Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Insane Mages and other Crazy Characters

This is something of a trope with my gaming group.  It started with one specific member and has sort of spread out from there.  The basic idea is that the character is so far outside of what is a normal experience that while everything they do works and make legitimate, if somewhat "other", sense, that they just seem bizarre and, well, crazy to outsiders.  At some point recently, one of us made the comment that my character, the insane mage of the game in question, seemed to be getting crazier.  To which the person who more commonly plays the type responded that all her characters seemed to get crazier as they went along.  This has led me to thinking about this seeming trend toward apparent flanderization.

As I see it there are two main causes for this trend of seeming to behave more insanely as time goes on.  The first cause is the author or player trying to keep the character interesting.  The second cause is an in-story cause.  I will be talking about the second cause more extensively as it represents interesting design choices in a character.

The first cause is the most likely.  The primary reason for this is simple, a character’s quirks, no matter how severe, eventually become routine.  For a one-shot character this isn’t really a problem, but for repeat character it becomes problematic.  Sometimes the quirks are general enough that this never becomes a problem because the same quirk can produce different results in different circumstances.  It also helps if the series is episodic or less serious.  For example, neither Bugs Bunny nor Excel Excel need much in the way of depth to continue being entertaining. 

When the time comes that a particular quirk is beginning to lose its charm, there’s a couple of options: you can broaden the character and add more depth so that they are more than the quirk, or you can start to exaggerate the quirk and make the character more quirky.  Sometimes adding extra quirks can be added character development.  The important thing is that whatever is added is consistent with the character and developments in the story.  However, a lot of the time the character’s behavior is just exaggerated or new traits are added with minimal reason.

A case where the development of a character’s quirks is at the least questionably exaggerated is with Monk.  As the TV series moves along, Adrian Monk’s behavior begins to move further and further away from some accepted psychological diagnoses into the realm of absurdity that is clearly only meant to provide for occasional points of comic relief.    The show remains very enjoyable, but the development of Monk’s mental issues is not handled as well as the development of the myth arc or the individual mysteries.

The second cause is only different from the first in that the changes are either already planned to occur or at least they’ve already provided reasons for why such developments would occur.  One example of this is when you have a magic system that leads to quirky behavior. 

Lovecraftian magic is the most well-known case where a mechanic exists to explain a developing change in the character’s sanity.  The theory in Lovecraft’s writing is that the more a person learns about the truth of reality, the more that their inflexible human mind breaks in ever more grotesque and disturbing ways.  As such, the more often an investigator delves into cultists or supernatural activities, the more at risk they are of becoming either a patient of the asylum or else one of the supernatural horrors of the world at large.  The only consistency is that the insanities displayed are progressively more horrific rather than quirky.

Similar to Lovecraftian magic, in some respects, is the magic of the Dresden Files.  Wizards and sorcerers in Dresden Files draw their magic from a belief about what they are at their core.  Dresden is not very subtle, so his magic is extremely blatant with lots of wind and fire.  Molly, on the other hand, is very subtle and her magic represents this with lots of illusions and mind magic.  The nature of magic’s impact on behavior is first brought up in dealing with the breaking of the Laws.  The reason the Laws exist is that when someone uses magic to accomplish something, it confirms something about their personality, more so than if they were to accomplish the same thing through mundane means.  Killing a person with a gun or sword will impact you, certainly, but killing with magic makes killing part of your core nature forevermore.  While it isn’t outright stated, the same logic would likely extend to the use of magic to do other things.  Dresden, for example, is exceptionally skilled at tracking spells and also seems almost incapable of setting aside a mystery.  His sense of justice and curiosity sometimes drive him to do things he’d rather not do.  This is never outright stated to be an effect of his magic, and it may, in fact, be more the cause of the way his magic takes shape, but it can still be an example of a magic system that can result in changes to personality that doesn’t necessarily have to end in psychotic madness like in Lovecraft.

Then there is the case of obfuscating insanity.  In this case, the character is not really insane, they just pepper there behaviors with odd behaviors here and there.  This ranges from ordinary actions all the way to their tactics.  When they are doing it well, it is hard to tell exactly which behaviors are genuine and which are artificial machinations.  Having played a couple of these characters, I can tell you it is very easy to become the mask and just do weird things on habit.  This is with a disconnection from the actual character, so I imagine becoming the mask is much easier for a real person pulling this artifice. 

As to why this can help explain why a person seems to grow crazier as the story or game moves along, there is a tactical concern.  If you’re dealing with different people all the time, all you need is a small pool of acts to fool people.  However, when you’re dealing with the same opponents it becomes necessary to expand the pool of tricks and also expand the frequency with which the act is performed.  The fact is that with novels and games you are, indeed, dealing with the same people all the time: the same readers or the same players and GM.  The strength of the insanity act is that it makes it hard to prepare for or predict what the character will do, so becoming predictable is dangerous.

There is also the case where the insanity is real but not a result of the character’s powers but due to some other trauma or experience.  As an example of this, there was a character in a game I ran named Ferral.  She was a NWoD mage whose parents were killed by werebirds and only her awakening to being a mage and somehow teleporting herself hundreds or thousands of miles away saved her life.  At some point, she started talking to the arcana as if they were people and even started assigning them personalities and equated her spells to asking them for help or playing with them.  Also, she became paranoid of birds went out of her way to kill them, eat them and destroyed their souls in her daily rituals.  Her insanity was induced by something other than her powers, but the fact that she acquired reality bending powers at the same time has shaped her delusions.  As she learns how to access further arcana, more quirks would get added.

Of course, you can also hide a fragment of the character’s personality, something which would explain a lot of their behavior but isn’t immediately necessary to enjoy or appreciate the character.  As an example, I had a character named Teryna who appeared to be a normal human girl.  Yet she behaved in a lot of funny ways that made other players look at her in a range from being amused to being suspicious.  She was a very honest and up front person and almost always cheerful.  She spoke to humans, elves and other humanoids with the titles “Master” and “Mistress”, identified animals as either “Food” or “Friend”.  If she started getting annoyed with someone she’d drop a title.  People that were dangerous and needed to be dealt with violently were referred to as rude.  She had a host of other odd behaviors, most of it based on the real life behaviors of a fox, adding taming and then magical enhancement.  The thing the other players didn’t know: Teryna was a wizard’s familiar who died and whose wizard asked a druid friend to reincarnate her.  The reincarnation made her human.   So she was a bit hyper, was enthralled with talking (sometimes getting words wrong) and having hands and when questions about dangerous predators came up assured people that she didn’t eat people.  Oh, and she was able to kill much bigger things now than she used to be able to.  Her central personality never really changed, but her off-human personality and changing circumstances meant that she never responded to things quite in the way anybody could expect…mostly because they didn’t have all the facts.

They are all very interesting character type to play or write and I have a couple prominent ones in my worlds at the moment.

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