Roleplaying trauma

Wotcha.
So tricky and thorny subject ahead largely around depicting mental health, PTSD and grief – spoiler warning.

I am interested to hear people’s thoughts and ideas on portraying trauma, post traumatic distress disorder, and related combat mental trauma. For reference I play a reasonably long lived character who has gone through a lot of angst, grief, battle trauma, and was asked recently about how I portray it by an actor friend of mine. And that’s kinda where I got a bit stuck.

This is a very sensitive issue but one I think worth portraying as the trauma, grief and disasters of the Empire world are just as important as the Glory, heroism and victories. Can heroes truly be heroes if they are untarnished?

I have been unlucky to have directly been afflicted by PTSD due to traumatic events, and I am lucky to have some brilliant friends who have been open in sharing their own battles with PTSD and mental health. A number of them are wayyy better than me at portraying the various trials and tribulations of the Empire world – but I wondered on the wider views on this issue.

How do you portray such character emotions and trauma? What considerations are important in doing so?

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I haven’t seen anyone trying to represent this over the long term. In the immediate aftermath of combat there are certainly a wide array of players roleplaying grief, shock and other immediate psychological states.

It is an interesting concept and one I’ve thought of trying. So I did put some thought into it.

In the long term playing an emotionally broken character, plagued by mental illness, yet still a dangerous warrior (Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now) doesn’t really fit the heroic fantasy genre. Aragorn is a great warrior, pained by war and loss but not harmed by experience, rather it makes him tougher and more determined.

From what I’ve read of medieval texts such as Froissart on the crusades – veterans were depicted as emboldened by warfare. A world away from the trenches of WW1 where every man has his breaking point and combat is mentally taxing.

Of course you can play pretty much any character concept you like. and the modern audience will certainly understand what you are getting at.

The natural exchange of the PTSD story is that Rambo is troubled but Rambo is strong. But that will come up against the hard-edge of LARP combat, are you really such a good fighter people will have to make a choice about whether to carry your flaws? You need to take Indiana Jones with you even if you know there will be snakes. But in LARP, sadly, you aren’t the only hero.

I wouldn’t worry too much about triggering people, the rules on acceptable themes are pretty clear and mental illness is a theme of the game. Maybe Nicovar was tipped over the edge by traumatic events? Also the people I know who have PTSD suffered the original trauma it in such utterly different circumstances that you couldn’t guess what might trigger them.

I think it’s one of those ‘You can’t please everyone’ situations. You have no idea what other people have gone through, but once you are just playing a character, I feel it’s up to the ‘triggeree’ to be wary of their own situation on the field.
PTSD might be a little awkward as… well, the underlying theme is War.

Personally, I wouldn’t find it very fun to depict a character that was chronically depressed, anxious, has PTSD or any of the mentally debilitating things that we get in the real world.
In the real world, these things are dealt with using counselling, medication, willpwer and support from the people around.
In Anvil, everyone is there to be the hero of their own story so It’s less likely there’ll be someone dedicated to wanting to sit and listen to other peoples character bio all day, the herbs are more specifically directed and the people round you are usually focused on their own goals, as they only have a short weekend to do their thang.
None of this should be taken too negatively though - We are all there to play a game.

In this game, we are the Heroes of the Empire. The 1%. the creamy scum on the top of the Empire Milk… Ok, that one didn’t worke, but We didn’t get to that position by sitting back and doing nothing. We pushed through the hardship. Maybe it was with just our own lone-wolf will power, maybe it was with the support of others off-stage. Point is, you’ve made it this far.

So no matter which thing you are looking to portray, always think to yourself - How did I get to here?

Even if you are using a real-life reason that everyone LARPs - which is to Escape. Maybe you want to escape your past, so you throw yourself into tactics, trading, politics… or Virtue forbid… the priesthood. Maybe you want to atone for stuff you did.

I guess I’m saying, that by the very nature of the type of people that manage to get to Anvil, any sort of past trauma would have more-or-less been dealt with - Either forgotten, Gotten over or used as fuel for the actions going forward.

