money from his jobs to his mother and siblings. He shows regret when Mal confronts him on his back dealings with the Alliance. Jayne isn't a sociopath, he's a mercenary. His concerns are primarily focused on him and his next job. For him, that means being willing and able to hurt and harm. There is a moral core going on with him.

The three examples I mentioned above: Lector, Sherlock, and Moriarty, all have something in common. I kept using the word Savant. Savant syndrome is defined as having high capabilities above and beyond normality but have certain mental deficits. This is often depicted in media as being highly intelligent, but with no morality.

So, the question becomes: "How does this type of character work in a larp?"  Larps are all about collaboration. We're in this together, exchanging our talents and stories with one another. Sociopathic PCs are, by definition, are unable to meet that level of collaboration effectively. Either due to their lack of empathy, their lack of regard for the well being of others, or their penchant for lying and manipulation. Most larps are set in situations where the players are part of a community of some sorts working together for a common goal. Placing someone who is unable to care about the motivations of those around them will most likely put them at odds with the group, possibly coming off as antagonistic. This becomes more exasperated if the PC in question's lack of empathy also includes the use of violence to get what they want. They run the risk of being antagonistic to the other PCs.

Two examples of this. In our Accord game, there were two PCs that could be classified in the Sociopath role. The first of them was a man possessed with a Demon of Wrath. He was a creature of want, need and lashing out when it suited him. He had developed a fixation with one of the other PCs, and while he couldn't do...all that he wanted to do with the PC, he purposefully sought out people who looked like the PC to enact his fantasies. He then displayed this to his infatuation. This is one of a litany of things this PC had done. He was subsequently murdered by other PCs, which despite the rule of "Thou shalt not kill other members of the Accord" it was generally agreed that not a single tear would be shed by most of the people present for his death.

In contrast, there is a Vampire PC currently in play. Highly polite and heavy on the protocol, but is very clearly someone who will kill and has killed graphically and without compunction if he deems it suitable. There's no sense of guilt here, it makes perfect and practical sense that people need to die. The only reason why none of us are killing him in the face is because, as a member of the Accord, he acknowledges that that would be something looked down upon and would be detrimental to his own needs and wants. Highly Ethical, Zero Moral. It's generally agreed that this man is, without a doubt, a sociopath. For the time being though, he's our sociopath.

This brings me to another point. Sociopathic PCs work in games where Sociopathic PCs can be considered protagonists. White Wolf's line of World of Darkness games, both Classic and New lines, are geared towards a dark and cynical world where no matter how bad things are in our current timeline, the Worlds of Darkness are infiinitely worse. Think of a perpetual New York City in the 70's and 80's, or Tim Burton's Gotham City. Everything is polluted, disgusting and cynical. In a dark setting like that, it's conceivably alright to play someone who isn't able to care for the well being of others.

There are, however, some things that should be considered when playing Sociopaths in games. This is not a definitive list, but consider:

Even if it's appropriate in setting, it may not be for the group. You're still working with people, even if there is an antagonistic/non traditional relationship going on. Some people and groups may not want to explore the darker aspects of the world. Discuss this with your STs and groups before introducing this character to game.

Communication At All Times. Considering the manipulative and callous nature sociopathic characters tend to exhibit, it should be clear to all players involved that these scenes may be very dark and distorted. By playing a character that doesn't hold themselves responsible to anyone or any morals, you have to be responsible for not hurting other players. Bleed is a thing, bleed can happen, communicate and check in with all parties out of character to make sure everyone is cool.

Prepare to be the bad guy. You're playing a character that, in a sane and rational world, would be either in jail, seeking medical treatment, or killed. You run the risk of being an Antagonistic PC if not playing one outright. Every person playing an Antagonistic PC should be prepared to accept that their PCs will most likely never see the end of the campaign.

The player of the Possessed PC from earlier knew his character wouldn't make it out, not if anyone was playing anyone with a shred of moral decency. The player of the Vampire PC has made his situation a bit bearable by being a "necessary evil" kind of character, in that we all know that he's a vicious monster, but is productive and helpful. Most of us are aware though that there may come a day where he too will have to attain his karmic retribution.

Don't make this a joke. This is more of my bias than anything else. I'm not a fan of playing mental illness for comedic effect. Personality Disorders are serious. This isn't something that can be turned on or off for them, it can only be managed and control. It's not funny to them, or those who have to live or work with them, don't treat it as such. As the Unwritten Rules of the Camarilla once said, a player can tell a joke, but a player shouldn't be a joke.

This is not for everyone. I'm leaving this for last because I want to put this forward. Playing a character such as this is difficult. How do you play someone who isn't capable of expressing genuine emotions with others? How do you form a frame of reference to be able to do that, being an emotional and empathic being?

I can only speak for myself on this matter. My character, Owen Asteria, was meant to be a sociopathic character. His ethics formed primarily around keeping his family protected and safe (oft times from themselves). Everything else was on the table. He has murdered, lied, and stolen. There is at least one story where he sexually assaulted a rapist. It was left ambiguous why he did this, either because the victim was assaulted in his territory and he found it entirely informal, or because he found the notion of predating the predator to be deeply ironic. It's probably safe to say he did it for both, and because he could.

That was all written, with no role play involved. Role Playing as Owen, though, he has shown a much more moralistic center than he was ever intended to. He has shown mercy to people and has been rather generous. This has more to do with the fact that Craig is responding to these a bit more than Owen. Craig likes people to have a good time role play, whereas Owen would probably kill someone. I've literally had an argument with myself where several PCs have earned the ire of Owen wanting to kill someone and Craig having to go "I'm not big on making people roll new sheets unless they've really had to. Have they really had to?"

So keep that in mind, playing this means committing yourself to some of the darker aspects of whatever game you're playing. It also means that you, as the player, need to be responsible to the people you're playing with. This is about having a fun time, and playing something that can be easily demonized and the closest thing therapists would qualify as 'Evil' is risky. So be cautious and mindful.

**Note: most of the descriptions and definitions here are generalizations for the sake of brevity. The wikipedia articles on Personality Disorders, Antisocial Personality Disorders and Sociopathy are great resources to give an overview of what ASPD and Sociopathy. Research is your friend, larp responsibly.

C