One the biggest misconceptions within many roleplaying games revolves around insanity; this isn’t to say that it should not have a place in RPGs, or implemented in one particular way, but that generally it is overzealous and harsh in the depiction of high mental states without showing the progression of the actual condition. One might argue that since these are within games, most conditions are mechanical and need to be triggered and resolved quickly. In those cases, kudos, but my concern is more of an aspect to a character’s thoughts, feelings, and general well-being after the mechanical effects are gone.
The after effects of conditions can amount to very little, or accrue into a bigger issue; it is up to the player, but as a GM I always think it is great to see the PCs grow not only with powers and abilities, but weaknesses and desperations as well. These characters are heroes, adventures, and masterminds from all walks of life. Not every single condition should deeply affect them, but after awhile every great person begins to crack. With that in mind, it may not always be a bad thing that a person gets a chill every time they come across their fears—one hero may shrug it off and rush off into a deadly trap to die a fool’s death, while their compatriot’s learned caution leads them to live another day.
What happens when psionics are mixed with insanity? There are myriad ways a psychic suffering from a mental condition could represent that aspect of their character while using their powers—the biggest thing that may happen is how the character’s powers manifest when used under stress. When creating a weapon from the characters mind, it could have images of the wielder’s greatest fear represented on the blade, or the hilt itself could embody their personal terrors. For example, a wielder with arachnophobia might have a blade that has eight moving fringes which seem to scuttle across it as the weapon cuts through the air. One of the important considerations when evaluating mental afflictions and psionics is how it changes a PCs powers regardless of whether it is a short, high, intense burst of the condition or an arduous, ongoing battle within themselves that lacks any mechanical effects that the group is likely to notice at first.
Bearing all that in mind, remember that insane characters are not stereotypes, caricatures, or cartoons; they are people with feelings, consciences, and real struggles. Playing those struggles out is far more rewarding than trivializing them, and makes for far more dynamic encounters with not only the GM, but other PCs as well.
Most people think of and experience telepathy as a simple voice inside their head: a totally silent conversation to whom only those in the telepathic link are party. However telepathy is more than that, and as a touching of minds it can share anything that can be expressed by thoughts, relaying messages as complex as both minds are capable of appreciating—and sometimes more.
When both creatures are sane there is little concern for stray thoughts that cross over this mental link, but when one of the creatures is insane or deeply alien, stray thoughts can range from distracting to downright disabling in their oddity—and opening one’s mind too deeply to a connection with a mind gone mad is only inviting insanity to oneself.
When one creature in a telepathic link (such as alter thoughts, detect thoughts, or any form of telepathy) is insane, an aberration, or otherwise has an alien mind, the sane creature must make a Will save each round (DC 10 + ½ the insane creature’s HD plus the creature’s Charisma modifier). On a failure, the mental link is unstable and the insane creature’s mind bleeds through into the sane creature’s, leading to all sorts of unpredictable effects. Ten sample effects are included in the list below—GMs are encouraged to pick whichever most closely matches their insane telepath!
1) Long-Term Link The telepathy effect becomes permanent. During this time, the insane creature can re-open the link to mentally contact the sane creature at any time both creatures are on the same plane, and the sane creature has no control over the contents or duration of these incursions (though, the sane creature gains a +5 circumstance bonus from any further direct contact from that specific insane creature). Further, the insane creature can read the sane creature’s thoughts at any time as detect thoughts (caster level equals hit dice). This effect ends if either creature dies.
2) Maddening Images The images that bleed through the psychic link disturb the sane creature to its very core, shaking the very foundation of who they are more the longer they think about it. Each day the sane creature takes 1 Charisma drain.
3) Stolen Thoughts The insane creature replaces a number of the sane creature’s memories with its own less comprehensible ones, doing 2d4 Intelligence damage but granting a +5 insight bonus to each Knowledge skill that the creature has ranks in. This bonus disappears once half of the Intelligence damage has been healed by any means.
4) Forgone Conclusions The creature’s voice whispers in their head, distracting them from making rational decisions and offering inappropriate advice. Each day, the sane creature takes a variable (changing daily) -1d6 penalty to their Wisdom score.
5) Hallucinations The telepathic link is so strong that the sane creature sees after-images of the experience for 1d4 days afterwards. During any stressful situation, the sane creature must make a Will save (DC equal to the original save) or be confused for 1d6 rounds.
6) More Than You Asked For The sane creature gets a deep, dark glimpse into the mind of the insane creature, and is offered almost free reign of their mind and memories. The sane creature can ask the insane creature any number of questions, which the insane creature must answer truthfully and completely, to the best of its ability. Asking and receiving an answer to a question takes a full round, though the sane creature is unaware that time is passing until the end of the process. During this time the sane creature is in a trance and considered helpless, while the insane creature is entirely unaware of this process (though it remains aware of a telepathic connection if it would normally be aware), and may act normally.
