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Empathy vs. Sanity: A Lamentations Interlude

Over at the OS/R Discord, we have been playing Lamentations of the Flame Princess through a few iterations. And if you look through any of the games at the protagonist characters, you'd be hard pressed to find anyone with any redeeming characteristics. Most have been brave in the face of monstrosity, but there are not characters you'd invite over for gaming night. At least not if you expected their behavior to be within social norms. 

This post was inspired by some responses in the Monday Lab: Nuts Are Us and Fifth Cycle GM Report posts.

On the surface and to some degree by design, Lamentations characters exhibit a high degree of anti-social behavior. They are looters and treasure hunters and monster hunters after all. None of them, that I have seen, rise to the level of say, Geralt of Rivia, in terms of pretending not to care, but in fact caring when the chips are down.  I would say they have been terrible people with a basic lack of empathy, almost to a man. 

But, and I think this is important, most of them have been 100% sane. Maybe 98% sane. 

Neither Lamentations nor Fifth Cycle have any kind of humanity mechanic. There is no trip wire that tells the player that their character has crossed the line; there is in fact no line save any installed by the group. A social contract can (and should) tell the player where everyone's limits are, but how often do people discuss an issue like this?

In a couple cases players have expressed both fun in playing their characters, but a revulsion for playing such villainous individuals. I have seen this myself; playing such an extremist requires a great deal of energy and would discourage me from playing the character for a long time. But the few sessions I do spend with such a monster are satisfying.

But if we are talking about a character with a mental disorder or some level of insanity, say a Malkavian in Vampire the Masquerade, that presents a different challenge. A game that erodes sanity might make a good charcter into a gibbering psycopth, but there is room to care about that character. A character that lacks empathy can make it harder for a player to invest emotionally in that character's success of failure. 

I am curious how others see the dichotomy, if they indeed draw a line between them. We are planning on a longer reflection on the Lamentations play; I just thought this topic seemed relevant to some recent conversations and wanted to bring it up. 

Department: 
Actual Play

Comments

Jesse Burneko's picture

In my experience a big line here is that gamers simply read the cue of "insane" vs "evil" differently. A lot of people read the historically bad results of gamers playing "insane" characters as being the fault of bad design and I don't buy it.  I don't think there's anything fundamentally wrong with the basic idea of "mental hit points” that once you've run out, you've hit some emotional breaking point with adverse social effects.

The problem is that gamers hear "insane" and take it as permission to stop listening and act out at random. It's not even about "realistic" vs. "cartoon-y" vs. "Hollywood portrayal." It's about flat out not doing anything creatively productive. It's to the point that if anyone ever said to me they wanted to play Malkavian in a Vampire game I was running, I'd make them take a media literacy test on the use of "mad" characters in literature and film.

Contrast with the idea of playing "evil" or "rat bastards" there's still this idea of "scheming" or "plotting" or figuring out how we "get ours and get out" or whatever. Everyone is still actually listening and contributing even if we're reveling in the awfulness of it all. This even includes backstabbing PvP circumstances.  I played in a three-year long LARP where everyone was functionally a Macbeth or Richard III and everyone fully expected to be betrayed by everyone else and it was mostly fine.

In some ways, I think this means that we have MORE empathy for the evil characters because players typically recognize their needs and desires as fully human even if the methods by which they fulfill them are morally reprehensible. Whereas, apparently “insane” characters are just uncontrollable disruptive impulses with no discernable basic human desires underneath.

noah's picture

It's interesting to hear Jesse's observations about what he's seen players do with different prompts, and I'd be interested to see that conversation branch. I'm going to stick to Lamentations because I haven't played games with "mental hit points" or a "sanity" mechanic.

In our LotFP games, I've found surprising personal value in playing evil characters in crisis (I have no problem using the word to describe the two characters I've played). It's been thought-provoking to play characters who, on a large-scale moral level, are, well, bad for the world and the people in it, whose actions it would be acceptable, and even necessary, to oppose by word and by action.

As a player, it takes the question of redemption off the table and liberates me to ask who, not what, this character is, in this moment. Frankly, those questions of redemption seem to me like a peculiarly American obsession, and as someone who lives in that culture I value the opportunity to set them aside.

With them out of frame, I'm able to examine and be surprised by the character's motivations and actions. I've found some really compelling opportunities to understand how my current LotFP character's backstory drives her thinking. Sean, in our last game your character Elgar's decision to stay behind and perish rather than abandon his dying companion was very moving to me, not because it somehow erased or 'balanced out' his previous decisions but because it revealed something surprising about his ethics. Certainly not heroic, but a very compelling, and compromised, and maybe more compelling for being compromised, shade of grey.

Sean_RDP's picture

Elgar was most certainly not a good guy, but he did have a set of ethics. I had a vague idea of them and tested them at each turn. For instance, the death of the nun by the summoned demon eye. It felt unecessary, but Elgar was not losing sleep over it. In the fight that killed most(all) of us, with such a strange experience, he fell back on his battlefield loyalty.

And perhaps that might have made a change in the character, had he lived. 

Ron Edwards's picture

Sean, I like this topic and appreciate how you've coordinated it with previous posts. I've been going back and forth on replying, though, because I got stuck in your concepts.