(Firstly, I know very little about PTSD and so apologise if I stuck my foot in it here…)

I would say that if you are going to role-play PTSD and suchlike, try to make it fun, to an extent.

Few people want to spend their Empire weekend trying to cheer up someone (pretending to have) severe depression, or a self-destructive compulsive disorder, or a habit of curling up in the corner and not talking to people.

What you want is something that can make more game for other people, in a reasonably fun manner. For instance:

Your friend Bob* was killed by an X. If you see an X on the battlefield you will make every effort to kill it yourself. Or avoid it to an irrational degree. Or try to protect others from it. Or train everyone in how to deal with an X.

You will tell the story of Bob and his death at every opportunity (Avoiding talking about it will not make game).

Maybe at the seasonal event Bob was killed at you can (pretend to) get staggeringly drunk and tell everyone how much you miss them, the plans you had, the things you did together, etc…

Just some ideas…

*(I use Bob in most of my examples. The poor guy…)

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I agree with Geoffrey. Find an enemy that galvanises your character …rp it to death

As someone with a long history of mental illness and injury ive found it a bit therapeutic at times to roleplay around that from an Old Knifeedge character who had his brain half shredded by magic being apparently very obviously unstable and delusional (Which eventually got him killed) to my previous Empire character who had a much grittier set of traumas and i think sometimes more importantly, guilt.

Which also arguably got him killed in the end too :smiley:

I dont think everyone at Empire is playing a hero, even in their own stories as the game is considerably more complicated than that and exploring those themes is perfectly acceptable whether its a permanent change or something more contained like a TV character arc and increasingly interesting to me to be honest. What if my character didnt do what was right or optimal? What if they felt compelled to do everything any Orc asked them to do by some horrible lizard brain survival instinct? Or were filled with the certainty that they deserve to die for what theyve done but cant do it themselves,or lie down and die throwing themselves ever onwards as a literal meatshield?

Eh, im no expert by any means, ill bet the internet has a dozen Nordic larp essays on it though :slight_smile:

But keep going OP whichever way works, you saved my current character from a pretty grim fate :smiley:

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I’m not sure that there is a ‘right’ way to roleplay trauma. So many people experience so many traumas and respond to them in so many ways. That goes from the person who flinches every time someone raises their voice to the one who keeps getting off the floor, bloody and bruised, to protect the innocent. Sometimes, it’s the same person who cannot help doing both.

What does exist is the wrong way. Treating it lightly, being flippant, victim-blaming; we all either know this is wrong or quickly realise it feels wrong and stop.

If you are respectful, if you are willing to stop and say sorry unreservedly if you misstep, I suppose you just need to give yourself permission to fail.

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As someone who suffers PTSD… I no more particularly want to engage with it IC than I do sexual assault roleplay.

I still do not understand why it’s ok to “play” in some mental health conditions but not others.

Less flippantly:

Last year I wrote the following post on my personal Facebook wall:

So… this weekend saw a roleplaying effect drop that involved everyone who had been to the Black Plateau for military service basically having the option to roleplay that they had severe PTSD.

I think it was done well. I have kept a copy of the roleplaying effect slip that was in packs because I thought it was worded so excellently. Kudos to anyone on my friends list who was involved in this plot.

That doesn’t mean I was comfortable with the site wide PTSD roleplaying plot that was handed out, and I rather half-heartedly joined in (luckily our group is reasonably roleplay-lite when it’s just us, and only joining in if you want to is totally a thing).

I have had PTSD from my car accident. It was a painful experience. I still wake up in the night with cold sweats now, after more than five years. I have nightmares about almost killing a family. I sometimes find having intrusive thoughts when doing mundane tasks, or watching TV, or… writing exams. Still. After all these years.

