Monday, June 1, 2015

Sociopathy in Role-Playing Games - Part 1 - My First Experience

Why do our first characters tend to kill everything that moves? How can something as grotesque and unthinkable as tearing open a corpse looking for treasure become commonplace and accepted?

Lying, cheating, stealing, and killing serve to further a character in nearly every conceivable way in most RPGs, especially those that play most like a video-game. In many games killing is literally the only way to gain experience and grow your character.

I assumed that my friends' childhoods which were full of violent movies and video games were at fault for our bad behavior, and when we started running/playing Dungeons and Dragons it brought out the worst in us. However, I continued to notice this pattern in new role-players, even those not yet exposed to D&D.


My wake-up call came when I made my first Shadowrun character. It was to be one of the rare times I got to enjoy the role of player, and I could barely contain my excitement. I made Heist, a rigger with nerves of steel (not literally, I couldn't afford them).

The first session was a blur or fast cars, flying drones, smoke bombs, and shattered windows. I hadn't caught my breath yet when I heard the GM ask, "Are you sure you want to do that to the security guard? It could kill him".

I had co-opted a completely violence-free information-gathering gaming session. At the time the GM interjected I was making a completely unnecessary escape from a mental hospital; when it was my character who should have been in there the most.

None of the guards ever tried to do anything more than restrain me, and they were in the right to do so. I had role-played Heist as an insane and obsessed drek-head despite the fact that he was tasked with gathering information from one of the mental hospital's long-time residents.

The APA defines Sociopathy, now called ASPD (Antisocial Personality Disorder), as follows:
A pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others as indicated by three or more of the following:
  1. failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest;
  2. deception, as indicated by repeatedly lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure;
  3. impulsivity or failure to plan ahead;
  4. irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults;
  5. reckless disregard for safety of self or others;
  6. consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations;
  7. lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another.
My character strongly exhibited every single symptom of ASPD over the course of a 2 hour long game session. I felt remorse afterward, but my character certainly didn't. At the end of the session I left him sitting in his undies in front of the Trid system eating cereal by the handful watching old-school cartoons.


I learned a lot from Heist as a player, but more from him as a GM.

More than half of the players that have joined my groups since that time (roughly 15 years ago) have displayed overtly sociopathic behavior in character, often within the first session. Luckily for me, my current group is very intuitive and fantastic at spotting antisocial behavior in character. They use non-confrontational, non-accusatory in-game means to head off the behavior; which often sinks in far better than an off-table chat.  If that doesn't work I will try to reinforce the lessons in-game over the following few sessions. At worst they will leave the group for another, but we hope that some of our lessons are taken to heart.