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.


  1. If my characters are crazy and violent it's because it is in character. My first character was a Operator in Rifts Ultimate Edition and he was the one using skills to solve problems. My magical girl character is more than a little crazy and is the one to suggest mass slaughter but only because she knows no one else will suggest it. Also because she cares first and foremost about keeping her new family alive and intact and doesn't care if a forest gets blown up if it means we don't need to risk death fighting a platoon of Nezu Demons in it.

    1. I'm down for some all-out nutso characters (as long as there are reasons for it), have no doubt.

      I only worry when it's the only thing a person can play, or it turns out they aren't role-playing, but acting out a deep-seated dementia.

  2. I enjoyed reading this. I've shared your blog post with RPG Nexus, a Facebook group I help moderate. In case you are not a Facebook person, here is what I posted along with the link:

    The other players and/or PCs in our Pathfinder game insist on calling my character, Shadow, a sociopath -- even though Shadow is the ONLY character that offers humanoid enemies the chance to surrender (although to date, none ever have -- they fight until their last hit point is gone).

    They found out this past weekend that Shadow is so broke all the time because she gives most of her money to the families of people that the group fails to rescue (it happens). I didn't say anything about it to the rest of the group at the time, but when I mentioned in an offhand way that Shadow couldn't afford something minor and why, I could see the other players looking at each other with expressions of "Um... what?? Did he just say what I thought he said?" And then the GM (who is _not_ an adversarial GM, and runs a really fun game, even though I complain about not being able to use my social skills) said, in an equally offhand tone, "Yeah, she does."

    So it bugs me a little that they call Shadow a sociopath. She knows right from wrong, and she's not bloodthirsty. She just doesn't mind stabbing a tied-up child-napper rather than carrying them for a week back to town to face "justice", and she thinks setting the home of a serial-killing family on fire is a perfectly reasonable way to distract them while we rescue the person they kidnapped.


  3. Also, in all fairness, it's worth pointing out that Shadow fulfills at *least* three of the criteria for ASPD that you listed above.

    That's not wrong, is it?

  4. Honestly? I know very few people who didn't start like that, but I don't think that it is always something psychological. Aside of giving people power and other studies that I'm not qualified to talk about, it sometimes boils down to system / world design that makes it the easiest possible choice. Consider combat-heavy system like D&D. There are 50+ pages on combat, majority of available spells are very hard to apply outside of engagement and sheer amount of gear shows the purpose. But what about non-violent resolution? Well, there are about five pages on that in whole DM's Guide, remark about non-lethal pacification and quite literally a single page about use of diplomacy. You know, that skill that most GMs block out of caution for dreaded 'Diplomancers'.

    While I am very, very, far from claiming any connection between the two or say that asinine 'RPGs make people violent' bullshit, I do have my ~13 years worth of GMing and did some experiments in system design. In my case the most tremendous change was my own spin on Vampire the Masquerade where I have told players that I want to try my own rulebook. Basically same thing, but combat stuff got scarce, talks about humanity and descent to monsters were changed to single page. Then I have tried to make a mechanics to aid intrigues, made tons of examples and quite literally made VtM into something between Phoenix Wright simulator and exercise/problem book for "The Prince" by N. Machiavelli.
    Was there physical violence or sociopathy? A bit, yes. But not even close to what was happening before (and it was not the worst group I got in that respect) and my players started getting a lot craftier and there was a lot more tension. Anyone can die, no-one regains reputation etc. It changed the mindset by changing the exposure factor.
    What am I getting at? Well, here is the thing: while I don't like violent and cold characters for many reasons, they are predictable. Even people who want to be the Joker / Two-Face are something that I can just read and predict. Making scenario that can contain them while not making it apparent to the player (one likely still thinks that he was constantly outsmarting me ;) ) is easy. Making a short campaign in my spin on VtM was maddening and took so much time that I have started learning new methods of thinking to approach such open-ended situations. FAR too much work, but gave me insight into need for boundaries that must be presented in the rules.

    1. "Diplomancers"?? I think you may be on to something. My 9th level character Shadow (referred to in a previous coment) has +21 in Diplomancy, and has yet to be permitted to make a Diplomacy roll.

    2. Yup. I have been there myself, quite seriously pissed at one point at the GM for constantly blocking that. Here I was, smart diplomat with character history stating that he was trained to become an ambassador if not for events that forced him into hiding and adventuring, fluent in fifteen languages etc… almost useless in combat. Can I roll for diplomacy AFTER talking in character for twenty minutes? No. It wouldn't annoy me all that much if not for paladin suddenly getting followers etc 'because of feat'.
      The only reason GM changed his ways and allowed me to do something was showing him my next 'more fitting' character. I think it was elf barbarian named Glorfinmad (read it out-loud if it didn't sink :P ).

  5. I had role-played Heist as an insane and obsessed drek-head despite the fact that he was going on an information gathering mission to meet one of the hospital's long-time residents.

    Ignoring for the moment the idea that how you roleplay aught to be based on the mission you're on...

    When did you decide to play the character that way? I mean, you did play him that way quite well, I think. I don't think 'he was a bad character' is really the issue, but more so when did you choose that he'd have that personality and what were you trying to get at when you did?

    I mean, you did it. Just avoiding doing it again doesn't really figure out why it happened to begin with.

    1. There are a number of reasons I played Heist the way I did.

      A) I based him on the Beagle Brothers from DuckTales. Crime was in his blood, Heist was his actual given name.

      B) The only other game I had played was D&D (2nd ed.), so I wanted to see what I could get away with without an Alignment system in place.

      C) As someone on reddit put it: "The GTA Effect". It was the first session and there weren't guaranteed to be any follow-up sessions, so I wanted to paint the town while I could.

      I didn't think he was a "bad character". Aside from a few hundred thousand ¥ of collateral damage he didn't really violate anyone's inalienable rights. The GM reigned me in before I smashed the guard's head in the bathroom door (ala the Kill Bill "My name is Buck" scene).

      I didn't want to play Heist again because I didn't like how it felt (a little), but more than that I really didn't think I could top his shenanigans from session 1.

  6. If you find that the players in a group are not making you comfortable game after game, that is not the group for you. I agree that a lot of RPGers are more focused on "action" versus roleplaying but RPGs do not have to be that way. As I tell my players when I'm running a game "if we have to do combat after combat after combat, your characters are doing something wrong" but then tend to run WoD or investigative games.