More to the point, I used to date a beautiful man who was a Royal Marine in the first Gulf War. He was the first man I met who cried openly and regularly. At night when I used to sleep beside him, he would have nightmares. In his nightmares the walls would drip with blood and he would have to try and climb their slippery surface to escape the pit of bodies that he was drowning in. He attacked me more than once in the night and couldn’t have anything within arms reach while he slept, lest he hurt the person he loved. During the most mundane of daily tasks he would see the faces of the children, and other people, who he had killed. He was broken and sick. Very sick. But twenty years of counselling hadn’t helped.

It sounds like a great LARP plot. An enjoyable character to inhabit for a weekend. A fantastic background to email in to PD for your character. But it wasn’t. His name was Mal, and he was a real person who really suffered. And I imagine still suffers to this day, wherever he is (we lost touch a few years ago shamefully).

The people I interacted with roleplayed this effect well over the weekend. I suspect this is something to do with being in Highguard and our nation being relatively restrained in the brief. I don’t think I could have coped with this being roleplayed in a highly emotional way. And I’ve not even been to war and suffered that particular kind of PTSD.

It caused me to ponder if we would give out other mental health conditions as widespread roleplay effects at a fest LARP. Would we give out a roleplaying effect of body dysmorphic disorder? Obsessive-compulsive disorder? Premenstrual dysphoric disorder? Postnatal depression? Borderline personality disorder? Antisocial personality disorder?

I don’t think we’d give any of these things out as mass roleplay effects at a fest LARP in case we negatively affect the mental health of those who suffer. So why PTSD?

Is the PTSD of soldiers not taken as seriously as something like body dysmorphic disorder? Or do we just think that soldiers (and their support network) can just suck it up and get on with it?

I’m not saying we shouldn’t do these things at all. And I just want to remind again that I think it was done excellently and handled well by the games team. But it makes me wonder why we would give out one mental health condition as a mass effect but not another. It’s not particularly Empire specific in that respect, it’s more a reflection on how society treats/sees various mental health conditions in relation to others.

It’s too early for this shit. Someone bring me another coffee.

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This is a really interesting topic and this is something I’m fascinated by.

To me I find a lot of roleplayers, in all circles, seem to downplay the trauma of the things that happen to their characters. The things our characters go through are quite frankly horrific a lot of the time, and they should experience trauma from that, and for some of those characters that might take a long while to get over.

I have post traumatic stress disorder in real life and I have actually found playing a character with similar issues weirdly therapeutic.

As far as I am concerned playing characters who are experiencing symptoms of trauma - hyper-vigilance, anxiety, nightmares etc. is actually a really positive thing because it portrays the reality of the horrors of war, or whatever it is that your character has experienced.

I would thoroughly recommend you do a lot of research into the condition, maybe watch some interviews on YouTube with people with the condition to make sure you fully understand what you’re roleplaying.

It’s also, as others have said, important to look after your own mental health. I know there are times where my characters have experienced so many losses and so many awful things in a short period of time that they are almost distressing to play. At that point I take a step back and work out - how can they respond to this trauma in a way that is fun to roleplay?

So yeah, far from being offensive I actively would appreciate people accepting that mental ill health is a part of life and respectfully incorporating it into their characters.

I hope that makes sense.

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You raise an interesting point…

I think roleplaying psychological and psychiatric disorders in LARP is a bit like portraying autism in geek mass-media; lots of people are doing it, most of them just don’t realise they are doing it. They are trying to mimic something they have seen in the real world, possibly many many times, but without any real understanding of the underlying reasons.

That is fine for personal character-building. It’s better to do it consciously and therefore with care for the feelings of those who live with those conditions day-to-day, but they are trying to see the world from another perspective. There is definitely room to have a ref quietly chat with someone who is a) taking the piss or b) doing something which is harmful to others.

When you are talking about mass roleplaying effects, that’s something different though. That needs to be handled properly, with forethought before and critical reflection after. It sounds like what you have is feedback to aid in the critical reflection, by which I certainly do not mean to downplay your input; sometimes critical reflection is simply ‘holy crap, we should not have done that’ because you realised how badly you affected someone.

