5 Tips For Roleplaying Characters With Mental Disorders
Avoiding The Biggest Pitfalls of These Character Concepts
Roleplaying games allow us to become different people, and to tell stories in unique, unusual worlds. While these characters may vary from nearly-immortal elves, to vampires hiding in the cracks of modern-day society, to grizzled private investigators seeking the truth behind ancient cults, one aspect that's become more common over the years is characters who are created with (or who develop) mental disorders.
Whether you're playing something like Vampire: The Masquerade or Call of Cthulhu where these kinds of mechanics are baked into the game, or you're simply trying to add another layer to a game of Pathfinder or Dungeons and Dragons, portraying characters with mental disorders is by no means an easy task. The following advice is meant to help avoid some of the bigger problems for players and storytellers who want this aspect in their games, but it should be viewed as introductory steps rather than a complete list.
With that said, let's get started!
Also, if you enjoy this article you may wish to check out 5 Tips For Playing Better Evil Characters, as well as 5 Tips For Playing Better Noble Characters, which are both available over in my 5 Tips Archive! And for more gaming topics, as well as general geekery, don't forget to check out my gaming blog Improved Initiative as well as my full Vocal archive!
Tip #1: Avoid Pop Culture Stereotypes
Mental disorders have a long and storied history in pop culture... and in almost every example of it a disorder is either sensationalized (at best) or completely misrepresented (at worst). From the hoax that was "Sybil" that launched a new wave of obsession with dissociative identities, to the craze over repressed memories that fueled the Satanic Panic of the 1980s, pop culture gets things wrong a lot.
This is why it's important to do your research into any mental disorder you wish to incorporate into a character. Don't watch how these characters are depicted in trashy novels, blockbuster movies, or in sitcoms, because it is very likely all you're going to see is a crass stereotype that isn't going to help. You don't have to minor in psychology, but at least seek out testimonials from people who have these disorders, and learn enough about them to inform your own character.
Tip #2: Don't Make The Disorder The Whole Character
A common mistake that a lot of gamers make is focusing entirely on one aspect of their characters until it becomes the whole of what they are. It's commonly the character's class, their fantasy race, or their alignment, but if the character has a mental disorder then that can easily take center stage until it becomes the only aspect of them that comes through.
This can quickly Flanderize your character. The term refers to how a single aspect of a character can be exaggerated over time, until the character has become a caricature of their initial self. The key thing to remember here is that the character should still be a character, with a complete personality, history, and a range of feelings, desires, etc. Boiling the character down to any single aspect does nothing but hurt the overall performance.
Tip #3: Do Not Use The Disorder As A Shield
An excuse that's almost as old as RPGs is the age-old phrase, "I'm just playing my character." We've seen it from players with paladins who use their alignment as an excuse to attack other party members for breaking rules, we've seen it from players who insist their rogue has to steal everything from everyone, and so on, and so forth.
It's a bad faith argument, because you're in control of your character, and you're the one who made them. If you do something that negatively impacts the rest of the table (as well as yourself), you can't claim you're, "just playing your character," as if that absolves you from criticism. And if you try to hold up your character's mental disorder as a shield from criticism of your decisions as a player, that's two for flinching.
Perhaps your character has kleptomania, pyromania, or some other form of impulse control disorder. As a player, you don't get to ignore the real harm their actions might do, even if they felt compelled to take them. You still have to deal with the fallout.
Tip #4: Do Not Try To Turn A Disorder Into a Power
Most games that have mental disorders as part of the rule set (the World/Chronicles of Darkness setting, the Call of Cthulhu RPG, and so on) these conditions are listed as some form of situational negative. While it may be possible for a character to temporarily overcome their symptoms through medication and therapy, or through limited acts of willpower, these conditions are mechanical negatives.
Do not attempt to turn a character's mental disorder into a mechanical positive. This crosses into the area of, "Mental disorder as superpower," which has become quite problematic in fiction. The trope of the so-called "idiot savant" made popular by the film Rain Man, for example, continually shows up. Often players whose characters are sociopaths will claim they should be immune to emotional effects in-game. The list goes on, but the reason many games give you bonus XP for playing a character with a mental disorder is because it makes the game harder, not easier.
Tip #5: Read The Room
It's easy to get lost in our own worlds when we think about what we want to do with our characters, but it's important to remember that roleplaying games are a communal activity. As such, other people are going to be exposed to your character, and your performance of that character.
Before getting too caught up in what you're doing, take a look around and make sure everyone else is just as enthused by the idea as you are.
Whether it's because people at the table are struggling with their own mental health, or because that's not the sort of game they really want to be a part of, it's a discussion worth having... especially if this aspect of a character is not something that comes with the territory of the game in question. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and this is one of those scenarios where it's far better to have a slightly uncomfortable talk before the game gets going than to deal with trying to mend fences after something goes wrong. After all, you don't have to worry about portraying elves, vampires, or Cthonian outer beings correctly... but there are real people who have these disorders. So it's something that can affect those in your social circles.
A resource to keep in mind for this is Consent in Gaming by Monte Cook Games. It's free to download at the link, if you don't have a copy of it yet.