7) Phobia Something in the insane mind utterly terrifies or fascinates the sane creature. The GM chooses one thing closely related to the insane creature (such as brains, crowds, noise, etc.), and the sane creature immediately gains a mania or phobia (50% chance of either; see the “Sanity and Madness” section in Chapter 8 of Pathfinder Roleplaying Game: Gamemastery Guide) related to that substance.
8) Xenophilia The connection to the insane creature’s mind fascinates the sane creature in a way they cannot explain to others. They become utterly obsessed with the insane creature’s original insanity (or in the case of unusual creatures, obsessed with that creature type). Any time the sane creature encounters the subject of its new obsession, they must make a Will save (DC equal to the original save DC) or move towards it in the most direct means possible, even if such movement would put the sane creature in danger. Further, any time the sane creature goes a number of days equal to its hit dice without encountering the subject of its obsession, it is affected as though it had failed to fulfill a geas and begins taking penalties to its ability scores until the sane creature satisfies its new need.
9) Shared Mind A fragment of the insane mind seeds itself into the sane creature and becomes a permanent aspect of that character’s mind, utterly impossible to remove without permanent damage to the sane creature. Aside from the new insane voice within the sane creature’s head, the insane creature can compel the sane creature once per week into any action it so chooses. This functions either as dominate monster with a duration of 1 hour, or as a geas with a duration of one week (caster level equal to hit dice). In addition, the sane creature is aware of this possession, but is stopped by the insane creature from communicating the affliction to any other creature.
10) Something Breaks The sane creature’s mind simply cannot handle the connection to the insane creature, and goes immediately insane itself. The sane creature is inflicted with 1d4 random insanities (see the “Sanity and Madness” section in Chapter 8 of Pathfinder Roleplaying Game: Gamemastery Guide) and is staggered for 1 round.
The majority of these effects are permanent, and can only be removed by the same means that would remove insanity normally, such as wish, miracle, or other high level magic.
[Submitted by Michael McCarthy]
Disclaimer: Any point of view expressed in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not in any case represent, define or otherwise reflect the view of the AaWBlog, AdventureAWeek.com, or AAW Games, Inc. For more information on insanity in Pathfinder, see the “Sanity and Madness” section in Chapter 8 of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game: Gamemastery Guide.
Today’s article is a little different, mostly because we’re starting off with a (slightly conceited) story about an elf in a cyberpunk game I played: Eladriel.
If we’re being accurate, Eladriel wasn’t even an elf—he was a human posing as an elf, and unaware of it. The concept behind this particular shadowrunner was fairly simple, but got enormously complicated. Working with my GM beforehand, we created this elaborate history where in the end, an extremely anti-elf big-wig turned Jeff Branson (my PC) to look like an elf, and filled his mind with false memories of a very, very medieval history of elves.
As you can imagine, playing Eladriel was initially a great time. He carried around a “mithral” sword, used archery, wore “true elven cloaks”, spoke “real elfish”, and was the source of a great deal of hilarity. The aspect of memory-jacking, however, eventually started to get a little out of hand. Really digging into the polarity of something as complex as genuinely split personalities may seem like a simple thing in a comic book or planned, told story, but playing it out was another matter entirely.
The more dire the circumstances got, the more trouble I had determining what he’d do—an “elf” in the most classical sense of the word, in the near-future fighting enhanced warriors, and with the instincts of a privileged socialite teenager. When the memory-jacking plot really got underway, poor Eladriel went right off of the rails and what was once an awesome character became an element of the game deprived of enjoyment.
What’s the point of Eladriel’s doubly-tragic tale?
1) Real PCs Really Develop One of the mistakes I made with Eladriel was hinging so much on his fake history and glossing over his real history. Sure he had a few contacts, but I never thought about where he used to hang out and who might still recognize him outside of one or two individuals. The backstory of any character is important but if you’re roleplaying insanity of any kind, its value as a tool for story development multiplies. Not simply as a source (or potential way to overcome) a phobia or other mental malady, but also to provide greater depth to match the deeper engagement and player investment.
2) Genuine Motivations Remember that backstory? What else would matter to your PC outside of their damaged psyche? Sure, fame and power and wealth are nice, but everybody knows Rosebud. This isn’t to suggest that your character should be single-mindedly nostalgic, only that you’re touching into greater depth with the addition of a condition that affects your roleplaying actions.
3) Comedy and Realism Foolish, unlucky, intrepid, and countless other means lead characters to pratfalls, miscommunications, and comedic foibles. Don’t allow your character’s condition to be the source of humor, and be realistic.
4) Goals. Have them. If your PC is aware of their phobia or what have you, alleviating themselves of it might be the biggest thing on their plate. But if it isn’t totally debilitating (and if it is, you’re probably playing Paranoia) then surely they have other concerns and things they want to accomplish.
5) Insane /= Single-Minded This touches on the earlier points, but is worth mentioning specifically. It’s easy to fall into the trap of making your character one-dimensional because of a type of insanity, and that should be warning enough not to do it. Remember that you’re playing a sentient thing that’s having genuine experiences, and that they’ll have genuine reactions. Sometimes their madness may be relevant, but not all the time!
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