Many of us know about the obvious line-crossing storylines (I heard of one LARP where every female character attending was impregnated without consent by a magical effect) and yet many of us want something a little more exciting than killing perfectly evil monsters who disappear in a puff of smoke then heading to the pub for ginger beer and cake, so lines get pushed as people feel out the broad range between those two extremes.

I don’t know about the event you are describing, so I cannot comment, but I think it is absolutely a useful exercise (whether the event ‘worked’ or not) to give feedback on how it could be improved, with ways to mitigate (or just remove) risks and moral concerns based on your actual real-world experience of the actions depicted.

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I’d go to thinking about how your character isn’t you, and how their responses are going to differ. I try not to yell at people when I’m anxious, grieving etc. My character very much doesn’t bother with that.

Empire is a game that’s very upfront about which themes of danger, injury and loss it wants to engage with, and which ones it does not. Empire is explicitly (in part) a story about large-scale violence and the consequences it can cause to people involved. Done well, it means the story and players don’t become flippant about the consequences of fighting.

For example, there was a physical illness plot (Reikos flux) that was magically weaponised amoebic dysentery. Dysentery is a horrible disease that still kills a lot of people these days. But it was also a major danger of war in the sort of history Empire borrows from. It still is today. It’s a difficult theme that’s in line with the game’s stated story. Whereas randomly giving PCs heart problems wouldn’t give the game depth, because nobody signed up to Empire as “A game about your body failing on you for no good reason”. The former’s acceptable, the latter’s not.

The same applies to any other theme that might be upsetting to someone who’s been through it. When I’ve run out adverse mental effects for games, I’ve made sure they’re in line with our player expectations. I’ve often had the privilege to be able to run them past a psychiatrist friend. So I could check they’re not accidentally perpetuating some horrible stereotype about mental health. I ran the “temporary hearing loss” traumatic wound past myself and my broken ears. We can’t all manage that, but we can all agree not to play any sort of long-term suffering for laughs.

Whether you’re a game runner or a player.

  • Is this theme clearly in the setting?
  • Are you treating this as a serious story, not a lighthearted plot?
  • Can you tone it down, or run it as some sort of analogy? See Briars as the analogy for [marginalised class].

Games I’m involved with use a modified Snakepit Games E&D policy that has “traumatic events” and “any illness you do not have” on a list of “You do this carefully or not at all”.

I’ll leave this with my favourite writing blog, and its guide to representation and not cocking it up.

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Having written a long post, below, I’d also like to quickly add to Jim’s list:

  • Can you make it opt-in rather than compulsory?

I’m human, I’m contradictory, but:

  • Several Imperial cultures contain, but do not feature, suicide. I choose not to equate this to other experiences because in a LRP context it serves an important purpose. It allows an end to a character that has lost its potential for fun. Empire LRP is quite clear that one form of real-world traumatic experience is out-of-bounds, but all others are fair game.
  • When an event prominently featured suicide as a plot highlight of the weekend I chose not to attend, despite having already paid as part of my annual bulk-booking. I knew that the plot was going to be compulsory and not opt-in. I missed out on an election that my character would have dearly loved to compete in. I also avoided the nightmares, I know I do not enjoy stories that feature suicide. I have had too much experience of this in the real world.
  • One of my favourite movies is Gattaca. Told you, I’m human, I’m contradictory.

I started my character in the first year of Empire and I wrote trauma into her backstory. She was a selective (that is, involuntary) mute. It was fun using very basic BSL and finding one person who also knew some to communicate more fully with. I and my roleplaying choice was welcomed in the group.

Next event, I get to return…six years on! This time, she has partially recovered and can speak when in familiar company. With other races or in more stressful situstions, she’ll be much quieter but since her trauma was sparked by orcs and compounded by an IC battle, she will not be able to utter a word in the presence of orcs at all.

Real life health issues mean that I’ll be using a crutch or two this time and not joining in fights, which will only visually reinforce the battlescarred, traumatised soldier-turned-medic that she is.

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