I want to examine what you're talking about specifically during play, in playing characters, among people. So, not about real people and, well, reality at all, nor about analysis of finished fictional content in terms of a story.

To show you where my head's at for this, let's apply a binary on/off for each of the following things:

  • The character's consequential empathy for others, so "no" means none of consequence, a sociopath I suppose or tending that way.
  • The character's empathetic draw for other people, presumably in this case referring to the real people at the table including that player (if it's a player-character) - can anyone relate to them, or to their past, or whatever? "No" means no one does, either because they seem to have no emotions or no one cares.
  • The character's impact on events, e.g., behaving proactively, responding or reacting distinctively, making a difference to what happens, basically "being themselves" in a way that's not merely background - they are evidently personally present. "No" means they could have been pretty much anyone else or played by anyone else for effectively the same minor presence as "some guy," "the fighter," etc.
  • The character's clinical grasp on reality and their resulting behavior - so a "no" means they interpret most things entirely in constructs of their own, weird beliefs or bonkers logic or whatever. Again, I'm not talking about some psych profile on paper but what we actually see them do in play, or perhaps most relevant, how it feels like to play them.

Considering that any combination of yes/no for these points is possible, and that the only unplayable or rather, play-aversive combination is "no" for all of them. I guess that's my first question: why are you relating insanity and empathy (or sympathy for them) so directly? Lots of bonkers characters are deeply sympathetic; lots of non-bonkers characters are definitely not. Even characters with sociopathic levels of non-empathy may be extremely sympathetic in a variety of ways ... and furthermore, in role-playing especially, that third bullet is no joke.

So my first point leading off from that question is to isolate this issue, not of insanity or empathy as topics, but whether I can stand to have this character at the table with me, whether played by me or another person. At all. I think that's what we're really talking about.

Now for my second question: what is this talk of redemption? Is it something that a "bad guy" character is supposed to have or do, eventually? If so, I smell a very strong whiff of RPGA play, where everyone is a good solid fellow-quester or squad team member, and at most, plays "unshaven and moody." The kind of play which virtuously declares evil parties are what bad players do, and requires, eventually, the "good after all" moment for any character who looks that way. Maybe I'm speculating too hard down that road, but I'm very interested in your answer.

Sean_RDP's picture

The idea had been running around my head a bit as we have been exploring Lamentations and then I saw Tommi's comments on the linked Monday Lab.

We do not need rules for encorcing insane behaviour, because player character behaviour (of D&D-type adventurers) is already there. Some of it is stereotypic behaviour like wishing to go heavily armed and armoured into civilized settlements without thinking much of it, while some is paranoia that is harder to claim to be completely inappropriate, especially after a few Lamentations adventures. Plus, of course, the consequences of being a wandering adventurer used to violence; such people are not sane, would more socially integrated people say.

I think we overuse the words sane / insane. Even in a game like Call of Cthulhu where sanity loss is backed into the everything of the experience. Loss of sanity triggers involuntary behaviors. But a lack of empathy informs voluntary behaviors. 

  • NPCs are a means to an end: currency, power, or information. 
  • Other party members are cogs in the machine, to be discarded if they cannot fulfill their purpose
  • Lack of real relationships between characters.

In Lamentations I think this is baked into the paradigm. Be ruthless. Don't think too hard about the repurcussions. In our games so far, our characters have pillaged and murdered across the various vignettes without a care. Little sympathy or empathy for anyone or anything, including one another. There was no real building of relationships between characters. 

note - Robbie makes a good point on the Fifth Cycle thread that these were intended to be short play and thus we could be as ruthless as we wanted. Which is true.

The long and short is that characterizing these voluntary actions as insane or thinking of them that way undercuts what is actual going on in the fiction. In terms of mechanics, insanity seems to be the moments where we are forced to things in an involuntary manner. If I kill an NPC because looking at Dagon has made me loose control, I am still capable once sane again of being sorry for what I did. Where as if I am generally lacking in empathy, murder hobo perhaps, there is no reason for me to feel any remourse. 

I think your first point is important. Is this character just too much? Too disruptive or too recidivist even for a game of murder hobos? I think the traditional lure of the alignment Chaotic Neutral is towards this random and often disruptive behavior. I have played characters that were too much (and was asked to stop). 

I think redemption can be a good character arc, but it is hardly necessary. And more and more I am fine with playing characters that are morally complex or outright evil. And as a GM, I am making room for such characters to exist and not be shunted to the side. This also touches on the GM-player trust issues that crop up from time to time. But I do not think bad characters are necessarily the product of bad players or bad play. Quite the opposite. 

Ron Edwards's picture

I agree! This breakdown works much better for me.

Historically, I think the tendency is to enforce "yes" across the bullets because any "no" is perceived to portend all of them going that way. The WotC trajectory of design and play pushes this principle quite hard; in 3E and 5E especially, "evil" play is conspicuously absent from all examples and assumptions within explanations. Lamentations is notable for doing the opposite: "no" across my bulleted list is clearly not excluded, and, arguably, the game permits players to decide which if any "yes" they will authentically include. (I'm avoiding focusing specifically on alignment, for reasons I'm sure you know. We'll save it for some other conversation.)

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