Changing Reality When Roleplaying a Mental Illness

If you haven’t yet, then please read the first article in this series before reading this one. It will give you an idea of my attitudes toward mental illness and roleplaying, and the direction from which I’m approaching the topic. It will explain why I espouse certain viewpoints and attitudes. Keep in mind that some of this material is generalized for the sake of brevity; I don’t want to write a 200,000-word textbook on the subject. Various mental illnesses are quite different from one another, and should be taken as such. Obligatory disclaimer: this information is provided for roleplaying purposes only!

Being True to Real Life

No, you don’t have to get your details 100% correct and true to real-life! That might come as a bit of a surprise since I just got through telling you in part II that mentally ill characters work much better if you do a little research on real-life mental illness. It may seem like I’m contradicting myself.

There’s a difference between using real-life research to supplement, inform, and inspire your work, and using real-life detail as a straightjacket. Roleplaying games are games, and you do have to make certain concessions to the medium. Here are a few thoughts about the concessions you should or could be making.

Consider party-play

Many mental illnesses do tend to isolate people. Keep in mind, however, that no one exists in a vacuum. If a player character (PC) has a mental illness, make sure there are still ways to tie him to the party of characters. Make sure he’s capable of interacting with people in ways that won’t cause him to go off on his own and completely split from the party. If you have to make small changes to the details or symptom-list of a mental illness in order to accomplish this, then do it. Also consider that the character could be on medication (or some other treatment) that suppresses (consistently or off-and-on) the worst of the symptoms that interfere with the game. You also might want to consider that certain mental illnesses just aren’t appropriate for PCs.

Consider the needs of your story

If small changes to the description of a mental illness would cause it to suit your story better, then by all means change it. Not every single person’s symptoms are the same as every other person’s. Psychology is a reasonably individual thing, and it is very imperfectly understood.

Consider the comfort level of your players

Yes, there are people who do horrible things to each other. Make sure that you and your players are going to be comfortable bringing such subject matter into the game if you choose to make use of such mental illnesses. Consider having most of the actual actions in these cases take place “off-screen.”

Consider things in general

Before you put a mentally ill NPC into the game, or allow a player to play a mentally ill PC, think carefully about the form the mental illness takes. Make sure it will work with your game. Make sure it won’t make people too uncomfortable. Make sure it will work with your game’s mechanics, genre, themes, or whatever else might be important to you.

Keep in mind that some mental illnesses have a very, very strong effect on a person’s behavior. Some people might see it as being akin to putting a straightjacket on a character. It makes it more difficult for players to slant their actions to make for a better game, because they have less leeway in how they’re supposed to behave. You also have less leeway — if you’ve written some sort of compulsive behavior into an NPC, then it’s much more difficult to alter that NPC’s behavior if necessary to make your game come off well.

No, you don’t have to sit for an hour trying to pinpoint all the ramifications of putting a mentally ill character, whether PC or NPC, into your game. Just make sure you know what some of the issues are, and you’ll probably find that most of the problems will be obvious ones.

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